The June 1962 Alcatraz escape may have been the only successful escape from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in that facility’s history. On the night of June 11 or early morning of June 12, inmates Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris tucked papier-mâché heads resembling their own likenesses into their beds, broke out of the main prison building via an unused utility corridor, and departed Alcatraz Island aboard an improvised inflatable raft to an uncertain fate.
Hundreds of leads have been pursued by the FBI and local law enforcement officials in the ensuing years, but no conclusive evidence has ever surfaced favoring the success or failure of the attempt. Numerous theories of widely varying plausibility have been proposed by authorities, reporters, family members, and amateur enthusiasts. In 1979 the FBI officially concluded, on the basis of circumstantial evidence and a preponderance of expert opinion, that the men drowned in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay before reaching the mainland. The U.S. Marshals Service case file remains open and active, however, Morris and the Anglin brothers remain on its wanted list.
Recent experimental and computer-simulated evidence has suggested that the ultimate outcome of the attempt may have depended on the exact time of the men’s departure aboard the raft. A 2015 documentary presented circumstantial evidence in support of a longstanding rumor that two of the men—the Anglin brothers—had survived and fled to Brazil; but a government expert concluded that the one piece of physical evidence, a 1975 photograph, did not support that conclusion.
Frank Lee Morris was born in Washington, D.C. on September 1926. He was orphaned at age 11 and spent most of his formative years in foster homes. He was convicted of his first crime at the age of 13, and by his late teens had been arrested for crimes ranging from narcotics possession to armed robbery. Morris was exceptionally intelligent, ranking in the top 2% of the general population as measured by IQ testing. He served time in Florida and Georgia, then escaped from the Louisiana State Penitentiary while serving 10 years for bank robbery. He was recaptured a year later while committing a burglary, and sent to Alcatraz in 1960 as inmate number AZ1441.
Allen Clayton West was born on March 25, 1929. Convicted of car theft in 1955, he was sent to Atlanta Penitentiary, and then to Florida State Prison. After an unsuccessful escape attempt in Florida he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1957 and became inmate AZ1335.
West was the only conspirator who did not participate in the actual escape, because he was unable to finish removing the ventilator grill in his cell in time. He cooperated fully with the escape investigation and was not charged for his role in the attempt
West was transferred to McNeil Island, Washington when Alcatraz was deactivated in 1963, and later, back to Atlanta Penitentiary. After serving his sentence, followed by two additional sentences in Georgia and Florida, he was released in 1967, only to be arrested again in Florida the following year on charges of grand larceny. At Florida State Prison he fatally stabbed another prisoner in October 1972, in what may have been a racially motivated incident. He was serving multiple sentences, including life imprisonment on the murder conviction, when he died of acute peritonitis on December 21, 1978, at the age of 49.
In 1993 a former Alcatraz inmate named Thomas Kent told the television program America’s Most Wanted that he had helped plan the escape, and provided “significant new leads” to investigators. He said that Clarence Anglin’s girlfriend had agreed to meet the men on the mainland and drive them to Mexico. He declined to participate in the actual attempt, he said, because he could not swim. Officials were skeptical of Kent’s account, because he had been paid $2,000 for the interview.
A 2003 MythBusters episode on the Discovery Channel tested the feasibility of an escape from the island aboard a raft constructed with the same materials and tools available to the inmates, and determined that it was “plausible”. A 2011 program on the National Geographic Channel asserted that footprints were found on the Angel Island beach where the raft wreckage was recovered, and that contrary to the official FBI report, a car had been stolen nearby on the night of the escape.
In 2011, an 89-year-old man named Bud Morris, who said he was a cousin of Frank Morris, claimed that on “eight or nine” occasions prior to the escape he delivered envelopes of money to Alcatraz guards, presumably as bribes. He further claimed to have met his cousin face to face in a San Diego park shortly after the escape. His daughter, who was “eight or nine” years old at the time, said she was present at the meeting with “Dad’s friend, Frank”, but “had no idea [about the escape
In 2012, the 50th anniversary of the escape attempt, the Anglins’ two sisters and two of their nephews made public their belief that Clarence and John—who would be well into their eighties—were still alive. Marie Anglin Winder claimed that in 1962, she received a phone call from San Francisco after the escape; the caller said, “This is John Anglin.” The family also produced a Christmas card, purportedly received in the family mailbox in 1962, saying, “To Mother, from John. Merry Christmas. Michael Dyke, the Deputy U.S. Marshal, conceded that there is a “possibility that they survived”—but noted that a Norwegian freighter reported seeing a body floating in the ocean 15 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, about one month after the escape. “He had on prison clothes—a navy pea coat and a light pair of trousers—similar to what [Alcatraz] prisoners wore. There were no other missing people during that time period.
In 2014 researchers at Delft University, using a computer model, concluded that if the men set off approximately at midnight, when the currents might have worked in their favor, they could have made landfall; but if they left during the hours before or after, the currents would have been too strong to overcome and they very likely died.
A 2015 History Channel documentary presented further circumstantial evidence gathered over the years by the Anglin brothers’ family. Christmas cards containing the Anglins’ handwriting, and allegedly received by family members for three years after the escape, were displayed. While the handwriting was verified as the Anglins’, none contained a postmarked stamp, so experts could not determine when they were delivered.The family cited a story from family friend Fred Brizzi, who grew up with the brothers and claimed to have recognized them in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1975. They produced photographs taken, they said, by Brizzi (who died in 1993), including one showing two men resembling John and Clarence Anglin and the farm near Rio where they were purportedly living.Forensic experts hired by the History Channel confirmed that the photos were taken in 1975, and asserted that the two men were “more than likely” the Anglins. Other evidence included the deathbed confession of another of the Anglins’ 11 siblings, Robert, who told family members in 2010 that he had been in contact with John and Clarence from 1963 until approximately 1987. The film also presented an alternate escape theory, involving the use of an electrical cord—which was reported missing from the prison’s dock on the night of the escape—as a tow line, attached to a passenger ferry that departed the island shortly after midnight.
Art Roderick, a retired Deputy U.S. Marshal working with the Anglin family, called Brizzi’s photograph of the two men “absolutely the best actionable lead we’ve had”—but added, “it could still all be a nice story which isn’t true”; or the photograph could be a misdirection, aimed at steering the investigation away from the Anglins’ actual wherea bouts.Michael Dyke, the Deputy Marshal assigned to the case, said Brizzi was “a drug smuggler and a conman”, and was suspicious of his account. An expert working for the U.S. Marshals Service reported that measurements of the photo subjects’ physical features, compared to those of the Anglin brothers, indicated that they are not the men in the photo; although the age and condition of the photo, and the fact that both men were wearing sunglasses, hindered efforts to make a definitive determination.
Surviving family members, who said they have heard nothing since Robert lost contact with the brothers in 1987, announced plans to travel to Brazil to conduct a personal search; but Roderick cautioned that they could be arrested by Brazilian authorities, because the Alcatraz escape remains an open Interpol case. According to information obtained by a British newspaper, the FBI was aware of rumors that the Anglins were in Brazil as early as 1965. Agents dispatched to Rio at that time reportedly found no credible evidence that the fugitives were there.