SAN FRANCISCO — Spurred by new information from a former inmate, the U.S. Marshal's Service has revived its hunt for three bank robbers who escaped from the notorious Alcatraz Island penitentiary in 1962 and were presumed drowned or eaten by sharks.
Ex-convict Thomas Kent, interviewed for an episode of "America's Most Wanted" airing later this month, provides "significant new leads" in the remarkable escape made popular by a Clint Eastwood movie, a spokesman for the Marshal's Service said Wednesday.
The information may offer the first clear explanation of how Frank Lee Morris and Clarence and John Anglin broke out of their cells and fashioned a raft they presumably used to cross the chilly, treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay.
Originally, the FBI concluded that the trio used spoons to dig out of their cells. But Kent, who now lives in San Diego and reportedly helped plan the jailbreak, said the inmates stole a vacuum cleaner motor and fashioned it into a drill they used to widen a ventilation duct. To conceal the noise of the drilling, he said, the men worked during the prison's evening music hour.
After crawling through the duct to reach the roof, the convicts slid down a pipe to the ground and climbed a barbed-wire fence to reach the island's foggy shore. There, Kent said, the escapees boarded a makeshift raft they created by smuggling raincoats into the prison sewing shop and transforming them into rubber pontoons.
"Although we never found bodies, we presumed they had drowned because a makeshift oar and a life vest turned up on (nearby) Angel Island," said Dave Branham, a marshal's service spokesman in Washington. But now that the escapees' ingenuity has been revealed, "we think there is a possibility they are alive."
If the fugitives did pull off the June 11, 1962, breakout featured in the film "Escape From Alcatraz," they would be in their early 60s today. Kent, who was paroled in 1965, said he would have joined the escape had he known how to swim.
Alcatraz, the federal government's maximum security prison until it was closed in 1963, was known as "The Rock" and housed such infamous gangsters as Al Capone and Mickey Cohen. Situated more than a mile off San Francisco's eastern shore, it was designed to be escape-proof--and nearly lived up to expectations.
Forty-one inmates tried to break out during The Rock's 29 years of operation. Of those, 26 were recaptured, seven were shot to death, three drowned and five were never found.
The Anglin and Morris escape has been an enduring mystery, fascinating millions of tourists and federal agents alike. Through the years, investigators have received scattered tips about the fugitives, but little recent work on the case has been done.
In one intriguing development in 1986, a prisoner in Wyoming--a man also named Clarence Anglin--claimed to be the grandson of the escapee of the same name. He said his grandfather had made it out and died in Iowa, while his two cohorts had been eaten by sharks.
Kent, meanwhile, was interviewed by agents but apparently had little to say about the escape until the television program's producers knocked on his door. He was paid $2,000 in expenses for appearing on the show.
Contrary to the FBI's findings, Kent reports that more than 40 prisoners were involved in planning the escape and fashioning the tools it required. He said the trio became fluent in Spanish while in prison because they had arranged for a friend to meet them after their escape and drive them to Mexico.
Hoping to help crack the mystery, the ferry boat company that takes 1 million tourists a year to Alcatraz Island has offered a $1-million reward for information leading to the arrest of the escapees.
"It's a fascinating case," said Terry Koenig of the Red & White Fleet. "The single most asked question we get from tourists is whatever happened to those three guys who escaped in 1962."