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THE STATE

Willing Captives of Alcatraz Lore

Landmark: Guides take visitors on intimate evening tours, adding true tales of the men who lived there.

July 12, 2001|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Interpreter Sonja Williams once had a woman who claimed to be psychic on her tour of the supposedly haunted prison hospital. Once inside, the woman--who reportedly had multiple personalities--began speaking German in a child's voice, later saying the place was frequented by spirits.

Moran prefers exploring the lives of "small-fry" inmates, such as former journalist Elliott Michner, sentenced to eight years on a counterfeiting conviction.

"People can see a bit of Elliott in themselves," he said. "He was at a bad place at a bad time, enduring the Depression."

Not long ago, Moran made his own contribution to Alcatraz's chilling store of knowledge. While investigating the prison gardens, he found an odd piece of graffiti: "Tippy 475 7/7/45."

A check determined the author was William Tippitt, prisoner No. 475, who lost his mind at Alcatraz and died in an insane asylum.

With stories like that, it's no wonder that Moran and the others are proud to reveal the nature of their jobs--even to strangers.

"As a lawyer, I hated that question, 'What do you do?' because I could see people recoil when I told them," Kennelly said.

Now she's the life of the cocktail party.

But for any interpreter, the best part of the job is running into men who once lived there. Once, Williams overheard an elderly man talking to a group and asked him, "Did you ever do time here?"

Yes, said ex-inmate Darwin Coon, explaining that he had returned to "check out the old neighborhood."

Coon gave her a tour of the prison and showed her the kitchen where he made beer on the sly. He even took her to his old cell.

As she sat beside the gentle old man who had returned to the scene of his exile, Williams felt a sensation some of her fellow guides also have shared.

"I think he was a little homesick for the place," she said.

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