Alcatraz escapees' status still unknown after 50 years

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:31 PM

Jill Tucker

SAN FRANCISCO -- Fifty years after three prisoners broke out of Alcatraz through a spoon-dug tunnel and launched a raft made of raincoats into the San Francisco Bay in a bid for freedom, a lone U.S. marshal is still looking for them.

Whether inmates Frank Morris, 35, John Anglin, 32, and his brother Clarence Anglin, 31, made it to safety on June 11, 1962, or sank to a watery grave is not known.

U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke, the only official investigator still assigned to the case, has an educated guess: Two lived, but Dyke won't share all the reasons he believes that.

He's read the thousands of pages in each of the 14 volumes accumulated by the FBI before they closed the case in 1979 as well as all the leads chased since by U.S. marshals.

Since he took the case in 2003, Dyke has built up four big boxes and 12 gigabytes of "stuff" in his own investigation.

"I think there's still a decent chance they made it," Dyke said. "I can't prove it. Well, nothing I can tell you anyway."

Dyke cites a Norwegian ship report of a body floating in the water outside the Golden Gate about a month after the escape. It was face down and appeared to be wearing prison clothes. The crew was unable to immediately report it or collect the body.

Statistically speaking, he said, 2 out of 3 bodies in the bay are recovered. If all three fugitives died, two bodies should have been recovered.

But without bodies, Dyke can't prove what actually happened.

The legendary escape from the inescapable Alcatraz nearly 50 years ago by the three bank robbers has been the subject of speculation and conspiracy theories over generations: All three lived or all died. One is in Ireland. They were seen in Arkansas or Florida or Georgia. The brothers murdered Morris in the boat. The Mafia helped.

This is what is known: The three prisoners on Cell Block B spent months digging with spoons and butter knives through a wall 8 inches thick, covering the in-progress holes with cardboard painted to look like a vent cover.

On the night of the escape, sometime after the last guard check at 9:30 p.m., they put realistic dummy heads made from plaster, soap and hair in their beds and shimmied through the holes to reach a utility hallway.

They then climbed up a drainpipe and through an exhaust vent to the roof. They slid down a kitchen vent and scaled two fences topped with barbed wire to reach the northeast edge of the island, then slipped into the water with a raft and life preservers made from 50 raincoats.

Guards sounded the alarm at 7:15 the next morning.

Some say the raft was found on Angel Island. A paddle was found in the bay.

Their story has inspired books, movies and television shows.

In the 1979 film "Escape from Alcatraz," which features Clint Eastwood as Morris, moviegoers are led to believe they made it.

The escape, "definitely was a pinnacle point for Alcatraz," said Alexandra Picavet, spokeswoman for the National Park Service. The prison was shut less than a year later, a fate likely hastened by the breakout, she said.

About 5,000 people a day now visit the island, and the escape story a key part of the tour.

In his Oakland, Calif., office, Dyke gets a new lead in the case every month or two. The Alcatraz case is more of a professional hobby rather than a full-time job -- a "cool" assignment, but one that is "sometimes boring," he said.

But there still are active warrants out on all three, and dead or alive, they are wanted men.

Dyke said the warrants will remain active until the 100th birthday of each of the three men.

He roots for them in a way, hopes they're alive, now into their 80s. Dyke would like to meet them.

And he knows exactly what he'd say:

"You did a good job, and you had a good, long time out. And you're under arrest."

(Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jtucker(at)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

Sign up for e-mail news updates.