“Funny cat you are, Leo, very funny,” Williams replied.
“I’m not foolin’ you. We need to get some chewing gum before we go much further. We’ll be cutting through them metal bars and that gum is the way to make them much more quiet.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“We chew it up, ok, get it soft. Then, we put it on the saw blades and that squeaky whine you get when cutting through metal, well, it goes away. Without that gum those guards are going to hear us.”
“Bushwa!” Williams snapped back at Leo.
“You’re gonna have to trust me on this, ok? I’m telling you that’s what we need to do.”
Williams did not exactly believe Leo but he did agree to go along with the plan. That night the only action they took was to both go through the hole and scout out the particulars of the office and window they would be using to escape. The next day they both purchased several packs of gum from the small commissary the jail had available for prisoners and that night they got to work on the bars. Williams was surprised when Leo’s gum trick actually worked, making the saws silent except for a dull scraping sound which neither of them believed could be heard even directly below the second-story window. The process of replacing the gum was tedious at times but certainly well worth the effort.
Over the next seven nights the two men worked diligently on their project, taking turns cutting almost completely through each of the bars except for one that they intended to leave intact. They would use this bar as an anchor to which they planned to fasten some tied together blankets as an aid in climbing down the wall. On the morning of the sixth an inmate, newly incarcerated the day before, threatened to expose the plot but was quickly silenced after a short discussion with Big Black Terry. During the night of October tenth Leo and Williams completed all the preparatory work possible, leaving only the last minute effort of fully cutting through each of the bars and achieving their goal of escaping. They did not tell any of the inmates about their success and slept more than usual during the eleventh so they would be ready to go that night and be alert as possible. That evening, awake to get the meager dinner the jail provided, they sat together eating and talking in a corner.
“We gotta go tonight, we can’t risk no delay,” Williams whispered.
“Yeah, it’s tonight. We’ll be running free by the time the sun comes up,” Leo replied, a grin on this face as he though about freedom.
“I’ll start telling the others now, ok, so they’re ready to go. We waited long enough today.”
Leo just held up his hand in reply and stared across the cell area, not speaking or eating. That dragged on for several minutes after which Williams thought he knew what his partner was considering.
“You can’t go back on the deal, you can’t I’m tellin’ ya. That’s what you’re thinking, ain’t it? You’re thinkin’ a slipping out tonight and leaving these guys behind?”
Leo did not speak but turned to look at Williams. He blinked slowly several times, his piercing blue eyes seeming to look beyond his partner.
“You can’t do it, we made a promise, we gotta make good, ok?” Williams reiterated, speaking just loud enough to get curious looks from several of the prisoners. Finally Leo shook his head.
“Of course, of course, we’ll make good on it. You tell Terry and he’ll set it up with the others. Get a few blankets together while you’re at it.” Leo then went back to eating after which he laid down and closed his eyes.
Immediately after the eleven-thirty head count the two men stood up and made their way to the hole, where Terry had stationed himself earlier in the evening. Before stepping aside he leaned in and whispered to Leo.
“I’ll be waitin’ for your sign’l, understand? I’m right here, yo’ make sure to tell me when you’re through them bars. We’ll all be right behind ya.”
“We’ll let you know like we said we would. It’ll be a couple hours though, ok, there’s still work to do before we’re through.”
Terry patted both men on the cheek and then removed the cut-out for them, after which they crawled through, pushing the blankets ahead as they squeezed through for what they hoped was the final time. They began work immediately and it was just after two a.m. when they quietly removed the last bar and Williams tentatively stuck his head out the window to check the area immediately surrounding their point of escape. All was clear so the men made their blanket-rope, secured it and prepared to lower it out the window. Williams pulled on Leo’s sleeve at this point and nodded his head back in the direction of the cell.
“Yeah, you go ahead and tell him then. Make sure he knows to wait ten minutes so we can get clear down below,” Leo said.
One minute later the tattered edge of a blue prison blanket peeked out of the second story window and was slowly followed by four more blankets, all of which were carefully tied together. Leo’s leg then appeared and over the course of the next minute he quietly descended to the ground. Williams followed and, although he almost lost his grip twice, successfully joined his partner. The men exchanged smiles and an exuberant handshake before creeping off into the darkness. Twenty minutes later Leo had stolen a vehicle and the two fugitives were making their way out of town.
Back in the jail, things did not go according to plan. Big Black Terry had actually waited a full fifteen minutes before starting to go through the hole, only to discover that his large body would not fit. After several attempts he gave up, threw the cut-out across the cell area and sat down in front of the hole. One brave inmate approached him only to be met with Terry simple challenge.
“If’n I ain’t goin’ through, ain’t any one of you goin’ unless ya go through me first.”
No one cared to take him up on that offer and he stayed there until six-thirty a.m. when it was time for the morning head count. The prisoners did not try to hide anything at that point, with the first one to step up to the door simply stating, “You all got two boys running loose right now.”
Several minutes later the prison guards and deputies had verified that claim, viewed the escape path and had started to look for Leo and Williams.
…to be continued
Later that day Leo had another visit from his lawyer and was informed again, and in much more detail, about how the information provided by Otto, the Marlborough’s janitor, had led directly to his arrest. Leo kept the fact that the man had also stolen the money hidden in the shoes to himself, and that, coupled with the details from his lawyer, drove a growing rage within Leo. Added to his already bottled up anger toward the bank teller for signing the affidavit and the Marlborough in general for cooperating with police, this all had him in quite a state of agitation when his lawyer departed. Once he had returned to the cell area he spent twenty minutes telling Williams about how he, “had been about to get a good start on things, get some real cash and a good reputation going in Minnesota,” only to be brought down by, “a dew drop janitor, sleazy banker and god damn hotel that can’t respect people’s privacy!” He also mentioned quite loudly that he was, “going to get even with all of them!” Williams pointed out that Leo probably should have handled several things differently, which almost led to a fist fight. In the end, both men walked away and were chatting quietly about the escape an hour later.
The first part of their plan was initiated by Williams the next morning, who told the guards he needed to call his lawyer. They pointed out that is was Saturday but he persisted, saying that he just happened to have a really hard working attorney who would be in the office on the weekend. After about an hour of badgering the guards relented and led Williams out to the phone in the hallway. He dialed a number and had a conversation which sounded like a simple discussion between a prisoner and his attorney. At least it seemed that way if you were not paying close attention, which the guards did not seem to be doing. The next day Williams had a visitor, a man named Clifford Washington, who was later a cooperating witness during the investigation. Their conversation was short and to the point with Williams uttering a simple request; “We need saw blades, and a lot of them.”
Exactly how it was done or who managed to get those blades to Williams is a mystery that is likely to remain unsolved. An examination of the jail records from September twenty-ninth to October second shows that three people signed in to see him over those days; his lawyer, a man named Jack Mills and a woman named Betty Taylor. It may or may not be a coincidence (given the commonplace nature of the last name) that Betty Taylor was a known alias of Alice Lanning, who was also known as Betty Markword and was the one-time wife of Leo’s former cellmate at McNeil Island. Regardless of how they were smuggled in, by the late afternoon of October 2, 1929 Leo and John Williams had a collection of saw blades and were ready to get started on the next part of the escape.
The word had quietly spread among the prisoners that Leo was serious about his plan and was going to act on it. Although he would have preferred to keep the whole thing a secret it was obvious that it would be impossible to do so, especially since they were going to need everyone’s cooperation to be successful. Leo played up the angle that once he had made his own escape, anyone who wanted to could follow him out as long as it was understood that they needed to go their own way once free from the jail. That opportunity likely kept anyone from telling the guards, although it also helped that another one of the prisoners, known as “Big Black” Terry had made it clear what would happen to anyone who did rat out the plan. He intended to be one of those following Leo and Williams out and, “any’ya that cause a problem’s gonna be seein’ me up close an’ personal.” Given his six foot four, two hundred and forty pound size and known violent disposition, that threat definitely meant something to the others.
That night, promptly at eleven-thirty p.m., the small window slid open in the door and a guard called out, “Line it up!” from the other side. As they did every night, the prisoners formed a straight line on their side of the door, then stepped up to the window one after the other, stating their name and having their presence verified by the deputy looking through the hole. Once that was over all the lights, except for two in the ceiling at either end of the cell, were turned off and the area officially entered “quiet time.” As had been observed by several prisoners previously, and by Leo himself when he could not sleep, the guards almost never looked through the door again until the morning wake-up call. After waiting thirty minutes to allow the guards to settle in for the night, Leo and Williams got to work.
Their mission on this first night was just to cut out the piece of the wall that would allow them to slip in and out of the office space Leo had observed. It took four hours of very slow sawing, working their way through the wood and plaster with great care, as they wanted to keep the piece as intact as possible. They had to take several breaks to rest hands that had gotten cramped both from the slow motion required to limit the noise and also the narrow grip needed to hold the saw blades. Eventually, tired but triumphant, they lifted the rectangular piece out of the wall and Leo slipped through the opening to ensure it was large enough.
That ended their work for the night and the next day, per a prior arrangement facilitated by Big Black, various prisoners took turns sitting on the floor in front of the cut-out. That piece, even though it had been carefully removed and then replaced, still had some flaws which could potentially be seen by a keen-eyed guard, especially if they made another trip inside of the cell. These prisoners were paid in cigarettes from Leo and Williams, who tried to catch cat naps throughout the day so they would be ready for more work the next night. Before they got started again though Leo pulled his partner aside.
“I forgot something, forgot to tell you something we needed to get. We’re gonna need some chewing gum.”
…to be continued
Leo was happy to see Williams step through the door because it meant that his time emptying out the latrine buckets was over. Six days of that duty had been enough. Unknown to him at the time was the fact that this person was a criminal of a similar type to himself although Williams had a more extensive criminal record than Leo. They also were fated to be linked through a notorious incident in Minnesota criminal history. John F. Williams, aka Joseph Francis Hendricks, also presented a bit of a contradiction in terms of other people’s perception of him. He was variously described as, “troubled but pleasant,” “a very dangerous character,” and “young and not looking the desperate part of a criminal.” His most recent arrest, the one which brought him to the Stearns County Jail, had been in Anoka. That warrant had been for suspicion of robbing the Saint Michael’s State Bank and “planning other crimes,” charges for which he had entered a not guilty plea. When he first walked into the community cell, Leo had immediately caught Williams attention due to the commotion he continued to raise about the conditions of the jail. Once Leo finally stopped haranguing about this in the general direction of the closed metal door he wandered over to the window and stood there looking out. Several minutes later Williams observed that he was now doing a close inspection of the window and the wall surrounding it, which prompted him to go aver and ask what Leo was thinking of doing.
“What’s it to you?” Leo snapped back.
“Easy bud, just making conversation I suppose. John by the way,” Willams replied sticking out his hand.
Leo looked at it but did not offer to shake. Instead he turned his attention back to the window. “I was just hoping to find a way out of this place, that’s all.”
“You think this is it?” Willams asked.
“Hardly,” Leo replied, “I believe it is reinforced behind this wall and besides it’s too damn visible to the guards. They don’t look through that little peephole in the door too often but when they do, this is right in their view. Even if I wanted to risk it I would need a couple saws and I ain’t got no way to get them right now.”
“You not from around here?”
“No, not, well, not recently anyway. Not for a long time.”
Williams reached up and attempted to shake the bars. “That’s pretty thick and sturdy. You even think it’s possible to cut them?”
“Of course it is, well, at least I could. You don’t know it but I’m an engineer, these things are possible if you know what you’re doing. Still, it’s too visible like I said. Too bad though, I’d like to get outta here.” Leo turned and took a step before Williams grabbed his elbow.
“You’re probably right, it’s too visible. Now, you don’t know me either bud, but I’m in good around these parts. You keep thinking with that smart brain of yours and if you figure something out, you let me know, ok? I could get you some things you might need, you just gotta take me outta here with you. Deal?”
Leo looked at Williams for a few seconds and then replied. “I’ll think about it.”
Nothing much happened the next day and then, during the afternoon of the twenty-seventh, three guards stepped through the door. Leo was leaning up against a wall about halfway down the corridor and wondered exactly what was about to happen. Up to this point in his incarceration there had never been a guard inside of the temporary cell. He quickly looked to see if any of them were armed but they had taken the precaution of removing their firearms prior to entering. Leo figured there was also a few extra officers on the other side of that door ready to come in and assist if anything got out go hand. Most of the prisoners ignored what was going on although Leo, Williams and a few others kept on eye on them as they walked down the hallway and stopped next to a door. As two of the officers turned and faced toward the prisoners, the other one removed the padlock and opened the door.
This action took place almost directly across from where Leo was standing. The door was only open for a few seconds as the deputy stepped inside and then closed it, but in that brief glimpse he saw that the room inside had a window. It was barred also but sparked an idea in Leo’s mind which he started to mull over. Three minutes later the guard remerged with a file box and the door was again secured, the trio of officers then exiting the temporary cell area. About an hour later Williams wandered over and sat next to Leo, who had taken a seat on one of the wooden benches and been sitting there silently since the guards had left.
“You alright there?” he asked, to which Leo made no reply. “Hey bud, you ok?”
“Hmm, yes, yes,” was the only answer he received, Leo continuing to stare toward the secured office door which had so recently been opened.
“Well, you’re thinkin’ a somethin’ I’m sure of it. You gonna tell me about it?” Williams asked.
Leo stayed silent for another ten minutes or so but then spoke. “You really think you can get some tools in here for me?”
“What’s the plan? You tell me that first.”
Leo then explained his idea to Williams, which began with cutting a small, low hole in the corridor wall outside the office that had been opened by the guards. This opening needed to only be large enough for him to low crawl through at night, and the piece that was cut out of the wall would need to be carefully preserved. That piece would be used to hide the hole both as he worked within the office on his plan and of course during the daytime hours. That work inside the office would consist of cutting through the bars of the window, making it possible to escape from the jail. They would need some cooperation from the other prisoners but Leo was confident he could get them to assist.
“So, can you get me some tools, some saw blades?” he asked Williams again.
“Sure I can but like I said, you need to take me with you. And when we’re out, well, you gotta rob a bank with me, ok?”
Leo did not hesitate. “That’s a deal. And I know just the bank.”
…to be continued