this day in crime history: may 15, 1981


On this date in 1981, Donna Payant became the first female corrections officer in New York State to be killed in the line of duty. Payant, 31, was assigned to the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, NY.

At the end of her scheduled shift, Payant had turned up missing. An exhaustive search was conducted of the prison and the surrounding grounds, but there was no sign of her. Officials expanded their search to a local landfill where trash from the prison had been dumped earlier in the day. They found her mutilated body buried in the trash.

Police and prison officials began an investigation into the murder of Officer Payant. Bite marks had been left, and the medical examiner thought that the pattern looked familiar. As it turns out, he had seen the same pattern on a previous case he had worked: one of the victims of rapist and serial killer Lemuel Smith. Smith was an inmate at Green Haven CF when Officer Payant was murdered.

Once the case was built, Smith was tried for murdering Officer Payant. He was represented by C. Vernon Mason (of Tawana Brawley fame/infamy) and William “Black Rage” Kuntsler. In spite of such big-name legal representation , Smith was convicted of 1st degree murder and given the mandatory death sentence. In 1984, his death sentence was overturned as unconstitutional.

Lemuel Smith is currently incarcerated at Five Points Correctional Facility in central New York. He is eligible for parole in 2029, when he is 87 years old.

Further reading:

Wikipedia – Lemuel Smith

The Officer Down Memorial Page – Corrections Officer Donna A. Payant

Find-a-Grave – Donna Payant

this day in crime history: may 2, 1946

On this day in 1946, an aborted escape attempt led to what became known as the Battle of Alcatraz. The incident began when convicted bank robber Bernard Coy attacked guard William Miller as he frisked inmate Marvin Hubbard in the prison’s C Block. Coy and Hubbard were able to overpower Miller. They then released inmates Joseph Cretzer and Clarence Carnes from their cells.

Coy climbed up to the block’s elevated gun gallery, which was unattended at the moment. He had previously noted a flaw in the bars protecting the gallery which allowed him to use a makeshift tool to widen the bars. Once he had done that, he managed to squeeze through the bars and into the gun gallery. When guard Bert Bunch returned to the gun gallery, Coy overpowered him and relieved him of his keys, rifle and pistol. He also availed himself of other items in the gun gallery, including clubs and gas grenades.

Coy lowered the keys and weapons to his accomplices, keeping the rifle for himself. He then moved to D Block where he forced a guard, at gunpoint, to open the door to the cell block. About a dozen inmates left D Block, which was used as a disciplinary block. Most returned to their cells. Two of the inmates, Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson, joined the would-be escapees.

The inmates’ plan was to get out of the prison, make their way to the dock using hostages as human shields, then use the prison launch to get to the mainland. The next hurdle they faced in their plan was unlocking the door to the outside. After multiple unsuccessful attempts with the wrong keys, they finally found the right one. Unfortunately for them, the lock was damaged from having the wrong keys shoved in it. They were unable to open the door.

While the inmates were fighting their losing battle with the lock, several other guards wandered onto C Block, unaware that inmates had seized control of that part of the prison. They were taken hostage and put in cells. The number of hostages eventually reached nine guards, who occupied two cells.

Frustrated by the uncooperative lock, Cretzer opened fire on the hostage guards, wounding five. One, William Miller, later died from his wounds. Coy used the rifle to fire on guards in the prison towers. Thompson, Shockley, and Carnes elected to return to their cells. Coy, Hubbard, and Cretzer decided to stay and fight.

An assault by guards was met with gunfire. Officer Harold Stites was killed and four guards were wounded. Warden James Johnston called for help from the military. Two platoons of Marines were sent to help with the assault on C Block and to assist in guarding the other inmates.

That evening, a contingent of guards engaged in a rescue operation to free the hostages while armed guards exchanged gunfire with the three inmates. Once the hostages had been rescued, guards and Marines subjected C Block to a barrage of fire using, machine guns, grenades, and mortars.

Early the next afternoon, the inmates telephoned the warden in an attempt to negotiate a deal. There was no deal to be had, short of unconditional surrender, which was unacceptable to Coy and his accomplices.

The barrages continued through into night. The next morning, armed guards entered the cell house to find Coy, Hubbard, and Cretzer dead.

Inmates Thompson, Shockley, and Carnes were all convicted for their roles in the escape attempt and the death of two guards.  Thompson and Shockley were sentenced to death. Carnes received a life sentence, but was released in 1973.

Further reading:

Wikipedia – Battle of Alcatraz

Alcatraz History – Battle of Alcatraz

this day in crime history: april 30, 1927

On this date in 1927, The Federal Industrial Institution for Women opened in Alderson, WV. It was the first federal women’s prison in the United States. The prison, which is now known as Federal Prison Camp, Alderson — and unofficially as “Camp Cupcake” — is still functioning as a minimum security prison for women. Notable former residents include Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally, Billie Holiday, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, and Martha Stewart. And speaking of women in prison, an entire movie genre was inspired by the concept. Unrealistic, to be sure. But artistically significant, nonetheless.

this day in crime history: april 14, 1943


On this date in 1943, four inmates tried to escape from the Alcatraz federal prison. The men, James Boarman, Harold Brest, Floyd Hamilton, and Fred Hunter, overpowered two guards in the industries area of the prison and tied them up. They climbed out the window and made their way to the water’s edge.

While the would-be escapees were entering the water, one of the guards they had tied up managed to alert others of the escape attempt. The alarm was sounded, alerting the tower guards, who opened fire on the men. Boarman was hit. His body sank and was never recovered. Hunter and Brest were rounded up by guards. Hamilton, who was assumed to have died in the escape attempt, hid in a cave on the island until the search was over. Cold and hungry, he was caught three days later hiding in a store room in the prison.

Further reading:

Alcatraz History – Escape Attempts

BoP – Alcatraz

Wikipedia – Alcatraz escape attempts

this day in crime history: march 21, 1963

On this date in 1963, the prison they called “The Rock” was closed by the Department of Justice. The federal penitentiary at Alcatraz opened in 1934. At its peak, it held over 200 inmates. Some of its more famous residents include Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “Birdman” Stroud.

For more info, check out these sites:

National Park Service Alcatraz website

Alcatraz History

Alcatraz Cruises

Ghosts of Alcatraz

this day in crime history: january 13, 1939

On this date in 1939, five inmates, including Arthur “Doc” Barker of the infamous Barker-Karpis gang, attempted to escape from the federal prison on Alcatraz Island. The men escaped from the cell house after sawing and bending the bars on a window. They made their way to the shoreline and attempted to escape on a makeshift raft. When they were discovered, three of the inmates, William Martin, Henri Young, and Rufus McCain surrendered. Barker and inmate Dale Stamphill were shot by guards. Barker died later from his wounds.

Further reading:

Alcatraz Escape Attempts

Alcatraz – Escapes

Alcatraz – Arthur “Doc” Barker