this day in crime history: june 12, 1962

On this date in 1962, prison officials at Alcatraz discovered that inmates Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin had apparently escaped from the federal prison. The escape took over two years to plan and execute. The escapees used stolen materials to make a raft to escape on and dummies to place in their bunks. They tunneled from their cells into the prison ventilation shaft, through which they climbed up to the roof of the prison. They climbed down from the roof, made it to the water, and paddled away on their homemade raft. The men were never found and were presumed drowned in San Francisco Bay.

Further reading:

“The Great Escape from Alcatraz”

FBI Files: Alcatraz Escape

IMDb: Escape from Alcatraz

this day in crime history: june 10, 1977

On this date in 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, escaped from the maximum security Brushy Mountain State Prison in Tennessee.

The escape happened after dinner. A disturbance began in the recreation yard of the prison. As the corrections staff was distracted, Ray and six other inmates scaled the wall on the opposite side of the yard using a makeshift ladder.

One of the inmates, who had injured himself in the escape, was captured just outside the prison wall. The remainder were captured over the course of the next two days. Ray was tracked down by bloodhounds. He was found hiding in a pile of leaves five miles from the prison.

James Earl Ray died in prison in 1998 at the age of seventy. Brushy Mountain State Prison was closed in 2009.

Further reading:

TimeASSASSINS: Capture in the Cumberlands

Wikipedia – James Earl Ray

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