ALCATRAZ ISLAND, Calif. — For 20th century crime buffs, few capers match the intrigue and ingenuity of the "Escape from Alcatraz," the 1962 prison break three inmates pulled off with stolen spoons, dummy heads and a raincoat raft.
For Marie Widner and Mearl Taylor, the fabled flight from the Rock is all about family.
The two Florida women are the younger sisters of John and Clarence Anglin, who along with fellow prisoner Frank Morris, disappeared from the federal prison on Alcatraz Island 50 years ago. Whether the three men perished in chilly San Francisco Bay, as prison officials and federal agents insisted at the time, remains a subject of hot speculation because their bodies were never found.
Out of the 36 Alcatraz inmates who tried to flee before the prison was closed in March 1963, the three are the only ones who remain unaccounted for, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which maintains active arrest warrants on Morris and the Anglins.
"I've always believed they made it, and I haven't changed my mind about that," Widner, 76, said Monday while visiting the former penitentiary to commemorate the anniversary of her siblings' daring getaway.
Widner's sons arranged for their mother and aunt to visit Alcatraz because they wanted, in Kenneth Widner's words, "to clear up some misnomers about the boys" that followed their unlikely escape's passage into prison lore, a book and a Clint Eastwood movie.
Among those that rankle Mearl Taylor the most, is the idea that her brothers were simpletons who benefited from a plan crafted by Morris and the belief that Clarence and John were hardcore criminals because they ended up in a prison designed for "desperate or irredeemable individuals."
Like Morris, the Anglin brothers were serving sentences for bank robbery, but it was the pair's history of previous escape attempts, coupled with a failed attempt to sneak Clarence out of the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., that got them sent to Alcatraz in 1960 and 1961.
"Just because they did this mischievous stuff growing up, they were not bad boys. They never caused no problems with the family. They just got out and did this mischievous stuff until it got to the bank robbery and that's when they really got into trouble," Taylor said. "I'm proud of them."
The U.S. Marshals Service took over the manhunt from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1978.
U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke, who inherited the unsolved case in 2003, does not disagree with the sisters' account. Dyke doesn't know whether any of the trio is still alive. However, he's seen enough evidence to make him wonder, which makes tracking down some 250 tips and reported sightings – even the wackier ones – necessary. He gets tips every one or two months.
The clues he considers the most tantalizing are credible reports that the Anglins' mother, for several years, received flowers delivered without a card and that the brothers attended her 1973 funeral disguised in women's clothes despite a heavy FBI presence.
A statistical perspective also lends authority to the idea that at least one or two of the escapees survived the treacherous bay crossing, Dyke said, because the bodies of two out of every three people who go missing in San Francisco Bay are recovered.
"We have to operate under the assumption they made it," he said.
If the Anglins or Morris ever surrender or are tracked down, Dyke said he would arrest them, but "I'd have to compliment them because it was very meticulous what they did, how they escaped from here." Federal prosecutors then would have to decide whether to charge them. The warrants on them will expire when each man passes his 100th birthday.
The FBI acquired most of what it learned about the great escape from a fourth inmate who planned to take part in the break out but, at the last minute, ran into technical problems. The four reportedly spent months using spoons and forks to dig holes in the crumbling masonry surrounding the air vents in their cells. The crawl spaces they fashioned eventually pierced the six-and-a-half-inch thick walls until they reached a utility corner, from which they were able to shimmy out through a roof vent.
To prepare for their flights, they also produced a raft and life vests out of more than 50 cotton raincoats, with rubberized backing, that inmates were assigned, said "Breaking the Rock" author Jolene Babyak. They also had created mannequin heads out of paper, paint and hair purloined from the prison barber shop. They left the heads in their beds while they worked on the raft and the night of the getaway.
Babyak was 15 years old and living on Alcatraz when her father, the associate warden, got the June 12, 1962, call that three inmates had escaped the night before with an eight-hour head start.
For her part, Babyak is less convinced that any of the inmates survived the escape. Given how exhaustively the FBI investigated the incident and the number of years that have passed, she thinks more concrete evidence would have surfaced if Morris or the Anglins had lived to tell about it.
Replicas of the dummy heads lie in their former cells, which are popular stops with the more than a million tourists who visit Alcatraz Island every year. While what happened to the three men remains a mystery, the escape's enduring mystique isn't ambiguous at all, National Park Service spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet said.
"It's one of those yarns where everyone can attach their own reality because they can wrap themselves around whatever part they want," Picavet said.