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Escape from Alcatraz: An enduring mystery with roots in Ruskin comes back to life after 53 years

Published on: October 7, 2015

On Oct. 12 at 9 p.m., the History Channel will air a documentary on the escape from Alcatraz, suggesting new answers have been found, possibly solving one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. After 53 years, the sister of two escapees, all having grown up in Ruskin, speaks. At least a little.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Rex and Mearl Taylor at their home in Sun City Center. Mearl is the sister of Alcatraz escapees Clarence and John Anglin. Mitch Traphagen photo.

Rex and Mearl Taylor at their home in Sun City Center. Mearl is the sister of Alcatraz escapees Clarence and John Anglin. Mitch Traphagen photo.

To a casual observer, Rex and Mearl Taylor can fight like cats and dogs. One will talk over the other, often Mearl over Rex. Rex will fire off a dirty look to Mearl, and Mearl will then smile — and it’s a remarkably beautiful smile. After decades of marriage, that smile apparently still, understandably, melts Rex’s heart. Their bickering is merely banter — and they are in love. They are welcoming people who make you want to stay, to talk and laugh with them.

Events in history tend to eventually lie down and sleep for eternity. Time passes, life goes on. Unless, say, a major cable television network or an author dredges it back up, propping up an event or a time in the past, bringing it back to life again.

Much of Mearl Taylor’s life has been such. She grew up in Ruskin as Mearl Anglin, part of a large, poor family that farmed an area on East Shell Point Road. Most people in town were poor, but life went on. And then 53 years ago last June, when Mearl was just a young woman, life stopped going on as normal. Everything changed.

Two of her brothers, both of whom not all that long before were helping out on the family farm on East Shell Point Road, escaped into infamy. Her brothers created one of the enduring mysteries of the 20th century: Clarence and John Anglin, formerly of Ruskin, along with Frank Morris, escaped from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

Clarence and John Anglin are no longer wanted by the FBI. After a 17-year investigation, the FBI closed the case, decided the men had drowned in the rough cold waters off Alcatraz. The U.S. Marshals Office maintains it as an open case today. In family photos from Ruskin, the boys had movie-star looks. Their wanted photos are much less flattering.

Clarence and John Anglin are no longer wanted by the FBI. After a 17-year investigation, the FBI closed the case, decided the men had drowned in the rough cold waters off Alcatraz. The U.S. Marshals Office maintains it as an open case today. In family photos from Ruskin, the boys had movie-star looks. Their wanted photos are much less flattering.

They have never been found. On June 12, 1962, Mearl’s life, along with rest of her family’s lives, changed forever. The aftermath wasn’t easy for Mearl and her family in such a community. If the men survived, it would be the only successful escape from the storied, and now long-shuttered, island prison set in the cold, rough waters off San Francisco.

There have been numerous books written and Clint Eastwood starred in the 1979 movie, Escape from Alcatraz. According to Mearl, a new movie and another book is in the works.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the Federal Bureau of Investigation considers the escape a closed case. The FBI decided that the three men drowned in their attempt. The U.S. Marshals Office considers it an open case today. One Marshal recently told Rex that if either Clarence or John walked right in front of him and he recognized them, he would be obligated to arrest them. But he’s not going to travel the world to go after them anymore.

After all, if they survived their escape they have apparently stayed out of trouble for the past 53 years. What good could come from putting handcuffs on men who would now be in their 80s?

Rex wanted to talk. Mearl, while warm and welcoming, flashing her beautiful and genuine smile, was less inclined to talk about her brothers’ fame. Rex said that she could keep a secret like no one else. Her entire family could keep secrets. But some less than others, apparently.

At 9 p.m. on Oct. 12, The History Channel will air a new two-hour docudrama entitled Alcatraz: The Search for alcatraz_john_wantedthe Truth.  According to the advertising, viewers will be surprised by what has been discovered in the past 53 years, possibly solving the “Riddle of the Rock” once and for all.

“We had four U.S. Marshals along with all of the sound and camera people come here,” Rex said. “They believe they made….” Then he trailed off.

“We’re not supposed to talk about it,” Mearl said, referring to the upcoming television show.

The couple knows what they know about Clarence and John, even if they don’t talk about it. But they don’t know entirely what the show will bring.

“If they are not telling her what is on TV, that doesn’t seem right to me,” Rex said. “We don’t even know what they found. Everyone knows about the escape but why don’t people write about them growing up, what caused them to get into this? They were poor. They felt picked on.”

The producers brought Mearl’s sister and her husband down from Georgia, and they filmed at the Taylor’s Sun City Center home for an entire day. Neighbors in golf carts stopped by to ask how they could get invited to the party.

Despite the FBI closing the case after a 17-year investigation, there is considerable evidence the men survived. It is possible that they even returned to Ruskin at least once after the escape.

Rex told the story of their mother’s funeral. After family and friends had left the chapel, a preacher saw two women enter and walk up to spend several minutes at the casket. They then left without saying a word.

“She passed away not long after the escape,” Mearl added.

It would have been a daring move. Mearl thinks that for a time their family telephone had been bugged, and the FBI was never far away. But Clarence and John were smart young men. They would have anticipated that the FBI was there; they would have been ready. In those days, two women in mourning, convincingly so, would have been allowed certain discretions.

At the Taylor’s home, family photos include articles about the escape and even “Wanted:” coffee mugs featuring her brothers’ images. Mitch Traphagen photo.

At the Taylor’s home, family photos include articles about the escape and even “Wanted:” coffee mugs featuring her brothers’ images. Mitch Traphagen photo.

Clarence and John Anglin were hardworking, highly intelligent and industrious young men with eyes set on adventure. With few opportunities available in what was then a small Florida farming community, they were also criminals, mostly petty theft — and they abhorred violence. They never wanted anyone to get hurt. But they wanted more than what the sandy soil on a 10-acre Ruskin farm could provide. They once loaded up an old car and took off for California. They returned to Ruskin and, not long after, set into motion what would culminate in the event singularly known as “the escape from Alcatraz.”

They robbed a bank in Georgia. No one would get hurt — they used a plastic toy gun in the robbery, believing wrongly that, if nothing else, a toy gun would lead to a lighter sentence if they got caught. They did get caught, and the toy gun did not yield a lighter sentence. They were sent to a prison in Atlanta, where soon an attempt at escape was made. Federal prison authorities decided to put a stop to that, so they sent them to Alcatraz, believing it to be the one place where they would never escape.

That time, the authorities were wrong in their belief.

Alcatraz.

Alcatraz.

The escape from Alcatraz was meticulously planned and elaborate. They first escaped their cells, using spoons to carve away the cement surrounding a vent leading into a narrow, unguarded utility hallway. They then built a raft from more than 50 rubberized raincoats, using the heat from a steam pipe to seal the seams of the carefully stitched coats. They made paddles and created papier-mâché heads from soap and toilet paper, and used their own hair to ensure realism. They had a concertina from another prisoner to use as a bellows to inflate the raft. They found a blind spot in the string of searchlights and towers filled with armed guards.

Their ruse worked. The dummy heads and towels formed in the shape of their bodies under a blanket worked. They likely escaped sometime late on June 11, 1962, but guards did not discover that they were actually gone until the morning of June 12.

On June 16, 1962, four days after the escape, Warden Blackwell at Alcatraz received a postcard that simply said, “Ha. Ha. We made it. Frank, John, Clarence.” According to Mearl, her Mom and Dad also received a postcard from their sons.

The Anglins and Morris created papier-mâché heads from soap and toilet paper, and used their own hair to ensure realism. These were placed in their bunks along with rolled up towels to appear like they were sleeping.

The Anglins and Morris created papier-mâché heads from soap and toilet paper, and used their own hair to ensure realism. These were placed in their bunks along with rolled up towels to appear like they were sleeping.

Clarence and John were both talented artists. While at Alcatraz, each painted a portrait of their girlfriends. Their work was beautiful, professional. That same talent likely went into creating the dummy heads that allowed for their escape.

“They didn’t do all of that just to get out and drown in the water,” Mearl said. “They did not go through what they did to go out there and drown.”

Rex concurred. “Those boys didn’t get out of that prison just to get to the water’s edge and say, ‘Now what?’”

In 2014, one university study concluded that if they had left Alcatraz Island at midnight, the currents could have worked in their favor to bring them to land. The official investigation report says the escape happened at approximately 10 p.m. but the men weren’t discovered as missing until morning.

At one point, Mearl let a beam of light shine through the wall she has lived with for 53 years.

“They made it,” Mearl said. She didn’t elaborate but she smiled. A warm and beautiful smile. “They made it.”

Mearl pages through a scrapbook she has kept over the years containing photos of the boys living in Ruskin, articles and wanted posters. Mitch Traphagen photo.

Mearl pages through a scrapbook she has kept over the years containing photos of the boys living in Ruskin, articles and wanted posters. Mitch Traphagen photo.

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