A Point-by-Point Breakdown of One of the Greatest Prison Escapes of Modern Times

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Jan. 8 2013 3:36 PM

A Point-by-Point Breakdown of One of the Greatest Prison Escapes of Modern Times

Metropolitan Correctional Center
The Metropolitan Correctional Center

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Crime is Slate’s new crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.

The capture last Friday of fugitive bank robber and prison escapee Kenneth Conley brings to an end one of the most entertaining and unbelievable crime stories in recent memory. On Dec. 18, Conley and another bank robber named Joseph “Jose” Banks escaped from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a high-rise jail in downtown Chicago. The two men squeezed through a very thin window, then rappelled between 15 and 20 stories down the side of the building using a rope made from towels and bedsheets. Once they made it to the street, they hailed a cab and disappeared. Jail officials didn’t discover their absence for hours, when guards arrived for the morning shift and noticed an extremely long rope dangling down the exterior walls.

Advertisement

I’m ready to proclaim this one of the best jailbreaks of the past few decades, if not all time. It had everything you’d want from an escape:

A high element of risk. I would’ve liked to have listened in on the conversations as Banks and Conley were planning this. “OK, on the one hand, it’ll probably be cold and windy, and if our flimsy homemade rope gives out, we will both plummet 15 stories to the ground and die. Also, we’re right in downtown Chicago, and there will probably be people around, who will probably notice two men climbing down the walls of the local jail. On the other hand, I really hate the food here … "

Careful planning. It takes some doing to stockpile enough bedsheets to make a 15-story rope. (I picture Conley wrapping sheets around his waist and waddling around the cellblock like the Michelin Man.) Also, in classic jailbreak style, Banks and Conley stuck clothes under their actual bedsheets so it would look like they were sleeping and replaced the metal bars on their windows with fake bars they made themselves.

Colorful characters. When Conley was caught last Friday, he was disguised as an old man, complete with cane, overcoat, and beret. (Presumably Conley’s old man character was from France.) And before Banks was originally arrested, the FBI had dubbed him the “Second Hand Bandit” because he wore used clothing during his bank robberies. This is a wonderfully puzzling nickname. How did the FBI know the clothes were secondhand rather than just old and raggedy? Did they still have the Salvation Army tags on them? Did Banks announce it as part of his robbery speech? (“OK, everyone, this is a robbery, and before you go thinking you’re going to be able to identify me by my clothes, well, think again, ‘cause they’re SECONDHAND CLOTHES!”) Some reports indicate that Banks’ clothes appeared to be not just used, but vintage—which makes me think he was probably somehow in cahoots with these guys.

An element of menace. After Banks was convicted—only a few days before he escaped—he appeared to threaten the judge, Rebecca Pallmeyer. When Pallmeyer asked Banks, who had acted as his own lawyer, how long he would need to file a motion, Banks replied: “No motion will be filed, but you'll hear from me.” For a while, some worried that Banks escaped in order to make good on that promise.

For me, the best part of this story is the bedsheets. The “bedsheet rope” sounds apocryphal, one of those gimmicks you seem in the movies but doesn’t really exist in real life. Why would any adult trust a flimsy prison bedsheet to bear his or her weight?

And yet prisoners escape using bedsheets more often than you’d think. In 2009, two Polish escapees used bedsheets to conquer a 15-meter wall at a prison in Germany. In 2011, Vernon Collins and David White used a bedsheet rope to escape a jail in downtown St. Louis. In 2003, accused double murderer Hugo Selenski escaped from the fifth floor of a jail in Luzerne County, Pa., with the aid of a bedsheet rope. (“It’s not like I didn’t do it,” said Selenski after pleading guilty to the escape. “I was there one day, and I’m gone the next.”)

Authorities caught Banks days after the escape, but they couldn’t find Conley, and many speculated he had fled the state and possibly even the country. Instead, he was discovered in Palos Hills, a south suburb of Chicago—an anticlimactic end to an engrossing, larger-than-life story. I think we can all agree that, after Newtown and the fiscal cliff and the death of Dave Brubeck, America needed a good jailbreak saga to lift its spirits, and, boy, did this one deliver. So thank you, Messrs. Conley and Davis. It was worth it.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.