Escaping from the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary wasn’t all that difficult.
The hard part was getting across Puget Sound to the mainland.
Over the prison’s 135-year history, at least 100 prisoners broke out of the prison compound or slipped away from work details into the island’s interior, sometimes avoiding capture for two weeks or longer.
But the number who made it across the Sound to freedom is far less – two dozen at most, and probably fewer.
An exact count is impossible because prison authorities could never be sure whether the ones who disappeared made it across or drowned trying.
Now, with the advantage of Google maps and tide charts, a strong swimmer would have little trouble making it from McNeil to the mainland.
While it’s nearly three miles by water from the prison to Steilacoom, where the ferry docks, only about 700 yards of water separates the west side of McNeil from the Key Peninsula – some of it shallow enough to wade at low tide.
But most prisoners were not well informed about local geography.
Marlyn Love, whose husband was a physician’s assistant at the prison during the 1980s, remembers one particularly confused inmate who plunged into Butterworth Lake, a large freshwater reservoir in the interior of the island, mistakenly thinking it was Puget Sound.
He made the long swim across the lake, Love said, and was stunned to find guards waiting for him on the other side.
“They just drove around and picked him up,” she remembered.
The list of other failed escapes is long.
Over the years, prisoners leaped off the prison ferry or commandeered the boat by force. They lashed logs into makeshift rafts, stole rowboats, stowed away in delivery trucks and hitched rides on passing log booms.
One escapee launched himself off the island on a wooden pallet, paddled for most of the night, only to discover when the sun came up that his efforts, combined with the wind and tide, had taken him directly in front of the prison dock.
A guard encountered him staggering back up the road to the prison and returned him to his cell.
Several prisoners escaped in McNeil’s earliest years, while authorities struggled to find construction methods that would keep them confined.
Bricks and mortar didn’t do it. Eleven prisoners dug their way out of the prison on a January night in 1902 after cutting through the brick floor to ventilation pipes.
Three years later, on Independence Day 1905, eight more prisoners escaped by breaking apart brick walls. They dropped from the roof of the cell house wearing clothes they’d made out of blankets and climbed down on ropes made of blankets knotted together.
In both those cases, several of the men made it to the mainland by stealing residents’ boats and fanned out across the South Sound.
In August 1949, Henry Clay Tollett, a slouching Oklahoma bank robber on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, hid in the kneehole of a refinished desk that had been loaded on a truck in the prison’s furniture repair shop. He rode out the gates and onto the ferry.
Tollett avoided capture until 1951 when he was shot in a stolen car by a California Highway Patrol officer. He died of his wounds on Alcatraz 11 days later.
BASEBALL AS COVER
The most famous of McNeil’s escapees, though, was Roy Gardner, the notorious train robber of the 1920s who journalists of the day called the “Smiling Bandit,” the “Mail Train Bandit” and the “King of the Escape Artists.”
During his criminal career, Gardner stole more than $350,000 from mail trains and, in his later years, wrote a memoir titled “Hellcatraz, the Rock of Despair,” about his time on Alcatraz.
Gardner already had a reputation as an escape artist before he got to McNeil. Twice he had outwitted or overpowered guards on trains taking him to prison.
After just six weeks at McNeil, Gardner enlisted two other prisoners, Lawardus Bogart and Everett Impyn, as partners and plotted an escape to coincide with a prison baseball game on Labor Day 1921.
According to Gardner’s recollections, during the fifth inning, one of the players hit a high fly ball into center field, and Gardner hissed, “Now!”
While all eyes were on the play, the three men dropped through the bleachers and crawled to the prison fence 300 yards away.
At the fence, Gardner pulled out wire cutters he had managed to get his hands on and quickly nipped a hole big enough to wriggle through.
When the three men stood and began running across the pasture outside the fence, the tower guards spotted them and started shooting.
Impyn and Bogart went down immediately. Gardner, who was wearing a flak jacket he’d made of sewn-together magazines, took a bullet in his left leg but made it to a herd of dairy cows grazing at the edge of the pasture.
Using the cows for cover, he slipped into an adjacent stand of timber and disappeared.
Impyn died the same day; his last words supposedly were, “Gardner told us those fellows in the towers couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”
Gardner claimed to have swum to Fox Island, where he lived off fruit in orchards.
Prison authorities suspected, but couldn’t prove, that a McNeil Island resident hid him and later rowed him to the mainland.
Gardner was captured by a mail clerk during a train robbery in Phoenix two months later.
He served 17 years in Atlanta, Leavenworth and Alcatraz penitentiaries before being granted clemency in 1938. In 1941 he committed suicide at his home in San Francisco.
Most of those who succeeded in escaping from McNeil owed their success in large part to luck. Kenneth Pendleton spent months training for his escape in 1968.
Pendleton, convicted for counterfeiting and a previous escape attempt, told a newspaper reporter years later that he ran as much as 10 miles a day, worked out on a punching bag, and did sit-ups, push-ups and chin-ups to get ready.
To prepare his system for the shock of frigid waters of Puget Sound, Pendleton said, he took cold showers.
His plan was not complicated. On Dec. 19, Pendleton and a half-dozen other inmates left their cells for evening church services but instead slipped out a door and ran for the fence.
When the tower guards started shooting, everybody in the group stopped – except Pendleton.
Despite a hail of gunfire, Pendleton made it to the top of the fence and dropped to the outside. He put up his arms in surrender, but when the guards stopped shooting, he took off running, zigzagging his way out of gunshot range, unhit.
Pendleton said he ran for a mile down the beach, then climbed into the forest where he hid under a fallen log for three days while guards and dogs searched for him.
Pendleton said he stayed on the island for 11 days, hiding in a haystack and surviving by drinking milk from cows on the prison farm and eating grain from their feed bags.
On the 11th day of his escape, Pendleton said, he walked to the shore and, for the first time, did not see lights of search boats.
“I had a choice,” Pendleton recalled. “I had to go then or go back and knock on the prison door.”
He waded into the water and made for the opposite shore.
After an hour of swimming, Pendleton said, his stomach, arms and legs cramped. He slipped beneath the surface, thinking he was done for, but his feet touched a sandbar and he struggled to shore.
Pendleton was captured three months later after robbing a bank in Ferndale.
When Washington state took charge of McNeil in 1981, parts of the complex were changed to minimum security, and the number of escape attempts rose sharply.
In its database, the State Department of Corrections lists 29 escapes between 1987 and 2010.
All wound up back in custody.