SAN FRANCISCO -- Spurred by new information from a former inmate, the U.S. Marshal's Service has revived its hunt for three bank robbers who escaped from the notorious Alcatraz Island penitentiary in 1962 and were presumed drowned or eaten by sharks.
Former convict Thomas Kent, interviewed for an episode of "America's Most Wanted" airing later this month, provides "significant new leads" in the remarkable escape, the subject of a popular Clint Eastwood movie, a spokesman for the Marshal's Service said yesterday.
The new information may offer the first clear explanation of how Frank Lee Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin broke out of their cells and fashioned a raft they presumably used to cross the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay.
Originally the FBI concluded the trio used spoons to dig out of their cells. But Mr. Kent, who now lives in San Diego and reportedly helped plan the jailbreak, said the inmates stole a vacuum cleaner motor and fashioned it into a drill they used to widen a ventilation duct. To conceal the noise of the drilling, he said, the men worked during the prison's evening music hour.
After crawling through the duct to reach the roof, the convicts slid down a pipe to the ground and climbed a barbed wire fence to reach the island's foggy shore. There, Mr. Kent said, the escapees boarded a makeshift raft they created by smuggling raincoats into the prison sewing shop and transforming them into rubber pontoons.
"Although we never found bodies, we presumed they had drowned because a makeshift oar and a life vest turned up on [nearby] Angel Island," said Dave Branham, a marshal's service spokesman in Washington. But now that the escapees' ingenuity has been disclosed, "we think there is a possibility they are alive."
If the fugitives did pull off the June 11, 1962, breakout featured in the film "Escape from Alcatraz," they would be in their early 60s today. Mr. Kent, who was paroled in 1965, said he would have joined the escape had he known how to swim.
Alcatraz, the federal government's maximum security prison until it was closed in 1963, was known as "The Rock" and housed such infamous gangsters as Al Capone and Mickey Cohen. Situated more than a mile off San Francisco's eastern shore, it was designed to be escape-proof.
Forty-one inmates tried to break out during The Rock's 29 years of operation. Of those, 26 were recaptured, seven were shot to death, three drowned and five were never found.
In one intriguing development in 1986, a prisoner in Wyoming -- a man also named Clarence Anglin -- claimed to be the grandson of the escapee of the same name. He said his grandfather had made it and died in Iowa, while his two cohorts had been eaten by sharks.