Maryland prison escapes: How great was this?

CRIME SCENES

March 04, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Who can forget "Tunnel Joe"?

Nearly 60 years ago, he was the first, and perhaps the only, inmate to successfully tunnel out of Baltimore's Maryland Penitentiary. It took him 20 months, using a stick with a nail on one end, to dig a 26-foot deep, 70-foot-long muddy tube under East Eager Street.

He popped up to freedom on Feb. 18, 1951, in his underwear, carrying a change of clothes and $152 he had saved from running a numbers racket behind bars.

Maryland lore is rich with stories of prisoner escapes. The latest occurred last week when an inmate serving three consecutive life terms for shooting his ex-girlfriend and her two children managed to trade photo ID cards with another prisoner who was hours from being freed.

The con worked, but Raymond Taylor's freedom was short-lived - he was busted a day later, hiding in an upstairs closet at a friend's house in West Virginia. How Taylor's ruse will rank among his jail-breaking predecessors remains to be seen, but the interest in his story resonates with a public fascinated with how people live and what people do while incarcerated.

In Maryland, prisoners leaving their cells prematurely make the news for a variety of reasons. Some of the state's most notorious "escapes" aren't really escapes at all. Convicted cop-killer Sam Veney simply didn't return from a sanctioned weekend visit with his family in 1993, and John Frederick Thanos was paroled 18 months early by mistake in 1990 and went on a murderous rampage on the Eastern Shore, killing three innocent people. He was later executed.

But other times, the escapes are the result of elaborate planning, cunning and skill, or engineered with brute force, or come with a bizarre twist that leaves people in disbelief. Perhaps the most well known is Harold Benjamin Dean, who in 1991 became the first and thus far only inmate to escape from downtown Supermax, the most secure of Maryland's prisons.

Dean, serving life plus 105 years in prison for killing a tow-truck driver and critically wounding an armored-car guard, squeezed through an 8-by-22-inch window, got around razor wire and climbed to the prison roof on a rope made of clothing. He was captured 10 months later in Ohio, where he worked at a gas station under an assumed name.

Other infamous Maryland escapes:

•In 2008, a man serving a life sentence overpowered four officers at a hospital in Prince George's County, shot a man, stole his car and ended up dead after a shootout with police in a cemetery. Two months earlier, another inmate at the same hospital overpowered a state trooper, took her gun and shot at her before he was captured five hours later.

•In 1999, two felons climbed over a 15-foot, razor wire-topped fence at the maximum-security Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup and were picked up by a former prison psychologist who had visited one of the inmates 58 times and devised an elaborate plan to help the men get free.

•In 1993, Dontay Carter, serving two consecutive life terms plus 190 years for murder, jumped out a second-floor courthouse window and managed to elude a manhunt for 28 hours before being caught. He had been on trial for abducting and trying to kill a Johns Hopkins doctor, having already been convicted of killing a computer engineer and kidnapping a jeweler.

•A woman who in a haze of LSD shot and killed the doorman of a Waverly nightclub who wouldn't let her in escaped from a prison in Jessup in 1979 by climbing down from a window using a rope of bedsheets. She was captured 20 years later in Florida, having transformed from a drug-abusing prostitute on The Block to a life as a herbal healer and organic coffee farmer.

That brings us back to Tunnel Joe, who in the 1940s and 1950s was just as well known for his crimes as for his escape. He had been dubbed the "dinnertime" burglar for his 1941 robbery spree of Baltimore's rich and famous, including targeting a well-known doctor, an industrialist, a socialite and a famed Johns Hopkins surgeon.

He broke through the slate floor of his cell, dug a tube just wide enough for him to crawl, built a trap door and put a dummy of a body in his bed to fool the guards who inspected his cell. Using a homemade kerosene lantern, he dug four hours a day for nearly two years, carting dirt out in bags and flushing it down the toilet, and devising a drain to dispose of 140 gallons of water a night.

Police caught him the old-fashioned way - in a shootout in a Howard Street bowling alley after he robbed a woman at gunpoint on Mount Vernon Place and stole $5.

Baltimore Sun reporter and resident historian Frederick N. Rasmussen retold Tunnel Joe's story in his Remember When column 13 years ago, noting that a judge, impressed with the prisoner's work ethic, suggested a pardon with back pay for the big dig. The prison warden disagreed and banned all copies of the newspaper with articles on the escape from his institution.

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