What to Know
- The 1962 escape of three prisoners from Alcatraz remains unsolved
- The three men escaped through air vents at the back of their cells, and left dummy heads in their beds to fool the guards
- The heads currently on display are props from the 1979 movie "Escape from Alcatraz" starring Clint Eastwood
Carrying black cases marked "FBI," uniformed agents marched into a room on the top floor of the historic Alcatraz cellhouse, slamming the iron bars behind them with an echoing boom.
"Good morning, and welcome to The Rock," began John Bennett, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's San Francisco field office.
Spread out across tables in front of a crowd of reporters, the boxes contained what Bennett explained is both a museum attraction and a critical piece of evidence in an unsolved crime: painstaking re-creations of the dummy heads left behind when three men escaped their prison cells and left the island in the dead of night aboard an improvised raft in 1962.
"Their bodies have never been found to this day," Bennett said.
Convicted bank robbers Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin had been plotting their escape for months. All had previously attempted to break out of other prisons — and Morris had succeeded, before being recaptured during a burglary. Using tools they made and stole from the prison workshop, the men slowly chiseled out the vent openings at the back of their cells, covering them with fake wall board, until they were wide enough to slip through into an unguarded utility corridor.
Prisoners at Alcatraz were counted over a dozen times a day — including while they slept. In order for the plan to work, the men needed decoys good enough to fool the guards patrolling at night. They fashioned fake heads, covered with hair they collected from the prison barbershop, and left them in their beds as they slipped out under cover of darkness. They left behind a fourth prisoner, Allen West, who couldn't get out of his cell in time.
In 1979, the FBI handed over its investigation to the U.S. Marshal Service, which continues to investigate thousands of tips even today.
"We'll do so until we determine that one of the escapees is dead, or until their 99th birthday where we'll re-evaluate the case," U.S. Marshal Don O'Keefe said.
In the meantime, Bennett said the FBI has a responsibility to preserve evidence in the case — evidence that was rapidly falling apart.
"The decoy heads were made of soap, they were made of wax, they were made of plaster," he said. "I've seen them and I've touched them. They literally fall apart in your hands right now."
In fact, the real decoys were on display for a short time in the 1980s, but museum staff quickly reconsidered when the island's humidity and salty air began accelerating their decay. They locked them away in climate-controlled cabinets, and replaced them with the props used in the 1979 movie, "Escape from Alcatraz," starring Clint Eastwood.
The new replicas are made with the latest in crime scene preservation technology, Bennett said.
"The FBI sent a team of highly skilled people from our Quantico laboratory out here, to do 3D scanning of the original masks," he said. "The masks are 3D printed, but the hair and the paint on here is exactly what the prisoners did. The hair is actually from FBI employees at the laboratory, they were kind enough to donate."
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area will hold the replicas in its archive while curators figure out how best to integrate them into the Alcatraz visitor experience alongside the movie props — or until they're needed as evidence.
"Because someday, potentially, this is going to go to court, and we're going to have to be able to produce this to a jury," Bennett said.
If alive today, Morris would be 92 years old, Clarence Anglin would be 87 and John Anglin would be 88.