Escape stories such as these are so dangerous and exciting they’re all worthy of being made into a Hollywood blockbusters (and some have been). Perhaps that’s why its never mattered to us that most of these fugitives are convicted bank robbers, murderers or worse. What matters to us is the story, the escape, the day that men who thought they’d never taste freedom again, did… even if it was just for a little while.
Right now there’s probably a prisoner carefully planning his escape somewhere. Counting down the days until he’s ready. He’s probably sitting in his cell studying up on the notorious prisoners seen in this article, prisoners who have since become legendary, prisoners who have escaped more than once, and prisoners who will do it again, all waiting for the right time to make a break for it.
10. The Korean Houdini
Forty-nine year old criminal Choi Gap-bok was arrested on September 12, 2012. Six days later, he had successfully escaped from his cell at a police station in Daegu, South Korea. In the morning of the sixth day of his capture, Gap-bok requested skin cream. When the 3 guards fell asleep, the prisoner lathered himself up and slipped through the food slot at the bottom of his prison door.
Gap-bok was only 5’4″ and had been practicing yoga for over 2o years. The dimensions of the food slot were only 5.9 x 17.7 inches. It allegedly took him 34 seconds to escape. To buy himself some time, Gab-bok also placed pillows in his bed and covered them to fool the guards. Upon discovery of his flight, law enforcement and journalists were stunned. Yet, if they knew anything about Gap-bok, they would know that 22 years prior to this stunt, he had escaped from a convoy bus en route to prison. How did he do it? He slipped through the bars around the bus windows.
After the 2012 escape, he tried to steal a car but police road blocks sent him running into the mountains. Although he was being chased by helicopters, dogs, and men, he moved only at night so they were unable to find him. Eventually, in a hut that Cap-bok had robbed, he left behind a note that read “I am sorry” signed “Framed thief Choi Gap-bok”. After the note was reported, it didn’t take long to track him down. He was recaptured a few days later and moved to a prison with a much smaller food slot
9. Pascal Payet
Pascal Payet is a French bank robber and murderer who has become infamous for his involvement in prisons escapes using hijacked helicopters not once, not twice, but three times. After his arrest in 1999, Payet was sent to a prison in the French village of Luynes. In 2001 he made his first escape alongside Frédéric Impocco using a hijacked helicopter. He was free for a couple years but then in 2003 he decided to hijack another helicopter, return to the Luynes prison and break out the rest of his crew: Franck Perletto, Michel Valero, and Éric Alboreo.
As daring as this was, it ultimately led to his recapture and he was placed under possibly the heaviest surveillance any prisoner has ever seen. Not only was he moved into solitary confinement but he was also transferred to a different prison every 6 months to ensure no one could land a helicopter on the roof and bust him out…
On Bastille Day, July 14, 2007, 4 men hijacked another helicopter, landed it on the roof of the Grasse prison in France and liberated Payet yet again. He was free for a few months before he was caught in Matoró, Spain. Currently Payet’s prison location is unknown and French authorities plan to keep it that way.
8. 1984 Escape from Death Row
In one of the most outrageous prison escapes in American history, six convicted murderers on Death Row escaped from an allegedly “escape-proof” prison by walking out the front door. Led by the notorious killers James and Linwood Briley, the six men began carefully planning their escape from Mecklenburg Correctional Center months before. By carefully observing the schedules and habits of their guards, they found the perfect time to act.
On May 31, 1984, the escape began after the inmates attacked and overpowered correctional officers as they made their rounds. Changing into the guards’ clothing and stealing riot helmets, the prisoners disguised themselves as they moved toward the exit. To distract all of the other correctional officers, they covered a TV with a sheet and, rolling it along on a stretcher, claimed they were moving a bomb out of Death Row. For dramatic effect, one of the inmates sprayed the TV with a fire extinguisher as they walked out the door. It took over thirty minutes before anyone even noticed that they were gone.
7. The Texas Seven
On December 13, 2000, seven prisoners shockingly escaped from the maximum-security prison of John B. Connally Unit in Texas. At approximately 11:20am the prisoners began their individualized attacks on civilian workers, correctional officers, and inmates. Carefully distracting them while another attacked from behind, they stole clothing, identification, and money, leaving their victims tied, gagged, and hidden away.
After disguising themselves, three prisoners approached to the guard tower ironically pretending to be video surveillance technicians.While this was happening, the other four prisoners made telephone calls to the guard tower to keep them occupied. With surprise on their side, the three disguised prisoners attacked the guard tower stealing numerous weapons. Simultaneously, the other four stole a prison truck, and, meeting at the gate, the Texas Seven sped off into the sun.
Instead of laying low, the Texas seven went on a violent crime spree, robbing a Radio Shack and a Sporting Goods store. During the robbery at Oshman’s, police officer Aubrey Hawkins was shot and killed. About a month later, an episode of America’s Most Wanted led to their capture, including the ringleader of the Texas seven, George Rivas, who was subsequently charged with Aubrey’s murder and executed by lethal injection in 2012.
Henri Charrière was a French criminal with a tattoo of a butterfly on his chest. In October 1931 he was convicted of murdering a pimp and sentenced to 30 years in prison and 10 years of hard labor. After a stint in a French prison, he was moved to the penal colony called Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni off the coast of French Guiana. He escaped from this prison in 1933 with two other men but after a shipwreck they were recaptured. Again, Charrière escaped, and was adopted into a native tribe where he remained for months. When he left the natives he was recaptured, moved to Devil’s Island, and left in solitary confinement for 2 years.
When he reemerged from solitary, he was met with the brutal conditions of Devil’s Island where prisoner-on-prisoner violence was rampant and tropical diseases threatened to kill almost everyone. He attempted to escape many more times but was caught and brutally punished. After 11 years in prison, Charrière finally was able to successfully escape by filling a sack with coconuts and plunging into the sea from a high cliff. Using the coconuts as a life preserver, he drifted for nearly 3 days before reaching the mainland. He was captured, served one year in a Venezuelan prison, but was then released and granted citizenship.
The stories of Charrière’s escapes from prison come mostly from his semi-autobiographical book Papillon. He wrote the book in Venezuela, and even though French officials claim that Charrière was never a prisoner at Devil’s Island, he says otherwise. The book was published in 1970 and was made into a film in December 1973, starring Steve McQueen. Unfortunately, Charrière died in July 1973 and tragically never saw the film about his great escape.
5. The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Prison
In 1987 one of Richard Lee McNair’s burglaries went bad. He murdered a man named Jerry Thies and shot another man four times, who survived. He was caught and sentenced to 2 consecutive life sentences as well as 30 years for burglary, and as far as anyone could tell, McNair was never going to taste freedom again.
However, the same day that he was arrested he used lip balm to squeeze out of his handcuffs and made a desperate run from the police station. He was caught after he jumped into a tree which broke leaving him injured on the ground. He was brought to the Ward County Jail in Minot where he began digging through cinder blocks but was transferred before he could finish. In 1992, he escaped from North Dakota State Penitentiary by crawling through the air ducts after which he enjoyed 10 months on the run.
Although McNair had already proven to be daring enough to attempt nearly any kind of escape, his third attempt is what made him a legend. In April 2006, McNair placed himself inside a mail crate and mailed himself out of prison. After only 75 minutes, the crate arrived at its location and McNair cut himself out. He fled to Canada where he avoided recapture for over a year. In October 2007 he was pulled over by RCMP officer Stephane Gagnon after receiving a report about a suspicious looking white cube van. He is currently serving his sentence in super-maximum security prison in Florida where he has very little chance of escaping again.
4. The Great Escape
In 1943 in a German prisoner-of-war camp called Stalag Luft III, Squadron leader Roger “Big X” Bushell devised one of the most ambitious escape plans in history. The plan: to dig three 335ft tunnels simultaneously called Tom, Dick and Harry in order to break 200 POW’s out of the Luftwaffe-run camp. Stalag Luft III wasn’t the typical POW camp one might think of when reading about WWII. Here, the prisoners participated in basketball, volleyball, fencing and gardening. They enjoyed books from the library, put on bi-weekly plays at the theater, and earned prestigious degrees. However, a prison is a prison, and with unlimited access to so many materials it was only a matter of time before someone successfully dug themselves out.
With the help of 600 prisoners, digging began in mid 1943. The tunnels were 30 ft deep and only 2ft squared. Squadron Leader Bob Nelson invented an air pump that allowed the men to dig safely under the ground, and within the tunnels they set up their workshops. The sand, which was bright yellow, was discarded in the gardens or fields. In the winter, the men unhinged theater seats and hid the sand underneath. During the months of digging, prisoners bribed German guards for civilian clothing, travel documents, German uniforms, and maps. Digging was stopped on Dick when the German’s built over their planned exit. In September 1943, Tom was discovered. Harry quickly became their last chance.
On the moonless night of March 24, 1945 the escape began. Strangely enough, the entrance to Harry had frozen over which delayed the escape by almost 2 hours. That, along with new sentries, made the escape slow-going, allowing only 10 prisoners to escape every hour. Out of the 200 chosen prisoners, only 76 escaped. The 77th was caught running for the treeline and surrendered. Of the 76 who were on the run, 73 were recaptured. Hitler ordered that all of them be executed, but in the end they allowed 17 to return to Stalag Luft III and sent 3 to a concentration camp. Unfortunately 50 of the prisoners were executed by firing squad. Of the 3 that got away, 2 made it to a Swedish boat while 1 traveled through France to the British Consulate in Spain.
3. Maze Prison Escape
On September 25, 1983, in the HM Prison Maze, yet another “escape-proof” prison, (actually dubbed the most escape-proof prison in Europe), the largest prisoner escape in the history of the United Kingdom occurred. Of course, like other successful escapes, the prisoners began planning months ahead of time. In this instance, two inmates worked as orderlies in the prison carefully analyzing the prison system for weaknesses. These two prisoners were “Big Bobby” Storey and Gerry Kelly, both active members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Together, with help from the IRA outside the prison walls, they smuggled six pistols into the prison and waited for their moment.
At 2:30pm, the escape began. Inmates used the smuggled pistols to attack and overpower guards to prevent them from sounding the alarm. The guards were taken hostage, some were stabbed or gun-butted, while one officer was shot in the head and survived. Within twenty minutes the prisoners had taken absolute control of their cell block but had to wait for transport. At 3:25pm, a delivery truck arrived. Taking the driver hostage along with another guard 37 prisoners climbed into the delivery truck equipped with adequate disguises and weapons and began moving toward the exit.
At the main gate of the Maze Prison, the inmates took more hostages. An officer named James Ferris attempted to trigger the alarm but was chased down and stabbed three times in the chest before he could get the chance. A soldier in the watch tower contacted the British Army while other officers tried to block the main gate with their cars. Prisoners attacked and shot at these officers, hijacking one of them and driving it into the gate. Unfortunately for the escapees, the IRA support team outside the prison walls was five minutes late and forced the prisoners to hijack cars or make a run for it on their own. In the end, 35 IRA prisoners escaped, with only one recaptured.
2. Alcatraz Escape
On June 11, 1962 one of the most infamous prison escapes in American history occurred. At the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary aka The Rock, a prison on its own island off of the California coast, saw a prison escape that left prison guards, local law enforcement and the FBI dumbfounded. Not only were the fugitives never captured, but the magnitude of which the prisoners planned the escape shocked them all.
Approximately six months before the escape, brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris (all convicted bank robbers), came across some saw blades on the prison floor. Using these blades, the prisoners began to widen the ventilation ducts in their prison cells, (they even made a makeshift drill from a vacuum motor.) Simultaneously, they also acquired fifty raincoats from cellmates to create the raft with which they could maneuver the near-freezing San Francisco Bay. They also created fake heads to throw off the prison guards using paper maché (soap and toilet paper) and human hair from the prison barber shop. On the night of the escape, they placed these false heads in their prison beds and slipped through the holes they had dug. On the roof of Alcatraz, the three prisoners descended the fifty foot wall, inflated their makeshift raft and set off into the water.
Upon discovery of the fake heads the following morning, a search was conducted. Although remnants of the raft, paddles and other personal materials were recovered from the water, the FBI concluded (after 17 years of investigation) that the three men had probably drowned in the waters during the escape. However, in 2012 family members of the Anglin brothers came forward and stated that the brothers survived the escape. They claimed to have received phone calls and even a Christmas card from John Anglin, while a close friend allegedly saw and photographed them in Brazil.
1. El Chapo
Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán aka El Chapo is probably one of the most notorious men living in the world today. Known to the Chicago Crime Commission as “Public Enemy Number One”, he has topped both FBI and Forbes lists alike due to the widespread influence of his massive Sinaloa drug cartel.
In 1993 he was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in a Mexican prison. He immediately began orchestrating his escape by bribing guards, police, and maintenance workers, some of whom he put on a payroll. On January 19, 2001 a guard unlocked Guzmán’s cell and the drug lord slipped into a laundry cart and was pushed out the front door. Maintenance worker Javier Camberos (who was later imprisoned for assisting in the escape), drove Guzmán away from the prison in the trunk of a car.
El Chapo was recaptured in 2014, but he only served about a year before he was able to escape again. On July 11, 2015 Guzmán disappeared from his prison cell. Upon inspection, guards found a hole leading to a tunnel 10ft below the ground that stretched almost a mile long. Professionally constructed, the tunnel measured 5’7″ tall and 29.5″ wide. They also found a motorcycle that they believe was used to move El Chapo through the tunnel.
On January 8th, 2016 he was recaptured and has since returned to prison. His daughter, Rosa Isela Guzman Ortiz, has recently stated in the press that her father crossed the Mexican border into California twice in 2015 to visit his family.