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50 Years Later, Mystery Of Alcatraz Escape Endures

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Fifty years ago three men set out into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay in a raft made out of raincoats. It was one of the most daring prison escapes in U.S. history from what was billed as the nation's only "escape-proof prison" — Alcatraz.

Most people assume the men have been at the bottom of the bay or were swept out to sea since the night they broke free, tunneling out of their cells in part with spoons from the kitchen and climbing the prisons' plumbing to the roof.

But the legend of their escape has held that the men, Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin, would return on the 50th anniversary of their breakout. It's an unfounded rumor that drew an unlikely group to the island Monday to mark half a century passed, including many of the Anglin brothers' family.

Hope For Their Return

Marie Widner was one of them. She is John and Clarence Anglin's little sister.

"I'll never believe they're dead; I don't believe they're dead," Widner said as she stood in the prison's old medical ward.

She was in her 20s when she first heard the news.

"I was listening to the radio when [the newscasters] told about it," she remembered. "I cut my iron off and I run to my neighbors house and said, 'Did you hear what was on the radio? My brothers escaped from Alcatraz.' "

The FBI, U.S. Coast Guard and local police scoured the water. They eventually found a paddle, a couple of life vests, a sealed plastic bag with letters and addresses. But there was no sign of the men.

Like Morris, the Anglins were nonviolent bank robbers. They were sent to Alcatraz not because they were violent or dangerous but because they had escaped from so many other prisons.

"Authorities said they would never put them together anywhere because they liked to get together and plan out an escape," Widner said. "But they brought them here and said we're putting them together [because] they will never get off this island. And that was just what the boys wanted. They wanted to be together — cell by cell."

It was in those cells the men saw through their plan to make dummy heads to fool the guards and to collect enough raincoats to make a raft. They even sealed the seams with glue.

Widner remembers a letter they sent home just before the escape.

"They talked about the grass being greener on the other side," she said. "Think about it. That's saying, I'm not staying here. I'm getting out of here. That's what I took it as."

There has never been any proof the men made it. The frigid waters and high tides of the San Francisco Bay could have sent them into the Pacific Ocean in under an hour. A Norwegian shipping freighter reported seeing a body floating just a few miles out past the Golden Gate Bridge wearing a navy blue pea coat. But there's also never been any definitive proof the men died.

'Awesome Escape ... You're Under Arrest'

The Anglins weren't the only ones waiting on the island. U.S. marshal Michael Dyke has been searching for the men for almost a decade. It's mostly a hobby now. Something he does in his free time.

"It would be really nice to have answers, but some things you never have answers for," Dyke said. "They could have died of old age. They could have died in 1962. But it's hard to say. Until there's evidence to the fact that they're not alive anymore, I'm going to keep looking."

If he saw them, he knows what he would say: "Awesome escape. Way to go for staying out of trouble for so long. You're under arrest."

For a long time the FBI and the U.S. Marshals looked upon the Anglin family as targets of their investigation. But in recent years, Dyke and Widner have found themselves having long phone conversations and sharing information. Both just want to know what happened.

Dyke doesn't really believe the men would return for an anniversary. Neither does Widner. Though both of them may have hoped just a little.

"I really do believe the boys made it out of here," Widner said. "I do believe the boys are alive today. I don't know where they are. I have not heard from them, but my gut feeling is that they're OK."

As Widner and her sister boarded one of the last boats to San Francisco, there was no sign of the men. They'd all be in their 80s now.

This time of year you can see the tides funneling water past the island out under the olden Golden Gate Bridge. From shore, it's hard to imagine three men in a boat made of raincoats drifting away at midnight.

Dyke says he'll keep looking for them until he can prove they're dead — as they may have been all along.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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