Feb 11, 2021

Roe & Cole Against The Rock


Bruce Lee

As the prison’s 65-foot motor launch bounced briskly over choppy San Francisco Bay, Theodore Cole squirmed uneasily on one of the wooden benches in the cabin.

“Sure hope I don’t get seasick,” he muttered, anxiously licking his full lips. He turned to his bench companion. “You get seasick, Ralph?”

“Hell,” Ralph Roe growled, “I never been on the sea to find out.”

Cole squinted out the cabin window at the granite island off the port bow. Spray hit the window like buckshot, and Cole involuntarily ducked. Nervously he combed his blond hair with his fingers and twisted to face a man dressed in a gray uniform with a visored cap, sitting on the bench behind him.

“How long is this ride, anyway?” Cole asked.

“About 15 minutes,” the guard answered shortly. Then he leaned forward to check the handcuffs and leg shackles on Cole and Roe. Satisfied, he sat back again and grinned humorously.

“What’s the rush?” he asked the 23-year-old Cole. “Once there, you ain’t going any-where for a long time. Enjoy the ride while you can.”

Cole’s small body tensed and his ice-blue eyes blazed. “No prison can hold me, Alcatraz imitated,” he said, his voice flat and hard. “Me and Ralph stay here only while we case the best way out.”

“Well now isn’t that interesting?” the man in gray drawled smoothly. Then his eyes narrowed. “Look, wise guy, nobody escapes from Alcatraz. You try and you may get out — but it’ll be feet first.”

Ralph Roe, 29, and athletically trim, turned gracefully on the bench, his deepset hazel eyes glinting with amusement.

“Tell you what, screw,” he said softly. “You put your money where your mouth is and I’ll cover it.”

Suddenly Cole belched. “Oh, my God,” he moaned. “I’m getting seasick.”

The guard laughed. “Yeah, I can see you’re real tough.”

The launch bumped gently against the dock on the north side of the avocado-shaped, 12-acre island in San Francisco Bay, and Ralph Roe began their Alcatraz sentences. The 135-pound, 5-foot 8-inch Cole faced 50 years for kidnapping> Roe, with wavy chestnut-colored hair, 6 feet tall and weighing 170 pounds, had been sentenced to 99 years for bank robbery. It was, as the launch guard had said, a long time.

But Roe and Cole had not been idly boasting. On December 16, 1937, they were to trigger the most intensive and lengthiest manhunt in United States penal history. It still hasn’t ended.

La Isla de Los Alcatraces (The Island of the Pelicans), as the Spanish named it when they established a fortress there in the 1700’s, is detested and feared by the criminals who do their time on it. Its bleak, granite contour is unsoftened by the few cypress and yucca trees which struggle for survival on its craggy cliffs and wind-swept plateaus. The stone, steel and cement cell block, built by the Army after it took over the island for a prison in 1874, has no luxuries, only the bare necessities—and is impregnable. In the cell block, discipline is often harsh and always relentless.

Security is as tight as the human mind can conceive. Towers rise derricklike at strategic points, all manned by expert machine-gunners. A concrete wall surrounds the convict compound of cell block and main yard, and a 10-foot high fence encloses the western third of the island, the eastern two-thirds being utilized for guards’ housing. There is a count of prisoners every 30 minutes around the clock. A guard detail “pounds the bars” once a month to make certain cell-block iron and steel haven’t been weakened by age, rust or hacksaw blade.

And there is the bay. Conceivably, iron can be bent and broken, fences scaled and guns dodged by a shrewd, carefully planning convict. But the bay waters are constant. Their strong, rushing tides are the real key to the federal government’s only maximum security prison. San Francisco is only one and a quarter miles to the south and Marin county’s shoreline is three miles north, but Alcatraz is as isolated from both as if it were in the middle of the ocean. The tides swirl past the island from six to nine knots as they ebb and flow through the Golden Gate, and the water is a marrow-freezing 51 degrees.

As an additional precaution, no vessel but the prison launch may approach Alcatraz island. There is a 200-yard dead-line for all other craft. If a boat ventures closer it is warned once, and then fired on by tower machine guns. So Alcatraz is known as escape-proof. Since 1934, when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons took over the island from the Army, 19 convicts have tried to escape. Five were riddled by bullets, four of them like sitting ducks as they fought the currents; the decomposed, faceless body of another was found floating 14 days after his attempt; and 11 were recaptured —three in the water, eight still hiding miserably at the base of the jagged island cliffs, afraid to try the waters. The remaining two are Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe. Their case, keyed to the date of December 16, 1937, and stretching for years in both directions, fills a bulky FBI file.

In December, 1937, the average Alcatraz prisoner was 35 years old and serving a 25-year sentence. He was made up of men like Scarface Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Harvey Bailey, and perhaps 300 other prisoners, less well known, almost as deadly. He filled the endless, monotonous time of Alcatraz existence by reading 75-80 books a year and becoming a homosexual. His recreation consisted of desultory softball games in the main yard, of checkers, dominoes, and the two letters a week he could write or the seven he could receive. He was not permitted to read a newspaper or listen to the radio.

Roe and Cole fitted in pretty well with the average. It would not have mattered much had they not. They were to be in Alcatraz hardly long enough to disturb the figures much one way or the other.

Theodore Cole, of Stroud, Oklahoma, had been affectionately called “Sonny Boy” by his parents.

He spoke quietly, had a boyishly round face with full, sensual lips, and possessed a record that belied his apparent guilelessness. He was only 17 when he was sentenced to Oklahoma’s McAlester state prison for a $400 robbery. He escaped twice from McAlester. The first time, after his recapture, he was taken to the Oklahoma City jail to await return to McAlester. While there, “Sonny Boy” stabbed and killed his cell mate. On his second escape, Cole kidnapped a farmer, forcing him at gun point to drive Cole through four states in a wild dash for freedom. Cole was recaptured in Texas and sentenced to Alcatraz under the Lindbergh kidnapping law.

In his stay at McAlester, Cole had developed a firm friendship with Ralph Roe of Muskogee, Oklahoma. Roe, an inveterate robber, had been in and out of prisons since he was 22. In 1934 h escaped from McAlester and robbed the Farmer’s National Bank of Sulphur, Oklahoma, of $200,000. The money never was recovered. Roe was sentenced to Alcatraz for robbery of a Federal Reserve System member bank.

Cole and Roe had ridden the same train across country to San Francisco. Now, in Alcatraz, they settled quickly into prison routine. They stayed out of trouble and were considered good-conduct prisoners. They made friends, the closest of whom was John Paul Chase, a former member of the Baby Face Nelson gang who had worked the Northern California territory in the gang’s bootlegging operations. And, in not too long a time, they got a blunt and bloody demonstration of what happened to a prisoner who tried a forthright escape.

On the afternoon of April 27, 1936, Joe “Dutch” Bowers, a post-office robber, made his break for freedom. He was gunned down almost at once, as he was attempting to scale the main fence. That evening, Cole told his new confidant Chase almost casually, “You know, someday Ralph and I are really going to bust out of this can.”

“Sure you are,” sneered Chase. “And little pigs are going to fly. It’s impossible to get out of here.”

“There must be it way,” Cole argued.

“But it sure ain’t like that.” He jerked a thumb toward the fence where Bowers had been shot. “Not in broad daylight when the gun guards can zero a guy in. And it can’t be any spur of the moment  deal either.” He laughed shortly. “After all, time’s one thing we got plenty of. So we’re going to plan our way out real carefully.”

Cole and Roe did indeed take their time. It was a year before they made their fist move. In the spring of 1937 they were assigned to work in the shop building, a three-story steel-and-concrete structure on the westernmost tip of the island.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” Cole said to Roe. His eyes glinted. “Finally we’re out of the compound. Now we can start casing the possibilities.” ‘

Work-detail convicts were marched to the shop building across the recreation yard, through a steel door in the yard’s surrounding wall, and across an open area between wall and shop building.

On one march an idea struck Cole. What would be simpler than to make a break while crossing the open area? Discarded scraps of wood and metal from the shops were handy for sapping escorting unarmed guards. Other convicts could be briefed to mill excitedly around the remaining guards, getting in their way for the 20 seconds that would allow Cole and Roe to sprint across the area and disappear over the cliff. A careful organizer, Cole decided to run a test case. He pretended to trip on the next march and lurched out of line toward a guard. The guard merely stepped aside, stopped and waited for Cole to get back in line. No whistles, no yells. A tight grin played on Cole’s lips. He turned, casually glanced toward the promising San Fran-disco shoreline . . . stiffened and silently cursed. A gun tower loomed ominously to his left, making a no-man’s land of the area.

Cole returned to watchful waiting. Then in July, he and Roe were moved to a mat-shop job on the first floor of the building. There the pair worked alone, completely unsupervised except for, the regular 30-minute count. Just one guard commanded all five work areas on the first floor—mat, machine, and furniture refinishing shops and clothing and brush factories. That guard was a hurried and harried man.

One afternoon Cole walked to the mat-shop window and pensively stared out toward the Golden Gate. He sighed and turned toward his work bench, then did a double-take and wheeled back. Meticulously he began an examination of the window. It was made of detention sash, with 6×6-inch panes of glass, each pane in a collar of narrow steel. Cole stood on tiptoe, forehead pressed against the glass, peering down. A catwalk ran directly below, only 20 feet under the window—an easy drop. The ten-foot-high prison fence edged the catwalk. At the base of the fence the cliff dropped another 25 feet to the bay.

Cole turned so the right side of his face was flat against the glass and looked to his left. The gun tower that guarded the open area was 200 feet away. Moreover, the corner of the shop building blocked the tower gunners’ view of most of the catwalk. A sprinting convict would be in gun sights for only a few steps, just split seconds. Swiftly Cole surveyed the opposite direction. He grinned. There was a gate in the fence only yards away. Beckoning Roe over, he pointed out the situation without uttering a word.

“Okay,” agreed Roe. “So it’s the perfect set-up. But what do we do when we get to the bay? As I hear it, we ain’t about to swim to shore.”

“Yeah,” Cole muttered, and ran his fingers nervously through his hair. “Well, maybe we could make a raft from the tire casings in the mat shop.” He shook his head. “Naw. We couldn’t hide a raft anywhere. I gotta think about this some more.”

Within a few days, Cole had what seemed a sure-fire solution—dependent upon some highly important details. Money, for example. But Roe solved this.

“They’re still looking,” he bragged when Cole explained the problem, “for the 200 grand from the caper that landed me here.”

“Then it’s simple,” Cole said, hardly able to keep his voice down. “We hire a boat to meet us.”

“Now why didn’t I think of that?” Roe clapped his hand to his forehead in mock disgust. “All we have to do is ask the warden if we can use his phone to arrange for a charter.”

Cole gave Roe a withering look.

“All right, smart apple. Here’s the layout. We find ourselves a messenger. This rock is supposed to be communication-proof. It ain’t—because somebody will have a price and we can pay the price. So we smuggle out just two messages. The first arranges for a boat. The second, after we’ve decided when to go, tells the skipper when and where to meet us. Now who in here knows this area and can set us up with a boat owner?”

The answer to that was obvious. Their pal Chase knew the local law-dodging skippers well from his bootlegging days. During the next exercise period, Cole approached Chase.

“Remember I told you that me and Ralph was going to break out someday?” he said. “Well, we’ve found the way.”

He outlined his plans. When Cole had finished, Chase said slowly, “Yeah, I can fix you up with a skipper who’ll do business if you got the dough. But a boat won’t do you no good. In this bay you can’t swim the 200 yards to the deadline where a boat has to wait.”

Cole frowned. “All right, you win,” he growled. Then he brightened. “But suppose we wait for a heavy fog so a boat can get within 100 or even 50 yards?”

Chase looked steadily at Cole.

“Yeah, there are plenty of fogs dense enough to hide a boat. Might work at that.”

“You want in?” Cole asked.

“Nope,” Chase replied promptly. “In the first place, how do I get to the mat shop at the exact time you’re gonna make your break? And even assuming I could, I wouldn’t. I ain’t a good-enough swimmer to buck these tides. Frankly, I don’t think you guys are either. I wouldn’t even make book on Johnny Weissmuller.”

“But you will help line up a boat?”

“Yes.” Chase said slowly.

“I’ll help. On one condition. Let me know if you make out. We’ll set up a code. Just say, ‘Business is good in —‘ and name the month you got wherever you’re going. Sign it Al Carr. That’s the name of a guy I’ve got writing privileges with, so it’ll get through censor. I’ll know it’s no phony because only the three of us have the code. If I don’t hear from you, and if you ain’t picked up, Ill figure the crabs got you.”

He grinned.

“It all may be valuable information to me in the future. Deal?”

Cole and Roe agreed. Then Chase threw in a bonus. Day after day and week after week he patiently described the San Francisco Bay area, tracing escape-route maps for Cole and Roe with his finger on the packed dirt of the recreation yard.

During work hours, Cole and Roe charted the movements of the guards inside and outside the shop building. Cole was delighted to note that the only time a guard walked the catwalk alongside the shop was to dump trash through the fence gate and down the cliff. The gate, Cole saw with high glee, was secured only by a medium-sized standard lock.

In October the two convicts began their final preparations, including a physical-fitness program. They used all their exercise periods in the yard for violent rope skipping. They stood for as long as allowed under the cold-water tap of the shower room. They brought every muscle to knife-edge condition.

And then they waited for fog. On November 20, Scarface Al Capone was nicked in a yard knife fight. There was confusion—but no fog. On December 12, the chief engineer of Alcatraz received a letter from his son who was mail clerk on the U.S. gunboat Panay—the same day that the Panay was bombed and sunk in China’s Yangtze River by Japanese airplanes. There seemed to be a sympathetic letdown of the normal tension in the prison—but there was no fog.

Then came Thursday, December 16— and one of the heaviest fogs in the city’s history. It wrapped the San Francisco area in cotton, cutting visibility to a few feet. Betters at Tanforan race track, 14 miles south of San Francisco, didn’t know whether they’d won or lost because fog hid the finish line. Motorists couldn’t see across an intersection. On Alcatraz, a tower guard grumbled, “We might as well be home for all we can see here.”

Yet routine at the prison carried on. At lunchtime the work detail in the shop building marched out. At 12:30 it marched back in. From that point a subsequent FBI investigation was to reconstruct the events of the afternoon.

At 1 o’clock the first-floor guard in the building began his regular half-hour check. He started with Cole and Roe in the mat shop, moved to the next-door machine shop, and then on to the furniture-refinishing shop. There, a hurriedly coached convict called, “Hey, come here a minute, willya? This damn compressor is not he fritz.” The guard sighed and knelt beside the compressor, neatly taken out of play.

The moment the guard had left the machine shop, Cole sprinted into it and grabbed a 24-inch Stillson wrench and an 18-inch length of iron pipe from the work bench. The machine shop convict workers watched unmoving, wordless.

Cole ran back to the mat shop and handed the tools to his huskier partner. Roe smashed four panes of glass, leaving a cross of the stout detention sash. Then he fitted the pipe onto the handle of the wrench and with the extra leverage began to twist the sash. Within minutes it bent and broke.

The two convicts wriggled through the opening and dropped to the catwalk below the window.

Ghostlike in the damp fog, they trotted to the gate in the fence. A few savage smashes of the wrench broke the lock. First one and then the other scrambled clown the cliff to a narrow beach. They grabbed for footholds and handholds in the granite outcroppings, scuttling and sliding down the 25 feet of almost sheer cliff face. On the beach both men discarded their heavy prison shoes. An eight-mile current rushed toward the ocean. Debris, washed into the bay from a weekend mountain cloudburst, bobbed and twisted in the swift ebb tide. Foghorns mourned dolefully. The two convicts plunged into the cold water. They struck out strongly as the seagulls wheeled above, peering down, searching always for food.

At 1:37 the first-floor guard hustled back to the mat shop, late for his count.

“Roe, Cole,” he called impatiently.

Then his eyes widened in disbelief as they fixed on the smashed window. He wheeled and sprinted out, frantically blowing his whistle. A quick search of the island found the wrench and the pipe by the smashed gate lock, the two pair of shoes on the beach. Within 90 minutes, Coast Guard and San Francisco police boats were criss-crossing the bay. As the afternoon deepened, a special task force of FBI agents was assembled and all leads, however unlikely, were relentlessly checked out. Every convict pal of Roe and Cole was grilled, and Chase’s collaboration in the escape planning was bared. Chase spent 60 days in solitary, and his sentence was extended for aiding and abetting an escape. (Years later he was transferred to Folsom Penitentiary in California, where he died; Two years after the getaway, a new and more escape-proof shop building was constructed and the old one converted into a warehouse, out of bounds to inmates.)

Hours lengthened into days, the search ring widened, and a trail of sorts took shape. A painter on the Golden Gate Bridge reported spotting a small boat that Thursday through a momentary clearing of the mist. It had no running lights despite the dense fog. The boat had three men in it, the painter testified, with one of the men huddled in the stern and another leaning over a gunwale, apparently retching.

Truck-driver Johnny Santos reported that Friday night, December 17, as he was riving through wooded Mill Valley, in Marin county, across the bay from San Francisco, two men— the bigger one limping slightly — jumped his truck. Santos said that by desperate weaving he was able to throw the men off. The driver tentatively identified Roe and Cole from mug pictures.

Saturday night, 80 miles east of Marin county in Sacramento, a gunsmith was robbed. Rifles, pistols, and dozens of rounds of ammunition, with a total value of $2,000 were taken. The robbery is still unsolved.

On Sunday, waitress Rose Silva, working in a Merced lunchroom 115 miles south of Sacramento, said she waited on two nervous men. One was short, slim and young; the other, taller, huskier, somewhat older. Yes, she nodded as she was shown mug pictures of Cole and Roe, those were the men.

Cole and Roe were never found. At Alcatraz, James A. Johnston, then warden, insisted the two escapees had died.

“I am positive they were washed out to sea,” said Johnston. “No swimmer, however good, could live through the tides of that day. Furthermore, in that dense fog, meeting a boat would require split-second, timing and even then easily could be missed. No, they did not escape –except to their graves.”

In official Alcatraz records, Warden Johnston entered after the names of Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe: “Attempted escape; presumed dead.”

Paul Madigan, a lieutenant of guards in 1937 and warden of Alcatraz today, has not altered the entry. However, in the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation the case is still officially marked “Open,” and I.O.’s (“Identification Orders,” such as are exhibited in post offices) remain out on the two men. For, as one FBI official declared privately, “We have found nothing to convince us—no real proof—that Cole and Roe are dead. And as logical a hypothesis can be built that they did escape as that they were drowned.”

Besides, in the FBI’s bulky records on the case, there is one item that never has been satisfactorily explained. Seven months after Cole and Roe escaped, Chase showed a typewritten postcard he had received to fellow Alcatraz inmates whom he thought he could trust. One inmate squealed. The FBI checked the card thoroughly, but the lead it gave was too slender to run down Cole and Roe.

Chase’s postcard said, “Business is good in in July.” It was signed Al Carr and post-marked Caracas, Venezuela.

Bruce Lee

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