By Justin Peters
NEW YORK — The capture last Friday of fugitive bank robber and prison escapee Kenneth Conley brings to an end one of the most entertaining and unbelievable crime stories in recent memory. On Dec. 18, Conley and another bank robber named Joseph "Jose" Banks escaped from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a high-rise jail in downtown Chicago. The two men squeezed through a very thin window, then rappelled between 15 and 20 stories down the side of the building using a rope made from towels and bedsheets. Once they made it to the street, they hailed a cab and disappeared. Jail officials didn't discover their absence for hours, when guards arrived for the morning shift and noticed an extremely long rope dangling down the exterior walls.
I'm ready to proclaim this one of the best jailbreaks of the past few decades, if not all time. It had everything you'd want from an escape:
A high element of risk. I would've liked to have listened in on the conversations as Banks and Conley were planning this. "OK, on the one hand, it'll probably be cold and windy, and if our flimsy homemade rope gives out, we will both plummet 15 stories to the ground and die. Also, we're right in downtown Chicago, and there will probably be people around, who will probably notice two men climbing down the walls of the local jail. On the other hand, I really hate the food here . . . "
Careful planning. It takes some doing to stockpile enough bedsheets to make a 15-story rope. (I picture Conley wrapping sheets around his waist and waddling around the cellblock like the Michelin Man.) Also, in classic jailbreak style, Banks and Conley stuck clothes under their actual bedsheets so it would look like they were sleeping and replaced the metal bars on their windows with fake bars they made themselves.
Colorful characters. When Conley was caught last Friday, he was disguised as an old man, complete with cane, overcoat and beret. (Presumably Conley's old man character was from France.) And before Banks was originally arrested, the FBI had dubbed him the "Second Hand Bandit" because he wore used clothing during his bank robberies. This is a wonderfully puzzling nickname. How did the FBI know the clothes were secondhand rather than just old and raggedy? Did they still have the Salvation Army tags on them? Did Banks announce it as part of his robbery speech? ("OK, everyone, this is a robbery, and before you go thinking you're going to be able to identify me by my clothes, well, think again, 'cause they're SECONDHAND CLOTHES!")
An element of menace. After Banks was convicted — only a few days before he escaped — he appeared to threaten the judge, Rebecca Pallmeyer. When Pallmeyer asked Banks, who had acted as his own lawyer, how long he would need to file a motion, Banks replied: "No motion will be filed, but you'll hear from me." For a while, some worried that Banks escaped in order to make good on that promise.
For me, the best part of this story is the bedsheets. The "bedsheet rope" sounds apocryphal, one of those gimmicks you seem in the movies but doesn't really exist in real life. Why would any adult trust a flimsy prison bedsheet to bear his or her weight?
And yet prisoners escape using bedsheets more often than you'd think. In 2009, two Polish escapees used bedsheets to conquer a 15-meter wall at a prison in Germany. In 2011, Vernon Collins and David White used a bedsheet rope to escape a jail in downtown St. Louis. In 2003, accused double murderer Hugo Selenski escaped from the fifth floor of a jail in Luzerne County, Pa., with the aid of a bedsheet rope. ("It's not like I didn't do it," said Selenski after pleading guilty to the escape. "I was there one day, and I'm gone the next.")
Authorities caught Banks days after the escape, but they couldn't find Conley, and many speculated he had fled the state and possibly even the country. Instead, he was discovered in Palos Hills, a south suburb of Chicago — an anticlimactic end to an engrossing, larger-than-life story. I think we can all agree that, after Newtown and the fiscal cliff and the death of Dave Brubeck, America needed a good jailbreak saga to lift its spirits, and, boy, did this one deliver.
Peters writes Slate's crime blog. @slatecrime.