Tuesday jailbreak joins new chapter to colorful history of downtown lockup

Many have attempted escape, some have briefly succeeded — and 6 helped spring a future columnist from death row

There's something fascinating about jailbreaks, like the one that happened Tuesday when two bank robbers escaped the bleak federal lockup called the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

Or another jailbreak of years ago, when six men, mostly killers, broke out of Cook County Jail and helped save a certain columnist his job.

He wasn't a columnist back then, just a frightened kid reporter who had to put his marriage plans on hold because the Tribune had just fired him. The metropolitan editor wanted to hire Sun-Times people, and the kid was new, and so the editor came up with a reason. "You can't write and you can't report," he said, something many of you probably agree with.

They put me on overnights and said my pink slip was a few weeks away.

But first the news of bank robbers Joseph "Jose" Banks and Kenneth Conley. They braided a rope from federal bedsheets and climbed down the building Tuesday.

"How the heck did they do it?" asked flamboyant criminal attorney Joseph "The Shark" Lopez. "The MCC is a bad place. The windows are only 5 inches or so wide, so how do you stick your head through there?"

Lopez doesn't represent the pair but estimates he has about 30 clients in the MCC, from crime syndicate figures to lesser alleged hoodlums.

One is a loyal reader of my column, Chicago Outfit enforcer Mario Rainone, scheduled for his gun trial in February. He would call me periodically to insist he wasn't a snitch or — as he put it, using a meat metaphor — "I'm no beefer."

Lopez said the interior of the MCC reminds him of the set of the HBO show "Oz." "I have trouble believing they got out. These two climb down (the rope) and drop 50 or so feet to the sidewalk with nobody seeing? I don't get it."

It's as crazy as the theory the escapees took the Rock Island line to Tinley Park for breakfast with Conley's mom. But then, all jailbreaks are crazy.

The MCC is a singularly ugly fortress, a three-sided monolith with slits for windows, designed as unbreakable by famous architect Harry Weese. At its feet, on the corner of Clark and Van Buren streets , crouches a shabby part of the Loop: a few greasy-spoon diners, a pawnshop and a men's-only hotel whose residents have seen better days. The MCC speaks to everyone who looks up, saying: "You don't even want to come here."

And everyone wants to leave. In 1985, two cons used electrical cords to swing down the side but were later caught. Recently, the brother of a "Batman" movie director braided a rope but was apprehended before he could try. And a plot to use a helicopter to lift a Mexican drug lord off the roof never materialized.

There's always the traditional escape: suicide. Chicago Outfit killer Gerald Scarpelli is said to have choked himself to death in the prison shower room, alone on the floor, with a plastic bag. I can't believe he didn't have help, but a veteran investigator tells me Scarpelli was mean enough to take himself out that way.

On the sidewalk Tuesday, a man on a smoke break who had never heard of Scarpelli looked up at the federal keep. "I didn't even know it was a prison for the first four years I worked down here," he said.

He was outside the Americana Submarine shop, owned by Aleem Mohammed, who has several exterior security cameras. When police and reporters stop by, he tells them, "If I hear anything, I'll let them know."

But nobody heard or saw anything. Just who expects two men in orange jumpsuits swinging from a rope, dropping 50 feet, hungry for Mom's steak and eggs?

Miles to the southwest, on California Avenue, sits Cook County Jail. It has no cutting-edge design motif. It's corpulent, like the county payroll, a building that sneers, razor wire on the outside, razor-sharp shanks on the inside.

In March 1984, weeks after I'd been hired by the Tribune and then put on journalist death row, six inmates made their break from County. Two were the Mahaffey brothers, Reginald and Jerry, cop killers and rapist-murderers. Joining them was another cop killer, Ray Greer, and plain old murderers Aryules "Michael" Bivens and Brian Daniels. The only non-murderer was "escape artist" Gregory Hill.

The entire Tribune staff worked extremely hard on that story, and I got a small piece of it, and the editors decided to give my career a reprieve.

The first night, Reginald Mahaffey was caught, refused to talk and decided to do something strange. Handcuffed behind his back, he flew out the second-story window of the old Marquette Police District in an "apparent" escape attempt. He landed on his head and, by a miracle, lived.

Daniels was caught in a lot next to the old Wozniak tavern. A German shepherd owned by the tavern family ran him down. Bivens was hanging out at a friend's apartment, and a man there saw him on the TV news. Bivens asked the guy to drive him for pizza. The man thought he'd be killed.

Eventually all were pinched. But when two remained at large, Harrison Area Detective Cmdr. Earl Johnson explained what always happens.

"Sooner or later, they'll both run out of holes to hide in," Johnson said. "They'll run out of friends, they'll run out of money, and someone will get them."

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

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