Manhunt for escaped bank robbers
By Stefano Esposito, Natasha Korecki, Jon Seidel and Donna vickroy Sun-Times Media December 18, 2012 10:42PM
SWAT officers search the Metra stop in Tinley Park for two men who escaped from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago on Tuesday, December 18, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: February 17, 2013 1:42AM
Employees at the federal jail in downtown Chicago figured something was wrong at 7 a.m. Tuesday when they came to work and saw a lengthy rope, made from bedsheets and other material, dangling from a narrow window 17 stories above the ground.
When jail officers did a quick head count, they found a cell with no one in it — its two beds filled with clothes and sheets, stuffed under blankets to make it look like inmates were sleeping, according to a federal criminal complaint.
It says they also discovered a cut in the wall near the base of the 5-inch-wide cell window and busted-out cinder block underneath it, creating a big enough hole to slip through, as well as metal bars from the window in one mattress, a set of fake metal bars and homemade harnesses, perhaps fashioned from a stretcher used for prisoners.
The convicted bank robber known as the “Secondhand Bandit,” Jose Banks, and his cellmate, Kenneth Conley, another convicted bank robber, were gone.
Banks had aspirations to be a clothing designer and was known to be able to sew anything, prompting authorities to wonder if that skill had helped him fashion his escape.
A federal court jury convicted him Dec. 13 of robbing two North Side banks and trying to hold up two others, making off with nearly $600,000 — only $56,000 of which was recovered. Banks defended himself at trial, displaying no legal knowledge, calling no witnesses and conducting no cross-examination. At one point, he was strapped to a wheelchair for his unruly behavior.
After his trial, Banks vowed retribution, yelling at the judge, “You’ll hear from me!”
The escape prompted a massive manhunt Tuesday morning for Banks and Conley, a former employee of a Chicago Heights strip club, who got less than $4,000 from his May 2011 Homewood bank robbery.
The FBI-led search involved SWAT teams, helicopters and bloodhounds and stretched from a Greyhound bus terminal near the jail to the Tinley Park home of Conley’s mother.
Jon Windish, a neighbor, watched as cops burst into the home Tuesday morning and said, “It’s like watching a movie go down. They’re getting guns out, and they’re all armored up.” The fugitives were not found at the home.
The escape raised serious questions about security at the Metropolitan Correctional Center and how Banks and Conley could escape from a high-rise jail that had been considered extremely secure.
“It’s heavy, heavy-duty security,” said Chicago defense attorney Joseph “The Shark” Lopez, who has visited clients in the jail since 1984. “I can’t even get a cough drop in there.”
Banks and Conley were accounted for at a 10 p.m. head count, according to the criminal complaint charging them with the escape. But it’s unclear what happened at the head counts about midnight and at 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Guards using flashlights are supposed to confirm the prisoners are under any blankets, according to a source.
It’s also unclear what tool the men used to make a clean cut through the jail window, why no one heard them bust through the cinder block or how no guards saw them from video surveillance cameras around the MCC. A jail spokesman declined Tuesday to answer those questions.
Authorities said both men, who were thought to be traveling together on Tuesday, should be considered dangerous. Banks, 37, is black, 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighing 160 pounds, and Conley, 38, is white, 6 feet tall and weighs 185 pounds.
After the escape, police swarmed the area around the MCC, searching a parking garage nearby with K-9 units and a nearby Greyhound bus station. One man transferring from one bus to another was briefly handcuffed and detained. Police looked at photocopied images of the escapees while asking the man for his identification and travel plans, witnesses said.
Damien Wilson, 21, was in one of the toilet stalls at the bus station when police came charging in.
“They came in, shaking all the stalls,” said Wilson, who had just returned to the city after visiting relatives in Milwaukee.
The cops apologized, Wilson said.
Later Tuesday, police swarmed Conley’s mother’s house in Tinley Park — suspecting that the men took a Metra train to the village after they were seen on camera at the Oak Park Avenue station, only blocks from the house, authorities said.
Heavily outfitted and armed police burst through a side door of the house and searched inside with the help of a dog but came up empty. Authorities said the men may have changed clothes there.
A later search in the New Lenox area with bloodhounds was fruitless as well.
Escapes from the MCC are rare. Two inmates escaped from the witness quarters on the sixth floor in 1985. Bernard Welch and Hugh Colomb were telling about supposed escape plans being hatched in federal prisons in downstate Marion and in Atlanta. In reality, they were making their own escape plans and figured it would be easier to escape from the witness section.
The two inmates smuggled a barbell from the workout area into the cell they shared and punched a hole in the cinder-block wall. They used a 75-foot cord connected to a floor buffer to rappel down the wall to a grassy plaza below.
Three months later, Welch was arrested in Greensburg, Pa., in a stolen car. Two months after that, Colomb was arrested in Canton, Miss., after he robbed a bank.
Contributing: Allison Horton, Tina Sfondeles, Kara Spak,