10 years later: High-rise jail escape with bedsheets, dental floss
Two convicted bank robbery inmates broke out of their 17th floor cell of the Metropolitan Correctional Center and rappelled down the building’s sheer face
By Jason Meisner, Annie Sweeney
CHICAGO — Ten years ago Sunday, Chicago awoke to the stunning sight of bedsheets dangling from the 17th floor of the federal high-rise jail in the Loop and a made-for-Hollywood tale of two convicted bank robbers on the run.
In the predawn hours of Dec. 18, 2012, Joseph “Jose” Banks and his cellmate Kenneth Conley pulled off a seemingly death-defying feat, shimmying out of their narrow cell window at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on a rope made of knotted bed sheets and dental floss, then rappelling down the building’s sheer face to a parking deck on West Van Buren Street. Surveillance video last captured them several blocks away, hailing a cab.
It marked the first successful escape from the MCC in nearly 30 years and was a massive embarrassment for federal authorities. The ensuing manhunt enraptured the city, as speculation grew that the two fugitives had a carefully crafted plan to abscond to some far-flung island with hundreds of thousands of dollars in still-missing bank funds.
But there was no “Shawshank Redemption”-style ending to this story. Banks was captured two days later, hiding in an apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, a few doors down from his childhood home.
Conley, meanwhile, remained on the loose for 18 days until he was found sleeping in the basement boiler room of a Palos Hills apartment complex, disguised as an old man.
A decade later, they’re both in a far more secure environment: The notorious supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where inmates deemed dangerous are held in solitary confinement, including Gangster Disciples leader Larry Hoover and Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Conley, now 48, was ultimately convicted of both bank robbery and escape and was sentenced to a total of 23 years in prison, telling U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman on his way out of court, “You can take your analogy and shove it right up your (expletive), judge.”
He is due to be released in September 2031, online federal prison records show.
Banks, 47, who had been convicted just days before his escape in a string of violent “takeover” bank robberies, was sentenced to 36 years and isn’t scheduled for release until December 2039, when he’ll be 64, records show.
Unlike Conley, Banks, a onetime fashion designer dubbed “The Second Hand Bandit” because of the used clothing he wore during his holdups, has kept up his legal fight, filing a series of pro-se appeals from prison in immaculate print.
His latest attempt to overturn his conviction, still pending before the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, contains a motion claiming he’d changed his legal name to “Geosuff Seven Point Zero Dash-Seven,” with a drawing of a symbol with back-to-back numeral 7s that he said is now his middle name.
Earlier this year, Banks filed a request for bond or to be returned to a Chicago-area jail pending his appeal, writing he was placed in the supermax facility “out of retaliation and reprisal” and “a way to silence my voice.”
“Well the heat has died down and the sensationalism of the thing has fizzled,” Banks wrote. “I’ve found my voice (purpose) once more and in so doing I’m breaking my silence once again, speaking truth to power loud and clear.”
In May, he wrote a three-page letter to reporters at the Tribune claiming that the Bureau of Prisons had denied his attempts to get public records on the investigation into his jailbreak. He also compared his case to the one against actor Jussie Smollett, who had recently been convicted of plotting a fake homophobic and racist attack on himself and lying about it to Chicago police.
“Officials will always need a fall guy (scapegoat) of sorts when conduct includes scandal, corruption and fraud,” Banks wrote in the same neat, small print. “Every time I think back on it … how I like to put it is: The MCC-Chicago/BOP had pulled a ‘Jussie Smollett’ … or here on the reverse: Smollett pulled a ‘MCC’ on the people.”
Banks’ and Conley’s stories, from bank robbers to escape artists, even inspired a concept album released earlier this year by the Chicago indie-rock group Axons, fronted by civil rights attorney Adele Nicholas.
Called “I Object to Everything,” the record takes a stark look at the backstories of each defendant, including Banks’ tumultuous 2012 trial, when U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ordered him strapped to a chair in front of the jury because of his repeated outbursts in court.
“This is not my lawyer/ That’s not my jury,” Nicholas sings on the song “Past, Present and Future.” “I’m not subject to the laws/ You put on me. I feel like Hannibal Lecter/ When they strap me to a chair. They got tasers/ I can’t go nowhere.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has never offered a full public accounting of how the escape happened or whether any guards were disciplined or fired as a result. A report given to the Tribune through an open records request years ago was almost completely redacted.
The MCC’s warden at the time, Catherine Linaweaver, who has since retired, told ABC 7 in 2019 that “what could go wrong did go wrong,” but offered no new details.
“There’s layers in security. Like the layers of an onion,” Linaweaver said in an interview with the station. “Typically you pull one back and the other one keeps it secure. In that particular incident, several layers came off and as a result two inmates went out a 17-story cell window.”
Based on what officials and sources said at the time, the Tribune reported that Banks and Conley had last been accounted for during a routine bed check at 10 p.m. on the night before their escape. About 7 a.m. the next day, jail employees arriving for work saw ropes made from bedsheets dangling from a hole in the wall and down the south side of the facade.
The two had put clothing and sheets under blankets in their beds to throw off guards making nighttime checks and removed a cinder block to create an opening wide enough to slide through the 5-inch wide window, authorities said. The rope of bed sheets was bound in dental floss and anchored to a interior pipe and wrapped around their bunk bed.
Video surveillance had captured the men making their descent, but the guard who was supposed to be watching the video monitors for suspicious activity may have been called away on other duties, one law enforcement source told the Tribune at the time.
The FBI said a surveillance camera showed the two hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks.
A break in the investigation came after an informant who had been in contact with Banks since his escape alerted the FBI to his location in the 2300 block of North Bosworth Avenue. When he was captured, Banks had no cash, weapon or cellphone, and he was wearing some of the same clothes he had on when he escaped three days earlier, the Tribune reported.
Two weeks later, a 911 call came in from a Palos Hills building where Conley had been sleeping in the basement. Dressed in an overcoat and beret and using a cane, Conley gave responding officers a phony name, then pushed one of them down and took off running.
After he was wrestled down about a block away, police found a BB pistol in his pocket but no cash or other weapons.
At his sentencing in 2014, Banks said he believed he had a life-changing moment when he stepped out of his cell window into the cold, December night.
“Seventeen stories, and I lived to tell, having survived the drop by the grace of God,” he said. “I have to look at it as some mystical event that was destined to come about.”