King County's biggest jailbreak occurs on October 22, 1961.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 10/18/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4251
On Sunday evening, October 22, 1961, eight inmates escape from the King County Jail, which is located on the 10th floor of the County-City Building, by sawing through the bars on a window. The prisoners, using a knotted rope fashioned from bed sheets, lower themselves to the a ninth-floor window, re-enter the building, and head for the public elevators. During the escape attempt, one inmate slips from the rope and falls to his death. After reaching the street, five of the prisoners are captured within a short period of time, and two escape, but are captured within a week.

Fasenmeyer the Mastermind

The mastermind of the escape was Thomas Rafael Fasenmeyer Jr., 32, a burglar, nationally known jewel thief, and escape artist. He was arrested on July 11, 1961, charged with four counts of burglary in Seattle. Fasenmeyer, wanted in 11 states, had stolen jewelry worth more than $1,000,000 in the preceding year and a half, and had escaped from custody in three other states. He was discovered on October 7 trying to hacksaw his way through a steel plate in the King County Jail and spent several days in solitary confinement before being released back into the general prison population.

The seven other prisoners involved in the escape attempt were: Arthur St. Peter, 37, an ex-convict facing life in prison as an habitual criminal and a veteran of five previous escapes from Washington and Idaho penal institutions; Lawrence D. Johnson, 25, being held on arrest warrants from Sacramento and Los Angeles, California, charging him with burglary, auto theft, and morals offenses; Barrett M. Pitmon, 26, being held on charges of burglary and rape; Steven Courville, 30, charged with assault and held on parole violations; Harold Oscar Thomas, 37, awaiting transportation to the Washington State Penitentiary after being convicted of murder and assault; Terry Stahlman, 17, awaiting trial on four armed robberies committed in Seattle; Richard Loux, 36, awaiting transportation to the Washington State Penitentiary after being convicted of auto theft.

Locks and Bars Not a Problem

At about 6:30 p.m., these prisoners were in the day-room cell of Tank No. 4, enjoying a recreation period before being locked in their cells for the night. They had possession of several hacksaw blades, which had been smuggled into the jail. The prisoners tied blades to a mop handle so they could reach from their cell across a narrow corridor to the bars on a window. As lookouts watched for guards, the inmates took turns sawing the soft iron bars, but weren't making much progress. Later in the evening, the prisoners managed to jam the lock on the door of the day-room cell so that it would appear to lock when it was closed.

A jailer entered the tank to check the doors but was diverted by inmates in an adjoining block causing a commotion about a broken window. The prisoners left the day-room and began sawing directly on the window bars. Within an hour, they had removed two bars, which created a gap 18 inches by 12 inches, large enough to squeeze through.

Through the Window

At about 8:30 p.m., the prisoners began to go out the window to the ledge. The first to leave was St. Peter, followed by Courville and Thomas. Using a knotted rope fashioned from bed sheets, St. Peter lowered himself to the ninth-floor window ledge. He planned to break a window with a piece of iron bar, but found it unlocked. Entering the empty county engineer's offices, St. Peter signaled for Courville and Thomas to proceed.

The next prisoners to leave the jail were Johnson, Pitmon, and Fasenmeyer. Johnson let himself down the rope a short way, became frightened and called for help. Pitmon started pulling him back to the 10th floor when Johnson slipped from the rope and fell to his death. The fall did not unnerve the remaining escapees who continued out the jail window and down the rope to the floor below.

The escapees made their way to the ninth-floor elevators and rang for service. When the elevator arrived, the prisoners overpowered the operator, Gerald Pincus, and forced him to take them to the second floor. The prisoners tied up Pincus, then captured two other building employees, the night watchman, Tony Ronevich, and another elevator operator, Philip Pelton. They left all three employees bound and gagged in a second-floor washroom. The escapees split up and made their separate ways out of the building. Pincus managed to free himself and sound the alarm.

Stahlman and Loux had just exited the City-County Building onto 4th Avenue when they were surprised and captured by Seattle Police Officers Steve Brozovich and Bernard Mayhle responding to the jailbreak alarm. Back at the jail, guards found Stahlman still in possession of five hacksaw blade pieces. He declined to say where he obtained them.

Getting Out of Town -- or Not

While going through the county engineer's office, Pitmon stole a raincoat to cover his blue jail jumpsuit. He left the building alone and walked south toward King Street Station. Two hours after the escape, Pitmon was discovered hiding in the railroad yards by Railroad Detective Roy Savely and held until police could get to the scene. Later, Pitmon recounted to jail officials how Johnson had fallen to his death from the 10th-floor window.

After leaving the City-County Building, St. Peter, Courville, and Thomas managed to steal a car off a downtown street. At about 1:00 a.m. on October 23, 1961, a King County Sheriff's Deputy spotted the stolen automobile on the Sunset Highway, east of Lake Washington. While trying to elude police, the driver of the stolen car had lost control and crashed into a cement bulkhead at the Factoria Interchange. The three escapees fled the wrecked vehicle on foot. But King County Sheriff, Washington State Patrol, and Bellevue Police Department units involved in the pursuit quickly surrounded the area. Courville and Thomas surrendered after officers fired warning shots; St. Peter disappeared into the night.

Fasenmeyer exited the building onto Jefferson Street and headed east, up First Hill. At 11th Avenue and Jefferson Street, he stole a white Cadillac belonging to Seattle restaurateur Ruby Chow. Fasenmeyer drove north, abandoned the car near Marysville and started walking. He changed from his blue jail jumpsuit into a pair of woman's pants and a jacket he found in a shed and also stole a sleeping bag.

Cold, Wet, Hungry, and Caught

Fasenmeyer continued walking north through woods, wet fields, and along roadways toward Canada. By Tuesday night, October 24, 1961, he was approaching Mount Vernon and was desperate for food. In Mount Vernon, he broke into a cafe, stole food and $13 which he used to buy a bus ticket to Bellingham. There, Fasenmeyer stole another car and drove toward Blaine. Abandoning the car near Blaine, he started walking but had no idea where the unmarked border was located. Local residents, seeing Fasenmeyer lurking suspiciously near the border, thought he was an illegal alien and called the Border Patrol.

On October 26, 1961, Border Patrol Agents Carl Reidinger and Bill Means captured Fasenmeyer just 10 yards from the Canadian border. After four days on the run, he was cold, wet, and hungry. He told the agents he was glad to get out of the rain. King County Sheriff Tim McCullough and two deputies personally escorted Fasenmeyer back to Seattle from Blaine.

After Fasenmeyer was recaptured, King County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll lost no time in having him removed from the county jail. On October 27, 1961, Superior Court Judge James W. Mifflin sentenced him to 15 years in the Washington State Penitentiary. (Fasenmeyer had previously pleaded guilty to burglary.) He was delivered to Walla Walla that same day.

Escape Foiled

At about 1:30 a.m. on October 28, 1961, King County Deputy Sheriffs Robert Wright and Frank Stansel were investigating a suspicious automobile parked behind a bank at Aurora Avenue N and N 175th Street when they spotted Arthur St. Peter. When ordered to surrender, St. Peter pulled out a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol, fired two shots at the deputies, turned, and ran. The officers radioed for back-up and within minutes eight King County Sheriff's cars arrived, and surrounded the area.

Deputies spotted St. Peter hiding in underbrush in a ditch just east of Aurora Avenue N near N 177th Street. Detective Lieutenant Richard Christie, Sergeant Frank Chase, and Detective James Harris jumped on St. Peter, subduing and handcuffing him. He still had the pistol in his possession, but it had jammed and was inoperative. When questioned by jail officials, St. Peter refused to give any information about his movements since the escape or the jailbreak. Convicted as an habitual criminal, St. Peter was given a life sentence and sent to the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla.

The media criticized the King County Sheriff's Department, claiming that no effective security precautions had been taken in regard to two known escape artists. Sheriff McCullough stated that prisoners like Fasenmeyer and St. Peter plan to escape every day they are in jail. He pointed out the escape would have been impossible if the soft iron in the jail's outside bars had been replaced with case-hardened steel as he had recommended in 1956 when he became sheriff.


Sources: Darrell Glover and Ken Fleming, "King County Jail: 1 Killed In Escape Try; 4 At Large," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 23, 1961, p. 1; "Escapee 'Froze,' Fell 10 Stories," Ibid., October 23, 1961, p. 3; "Elevator Man Tries to Foil Jailbreak," Ibid., October 23, 1961, p. 3; "2 Jail Escapees Still At Large," Ibid., October 24, 1962, p. 8; Jack Jarvis, "Jail's Clientele Ungrateful: Fashion Weapon To Aid Escape From Hospitality," Ibid., October 24, 1961, p. 8; Ken Fleming, "Escaped Jewel Thief Nabbed Near B. C. Line: Four Days Of Running Ends In Meek Surrender," Ibid., October 27, 1961, p. 1; Forrest Williams, "Fasenmeyer Gets Quick Sentence After Capture," Ibid., October 28, 1961, p. 5; Tom Bauman, "Prisoner Silent About Escape," Ibid., October 28, 1961, p. 14; "2 Who Fled County Jail Sought," The Seattle Times, October 23, 1961, p. 1; "Fasenmeyer's Second Escape Try Succeeds," Ibid., October 23, 1961, p. 5; Barney Harvey, "Escape Victim Was Scared, Says Inmate: Fatal Fall In Jailbreak Described," Ibid., October 23, 1961, p. 5; "Smuggled Hacksaws Used In Jail Escape, Says Sheriff," Ibid., October 23, 1961, p. 5; "F.B.I. Enters Hunt For Jail Fugitive," Ibid., October 24, 1961, p. 14; "Fasenmeyer, Jailbreaker, Is Captured At Border," Ibid., October 26, 1961, p. 1; "Fasenmeyer, Jewel Thief, Sentenced," Ibid., October 27, 1961, p. 1; E. M. Sterling, "Thief Vows Not To Flee Until Summer," Ibid., October 27, 1961, p. 4; Barney Harvey, "Fruitless Quiz: Recaptured Inmate Has Little To Say," Ibid., October 28, 1961, p. A.

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