Nine inmates escape from the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe on August 6, 1958.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/31/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9671

On Wednesday evening, August 6, 1958, nine inmates at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe beat two unarmed guards into submission and escape over the 30-foot wall using a rope made from knotted-together bed sheets. The escapees steal a station wagon from the reformatory parking lot and drive to Snohomish where the vehicle is abandoned. The men separate and, using a series of stolen cars, manage to elude roadblocks and escape from the area. Seven of the inmates will be recaptured shortly after the breakout and one will surrender to the FBI in Yakima in December 1958 after four months of freedom. The ninth escaped inmate, Eldon Spurgeon, is recaptured and returned to the reformatory in January 1959.

After Exercise, Escape

At 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 6, 1958, inmates at the Washington State Reformatory were returning to their cells from the evening exercise period.  As they walked into Cell Block No.1 from the exercise yard, nine prisoners, who had formed an ad hoc gang, suddenly attacked Guard Lester Sain, age 44, and beat him into unconsciousness with their fists. They seized his key to the lock-box which controlled all the cell doors, dragged him into an empty cell and secured the door. Seeing the disturbance, Guard Robert Fifield, age 29, immediately went to investigate. Three of the gang attacked Fifield, bludgeoned him with a club, stole of his wallet containing $17 and locked him in a cell apart from Sain. Fortunately, neither guard had been armed and no weapons were reported missing from the reformatory.

The nine inmates broke through the cell back ceiling, gained access to a light well leading to the roof, and then crawled 250 feet to a blind spot near the rotunda, where all the prison controls are centered.  Using a rope made from knotted-together bed sheets, they lowered themselves onto the roof of the passageway linking the cell blocks with the administration building. They gained access to the building through a second story window, went down a flight of stairs and out the rear exit to the parking lot. Utilizing their hoodlum skills, the escapees boosted a station wagon belonging to Guard Ralph Van Allen and drove eight miles west to Snohomish where they abandoned the vehicle.

In Snohomish, Ray Webster, a reporter from The Everett Daily Herald, spotted the escaped inmates wearing regulation reformatory uniforms, blue denim pants and shirts, and notified the Snohomish Police Department. Webster said they “were boldly walking down the street in pairs, as if on parade.” The escapees split up, stole more cars, and made their way out of the area, managing to elude the roadblocks established shortly after the escape alarm was sounded.

The two reformatory guards were taken to emergency room at Monroe General Hospital. Sain was treated for head lacerations and contusions and released.  Fifield was hospitalized for two days, suffering from a mild concussion, head lacerations, a broken finger, and contusions on his face, neck, arms and back.

Fugitives Identified

The escapees were identified as Elvin D. Gilroy, age 19, committed from King County for second-degree assault; Jon Emmest, age 22, committed from Chelan County for second-degree assault; Robert Jacques, age 23, committed from Spokane County for burglary; Roland Osterman, age 21, committed from King County for burglary; Dewayne Emmett Dunlap, age 19, committed from Clallam County for second-degree burglary; Harry Harris, age 20, committed from Pierce County for grand larceny; William Cecil Brown aka William S. Pennington, age 18, committed from Cowlitz County for grand larceny; Donald Frazier, age 27, committed from Yakima County for auto theft; Eldon Spurgeon, age 23, committed from King County for armed robbery.  All the prisoners had lengthy juvenile records and were serving indeterminate sentences of up to 15 years imprisonment. At the request of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle immediately issued federal arrest warrants for the fugitives charging unlawful flight to avoid custody or confinement and conspiracy to escape from the reformatory.

The Fugitive Felon Act (18 USC 1073) was primarily enacted to permit the FBI or other federal investigative agencies to assist states in the location and apprehension of fugitives. The federal complaint for unlawful flight to avoid custody or confinement is usually dismissed once the fugitive is apprehended and turned over to state authorities to await interstate extradition.

Fugitives Foiled

At 10:35 p.m., on Thursday, August 7, 1958, Elvin Gilroy broke into the residence of Albert and Dorothy Brain, 120 E Haller Street in Arlington.  Gilroy, who had relatives in the neighborhood, knew Albert Brain was a guard at the reformatory and he was looking for guns and ammunition. Dorothy Brain told Gilroy her husband was at work and didn’t keep guns in the house. When she attempted to escape, Gilroy knocked her down and ran to a waiting car, which then sped away.

A neighbor, John Gibbons, reported the assault to Chief of Police Clyde Parker, who immediately alerted the Washington State Patrol that two or more reformatory escapees were in the area. A short while later, a Skagit County Deputy Sheriff spotted a car that had been stolen in Everett on Wednesday night. The vehicle, with two men inside, had just left Mount Vernon and was heading west on the Anacortes Memorial Highway (now State Route 20).

The deputy radioed for backup and began following the suspect vehicle, which immediately became a high-speed chase.  Approximately five miles out, the stolen car spun out of control on a curve and struck a utility pole.  Gilroy was found injured and unconscious inside the wrecked vehicle, but his passenger, Jon Emmest, fled into the nearby fields.  Skagit County Deputy Sheriffs, Mount Vernon Police and Washington State Patrolmen surrounded the area and began searching for the fugitive.  He surrendered to officers a short time later saying: “All I could see were men with flashlights, so I figured I might as well give up” (The Everett Daily Herald).

Misadventures and More Captures

On Saturday, August 9, 1958, Robert Jacques and Roland Burns were arrested two miles outside of Burns, Oregon, while attempting to hitch a ride to Nevada. The Burns Police found the fugitives after being tipped off by Jack Hoffman, a former town marshal from nearby Hines, who gave them a ride into town. The story about the nine escaped convicts had been in the local newspaper and Hoffman became suspicious because of discrepancies in their stories. Jacques and Burns claimed to be itinerant harvest workers, but were clearly headed in the wrong direction to find work.  After letting the pair out, he called police and told them he had just given a ride to two of the escaped convicts from Washington state. Jacques and Burns, who had only $1.50 between them, told arresting officers they got to Burns from Monroe by walking and hitchhiking.

At 4:30 a.m. on August 11, William C. Brown was hitchhiking on State Highway 95, north of Las Vegas when he was hit by a truck, which broke both his legs. The truck driver took Brown to Clark County Hospital in Las Vegas and notified the Nevada State Patrol of the accident.  A routine check of Brown’s fingerprints through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) revealed he was one of the escapees from the Washington State Reformatory.  He was placed in detention at the hospital pending his recovery and extradition to Washington state.

On Saturday, August 16, Everett Cameron was arrested in Fresno, California, and charged with passing forged checks and auto theft. A check of his fingerprints through NCIC revealed his true identity as Dewayne E. Dunlap, wanted on two federal charges: unlawful flight to avoid confinement and conspiracy to escape.  A detainer was placed on Dunlap for his extradition to Washington state after completion of legal actions in California.

On September 11, 1958, Washington State Reformatory Superintendent Ernest C. Timpani (1918-2007), announced that Harry Harris had been recaptured in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which left only two of the original nine escapees, Donald Frazier and Eldon Spurgeon, still at large.

Re-Escape, Recapture

Before dawn on Tuesday, October 21, 1958, however, William Brown made a daring escape from the hospital.  Although the cast had been removed from his right leg, his left was still encased in plaster and he needed crutches.  The Clark County Sheriff, believing he was incapable of fleeing, had no guards posted on the ward.  Somehow, Brown managed to crawl out a first-floor window where he was met by two girls, ages 14 and 16, and a 17-year-old boy, who drove the getaway car. 

Brown was soon found missing, and it didn’t take long to discover what had happened. One of the girls aiding in his escape was the daughter of his ward nurse at the hospital.  The Nevada State Patrol broadcast a state-wide alert for the fugitives and a Lincoln County Deputy Sheriff spotted the getaway car near Pioche on State Highway 93, 175 miles northeast of Las Vegas.  Brown and his three juvenile accomplices were captured without incident.

All Accounted For

On Monday, December 8, 1958, Donald Frazier was arrested by the FBI in Yakima  After four months of freedom in New Mexico, Frazier returned to his hometown of Yakima and telephoned the FBI to arrange his surrender. He was held in the Yakima County Jail pending a hearing in federal court.

According to Washington State Department of Corrections, Eldon Spurgeon, the last fugitive, was recaptured and returned to the Washington State Reformatory on January 31, 1959. For some reason, the news of Spurgeon’s apprehension wasn’t announced and never made it into the newspapers.

Under Washington state law, the escapees were subject to charges of second-degree assault, a Class-A felony with a penalty of up to 20 years imprisonment, and escape from a state prison, a Class-B felony with a penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment.  The sentences, which the judge may order to be served concurrently or consecutively, normally start once the original sentence has been served. Appeals from defense attorneys who called the recalcitrant inmates “misguided adolescents,” deserving of another chance at rehabilitation, were uniformly rejected by the court. To break up the gang, some of the escapees were transferred to other state institutions to serve their time.

Immediately following the mass breakout, Governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011) announced plans for construction of a new guard tower to cover the blind spot on the cell block roof near the rotunda. Although the administration -- and apparently the entire inmate population -- had known about the escape route for some time, no extra guards had ever been positioned to prevent such an escape from happening.  The project, which cost $25,000, was included in a $25 million institution building bond-issue proposal (Referendum 10), approved in the November 4, 1958 general election.

Sources: "Nine Monroe Escapees Eluding Searchers," The Everett Daily Herald, August 7, 1958, p. 1; "Two Escapees Taken After Car Crash," Ibid., August 8, 1958, p. 1; "Escape Plug Scheduled for Monroe," Ibid., August 8, 1958, p. 1; "Two Escapees Nabbed; Five Still Free," Ibid., August 11, 1958, p. 1; "Sixth Escapee Is Captured," Ibid., August 25, 1958, p. 18; "Escapee Captured in Colorado," Ibid., September 11, 1958, p. 9; "Injured Escapee Flees Hospital," Ibid., October 21, 1958, p. 6; "Injured Escapee Is Recaptured," Ibid., October 22, 1958, p. 7; "Escapee Surrenders to FBI," Ibid., December 9, 1958, p. 1; "Arlington Woman Slugged," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 7, 1958, p. 1; "Escape Car In Crash," Ibid., August 8, 1958, p. 1; "Woman Tells of Escapee in Home," Ibid., August 8, 1958, p. 8; "Escapees Captured," The Centralia Daily Chronicle, August 8, 1958, p. 1; "Seven Are Still Sought," Ibid., August 9, 1958, p. 1; "Escapee Captured," Ibid., September 6, 1958, p. 4; "Two More Escapees Captured," Tri-City Herald, August 11, 1958, p. 3; "Sixth Escapee Is Apprehended," Ibid., August 25, 1958, p. 13; "Broken Legs Fail to Halt Youth's Escape," Ibid., October 22, 1958, p. 5; "Broken Legs Fail to Halt Escape," Ibid., October 22, 1958, p. 18; "Monroe Escapee Hurt in Nevada," Port Angeles Evening News, August 12. 1958. p. 1; "Monroe Escapee Caught at Yakima," Ibid., December 10, 1958, p. 9; "Young Escapee Injured by Auto," Nevada State Journal, August 15, 1958, p. 16; "Injury No Deterrent," Ibid., October 22, 1958, p. 16.

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