Roy Gardner, king of escape artists, flees McNeil Island Penitentiary on September 5, 1921.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 12/29/2011
  • Essay 9792
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On September 5, 1921, Roy Gardner (1884-1940) makes a dramatic escape from McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. This getaway cements his reputation as king of the escape artists and is his third great escape from federal authorities in two years. Once recaptured, Gardner is placed in more secure facilities. Besides McNeil Island, he will serve time in federal prisons at Atlanta, Leavenworth, and Alcatraz Island. He will be released in 1938, but find that he cannot adjust to civilian life. In 1940 he will convert a hotel bathroom to a gas chamber and take his own life.

Labor Day Escape

On September 5, 1921, three McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary inmates attempted a daring escape. It was Labor Day, and the island prison was in a holiday mode. Prisoners attended an afternoon baseball game. Among the 250 inmates watching the game were bank robber Roy Gardner and two former Camp Lewis soldiers, Lawardus Bogart and Everett Impyn. These two lifers had recently arrived at the prison after being sentenced for an assault on a Camp Lewis nurse.

During a dramatic moment in the fifth inning of the baseball game, the trio cut a lower strand of barbed wire and slid under the prison fence. Once they reached the open pastureland just beyond the fence, guards in two towers opened fire. Impyn was shot dead, and Bogart and Gardner were wounded. Bogart fell to the ground and waved Gardner on. Gardner, with only a minor wound, ran into the slash and then disappeared into the woods and went into hiding. Prison authorities launched a massive search of the island. They obtained aerial search aircraft from Camp Lewis to observe the surrounding waters and fly over the island. All boats that could be used for escape were placed under observation.

Warden Thomas Maloney told the press for days that Gardner was hiding somewhere on the island. Finally, after two weeks, the warden announced that Gardner had probably made it off. In fact, Gardner spent the first hours after his escape hiding under a log. He soon moved to the loft of the prison barn, where he lived off cows' milk and grain, then swam to Fox Island where he stole food from farms. After regaining his strength, Gardner moved on to Oregon and then to Arizona.

Roy Gardner's Early Life

Roy Gardner was born in Trenton, Missouri, and grew up in Colorado. He graduated from high school and in 1905 joined the U.S. Army 22nd Infantry Regiment. He deserted the army the next year and headed to Mexico. There he smuggled arms and ammunition to the forces of revolutionary commander (and later Mexican president) Venustiano Carranza (1859-1920). Captured and sentenced to death, Gardner broke out of the Mexico City jail.

Making his way to the United States, Gardner worked as a boxing sparring partner. Soon he left that employment and robbed a San Francisco jewelry store. He was caught and received a sentence to San Quentin prison, but soon earned parole by saving a guard's life during a riot. He became a welder at the Mare Island Navy Yard, married, and fathered a daughter. With the Armistice of 1918 and shipyard layoffs, he went to work for a private welding firm.

A Return to Crime

On a business trip to Tijuana in April 1920, Gardner lost a great deal of money at the racetrack. He turned to crime again to recover, robbing a mail truck outside San Diego. This robbery netted him $80,000 in cash and securities. However, he was caught three days later and sentenced to 25 years at McNeil Island.

On June 5, 1920, he was put on a train with two U.S. marshals for the journey to the island prison. Outside Portland, Oregon, Gardner distracted the guards and grabbed one marshal's gun. At gunpoint, he forced them to remove his handcuffs and then handcuffed the two marshals and took their money. Gardner left the train and headed for Canada.

In 1921 Gardner returned to the United States and started robbing banks and mail trains. On May 19, 1921, he stole $187,000 from a mail train outside Sacramento, California. The next day he robbed another train. Spotted in Roseville, California, he was captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to another 25 years at McNeil Island (this brought his sentence to 50 years). In an effort to reduce his sentence, he volunteered to take federal agents to the hidden loot. After searching some hills, he declared that he had forgotten where the money was buried. To this day people search for this hidden treasure.

Federal marshals increased security for the next train trip to McNeil. The agents put Gardner in chains and an "Oregon Boot" (a heavy iron band around the ankle with an iron ring to the heel); the veteran marshals were not taking any chances on his escaping again. Outside Castle Rock, Washington, Gardner requested a bathroom break. In the train bathroom he recovered a .32 caliber gun hidden by an associate. He put the marshals in his chains, robbed them, and disembarked at Castle Rock. A massive manhunt was launched, but searchers could not find him.

Gardner jumped a train and rode it to Centralia, Washington, where he purchased bandages and wrapped his face, telling people he had been in an industrial accident in Tacoma. He checked into the Oxford Hotel and spent his time walking around town. (In 2011, Centralia's Oxford Hotel is the Olympic Club and Gardner's exploits are depicted in a mural there.)

Five days after the escape, an alert Centralia police officer, Louis Sonney (1888-1949), saw a physical resemblance between the bandaged man and pictures of the five-foot, nine-inch tall Gardner, and arrested him. When a doctor removed the bandages, the officer realized he had captured the great escape artist. After taking him back into custody, federal authorities finally managed to get Gardner to McNeil Island.

Leavenworth and Alcatraz 

Following his 1921 Labor Day escape, Gardner headed to Arizona, where he robbed mail trains. Captured in the fall of 1921, Gardner now had another 25 years added, making his total sentence 75 years. His time was to be served at the more secure Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary Annex. The king of the escape artists would not escape from there.

In 1925, Gardner was transferred to Atlanta Federal Prison, and the next year he tried tunneling under the wall. This and a second breakout failed. During the second break he had a weapon and took guards hostage. For this armed escape attempt he received 20 months in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement had a powerful negative mental impact on Gardner, and following this he went to St. Elizabeth's psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. Returned to Atlanta in 1929, he became a troublesome inmate, engaging in hunger strikes and threatening suicide. Another transfer returned him to Leavenworth. In 1934, Gardner was sent to Alcatraz. His wife divorced him and remarried. Gardner spent some time planning an escape, but then reconciled to prison life and wrote his autobiography while at Alcatraz. A tired and compliant inmate, he sought clemency, noting that he had never killed or injured anyone. He was released in 1938.

A Homemade Gas Chamber 

When Gardner came out of prison for the last time, he gave anti-crime lectures and worked with Louis Sonney on films.  Gardner and Sonney, the Centralia officer who arrested him in 1921, had become friends -- Sonney gave half his reward money to the destitute Gardner family. Sonney left police work for the movie industry and did projects based upon Gardner's life. He was at Leavenworth when Gardner was finally released in June 1938 and drove him to California. The pair worked together on movies and publications relating Gardner's story.

Gardner published his autobiography, Hellcatraz: My Story. A 1939 film based upon his life, How I Stole a Billion, failed. Public appearances, a book, and a movie did not ease his pain adjusting to life outside prison.

On January 10, 1940, the maid cleaning his San Francisco hotel noticed a sign on the bathroom door. The printed message said "Do Not Open This Door, Poison Gas, Call the Police." When authorities opened the door, Gardner was found dead. He had dropped cyanide pills into a bowl of acid, covered his head with a towel and breathed in the lethal fumes.

Sources: Roy Gardner, Hellcatraz: My Story (San Francisco: Douglas/Ryan Communications, 2000); "Roy Gardner Caught, Arrested at Centralia," The Bellingham Herald, June 16, 1921, p. 1; "Roy Gardner Still at Large: No Clues Found," Olympia Record, September 7, 1921, p. 1; "Bandit Gardner to Get Freedom," The Oregonian, June 5, 1938, p. 12; "Louis Sonney, Who Captured Gardner, Train Robber, Dies," The Seattle Daily Times, June 27, 1949, p. 25. 

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