Monday, January 25, 2016

Escape Artist; The Continuing Adventures of Jack Laird

Jack Laird was serving a life sentence in the Oregon State Prison for the 1918 murder of Frank Twombley in Portland when he escaped in 1934. Oregon State Archive.
            “Haven’t you learned yet that crime doesn’t pay?” Kate Michener asked her son Elliott, better known as Mickie, when he visited her shabby Spokane apartment in fall 1934.  Mickie told his mother that he had learned the lesson, but he was lying.  He and his partner in crime, Richard “Dick” Franseen, who had both been released from the Oregon State Prison less than a year before, had never stopped committing crimes.  Mrs. Michener didn’t believe her son and she didn’t trust him. When Mickie and Dick were ready to leave for Everett, WA to visit Mickie’s brother Ashley, they left his mother with a ten dollar bill to cover expenses.  The aging woman was afraid to spend the bill because she was sure that her son had gone into counterfeiting.
            She was right not to trust him. Just weeks before Mickie and Dick, who both had extensive printing experience from their time in prison, had held a Duluth, MN engraver at gunpoint and forced him to create a plate for printing ten dollar bills.  They most likely had a stack of fake tens in their luggage. The cash was for financing a prison break and the crime spree they planned once they sprung their friend Jack Laird from the prison in Salem.
            Jack Laird (real name John Giles) was serving a life sentence for the murder of Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Twombley during a botched robbery on the Interstate Bridge in 1918. After seventeen years Jack Laird was considered a “model prisoner.” Head of the prison print shop and editor of the institution’s magazine, Laird was also a trusty allowed to work unsupervised outside the prison grounds on survey jobs.  He was a meticulous, almost obsessive, planner and he had already agreed on an escape plan before Michener and Franseen were released after serving eight years each for armed robbery.

Elliott “Mickie” Michener and Jack Laird became close friends while in prison at Salem.  Together they wrote two dozen adventure stories which were published in pulp magazines.  Federal Prison Archive.
            Mickie and Dick had known each other for years, after meeting in the Idaho State Industrial School, a reformatory for wayward boys.  Dick had been a troubled young man involved in minor crimes, but Mickie had already committed a series of robberies, starting at the age of ten.  At fourteen he had stolen more than $14,000 from the payroll of a Philadelphia factory where he worked.  After being paroled into the custody of his father, a mine worker in Couer d’Alene, ID the incorrigible young man stole more than $12,000 in Liberty bonds from his father and ran off to British Columbia.  After a brief spree, Mickie had been sentenced to the reformatory.  Mickie was released from the reformatory when he enlisted in the Army and served briefly at Fort Lewis.  When he was released from the Army in 1926 he and Dick committed a series of armed robberies in Portland and entered the Oregon State Prison.

Richard “Dick” Franseen met Elliott Michener in the Idaho State Reform school when they were teenagers.  They became life-long friends and partners in crime. Federal Prison Archive.
            Weeks after their arrival, in July 1926, Mickie and Dick broke out and had four days of freedom before being captured.  After the brief escape they were assigned to the print shop where they befriended Jack Laird.  Their escape had been impulsive, but the next one would be meticulously planned and carefully executed.  The three prisoners modeled excellent behavior and became trusties.  Mickie and Jack found that they had real talent for writing stories together and over the next four years sold more than two dozen of them to pulp magazines, where their western character Black Bill became very popular.  In 1933 Mickie, who had been sentenced to ten years, was released for good behavior.  Dick followed a few weeks later.
            After a short stay with his mother, Mickie went east to Minnesota, where Dick’s family lived, and the two men committed a series of crimes in the twin cities before heading west again.  Near the end of October, 1934 they visited Mickie’s brother in Everett, WA and placed a classified ad in the Daily Herald there, purchasing a mail subscription to the paper for their friend in prison in Salem.  The ad was a predetermined code and it told Jack Laird to be ready to go on November 7th.  The escape was simple.  Laird was working unsupervised on a surveying job outside the prison grounds.  Mickie and Dick drove by and picked him up.
            By the time the guards realized that Laird was gone, the three friends were back in Washington, where they laid low for several weeks.  While waiting for the heat to die down, they made plans for a series of mail-train robberies.  Although the jobs were meticulously planned, once again the failure to gather accurate intelligence doomed them.  On December 29, the three men boarded a train near Bucoda, WA.  Frustrated by the fact that the passenger train had no mail car, the three robbers forced it to stop and escaped into the woods empty handed.
            Heading east, the Laird Gang recruited more members and by the time they pulled their next job there were as many as seven men involved. On February 7, 1935 the gang boarded a Denver & Rio Grande Western train as it slowed for a crossing on the outskirts of Salt Lake City.  This time the train did have a mail car, but a confrontation with the engineer forced Laird to fire a couple of shots, alerting the mail clerks to the robbery in progress.   When the robbers ordered the clerks to open the locked door of the mail car, they answered with gunfire and the train robbers were once again forced to retreat empty handed.
            The gang moved north to Milwaukie, WI, where they held up another print shop and forced an engraver to make a plate for printing $20 bills. They also committed several other armed robberies and were probably trying to print counterfeit money when Laird was picked up by the Milwaukie police.  Michener and Franseen fled Milwaukie with some of the other gang members.  Laird was wanted in Oregon, but the Feds had precedence and he was convicted of mail robbery and sentenced to thirty five years in Federal prison.  He was sent to McNeil Island penitentiary in the Puget Sound near Tacoma, WA.  The remnants of his gang had also fled to Tacoma, where they kidnapped 9-year-old George Weyerhaeuser, releasing him after being paid a ransom of $200,000.  Members of the kidnapping gang were captured, but police never connected Michener and Franseen to the crime and they remained free.

Alcatraz Island was opened as a Federal prison in 1935 to house the most violent and escape-prone prisoners.  In 1945 Jack Laird became the first prisoner to successfully escape from the island, although he was only free for less than an hour. Federal Prison Archive.
            At McNeil Island, Laird failed in an attempt to escape and was transferred to the new maximum security prison which had just opened on an island in San Francisco Bay.  The “American Devil’s Island,” Alcatraz was considered to be “escape proof” and it housed the most violent and escape-prone prisoners in the Federal system.  Laird was transferred to the new prison when it opened and was one of the original prisoners to be sentenced to The Rock.
            Michener, who is alleged to have written the Weyerhaeuser ransom note, and Franseen fled east once again, committing several robberies in Montana and Minnesota before returning to Milwaukie, where they were both arrested in late 1935.  Sentenced to 35 years in the Wisconsin State Penitentiary, both men were convicted of counterfeiting in 1937 and sentenced to 30 years each in Federal prison.  Michener was sent to Leavenworth in Kansas and Franseen was sent directly to Alcatraz.  After a failed escape attempt Michener was sent to the The Rock in 1941 and the three friends were reunited. Michener and Franseen modeled excellent behavior and both became trusties, assigned to the prison’s gardens, where they made a lasting mark on Alcatraz and invented several gardening tools before they were finally released in the early 1950s.
            Jack Laird was not quite ready to settle down.  After a failed appeal, which claimed his conviction for “mail robbery” was erroneous because none of his robberies had been successful, Laird became the first prisoner to escape from Alcatraz and successfully leave the island before being caught.  On July 31, 1945, he executed another obsessive plan, dressing in an Army uniform he had carefully put together by pilfering laundry over nearly two years, he boarded a military ferry to Fort McDowell on nearby Angel Island.  Although he was captured within an hour and never left the military base, Laird had made the first successful escape from the escape-proof maximum security prison.
            That was it, for Jack Laird.  He settled down and became a trusty and model prisoner, like his two friends who worked in the garden.  Mickie and Dick successfully appealed their conviction, which had given them 15 years for making the printing plate and 15 years for counterfeiting the money, claiming that the two crimes could not be separated.  They were both released in 1952 and found work on a farm in Wisconsin where they filed for patents on their gardening equipment and bragged of having their own cars and “fat wallets.”  Michener never gave up on his friend Jack Laird and paid for attorneys and wrote several letters asking for his freedom. In a 1952 letter to Oregon Penitentiary Warden Virgil O’Malley, Michener cited his job at Quality Park Farms, and the trusted positions he and Franseen held there as evidence that even those with “long bad records” could be reformed.

Jack Laird returned the Oregon State Prison in 1952 and was paroled from his murder sentence in 1954.  At the age of 59 he had spent less than two years as a free man since his twentieth birthday. Oregon State
            By that time Laird had finished his Federal sentence and been returned to the Oregon State Prison to complete his life sentence for murder.  Nearly sixty years old, Laird’s health was not good and he was a very calm and quiet prisoner.  He was paroled in 1954 and moved to Los Angeles, where he was employed by the Western Litho Company, as a print shop worker.  Elliott Michener relocated to El Monte, CA, near Los Angeles, in 1955 and the two friends were again reunited.  In 1962 they patented a system for training race horses and retired from working.  Jack Laird died at the age of 84 in 1979.  Richard Franseen, who had remained in Wisconsin, passed away in 1985 and Mickie Michener died at the age of 87 in 1993.

     If you enjoyed this story you might also enjoy my new book with Theresa Griffin Kennedy Murder & Scandal in Prohibition Portland.