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70 years ago, Joliet saw spectacular prison break

Inside one roundhouses Stateville Correctional Center Crest Hill Ill.
File pho| Sun-Times Media

Inside one of the roundhouses at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill. File photo | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:23AM

Next week marks the 70th anniversary of a local jailbreak that would eventually involve the heist of an armored truck, a shootout with federal agents and J. Edgar Hoover himself.

By Friday, Oct. 9, 1942, Roger “Terrible” Touhy and Basil “Owl” Banghart had been in Stateville Prison for nearly eight years after being convicted of kidnapping another mob boss.

While both men should’ve been locked up for other crimes, investigators would confirm decades later they’d been framed by their rivals in this case.

The gangsters wanted pistols, some of which were likely smuggled in on visiting day two weeks earlier. While a woman claiming to be Banghart’s heretofore undiscovered daughter was not allowed in, Touhy’s brother was — despite having been dead for more than a dozen years.

“No jail can hold me,” Banghart, then 41, once boasted.

He already had escaped three other prisons while James O’Connor (aka Eugene Lanthorn), 35, had escaped Stateville twice. In 1936, he’d pulled the prison’s master electric switch and climbed a ladder over the wall in total darkness.

Gang members William Stewart, 43, St. Clair McInerney, Edward Darlak and his cellmate Martlick (Matthew) Nelson, 40, also were game to try.

They had little to lose as Darlak had murdered a police officer and the others were serving life sentences as habitual criminals.

At 1:40 p.m., Touhy, 44, approached Jack Cito, an inmate worker who drove a truck near the prison bakery and jabbed him with a pair of shears. While the injured convict distracted the guards, Touhy, O’Connor, Stewart and Nelson got in the truck that had been filled with garbage cans and drove to the mechanical shop.

With Banghart already holding the shop guard at gunpoint, Touhy cut the telephone wires and the gang put hostages and two ladders in the truck.

Some of the convicts were wearing the guard’s white hats and others had dishrags on their heads as the gang and their hostages drove to a tower along the prison wall.

When guard Herman Kross looked out to see why ladders
were being set up, one of the escapees fired a round that knocked off his glasses and went through his cap.

The armed guards in the other towers heard the shot, but were unable to determine who was a hostage and who wasn’t from the matching headgear.

“It was just dumbness on the part of our guards,” Warden E.H. Stubblefield frankly told The Herald-News.

And while Kross could probably expect a service medal and press releases praising his performance in today’s bureaucracy while an internal investigation lingered into oblivion, things were a little more informal between the state and the press in 1942.

“I believe if Kross had used better judgment, (he) could’ve prevented the escape,” T.P. Sullivan, the state’s Director of Criminal Investigation, told reporters.

The director may have shared a real opinion publicly since his men were frantically looking for Kross’ sedan. The guard had parked it on the other side of the wall near the tower and seven dangerous men had used it as a getaway car.

Coming Sunday: The Manhunt, The Heist and The Shootout

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