These notorious prison breaks rival Thabo Bester’s escape

The curious case of “Facebook rapist” Thabo Bester’s escape has made news headlines in South Africa and abroad in the past few weeks, but it is far from the first of its kind.

The infamous murderer, rapist, and con artist escaped from Mangaung Correctional Centre in May 2022 after faking his death in a cell fire.

Despite being warned only a few weeks after that Bester had likely escaped, the apparent lackadaisical response by South African law enforcement and the prison’s operator — private security company G4S — kept Bester out of jail for over 11 months.

The elaborate scheme involved using the body of another man as a decoy for Bester’s and was allegedly carried out with the assistance of celebrity doctor Dr Nandipha Magudumana and her father, as well as several prison guards and a CCTV operator.

Adding further intrigue to the case is that Bester operated a scam marketing agency while imprisoned.

While Bester’s escape certainly has its fair share of drama, there are several other high-profile prison breaks that are hard to believe weren’t invented by some Hollywood writer.

Below are some of the other most notorious prison escapes from around the world.


Escape from Alcatraz

Among the most famous prison escapes of all time occurred when bank robbers Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin managed to break out of Alcatraz prison in June 1962.

Located on an island surrounded by the cold and rough waters of San Francisco Bay, the Alcatraz Penitentiary was widely regarded as an inescapable fortress.

That was until the trio managed to loosen the air vents in their cells on 12 June 1962 and made their way to a secret workshop they had set up in another part of the prison.

After climbing up pipes and out of a ventilator grill on the prison’s roof, they descended the building and made their way to the shore.

They used dummy heads crafted with plaster and real hair to fool the guards into thinking they were still fast asleep.

They had also stolen 50 raincoats which they used to make a raft and life jackets to get to the mainland.

However, the trio’s fate beyond that point remains unknown, with many experts believing they likely died during the crossing and their bodies were swept out to sea.

But others believe it’s possible they may have reached the mainland and escaped if they exited the prison at a time when sea currents were favourable.

Alcatraz was closed in March 1963 because of expensive running costs but continues to operate as a museum

Flight by flight

There are at least two known instances where “hijacked” helicopters were used to pull off prison escapes.

The first was the escape of gangster Redoine Faid, once considered France’s most wanted criminal.

Faid had previously pulled off a prison break in April 2013 by blasting through five doors using smuggled explosives and holding four prison wardens hostage. He was recaptured around a month and a half later.

However, on 1 July 2018, he broke out of prison again, this time in Réau, south of Paris.

In that instance, he had the assistance of three armed accomplices who had taken a helicopter pilot hostage after they posed as flight school students.

They forced the pilot to land in the only area of the prison without helicopter netting and used smoke bombs to hide from cameras before extracting Faid.

Despite a manhunt involving around 2,900 police officers and soldiers, he would only be caught around three months later.

Faid’s escape was reminiscent of another prison break using a similar method.

In 1999, Lucky Dudko held a helicopter pilot at gunpoint (with an inoperable Thompson submachine gun) and forced him to pick up her boyfriend — bank robber John Killick — from Sydney’s Silverwater Jail exercise yard.

The couple was on the run for 45 days before police caught them.

The exterior of Sydney’s Silverwater prison, from which Lucky Dudko helped her boyfriend John Killick escape via helicopter

A tight squeeze

There are numerous instances in which prisoners escaped by squeezing through small openings in their cells — but two are particularly noteworthy.

Infamous American serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy’s second escape from custody — in December 1977 — required that he lose 16kg to squeeze through a hole in the steel bars of his cell’s ceiling.

Bundy created the hole with a hacksaw blade acquired from other prisoners, from whom he also got a detailed floor plan of the prison.

He used books and files covered with blankets to fool prison guards into thinking he was still in his bed sleeping.

After several “practice runs”, Bundy climbed through the gap and crawled to the apartment of the chief jailer, where he broke through the ceiling, stole plain clothes from a closet, and exited through the front door.

Prison guards only discovered he had escaped 17 hours later, and Bundy was arrested on 12 February 1978 after a police officer stopped him in a stolen vehicle.

Thief and yoga expert Choi Gap-bok, nicknamed “Korean Houdini”, performed a similar feat to escape captivity.

In 2012, he escaped Daegu prison by rubbing himself in lotion and slipping through a small food slot just 45cm wide and 15cm high.

Police who saw the CCTV footage of the escape described Gap-bok as moving flexibly like an octopus through the opening.

He managed to sneak past sleeping guards and climb out a window before fleeing to a remote mountain in Cheongdo.

After being spotted in various towns around the area over the next few days, police recaptured Gap-bok six days after his escape and put him in a bar-less cell.

Skyline of Daegu City in South Korea

A tunnel worthy of a drug lord

Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is another infamous figure who escaped prison twice.

While the first was a relatively “simple” affair of bribing guards and hiding in a laundry basket, the second was far more elaborate. It involved several co-conspirators outside the jail where he was being held.

After serving 17 months in Altiplano maximum security prison in Mexico, he climbed down a hole underneath his cell’s shower.

Ten metres down, he came to a 1.7m high and 75cm wide tunnel made with high-quality construction materials and fitted with lights and air ducts.

The escape route was contrived by El Chapo’s wife, sons, and a former cartel associate.

It required smuggling a watch with a GPS tracker to the drug lord to pinpoint his exact location and hiring a professional construction crew to dig the tunnel.

El Chapo was rearrested around six months after his second escape.

Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera “El chapo”, a Mexican drug trafficker, is presented to the media in a hangar at the airport in Mexico City. Credit: Octavio Hoyos / Shutterstock.com

Getting crafty

Several prisoners escaped jail using items they crafted during their time behind bars.

American gangster John Dillinger broke out of the Lake County Jail in Crown Point in January 1934 after threatening prison guards with what the FBI would later report was a carved wooden pistol.

Dillinger pulled out the “weapon” during morning exercises, taking the guards by surprise.

Dillinger would eventually be killed by a special agent in an alley behind the Biograph Theater in Chicago after a 6-month manhunt, which included several dramatic shootouts and Dillinger undergoing plastic surgery to disguise himself.

Andrew Rodger, Keith Rose, and Matthew Williamson also broke out of the Parkhurst Prison in the UK in 1995 thanks to their crafting capabilities.

The trio had memorised the shape of the prison’s master keys and fashioned a copy in the sheet metal workshop.

While the guards were distracted during the prisoners’ exercise session, they used the key to open a door leading them to the inner fence.

After cutting a hole in the inner fence, they used the ladder to clear the outer fence.

Their freedom was not long-lived, however, as they were found hiding in a shed by police four days later.

Their escape was reminiscent of Tim Jenkin, a South African anti-apartheid activist who escaped Pretoria Local Prison with Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris by crafting keys from wood.

A film of their daring escape titled “Escape from Pretoria” starring Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe was released in 2020.

Following his escape, Jenkin fled to the United Kingdom, where he went on to help the ANC by developing computer-encrypted communications systems that operatives on the ground used to communicate with the movement’s leadership.

US police agents inspecting the body of notorious gangster John Dillinger

Now read: “Facebook rapist” escape raises big questions about private prison corruption

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These notorious prison breaks rival Thabo Bester’s escape