Massive manhunt for federal jail escapees continues
BY STEFANO ESPOSITO, NATASHA KORECKI, JON SEIDEL AND DONNA VICKROY Staff Reporters December 18, 2012 9:06AM
Jose Banks (top) and Kenneth Conley (bottom) escaped from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop Tuesday, December 18, 2012. Right: A rope can be seen hanging from the side of the jail.
- ‘Secondhand Bandit’ convicted of four bank heists
- Wanted Tinley Park man once threatened to shoot teller during bank robbery
- Joseph Jose Banks, known as Secondhand Bandit, lost his own robbery case last week
- Why jail escapes capture our attention
- Escapee Joseph “Jose” Banks caught after daring jailbreak
- Second bank robber escapee arrested in Palos Hills
Updated: December 21, 2012 3:12AM
The search for two bank robbers who made a daring escape from downtown’s Metropolitan Correctional Center continued Wednesday, with investigators still focused primarily on the Chicago area, and the FBI offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to their capture.
“We’re pursuing whatever leads develop,” said Joan Hyde, an FBI spokeswoman. “While some of those are out of state, our focus remains primarily in this area.”
Hyde had no more additional information about how Joseph Jose Banks, dubbed the Second Bandit, and his cellmate, Kenneth Conley, managed to escape Tuesday.
“Our focus is just to locate these guys and to get them back behind bars,” Hyde said.
The federal jail employees figured something was wrong at 7 a.m. Tuesday when they came to work and saw a lengthy rope, made from bedsheets and other material, dangling from a narrow window 17 stories above the ground.
When jail officers did a quick head count, they found one cell with two beds — filled with clothes and sheets stuffed under blankets in the shape of prisoners, according to a federal criminal complaint.
They found a clean slice near the base of the 5-inch-wide cell window and busted-out cinder-block underneath it, creating a big enough hole to slip through.
They found metal bars from the window in one mattress — and a set of fake metal bars, too.
The officers found homemade harnesses, perhaps fashioned from a stretcher used for prisoners.
What they didn’t find were any prisoners.
Banks had aspirations to be a clothing designer and was known to be able to sew anything, prompting authorities to wonder if that skill had helped Banks fashion his escape.
Banks had just been convicted last week in four bank heists that netted him nearly $600,000.
But he didn’t spend his haul on lawyers. Instead, he represented himself in court, declaring he was a “Moorish national” not bound by federal law, only to find himself strapped in a chair for his unruly behavior.
After his trial, Banks vowed retribution, yelling at the judge, “You’ll hear from me!”
The escape prompted a massive manhunt Tuesday morning for Banks, one of the most prolific bank robbers in Chicago history, and Conley, a former strip club floor host, who netted less than $4,000 from his Homewood bank robbery. Both men face lengthy prison sentences from their robberies alone.
The FBI-led search involved SWAT teams, helicopters and bloodhounds and stretched from a Greyhound bus terminal near the jail at Clark and Van Buren to the Tinley Park home of Conley’s mother.
One neighbor of Conley’s mother watched as cops burst into the home Tuesday morning and said, “It’s like watching a movie go down.”
“They’re getting guns out, and they’re all armored up,” Jon Windish said.
The cops came up empty; the men apparently had come and gone.
The escape raised serious questions about procedures at the Metropolitan Correctional Center and how Banks and Conley could bust out of a facility that had been considered extremely secure.
“It’s heavy, heavy-duty security,” said criminal defense attorney Joseph “The Shark” Lopez, who has visited clients in the jail since 1984. “I can’t even get a cough drop in there.”
Banks and Conley were accounted for at a 10 p.m. Monday head count, according to the criminal complaint charging them with the escape. But it’s unclear what happened at the usual head counts about midnight and then at 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Officers using flashlights are supposed to confirm there are actual prisoners under any blankets, according to a source familiar with the matter.
It’s also unclear what tool the men used to make a clean cut through the jail window, why no one heard them bust through the cinder block, or how no jail employees saw them on the video-surveillance cameras around the MCC. A jail spokesman declined to answer a series of questions from the Chicago Sun-Times.
Police said both men, who were thought to be traveling together on Tuesday, should be considered dangerous.
Banks, 37, is described as a black man, 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighing 160 pounds, and Conley, 38, is described as a white man, 6 feet tall, weighing 185 pounds. After the escape, police swarmed the area around the MCC.
Cops searched a parking garage near the federal jail with K-9 units and a nearby Greyhound Bus station as well.
One man transferring from one bus to another was briefly handcuffed and detained. Police looked at photocopied images of the escapees while asking the man for his identification and travel plans, witnesses said.
Damien Wilson, 21, was in one of the toilet stalls at the bus station when police came charging in.
“They came in, shaking all the stalls,” said Wilson, who had just returned to the city after visiting relatives in Milwaukee.
The cops apologized, Wilson said.
Later Tuesday morning, police swarmed Conley’s mother’s house in Tinley Park. Authorities suspect the men may have taken a Metra train out there; their images were caught on public-transit cameras at a Tinley Park train station, only blocks from the home.
Heavily outfitted and armed police burst through a side door of the home and searched inside with the help of a dog but came up empty. Authorities worried the men were able to get a change of clothes at the home.
Another search in the New Lenox area with bloodhounds came up empty as well.
Escapes from the MCC are rare.
Two inmates escaped from the sixth floor of the MCC in 1985. Bernard Welch and Hugh Colomb were being housed in the witness quarters of the MCC because they were telling officials about supposed escape plans being hatched in prisons in Downstate Marion and in Atlanta. In reality, Welch and Colomb were making their own escape plans, and they figured it would be easier to escape from the witness quarters.
The inmates smuggled a barbell from the workout area into the cell they shared and punched a hole in the cinder-block wall. They used a 75-foot cord connected to a floor buffer to rappel down the wall to the grassy plaza below.
Three months later, Welch was arrested in Greensburg, Pa., in a stolen BMW. Two months after that, Colomb was arrested in Canton, Miss., after he robbed a bank, dropped a shotgun and entered a furniture store and tried to pose as a customer.
Contributing: Allison Horton, Tina Sfondeles, Kara Spak, Casey Toner