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Kenny Johnson’s Escapes

Back in olden-times (the 1980s) I was in Marion, the fed’s end-of-the line maximum security penitentiary for the third time, counting off the days, weeks, months, and years of my 199-year sentence given to me in Chicago when I tried to play John Dillinger, robbing banks and shooting cops. But Dillinger engineered a successful escape  —  I only got two more five-year sentences added on for my failed escape attempts.

While researching case law concerning litigation I filed in 1972  —  when I spent 28 months in Marion’s Long Term Control Unit based upon false, fabricated, bogus charges (settled 24 years later for $20,000)  —  I chanced upon a series of lawsuits filed by convicts in Arkansas detailing the conditions of their confinement. In one of the cases, which spanned 18 years, Chief Judge Henley wrote, “…banishment from civilized society to a dark and evil world completely alien to the free world, a world that is administered by criminals under unwritten rules and customs completely foreign to free world culture.” 

One incident perhaps illustrative of this world occurred when a 15-year old boy was sentenced to one day in the prison, but was worked to exhaustion with little or no food provided and then shot to death. Or, if one considers this as merely an isolated, unfortunate occurrence, then the Merton events might well exemplify this “dark and evil world.” When Tom Merton was appointed as a reform warden by Governor Rockefeller, then, with directions provided by a convict, he dug up bodies of prisoners listed as “escaped.” The local coroner then threatened to cite him for disinterring bodies without a permit. After being discharged as Warden, he was unable to find employment in the “correctional” field. The movie Brubacker presented Hollywood’s version of this affair.

While I was reading these cases and considering the horrendous conditions, I learned of even worse conditions when I mentioned to Kenny Johnson, an old-time convict on the tier, what I was reading. He said, “Yeah, I know, I was there.” His narrative was so interesting that I spent several of my infrequent recreation periods in front of his cell recording them. I’ve talked to many infamous gangsters, killers, certified psychopaths, professional thieves, and various assorted jailhouse specimens during my years of doing time since 1950  —  but none match Kenny's exploits, some of which follow.

In 1956, while in the 82nd Airborne, training troops in the use of field artillery, Kenny was given a Christmas furlough. En route to Oklahoma City, he got into a crap game at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. He met a soldier in the game who volunteered to give him a ride. On December 23rd, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, they were stopped by the cops and the driver, Kenny, and another passenger were all arrested for car theft. It seems that the soldier had stolen a brand new Ford from a dealer's showroom. In order to spread the blame around, Kenny claimed that all three of them had taken the car. After a quick and speedy trial before a judge, Arkansas style. absent a lawyer, all three found themselves in Cummins prison still in their uniforms on January 10, 1957. Kenny was given three and four years, consecutive, for burglary and grand larceny.

After a few months in the “long line” (the line of workers in the field), Kenny was sent to Tucker, since he was only 19 years old. At that time they used squads called “spots,” ranked from one to five according to their ability to pick cotton. The slow four and five “spots” had some of their members beaten every day. first at the four weigh-ins and later at the barracks. They worked fourteen hours a day and were supposed to pick 600, 500, etc., pounds a day, depending upon what “spot” they were assigned to. Only heavy fog was sufficient cause for cancellation of field work. Sometimes they were rented out to private farmers in the area.

Attempted escape called for 30-60 lashes with the strap, often administered by Captain “Windmill” Fletcher, an expert, whose rapid strokes resembled a rotating windmill. He could whip the pockets off the cotton-sack clothing they wore. The other cons would have to soak them in the shower to separate the cloth from the bloody skin on their backs, buttocks, and legs. Then in a few days, before they had healed, the beating was repeated.

Additionally, in order to identify them, they had their heads shaved once a week and were called “pea-heads.” They also had to wear red shirts  —  of course the state didn’t provide hats, gloves, or socks.

While running to work one morning a 17-year old kid from New Jersey, who talked funny like all those Yankees, slipped on the ice and fell out of line. An inmate shotgun guard then shot him in the buttocks. The one-third inch diameter 00 buckshot had probably ricocheted off the hard clay “gumbo” ground. When he kept flopping around and moaning, a young Captain (all guards were called Captain, the Warden included), 6’5” or 6’6” tall, about 270 lbs,, light brown hair, who began work after Kenny arrived, stopped his pickup, and stomped the kid’s head under the “bar-ditch” ice water until he stopped kicking. Oh well, one less goddamn Yankee convict to worry about.

Another con slipped and fell down while running to work and was shot with 00 buck. The same Captain had him bend over his pickup and cut the buckshot out with his pocketknife. Kenny said you could hear him screaming a half mile away.

Another Yankee youngster kept “falling out” during the four or five mile run back to camp after a day in the 110° heat. The cons kept holding him up and helping him run. While he was propped up against a tree near the barracks, he died.

After they had “fried” someone in the electric chair (and this is what literally happens), a few cons were picked at random to carry the body and the body juices away. But the charred flesh smell remained for a day or so.

But all their policies weren’t of this notorious nature. In order to compensate for the food served  —  black-eyed peas, turnip greens, cornbread, etc., often crawling with weevils  —  they magnanimously allowed the lads to kill and eat any creature which had trespassed onto their property. Since the only meat served was goat meat on Christmas and the Fourth of July, turtles, snakes, birds, cats, dogs, pigs were eagerly sought, slaughtered, and consumed. The dogfood sold by the hacks at highly inflated prices helped sustain those who could hustle up the required cash.

At that time Tucker was all white, except for one ancient black who slept in the goat barn. When the “long line” came through one day shoveling manure on a clean-up sweep, they left him in the water trough  —  drowned.

One strange feature existing at that time  —  definitely not to be found now  —  was the fact that there were no stool-pigeons in the “barracks.” Kenny never heard of one convict snitching on another. One youngster's parents had bought a shotgun guard job for him immediately after he arrived (which is considered, and in fact is, the same as informing). Now many inmate guards had shot convicts, but for some reason another shotgun guard shot and killed this youngster. For that unheard of breach of trust, and since the dead kid's folks had influence, he was electrocuted.

On Sundays, if the crews weren't working, they let the cons fist-fight each other while enclosed in a hose coiled in a circle on the ground. The only rule in effect was that one fighter had to knock his opponent out before quitting.

Kenny told his mother not to come down to see him, but one day he was called out for a visit (with a trustee perched nearby). When his mom walked in, she looked directly at him, didn't recognize him, and walked on. When he called her back, she couldn't believe what had happened to him. Before she left, she berated Bruton, the Warden, for all the weight he'd lost. But when the good Warden ordered him weighed, lo and behold, his weight was normal. So, therefore, no other option existed but to beat him for lying to mom.

He was wired up to the “Tucker Telephone” three times. (An old-fashioned phone generating electricity when a crank is turned.) The first time was when he was chopping cane and cut through his new shoe and severed an artery. After they beat him for damaging state property, he was strapped in a barber chair in the “hospital” and sewed up by a convict “doctor”  —  sans anesthesia. When he loudly complained about it, one electrode was attached to his penis, one to his scrotum and the crank turned.

The second session occurred after a spider bit his hand and it became swollen. They put him in their “hospital” overnight, with, evidently, a mental case. During the night the “nut” carved into a table some notation to the effect that the two of them were going to escape. When the “doctor” discovered this in the morning he became infuriated and had “latch-eye, ” a one-eyed trustee, beat both of them, after which one of the Captains lashed them. Then they were locked in separate cells in death-row. The “nut” was given an oak riot baton, while Kenny received a rubber hose filled with lead. The doors were then opened and both were ordered to fight. Kenny told him not to go for his rib, but the “nut” charged him: so he broke his arm, his leg and fractured his skull. Perhaps because they didn’t expect broken bones, they gave Kenny an even hotter crank-up with the Tucker Telephone. (The faster the crank is turned, the more amperage it discharges.) He said he had never experienced such excruciating pain.

When a number of cons became involved in a brawl in the barracks, he was given the treatment again. In some special cases they inserted a copper tube up the rectum attached to one wire, with the other wire hooked to the penis.

When his mom was able to intercede with the governor, whom she had known since childhood, his time was cut and he was paroled to Oklahoma in 1958, He weighed 180 pounds when he started his sentence; 120 pounds when released.

Convicts have a saying, “What goes around comes around.. In Arkansas, what had gone around later came around. Certain policemen could testify that this is indeed a fact: a certain number of other individuals are unable to!

In retrospect, one might conclude, that the Arkansas Department of Corrections didn’t “correct” Mr. Johnson. He is now serving 1,634 consecutive years, other assorted miscellaneous concurrent years plus two life sentences.

After serving a couple of short sentences at “Big Mac” (the Oklahoma prison at McAlester), and a few months in the infamous Ellis Unit in Texas (which was a picnic compared to Tucker), he was released. When he was charged with a heist at the airport in Ardmore, Oklahoma. and jailed, he stayed locked up for months until the State Supreme Court ruled that he could post bond. But apparently one member of the police department didn’t agree with this judicial decision. In July 1967, as Kenny was walking home late one night, a lieutenant parked in a squad car called his name. When Kenny answered, he fired a round from his pistol at him, followed by five more as he ran away, one of which hit him in his left calf.

While hiding out for a few months, Kenny kept pondering what the cop had tried to do. So he decided that what goes around should come around, tit for tat, counter-kill for kill. In the fall of 1967, he came back, found the good lieutenant alone in his car, walked up and emptied two revolvers at him through the windows. Unfortunately, he missed. The cop was only cut by flying glass as he dived downward.

In the ensuing pursuit, 19 squad cars chased him. He was hit by 00 buck in the wrist and captured. His car took 37 hits. His sister painted red circles around the holes and drove the car for several years with the sympathy of quite a few local Ardmore citizens.

While lodged in the local jail, he had a pistol smuggled in. On January 1, 1968, Oklahoma was playing football, a major event which called for all loyal supporters, police included, to watch the game on TV. Kenny called the jailer to his cell, stuck him up, opened all the cells up, and offered everybody their freedom. However, sad to relate, only one gal left with him.

After being captured again in Oklahoma City, he was returned to “Big Mac.” On Thanksgiving night he went over the wall.

Shortly afterwards, he was in a Big Springs, Texas, motel with a friend and two gals. Unknown to him, one of the gals had phoned her mother, who told someone else, who passed the word to a snitch, who tipped the cops off as to where they were staying. As Kenny happened to look out the window where he saw the top of a cowboy hat slide past the lower edge of the window. He grabbed a double barreled 12 gauge sawed-off shotgun just as someone knocked at the door. At the same instant, undoubtedly by error, someone on a bullhorn called for them to come out with their hands up. That removed any doubt as to who it was  —  so Kenny blew two holes in the door, knocking off the Texas Ranger's hat and some of his hair. The cops then fired volley after volley into the room, demolishing the door and window. But, miraculously, no one was hit. Of course they were captured. Sometime later, an unknown varlet shot the stool pigeon in both legs, crippling him. He's now in a wheelchair serving a life sentence in a Texas prison. What goes around, comes around.

The next stop for Kenny and his partner was the Lubbock, Texas, jail. Before a court appearance, they cut two “shanks” (knives) out of the base of a mop bucket and gambled that they wouldn't be “shaken down” after leaving their cells. It was a good gamble. On the elevator coming back from court, they grabbed the guards, and in a repeat of the Ardmore escapade, opened up all the cells. Out of about 400 prisoners, only one left with them. So much for the jailhouse “dangerous desperadoes.”

On a jewelry store heist in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in January, 1969, Kenny's partner shot a cop and was then shot himself. After they were captured, his pal was sentenced to 50-300 years. Then for the next year or so their home was “The Rock,” a lockup in McAlester prison, where tear-gas was part and parcel of their everyday routine. After being released to “population” (the normal prison routine), Kenny went over the wall again in October, 1971.

While driving through Oklahoma on November 7, 1971, a state trooper stopped him for what appeared to be a routine traffic check. However, his picture had been widely distributed and the cop had recognized him. As he stepped out of his car, the trooper, with no warning, opened fire on him, hitting him in the chest, left leg, right hand and wrist.

Kenny blew part of his would-be assassin’s ear off. But unknown to either of them, one round had hit the cylinder of Kenny’s revolver, with the bullet splattering and jamming it. When the patrolman’s gun was empty, he dropped it and Kenny advanced toward him. When he started begging for his life, Kenny told him, no, he's going to kill him!

After watching him try to pull the trigger unsuccessfully, and realizing something was wrong, the cop snatched up his own gun and started reloading. By the time Kenny ran back to his car, got his M-16 rifle and returned to finish the job, the cop had run into a nearby grassy area and escaped. By this time, 10-20 motorists had stopped to watch the action. The heroic officer was awarded the Trooper Of The Year award, even though Kenny got away.

But on November 9th, while recuperating from his wounds in an apartment in Oklahoma City, FBI agents surrounded it and arrested him. After surgery, with his right hand in a cast, he was lodged in a hospital on the second floor secured by leg irons. On November 15th, the guard fell asleep while listening to his radio, Kenny tied his sheets together at 3am and slid down them, holding on with his left arm  —  naked. He found a piece of white canvas for cover and burrowed into a pile of leaves by a wall two blocks away, where he stayed the rest of the night, all the next day, and part of the next night. Then he heard someone walk up very close to him and remain motionless for about fifteen minutes. When he finally decided to venture a movement and take a peek, fully expecting to be shot, he saw a half-starved St. Bernard staring at him. He believes the dog smelled a candy bar he had brought with him, so he gave some to him. After coaxing his new-found friend to lie down, Kenny curled up close to him to keep warm.

The following night, at about 11pm, they came out and Kenny found a pair of large pants in someone’s garage and a small shirt. He tore the pants legs in order to pull them over his leg irons, then he tied them up with twine and wrapped a towel over his feet. The next chore was to search through several garbage cans to find something for the ravenously hungry dog to eat. When it started raining, he found a gypsy cab in a semi-darkened street. The driver had his daughter in the front seat with him. Kenny had to swing into the rear seat backwards, since he couldn’t lift his foot high enough to step in. But then the dog bounded in with him and wouldn’t get out. When the cabbie objected and started to pull on the recalcitrant St. Bernard to eject him, he noticed the leg irons. Kenny could see he was startled and unsure of the situation, so he nodded toward his daughter. The cabbie drove him to his destination and didn't even inform on him. The official police version was that Kenny’s friend, whose apartment he was arrested in, had waited for him outside the hospital.

This latest escapade so embarrassed the law enforcement agencies, professionals that they are, that the FBI arrested Kenny’s friend, his mother, sister, girlfriend and her daughter. When Kenny heard this news, he called an FBI agent and told him he was going to kill him. But the agent denied responsibility and claimed that the United States Attorney had ordered the arrests. But when he phoned the US Attorney, he blamed the FBI. After a few weeks of negotiations, a bargain was struck whereby the “hostages” would be released if Kenny surrendered. So he did, after which he was then sent to the Medical Center For Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, for mental observation, which suited him just fine.

After fifty days of observing the “joint’ (prison), Kenny devised a system of slipping past two electric doors and a guard station to get onto the worker's yard. He noticed that the guard towers were about 200 yards apart, but the tower near his yard was quite close and the “hack” kept his rifle in his hand. The next day he came back again and discovered enough boards near the horseshoe pits to fashion a ladder. Also the same “hack” was sitting in his tower with his rifle in his hands. But most tower guards don’t cradle their rifles all day. Upon closer scrutiny mirabile dictu he saw that it was a silhouette. With that invaluable knowledge, the escape attempt was set for the morrow with a youngster recommended by some of his friends.

On the 53rd day he was again in the yard ready to go. But his accomplice had cut another kid in on the caper (an all-too common occurrence). Kenny stressed that after they tied two 12-foot makeshift ladders together with web belts, they had to be careful not to hit the alarm wire on top of the first fence as they swung over. One con stood by with a blade in case any of the “inmates” saw their preparations and tried to return to the cell block and “rat” on them.

After a fake fight was started to distract the tower guard, Kenny and the first lad got over the fence unnoticed and without setting off the alarm. But the third kid, scared and in a hurry, hit the alarm wire, causing the hack to open fire, He then gave up. The other youngster ran as far as a nearby shed and huddled behind it for cover. In order to reach the shelter of the nearest trees, Kenny had to run about 200 yards with no cover. When he cleared the second fence and ran into the open area, another tower saw him and opened fire. One round ripped a hole in a loose fitting shirt he was wearing. He said he could smell another tracer bullet as it passed him. But with 54 rounds expended, they all missed.

Before Kenny could climb over another fence a half mile away a correctional officer in a pickup truck tried to run over him, but he clambered over in time. Three guards went over after him and continued the chase. After running up a hill, he discovered an open plowed field which provided no cover, but there was a circular clump of high grass nearby. When he flattened himself down, the guards ran on past him. When they were out of sight he stood up and walked back toward the fence as if he were a hack (their clothes were similar). When a group of guards standing by the fence saw him, he pretended to be looking for the escaped con. Then he scratched a depression in the ground, put branches and grass over himself and remained motionless while guards with dogs searched nearby. One of them said he was going to shake down the grass Kenny was in but another one said, “No. I got that already.”

He came out of his hole after dark and broke off a tree limb for a weapon. As he was walking along a road he heard a truck approaching very slowly and saw a dog trotting along in front. If the pooch had sniffed him out behind the tree, he planned to curtail any future sniffing expeditions with his club. But when they passed him by, he followed the truck to a highway, then saw railroad tracks and began running down them.

By the end of the next night Kenny was many miles away from Springfield. He burglarized a house, caught a chicken, ate it, and, while running down the tracks, noticed a large cat bounding along behind him. The kitty provided companionship as he carried it many miles with him. He crossed the Arkansas border in a “hot” car, and when it ran out of gas he managed to coast it into a small town where he made a connection to get criminally equipped once again.

But it was to be to no avail. About a week later in Dallas, with a gun and money in his car while stopped for a traffic light, a cement truck went out of control and smashed into the last car in the line. The momentum slammed four or five cars together, including Kenny’s. As he didn’t want to face questioning, he tried to drive off, but the car would just barely move. After a few blocks, a squad car pulled him over. Of course, trying to outrun them was impossible, but perhaps out-talking them was possible.

When he tried to get out of the car, he discovered the door was stuck. With a cop pulling and Kenny pushing, the door finally opened and he stepped out. The patrolman then began belligerently demanding why be had driven off. As Kenny was well aware of the reputation of the Dallas cops for brutality, he pulled his pistol and told him not to move. Evidently the cop went into shock, as happens when some people stare down a gun barrel aimed at them. His eyes rolled back in his head, he reached out and grabbed Kenny as he simultaneously reached for his gun. Kenny told him, “No, don’t!” But he was beyond the point of reason and he continued trying to pull his revolver. So Kenny shot him  —  whereupon he fell on Kenny. So he shot him off of him (which later proved fatal). The other cop in the squad car then dropped his gun, threw up his hands and said, “Please no.” He caught four slugs for his trouble. Then after Kenny had walked a block away, one cop fired six shots, which dovetailed with their tale of desperate heroic resistance.

Kenny then found a lad in a car and forced him to start driving. The gentleman later claimed he could see the tips of the bullets in the cylinder, but the gun was empty. When a roadblock was encountered near Ardmore, Oklahoma, they drove around it. After abandoning the car and driver, Kenny bought a box of bullets. He needed them since, with the driver’s identification of him as the notorious Kenny Johnson, Texas launched 38 deputies and two helicopters over the border to join the manhunt. Two divisions of highway patrolmen, fish and game officers, Ardmore cops, prosecutors and police from five counties joined the search. The total reached approximately 250.

Kenny decided he could slip out of town on a seldom-used dirt road. When he tried it in another “hot” car at midnight, a highway patrolman and a city cop chased him. As he stopped and tried to run away, the patrol car smashed into his car. Then both sides opened fire. Kenny was hit by 00 buck as he jumped over a fence. Before he could reload, he was hit again. After he filled his .38 two-inch snub-nose up, he could only crawl away. After a few minutes, a helicopter flew overhead. When five out of his six bullets hit it, they evidently decided they had business elsewhere. Then Kenny lined up his bullets on the ground in rows of six and waited. When a string of flashlights approached close enough, he aimed and fired six times. The cop whose arm he hit screamed and threw his flashlight high into the air. While he was trying to see their various locations, one of them crawled up close and bit him with another shotgun blast. While he was face down on the ground feeling the many holes in his body, he heard a cop nearby. When he swung his gun around, the cop  —  a cool, brave one to be sure  —  grabbed it and told him to turn it loose or he’d kill him. Kenny tried to free his hand, but passed out.

When he partially regained consciousness, six cops were carrying him. In order to get him over the fence, they counted, one, two, three, swinging him back and forth, and then tossed him over. Then he was unceremoniously dumped on a squad car’s floorboards. He learned later that his mom was listening to these events on a police radio.

The next thing he remembered was seeing a cop and a nurse standing beside him. He couldn’t breathe through the oxygen mask strapped over his face, as blood in his throat was choking him. When he tried to pull the mask off, the nurse grabbed his arm, stopping him, but the cop, a lieutenant, could see that Kenny was in extremis, and pulled the nurse’s arm away, allowing him to pull the mask off and cough up the blood, which probably saved his life. He woke up a few days later with so many tubes sticking out of him, he said he looked like a porcupine. Even today, when he’s x-rayed with his 21 bullet holes, he looks like a junkyard.

In Marion prison (the fed's maximum security “joint,” built to replace Alcatraz), in 1979, a woman brought a hijacked helicopter over the exercise yard but was shot. She fell, thrown out to her death by the pilot. She was but one of three women who tried to free a certain airline hijacker, Garrett Brock Trapnell, who has, since that time, become an infamous professional perjurer for the government in a number of cases. Trapnell, Kenny, and “Pirate” (who parachuted from another hijacked airplane over Indiana with a quarter million dollars) were charged in the escape attempt. Trapnell later died of emphysema.

After many years Kenny was finally transferred to Leavenworth in the 1980s. When a bar was found cut in the ceiling of the kitchen, he was locked up and slated for return to Marion. However, a few convicts, me included, have known that this bar was cut since the mid-1970’s  —  before Kenny was there. Of course, the fact that Kenny never had access to the kitchen was ignored by the prisoncrats  —  following the usual Bureau of Prison’s practice. Even though the odds were against success, he decided, “In for a dime  —  in for a dollar,” and with another lad, cut the large bars out of the “hole” (63 building) and got out on the yard late one night. But they were seen by a “Marielito” who promptly notified the guard and they were returned to Marion.

Sixteen years after being shot, Kenny still has an open wound in his back, in addition to other injuries (although he can beat many a younger lad at handball). A few years ago, when his knee became so swollen that his kneecap wasn't even visible, an administrator of the Marion “Health Services” informed him  —  out of the hearing of anyone  —  that, “You're not getting anything from us.” When they carried him to Springfield recently for “treatment,” they put him in a strip-cell with a “hack” sitting outside watching him. Then a P.A. (Physician's Assistant) walked in and unwrapped a tube to insert in his back to drain the infection. First, he arrogantly, and perhaps to show his contempt for this undeserving specimen, jerked the tube against the feces-encrusted wall. When he tried to insert it into the bullet wound, Kenny protested loudly. With that, he was taken back to Marion  —  untreated!

A number of years later he was transferred to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he remains. (Kenneth Johnson, Box 1000, Lewisburg, PA 17837.)

In Kenny's case, taken as an example of what goes around, comes around, what he has done, what was done to him, is irreversible, done, finished. 'Tis true that the moving finger having writ, moves on, nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line. But one can ponder as to how his life and others, would have developed if the good prosecutor hadn't falsely convicted him and then, even given that if the Arkansas Department of “Corrections” had been administered somewhere within the parameters of civilized norms. 

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