One of the most unusual escapes in the history of American prisons took place near Marion on July 21, 1971. At about 1:45 that afternoon, Warren George Briggs, bank robber turned scientist, leapt over two barbed wire-topped 15 foot high fences and ran unscathed through a hail of bullets into the woods surrounding the U.S. Penitentiary. Up until that time, the prison built in 1964, was thought to be escape proof.
Briggs claimed that he and four other fellow inmates risked what seemed to be certain death to prove that Briggs had invented and developed a water de-salting process that would enable mankind to purify sea water at a reasonable cost. And then, in what was the most amazing turn of events, Briggs turned himself in to the FBI four days later in Kansas City, Missouri.
Briggs, a slender 6’1” tall man originally from Baltimore, 34 years of age at that time, told his story to the press. “To escape from a maximum security unescapable prison and then surrender” would be a dramatic act to prove his sincerity, and gain public attention for his invention, he said. Four other inmates agreed to help him with his escape attempt, but were recaptured minutes after the event started. Their efforts were probably intended to be a diversion to help Briggs scale the fences.
The escapee stayed in the woods until after dark, then walked all night, using Interstate 57 to keep himself oriented. The next day, he slept in a grove of trees near a meadow. He resumed walking after dark on the second night and made his way to the truck weight station on I-57. A truck driver struck up a conversation with him. Briggs pulled a knife and made the trucker take him out of the area. The driver, from Peoria, talked Briggs out of accompanying him to his home. He suggested that he could take the escapee to St. Louis where he would be less conspicuous. Briggs agreed and the two drove the truck along I-64 over to Missouri. (Briggs was later tried for kidnapping the truck driver, but was acquitted by a Federal jury of that charge. Briggs was represented by Marion attorney Bernard A. Paul. )
He hitch-hiked across Missouri and stopped at the Kansas City campus of the University of Missouri, where he mingled unnoticed among the college students of that era. He made telephone contact with a relative of another inmate. Together they were able to arrange for the prison psychologist, Dr. William Lyle, and the Marion-based reporter of the United Press International news service, Sam Hancock, to come to Kansas City to help him turn himself in to the FBI. Lyle and Hancock drove to Kansas City, met with Briggs, and accompanied him to the FBI office there.
On January 31, 1972, a jury trial was commenced in Federal Court in Benton, before Judge William G. Juergens. After a week-long trial, Briggs was convicted of escape.
(Submitted by Bernard A. Paul, Atty., on 4/2/2017)