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Robbers break out of Chicago high-rise jail

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 9:45 a.m. CST

(Continued from Page 2)

(MCT) — CHICAGO — Minutes after being convicted of bank robbery last week, Joseph “Jose” Banks, the so-called Second Hand Bandit, warned the judge he’d have more to say later.

“You’ll hear from me,” said Banks, who had repeatedly disrupted his trial with displays of defiance.

On Tuesday, just four days later, a widespread manhunt had been launched after Banks and a second inmate, Kenneth Conley, rappelled down the side of a high-rise federal jail in Chicago’s South Loop, scurrying some 15 floors to freedom on a rope made from bed sheets.

The daring, carefully planned escape from the Metropolitan Correctional Center by the cellmates shocked federal law enforcement officials who late Tuesday were still scrambling to find two violent bank robbers on a desperate run.

The hulking jail with its narrow slits for windows has defied escape attempts. This marked only the second successful one and the first in almost three decades. Just three years ago, however, a brother of a famous Hollywood director was caught with 31 feet of roped bed sheets in his cell.

The two escapees made for memorable bank robbers — Banks for his goofy disguises and Conley for the dapper suit he wore to his lone heist.

Banks and Conley were present for a 10 p.m. check Monday, but by 7 a.m., jail employees arriving for work saw the crudely wrapped rope dangling on the south side of the building, still swinging in the wind.

Guards found the window in the inmates’ cell broken and the makeshift rope tied to its bars, federal authorities revealed late Tuesday in filing escape charges against the pair. Numerous articles of clothing and sheets were piled under a blanket in both their beds to make it appear they were asleep for the standard overnight bed checks.

In addition, authorities found metal bars from the window in a mattress as well as fake bars in the cell, suggesting the two had gone to some lengths to cover their tracks as they prepared their escape.

But exactly how Banks and Conley slipped through a window just 5 inches wide was not immediately clear.

“You’ve got to be a contortionist to pull that one off,” said Scott Fawell, a top aide of convicted former Gov. George Ryan, who himself spent about eight months at the jail for corruption.

However, one law enforcement source said Banks and Conley may have removed a cinder block from beneath the window to make a bigger opening to slip out.

The jail was placed on lockdown after the jail break and visits with inmates were canceled, according to several criminal defense attorneys who planned to meet with clients. The facility, which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, opened in 1975 and houses about 700 inmates.

Conley and Banks were last seen in suburban Tinley Park and are believed to be together. Banks, 37, was described as black, 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing 160 pounds, while Conley, 38, is white, 6 feet and 185 pounds.

Banks could have as much as $500,000 stashed away, according to testimony at his trial. He stole a combined $589,000 in two robberies, but only about $80,000 had been recovered or accounted for through Banks’ purchases, prosecutors said.

The FBI called Banks one of the most prolific bank robbers in Chicago history, saying at the time of his arrest in 2008 that he was suspected in some 20 heists. However, he was charged in only two bank robberies and two attempted holdups. A jury convicted him on all counts last week.

An aspring clothes designer, Banks was caught on bank surveillance tapes in 2007 and 2008 jumping bank counters and directing employees to empty vaults while wearing a fake beard and speaking in a Jamaican accent. He was dubbed the Second Hand Bandit because of the discount clothing he wore during the robberies.

On the day he was scheduled to go to trial in late October, Conley abruptly pleaded guilty to robbing a Homewood bank in 2011 while brandishing a pistol and threatening a teller.

“If you don’t give (the money) to me, I will put them in your head,” he allegedly said.

A well-dressed Conley then went to the Chicago Heights strip club where he worked while still dressed in the black suit and white tie he wore during the holdup, flashing cash around, prosecutors alleged. He paid off a $400 debt he owed before telling co-workers he was jetting off to Bermuda, according to the charges.

Conley, incarcerated at the jail since October 2011, faces a maximum 20 years, while Banks, who has been in custody since 2008, could be hit with an 80-year sentence. An escape conviction carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Early in the day the search for the duo zeroed in on Tinley Park, where Conley lived and where the two had last been spotted, authorities said. SWAT teams searched the home of a Conley relative, but the investigators missed the two by a few hours, authorities said.

Helicopters hovered above the suburb as streets were blocked by police squads as the search continued. The SWAT team walked the nearby streets with dogs as neighbors followed behind, snapping pictures with their phones. About two blocks down, the officers searched the Metra stop.

In the wake of the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Tinley Park officials notified local schools and dispatched police officers to school buildings closest to where the search was under way.

Federal and local law enforcement also charged into Conley’s old strip club, Club 390, surprising staff and patrons, in an attempt to find him, staff said.

FBI agents first showed up at the Chicago Heights club early Tuesday morning, hours before it’s 11 a.m. opening. The agents questioned an employee who told them she hadn’t seen Conley, staff said.

Sheriff’s deputies returned to the club around 1 p.m., bursting into the club in police gear and scattering the lunch crowd, employees said. A few officers questioned staff and searched the building, including the dancers’ dressing room and women’s bathroom. Plainclothes officers remained seated in the darkness at the periphery of the stage around 3 p.m.

A mug shot of Conley was posted near the cash register at the bar.

Authorities were chasing numerous tips into the night Tuesday, but the search so far remained focused on Chicago and the suburbs.

A woman who answered at the home of a relative of Conley said the day’s events were “very upsetting for everyone” and declined further comment.

The Banks family learned of the escape while watching the morning news, said Banks’ cousin, Theresa Ann Banks, who pleaded for her cousin to turn himself in.

“I just don’t want to see him get hurt or killed,” she said with a shaky voice. “(The family) is trying to hold themselves together. We just have to have faith in God and hope everything goes right.”

Banks represented himself at the trial, challenging U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer so much that he was briefly strapped into a restraint chair during the trial. In court filings, he identified himself as “Joseph Banks-Bey,” a Moorish national, and made court filings defying the court’s jurisdiction.

He offered a long, rambling closing that Pallmeyer finally had to cut off because Banks would not stop making wild accusations that the government had “trumped” up the charges and rigged photo lineups in the case.

The law enforcement source said security had been stepped up for Pallmeyer and the prosecutors involved in Banks’ trial.

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(Tribune reporters Rosemary Regina Sobol and Adam Sege contributed to this report.)

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