Jack Be Nimble: Serial Killers Who Escaped Custody

K. RamslandSource: K. Ramsland

The recent Netflix series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, features Ted Bundy's escape from custody in two different incidents. First in mid-1977, he spotted an opportunity while in the Pitkin County Law Library in Colorado. He’d been reading Papillon , a book about a daring prison escape from Devil’s Island. Jumping from a second-floor window while no one was looking, he ran into the wilderness. Ill-equipped for mountain conditions, he eventually got caught. Still, he stayed vigilant—and prepared—for another opportunity. At the end of that year, Bundy lost enough weight to shimmy through a hole in the ceiling of his cell at Colorado’s Garfield County jail. He ended up in Florida, where he killed three more before he was caught.

Other serial killers were also skilled at exploiting opportunity. In 1918, Earle Leonard "Gorilla Man" Nelson was placed in a psychiatric institution after numerous incarcerations. He found the place easy to escape, and he left so many times that "Houdini," as they called him, was finally discharged. Over the course of two years, he killed two-dozen people. Caught in Canada, he escaped custody, in part because he was so agreeable that the officers thought they had the wrong man. Nelson boarded a train, where his luck ran out. Several detectives onboard recognized and arrested him. He was executed in 1928.

Sometimes these killers escape as part of a cohort. In 1993, Donald Leroy Evans, who'd murdered a homeless girl and two prostitutes, was waiting for his trial in the Harrison County Jail in Mississippi. With three other inmates, he pulled a shank on a guard and got out. He was caught within a day, not far from the jail.

During the summer of 1978, Randy Greenawalt shared a cell at Arizona State Prison with Gary Tison. Greenawalt was in for killing a truck driver, and had confessed to two other murders. On July 30, Tison’s sons broke them both out. They escaped in a Lincoln Continental. When a tire blew near the California border, a man stopped to assist and paid with his life, along with that of his wife, son and niece. The fugitives took his car. They allegedly murdered another couple in Colorado to switch vehicles before they ran a police roadblock. Greenawalt was caught, but Tison escaped into the Arizona desert, where he died from exposure.

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Even female serial killers have managed to get away. Dorothy Puente left while police were digging up the bodies of her victims from her garden in California. Not yet a suspect, she took advantage of her appearance as a kindly old lady to get away before they arrested her (but they did catch her). Lyda Trueblood was sentenced to life in prison for poisoning four husbands, a daughter, and a brother-in-law. She’d been a model prisoner for a decade, so the guards let down their guard, so to speak. Removing a bar from her cell window, she shimmied down a bed-sheet rope. Remaining free long enough to remarry, Trueblood was back in the clink 15 months later.

Another killer who used bed sheets was Hugo Selenski. Authorities had searched his backyard in 2003 and discovered the bodies of a missing pharmacist, the pharmacist's girlfriend, and three sets of charred human remains. Eventually, they convicted him for strangling the pharmacist and his girlfriend during a robbery. Selenski, 41, had brutally beaten the man to make him reveal the location of his money. Just after Selenski’s arrest, he fashioned a rope from bed sheets in his cell and escaped. He remained free for three days, triggering a manhunt, before he turned himself in.

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One Canadian killer managed to acquire a credit card while in prison. Found guilty of the murder in 1971 of Elizabeth Porteous, Wayne Boden confessed to three others and received four life terms. In 1977, he acquired an American Express card. Allowed out on a day pass, Boden fled. For two days, no one knew where he was. Finally, police found him in Montreal, eating lunch.

In nearly every case, the predator was ready. He or she watched for an opportunity, no matter how long it took, and capitalized on slipshod procedures or slack personnel. In some cases, they killed again.