Capture of jail escapee ends with bang, thud

The parents of the man who owned the townhouse where prison escapee Joseph Banks was found talk to the Tribune. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The spectacular escape from Chicago's high-rise federal jail — the first in nearly 30 years at the facility — fueled theories that convicted bank robber Joseph "Jose" Banks had a sophisticated plan to elude capture with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loot he had stashed away.

But in the end, Banks was hiding in a predictable spot less than five miles from the South Loop jail and was betrayed by someone who had spoken with the fugitive and was able to give authorities his exact location, a law enforcement source said. When he was captured, Banks had no cash, weapon or cellphone, and he was wearing some of the same clothes he had on when he escaped three days earlier, the source said.

Banks, who along with a cellmate scaled down some 15 stories of the sheer wall of the Metropolitan Correctional Center using a rope fashioned from knotted bedsheets, was taken into custody on the North Side by FBI agents and Chicago police about 11:30 p.m. Thursday. He was holed up at the home of a boyhood friend in the 2300 block of North Bosworth Avenue, just blocks from his former apartment and Lincoln Park High School, which he attended in the 1990s.

The second escapee, Kenneth Conley, also a convicted bank robber, remained at large Friday.

Neighbors on the quiet block where Banks was discovered described hearing the loud bang of a flash grenade — designed to stun anyone inside a residence without causing serious injury — followed by agents and officers swarming the Fullerton Court Apartments just west of the DePaul University campus.

Within minutes, agents led Banks away in handcuffs and dressed in a T-shirt and shorts.

"We heard a big boom first," said the Rev. Baggett Collier, who lives in the complex. "We thought a transformer burst or there was a traffic accident. … I went out and I saw (Banks). He was cuffed. His head was down. I didn't hear him say anything. They got him into the wagon peacefully. The police were pretty calm bringing him out."

Hours later, Banks shuffled into a federal courtroom dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and shackled at the waist and ankles with thick, padlocked chains. The slightly built former fashion designer answered questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier softly and politely — a sharp contrast to his defiant behavior during his trial last week on bank robbery charges in the same federal courthouse.

Banks, a prolific bank robber dubbed the Second Hand Bandit because of the used clothing he wore during his holdups, was charged with one count of escaping federal custody that carries a sentence of up to five years in prison on conviction. He also faces sentencing in March for his conviction last week for two bank robberies and two attempted holdups.

Prosecutors objected to any bond being set on the new charge, suggesting matter-of-factly that Banks was a "flight risk" and a danger to the community. Banks' attorney, Beau Brindley, did not argue for his release.

After the brief hearing, Brindley called his client a "mild-mannered" person whose statements at trial were misconstrued as threats toward the court system.

"This is not a violent person," Brindley told reporters in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. "He's a talented artist and clothing designer."

Banks' cousin Theresa Ann Banks said in a telephone interview Friday that he never tried to contact her or anyone else in the family during his short time on the run. Family members were still trying to piece together conflicting information they were getting on the circumstances of his arrest, she said. Asked who lived in the home where her cousin was found, she replied, "Maybe a friend."

Theresa Ann Banks said the family has spent the past few days scared for his safety, especially since he had been described as "armed and dangerous."

"He's not the bad guy they've made him out to be," she said of her cousin. "He's soft and gentle, and he has a good heart."

Banks and Conley were last accounted for in the jail at 10 p.m. Monday during a routine bed check, authorities said. About 7 a.m. the next day, jail employees arriving for work saw ropes made from bedsheets dangling from a hole in the wall near the 15th floor and down the south side of the facade.

The two had put clothing and sheets under blankets in their beds to throw off guards making nighttime checks and removed a cinder block to create an opening wide enough to slide through, authorities said.

The FBI said a surveillance camera a few blocks from the jail showed the two, wearing light-colored clothing, hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks, according to the FBI.

The daring escape was an embarrassment for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and a rarity for the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where the only previous successful escape took place in 1985. A high-ranking employee in the facility told the Tribune this week that video surveillance had captured the men making their descent, but that the guard who was supposed to be watching the video monitors for suspicious activity may have been called away on other duties.

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