Les Baumettes had many high profile prisoners many of who had money, organization and people on the outside that could have helped them escape if it had seemed feasible? But everyone believed that escape from the prison in Marseilles was a near impossibility, and the only person ever to have succeeded was a resistance fighter imprisoned by the Germans over forty years before, during the Second World War.
I was unimpressed and from day one I started to reckon how it could be done.
I was no 'unimpressed' because I thought the other were too stupid to succeed and that I was cleverer than they were - no I am not a smart ass, as any inmate who ever knew me in jail will confirm. It went much deeper than that. In the first place I believed I was there on a trumped up charge, and twelve years seemed like too much 'time'.
Secondly, it was so deeply ingrained in me to be free, that nothing in the world would have made me behave like a model prisoner quietly serving out my sentence in the hopes of early release.
Although the dangers of being caught were very real they were never uppermost in my mind.
When you have been in and out of jail since youngest childhood it comes as second nature to make the best escape plan you can and then consider the dangers as an unavoidable part of that plan.
I had no previous history of causing trouble in a French jail and was not seen as a 'threat' by anyone. This brief interlude was the first and last time I would know what it was like to be an average inmate with all the normal privileges and freedoms given for good behavior. The authorities did not know me as a compulsive escaper and I was certainly not considered particularly dangerous or devious, in fact they hardly noticed I was there at all- which is perhaps why they did not even notice when I was no longer there four and a half months later!
The first thing I did was offer my services to the jail plastics factory. Prisoners were not forced to work but if they wanted to, it was easy to get a 'job'.
No one looked twice, I was just another inmate knuckling down to his 'time' by finding a way of making the days pass faster.
The 'wages' had exploitation written all over them but I was not in it for the money; I was in it to gain the freedom of movement I needed to explore areas of the prison I would never see if I stuck to my cell.
It's amazing how much you can learn while walking from your cell to the workshop every day. And then of course there are the trucks to be loaded and unloaded; little errands to be run and so many other reasons why an unaccompanied prisoner might be going from A to B within the prison walls. What they didn't notice about me was that I was not only going from A to B but also from C to D and way beyond.
Making myself 'small' and 'humble' the way my Mafiosi professors had taught me in an Italian jail years earlier, I was able to be all but transparent and not once was I challenged as I explored the geography of that ancient stone prison.
As harsh winter gave way to watery spring my escape plan started to take shape. It was a couple of weeks of constant rain that gave me the break I had been looking for. The cold and damp were relentless and, the earth became waterlogged; this caused a minor earth slide under part of a wall supporting the enclosure grill of the patio exercise area. The damage was so insignificant that no one took much notice.
But the wall had collapsed enough to weaken the grill and leave a small gap big enough for me to get through. At last my escape plan was complete.
I have always been a loner so it was easy for me to prepare my escape in complete secrecy. I just went about my business; discreet uncommunicative and 'invisible'.
Knowing how to mind your own business is very important in prison. Not only should you not poke your nose into other people's affairs but you should always keep your own affairs private too. Too many 'privileges' are given to the 'mouton' who give guards information on the thoughts, words and actions of fellow prisoners and so on one is to be trusted. Only my left hand knew what the right hand was doing,
During the day the prison was a buzzing hive of movement with lots of noise and people coming and going from various activities; the guards could not be everywhere to watch every single prisoner in every moment of the time. Indeed, several times in broad daylight I did practice runs of my escape, and no one noticed! Night-time was calmer and there seemed to be a greater vigilance about the security.
For some reason, perhaps the darkness, people always supposes that night is the best time to escape, or do anything else you are not supposed to do; of course this is not the case.
A person moving in a clandestine way at night will be noticed immediately, whereas the busy activity of daytime is a perfect cover for someone venturing into a forbidden part of the prison.
As the saying goes, time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted. A few minutes or even a few seconds is all you need to mentally 'photograph' a door, the length of a corridor or the height of a parapet and this can be vital information for the success of an escape plan.
Observation tells you all you need to know. For example, by watching it is not difficult to know when the guards change shift, what frame of mind or physical condition they are usually in at any given time of day or night. Guard watching became my pre-occupation.
Most of them came from Marseilles or Corsica. It was easy for the Corsicans to get home for their longer breaks because they could get the ferry and be home the next day. Like many prison guards in the South of France, they were nearly all Winos'. Well, you can't blame them really... It must be a lousy job, the hours can be very long and living in jail-most of the time cannot be an easy way of life. There are always fights of one sort or another going on and let's face it, it's a dangerous job.
Of course, they choose it and I have no sympathy with any of them, my sworn enemies one and all; nevertheless I am ready to forgive them their little weaknesses - drinking for example.
The guardians took their lunch at noon each day. They would drink plenty of wine and then the ones detailed to man the watchtowers around the walls would return to their posts. These watchtowers, turrets positioned around the tops of the walls, were glassed in and there was even a rumor that they were air-conditioned but I never believed that. What I did believe was that the guards who worked the towers, usually older men at the end of their careers who had been put in low risk positions, took a bottle of wine up there with them.
As the lunch and the wine combined with the lonely boredom of their shift, sleep was difficult to resist, and with no one around to notice they would fall into a typical southern siesta.
I tested my theory dozens of times by throwing small rocks and pebbles up at the 'window of the nearest tower, and there was no reaction.
Guardians never miss an opportunity to shout verbal abuse at prisoners and punish them for any misdemeanor however small but never once did the guard look to see what was going on or yell, «Hey, what do you think you're doing?' or «Stop that. »
Now, the turrets, which overlooked the entire prison and surrounding area, were a perfect place to drink and snore ones way through an afternoon shift.
I estimate that by 2PM the tower guard would be asleep, and a lot rested on my theory being correct. I must have been right because if the guardian of the tower nearest to my escape point had not been sleeping he would certainly have seen me the day I went over the wall.
So, two in the afternoon was the optimal time to escape and Tuesday the best day. A Tuesday, it was because the café- restaurant directly opposite the jail, was closed that day. Every other day of the week at around 2PM it was full of visitors and off duty guards eating and drinking. I had noticed during my stealthy trial runs that because of the café-restaurant being closed, or perhaps for other reasons I knew nothing about, Tuesday was a quiet day outside Les Baumettes.
Like many high security prisons Marseilles had a double wall of 8 meters 75 centimeters around the perimeter. The outer wall was higher than the inner and there was a stretch of land between the two, a sort of no man’s land. In France this is known as a “chemin d'enceinte”.
My chosen escape route would take me straight over the outside wall, and land me only meters from the main entrance of the prison, facing the cafe. I did not want a big audience so a Tuesday it had to be.
Along with the myth of night being the best cover for an escape goes the theory that a back wall or a quiet part of a prison complex is a good place to breakout. Wrong! Time and again I have found that an area bristling with activity is a good place to commit almost any roguery and remain unobserved. Crowd activity is the best sort of cover and even in a prison courtyard where everyone is under surveillance it is still not possible for every single individual to be watched one hundred percent of the time.
Not many people would choose the front wall of a prison, three meters from the main entrance as their optimum escape spot. I chose this area of the fortifications, because on top of the inner wall, almost level with the entrance was a power generator big enough to hide me from general view once I was up there. Near it was an unmanned watchtower, also good cover.
According to my reckoning the spot between the generator and the watchtower was the nearest thing to a blind spot in the entire perimeter of the prison complex.
Beyond this six meter inner wall was open area backed by another wall eight meter height - behind which lay freedom.
Reaching that second wall would not be easy, as I would have to cross the open space between the two walls undetected. It is easy to calculate that with these two walls to climb and descend I would altogether be hanging my full weight by my arms for at least twenty-eight meters during the combined ascent and descent combined on the two walls, quite a long time to be dangling on a skinny rope, and it would take strength, I knew it was time to go into serious training.
I had always been keen on physical fitness and so it did not raise suspicions when I started to work out even more than usual. Several daily hours of running, weight training, muscle building and karate to harden my hands, soon began to pay off as I became lean, fit and super strong.
I watched what I ate so as to maintain maximum strength while keeping my weight low as possible. I worked on my mental attitude too; I told myself that I had a perfect plan carefully crafted and that nothing could go wrong - unless, of course, bad luck intervened. Oh, yes!
As a player knew that, objectively, was fifty percent chance, because a stroke of good or bad luck can change everything. How many times had seen the perfect escape plans ruined by some little unlucky event happening at the last moment? So I accepted this possibility, but refused to let it dampen my optimism.
An eight-meter rope is obviously not something you find hanging around a prison under normal circumstances, and so as I would not even have the possibility of stealing one. I would have to be inventive.
The prison shop sold a nice -line of espadrilles, which were very popular and typical of what both men and women, wore as casual foot wear all over the south. The sole was made of strong, plaited rope-like cord and the uppers of cotton. They were cheap, cool, comfy and ideal for wearing in the cell. They also ideal for transforming into one long rope strong enough to carry my weight.
Over several weeks I bought as many as I could without raising eyebrows, after all, how many pairs of espadrilles does one man need? Then I started offering drugs as an incentive to others to buy them for me; one joint for one pair of sandals.
Of course I chose my people carefully and made the offer very discreetly; none of my 'buyers' knew I had asked anybody else.
Most people keep their mouths shut in jail, and with drugs offered as the bait it was highly unlikely that any of them would talk about the arrangement with anyone else.
Since childhood I had always known how to make and mend ropes - it’s something any kid from Valparaiso knew in those days, especially those who helped the fishermen in return for free fish. At night in the darkness of the cell, while the others slept I would carefully un-stitch the espadrilles and remove their plaited soles. These I would incorporate into the rope I was making little by little. It took nearly fifty pairs of shoes before I had enough soles to finish the rope to my satisfaction.
Later, after they realized how I had made the escape rope, the sale of such footwear was forbidden in all the jails in France, which seemed a pity.
Naturally my rope was going to need a grappling hood. I had never designed one before but eventually, by studying the metal legs of the plastic stools in the workshop, I could see how, bent into the right shape and with the ends sharpened to a point, they could serve the purpose.
In jail it is nearly always possible to get what you need in the way of weapons; not guns of course, they are very difficult to get hold of however but with a little ingenuity any form of knife can be made.
One by one over a period of time I took the metal legs from stools and asked different men, who worked with the appropriate tools in the factory, to bend them to my specifications and sharpen the ends to knifelike sharpness.
I used the same incentives as I had used for the espadrilles; weed is the best currency in jail.
Of course, none of the men knew I had others doing the same job for me with other stool legs.
Each of them assumed that I was asking them to fashion a particularly original design of weapon, either for self-defense even though it was forbidden.
The component parts were made over a two month period and I planned to fit them together just before departure, firmly fixing all the bent and sharpened stool legs into something resembling a grappling hook.
Although it had a crude and homemade look about it, this strange object later proved to be strong and sharp enough to catch over the side of a parapet and hold my weight as I climbed up and down the attached rope. - I was accumulating so many things by now that I had to have safe hiding places for them... Pretty soon I had found secret nooks and crannies in the shower room and other stuff was hidden under a false bottom of a waste paper basket in the cell; I put disgusting things on top so no one ventured to empty it!
All my life I had always felt more secure, more myself when I had a gun on me. As I said, a gun in prison is not very useful. It's noisy in use and difficult to hide; also the punishment for being found with one is hard. With all the body searches it is almost impossible for a visitor to smuggle one in so it is rare for a prisoner to have a gun. Even so, I was uneasy about breaking out without one.
This dilemma was solved when one day I saw a familiar face; it belonged to a Chilean man who I had known in Genoa. It was during exercise time on the patio and we were able to exchange a few words. He told me that there were at least eight other Chilean men in the prison some of whom I had met before.
Quickly he brought me up to date with news of mutual acquaintances. My excitement started to mount when told me that a woman I used to know well in Italy, Loca Maria, was now living in Cannes. This was exactly the sort of good news I needed. I had no visitors in jail because quite simply there was no one who wanted to visit me.
I had no friends only people I knew. This Chilean man however seemed to have plenty of visitors. He agreed, for a price, to smuggle out a message to Loca Maria by one of his visiting friends who knew where she worked. Prisoner’s mail is usually read and this was one message I had to keep secret.
Loca Maria, Crazy Mary, was a Chilean woman of Yugoslavian origin. She had come to Europe after the political turmoil in Chile in the seventies and although a qualified teacher she had quickly taken to a life of crime and prostitution. I must say she was perfectly suited to this sort of life and she was one of the most dangerous and ruthless women I have ever known. We had an on-off relationship over a number of years, and then went on knowing one another on a business basis.
She was famous in underworld circles in both Italy and France and was one woman no one ever double-crossed, because she would stick a knife in anyone who did her wrong.
I liked and admired this woman because she would always accept a challenge however dangerous and she was unafraid of anything. If anyone would know how to smuggle a gun into Les Baumettes and arrange all the other details like getaway cars and money, 'Maria was the girl.
She was also entirely trustworthy when it came to keeping silent.
She replied to me by the same method and agreed to help me in return for hefty payment; she was after all only interested in the money. The package was going to cost me one hundred thousand French francs, a good sum in 1984 but I thought it was worth every centime.
I sent her the details of how to get the money from my secret stash in Genoa, and told her, 'go ahead with the deal'.
Her method of getting the parts of the gun to me was very clever and I'm not going to tell you how it was done. The police tried very hard to find out but never succeeded, so I am not going to betray secrets by telling you now!
Pretty soon I was in possession of a Smith and Wesson 357 and two rounds of ammunition. She had let me know that a car of certain, color, make and registration would be left in a car park very close to the prison on Tuesday 10th July. Some money would be hidden inside for immediate needs and the key would be taped under the license plate.
What more did I need?
The scene was set. All I had to do now was succeed in getting out.
As the day approached I realized that I would have to invite my two cell mates to come with me.
There was always the chance that they would realize what was going on and grass on me at the last moment. I had tried not to give them any idea what I was up to but three men in a tiny cell meant that they would both have to be blind and stupid not to pick up certain clues. What with the rope, the grappling hook, the gun and all the rest of it, my natural paranoia told me they had started watching me very carefully.
A person informing the authorities of a planned escape can expect as much as a year docked off their Sentence and certain other privileges too.
I did not want these two Frenchmen to be tempted by this incentive and wrecking my plan.
The more I thought about it the more it seemed a good idea to invite them to join me; perhaps they could even be of use if there was a problem. They were both in for long sentences so had an interest in getting out early.
Forty-eight hours before my departure I told them the plan.
To my surprise they had not guessed what was going on and were enthusiastic when I invited them to join me.
And why shouldn't they have been? What luck to have a cell mate presenting you with a ready-made escape plan with all the hard work and expense already taken care of!
In the event, neither of them succeeded because they were not prepared either psychologically or physically. To be serious about escape from an 'escape-proof high security jail’, it takes a special state of mind, and they did not have it. They accepted to make themselves feel like men and because to have refused such a good offer could have left them hating themselves for the next eighteen years.
I heard later that for their small participation they each received six extra months in jail and 45 days in the mitard.
For all I know they told the authorities that I forced them to join me at gun point and so were treated with leniency. I heard a story that they were going around bragging about how they had nearly escaped with Crazy Charlie but I do not know or care if this was true. I never saw either of them again.
We skipped lunch on July 10th to keep our bellies light. I retrieved the equipment from the various hiding places and packed my little backpack like a kid going to scout camp. The gun was heavy, about one and a half kilos, and had to be assembled and carefully placed for safety, and quick and easy removal. I did not want to have to use it but there is nothing more persuasive than a gun should the need arise. I wound the rope around my waist and chest and assembled the grappling hook.
It was a vicious looking thing and not the sort of item you really want to carry in a backpack. I wore a jogging suit and pulled on oversized prison overalls over everything. I must have looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame!
At ten minutes before two, we went to the patio as if to exercise. One by one we slipped through the broken grill and walked purposefully through the grounds, across the garden and past the plastic factory lorry-loading bay. No one challenged us and we kept going as though we had every right to be there. At last we were at the foot of the inner--meter wall and I threw up my grappling hook. What a joy was when I realized that those sharp little legs had caught on the parapet.
I started to climb up and in spite of all my hard training it was difficult because the rope was thin. I made it to the top and the second man started his ascent.
To his credit he made it but he was slow and I was beginning to worry about time. The third man tried to climb up but was unable to get more than a meter off the ground. He was overweight and unfit and I had always had my doubts that they would make it beyond first base. He made a sign to us that he was 'out', so we hauled the rope up and threw it down the other side, because we were sitting on top of that wall like ducks in a shooting gallery.
Down we went, the six meters to the ground of the no man's land between the two walls. No alarms sounded and all was going well.
This gap between the two walls, approximately four meters wide was empty. In some prisons they keep savage dogs in this space to deter would be escapers. In Clairvaux, the cruelest of all prisons where I later past several years of my sentence they have about 50 wild boar; vicious, dangerous animals. Once, a man trying to escape was ripped apart and eaten by the boar. Honesty - only his head remained.
Every year the prison al Clairvaux serves some of this boar for a special meal - can you imagine? You could be eating one of your former cell mates without realizing it! I became vegetarian for 5 years after hearing this story.
Thank goodness Les Beaumettes relied on sleepy old guards and not savage dogs or pigs to guard the walls. Quickly we ran across the grass and looked up at the imposing eight meters of solid stone rising in front of us.
I threw the rope up and once again the hook caught on the top just the way it was supposed to.
At that moment I looked to the right and there coming towards me was a guard.
He was not blowing a whistle, shouting or making any sort of fuss. He seemed to be waving at me.
Instead of trying to run away from him I decided to go towards him and get him out of the frame as quickly as possible. In a movement I had practiced many times in recent weeks, I reached inside the overalls, into the backpack and drew out the gun. I had packed it in a specific way so as to be able to do that in a hurry.
I held it behind my back and walked briskly towards the guard as though I wanted to speak to him about something 'official'. He was obviously curious as to what was happening but had not yet understood.
He was, typically, a man in his late fifties with a touch of 'siesta fatigue'. He had probably been surveying this part of the prison for his entire career, and this was the first time he had actually seen something going on. By the time I reached him he understood the situation and was probably about to call for reinforcements.
When he saw the gun he did not believe it was real; it's so rare for an inmate to have a gun that he assumed it was plastic. I threw him one of the bullets and he was shocked, «Bloody hell, it's real, » he gasped.
I said, "Turn round», but he refused. He didn't want to because he knew I was going to knock him out. So again I ordered, "Turn round, now. »
Perhaps because he could tell by my voice that I might do something worse than knocking him out if he did not obey, he turned around, and with one quick swipe of the gun butt he fell to the ground. I learned later that he was unconscious for three or four hours, which is why he did not get back to raise the alarm.
Just as I had predicted, none of the other guards in their watchtowers saw a thing.
I ran back to the rope and started climbing; the adrenaline and nervous energy making me beat my own record for speed.
The other guy was still standing looking at the guard crumpled on the ground and I did not see him start to climb up the rope. The only thing in my mind at that moment was to get down to the ground, for I was looking down at the street outside the prison - freedom lay only eight meters away.
I needed the rope to make my descent but thought the other man would be half way up by now. Without giving it a second thought I climbed over the parapet and started to slide down the wall with my body pressed as closely to the stone as possible. It was a crazy thing to do. There must have been a miracle there that a day, because I did not pitch outwards and fall at high speed, breaking my back and both legs.
No, I slid down the wall with my hands making contact with the stone all the way. I landed on my feet and rolled the way an ex paratrooper had taught me but at first I thought I had broken a leg. The pain was excruciating and blood was dripping from my hands, which were cut to ribbons. The prison overalls were ripped into strips but the coarse material they were made of had protected the jogging suit underneath.
As ripped off the shredded overalls I looked up for the first time and noticed that I was being watched by a group of Arabs. They were probably an extended family group who had been visiting someone inside.
They just stood there by the bus stop silently watching me, their mouths hanging open, their eyes wide and unblinking in amazement.
I put a finger to my mouth and went Sssh
They were still staring in the same way as I hobbled off down the road towards where the car was supposed to be parked.
Everything seemed very quiet and normal. There were no sirens screaming to warn of an escape and no uniformed men were running after me with guns in their hands. I had landed in a heap only a few meters away from the principal door of the prison and no one had noticed.
I was too caught up in the moment to think 'it's worked - I'm out'. However, I had noticed that the other man had not descended from the wall. I learned later that he had taken, fright at the sight of the unconscious guard and quickly gone back to the cell and laid low.
My ex-cell mates did not want to be held responsible for hitting the guard over the head. He was not seriously wounded but it is the sort of thing for which the system reserves its harshest punishment. I took all the blame for that, and was still paying the price many years later.
The most high security prison in France only learned of my escape several hours later when the Marseilles police telephoned them to report that since early afternoon I had been causing my hem in their city. Until that telephone call they had not even noticed my absence.
No wonder they hated me for making them look so stupid!
By then I was many miles away enjoying a quiet night in a small hotel before checking in to the top hotel in Cannes with half a million francs in my bag. But I'll come to that in a moment.
Finding the car park was not a problem. Finding the car was.
The parking was used by hundreds of people who lived in the nearby low cost housing development.
To find the car Loca Maria had left for me was like looking for a needle in a haystack. I limped among the rows of cars inspecting the license plates of anything that looked like a car of the right make and color.
All the while I was expecting the prison sirens to start screaming out and announcing to the whole world that a man had escaped. But nothing happened. As my frustration grew I started to abandon the idea of ever finding the car and decided to just steal the first vehicle I found with an unlocked door.
Just then, right on cue a man arrived and started to park his car beside me.
Quick as a flash I leapt in beside him. Before he had time to react I put my knife to his neck and said, «Don't say or does anything or I'll cut your throat.
He was so surprised that he just sat there like a frozen statue staring straight ahead, his hands gripping the wheel.
I ripped off his tie and belt and fastened them around his hands and mouth, and then I ordered him to get in the trunk.
The engine was still running and amazingly, we still seemed to be the only people in the car parking,
I drove off in the direction of Marseilles, through the slightly mountainous area where Les Baumettes is situated and back the dozen or so kilometers towards civilization.
I had the address of the lawyer in my head and as I knew Marseilles very well I was able to find it easily and park close to his office. Up the stairs I went and burst through his door my gun already in my hand. «Put your hands behind your head and everyone in the corner, » I yelled.
The lawyer was with three women, perhaps two, of them were clients and the other his assistant. I didn't know and did not care. The women immediately started screaming, «Shut up bitches or you'll be sorry», I said and I meant it.
Meanwhile the lawyer was quaking in his corner and crying, «What do you want, who are you? » «Open the safe motherfucker, » I replied, «I'm fresh out of jail and I've come to avenge my friend inside, you know who. Now open the fucking safe or you get a bullet through the head. » He refused. This idiot refused! A very rash thing to do when there is a desperate man standing over you with a gun in his hand. I could have killed him right there but I gave him a hard bang around the head instead.
He went down half stunned.
In the meantime the women were still screaming and crying. I ordered them «Give in your jewelry and shut up. » They peeled off rings and gold chains and at least it stopped them squealing for a few seconds. Then I went back to the lawyer and gave him another smack around the head, 'Are you going to open the safe or not? » «No, no... . He replied, and as I reached out to slap him again he caught my little finger and stuffed it in his mouth and bit hard. It's the sort of thing a woman would do! I roared in pain as he nearly bit my finger off; it's still bent to this day. I had to hit him over the head again to make him let go.
Meanwhile, the women rushed to the door and poured down the stairs shrieking all the while. 'Oh shit!’ I thought this slut is not worth the trouble.' After all I was not one hundred percent sure that there was a large amount of money in the safe, this son of a bitch might have changed his habits since my friend went behind bars; and with all the noise going on, other people or even the police could arrive any second.
I hadn't gone to the trouble of escaping jail just to be caught an hour later like a sitting duck.
Once more I commanded the lawyer to open his safe but he just lay there on the floor so I tore the gold chain from his neck and emptied his wallet of the two or three thousand francs he had in it and ran off down the stairs, my little finger pouring blood.
My first stop as I walked like any law-abiding citizen into the little square nearby was to drop into a pharmacy. Now I had not only lacerations from the wall slide but a finger almost bitten to the bone. «I just had a little accident down the street, » I said looking pained and vulnerable. “Oh poor you are!” Looks like you need stitches. Sit on this chair sir and we will put a dressing on it immediately.
Thank you little angel that is much better... And off I went.
Because I knew the area, I knew there was a small bank one street away. And I needed money. Is time to go and make as withdraw.
It was easy. At that time there were at least ten armed robberies a day in Marseilles so a man with a gun was not that unusual.
“Everyone go down”. Hands on your head, No one moves or I shoot. The usual patter but it's not what you say it's the way that you say it... The good Marseilles people knew when to 'dive' -- no false heroics for them. It was not their money so they were not ready to fight over it.
I was in and out in minutes; no problems. My little backpack still had plenty of room in it, so with a defiance to match the rest of the day’s events I walked around the corner and straight into another bank where I went through the same routine.
No muss no fuss. I followed my usual rule of not bothering with anything complicated like safe doors or vaults. I leave that sort of thing to people with accomplices who specialize in safe-cracking.
Locked safes are bad news as the mess in the lawyer’s office had proved. I always worked alone and found that the more modest sums found in the cashiers desks were enough for my simple needs.
I walked out of there and into the sunshine mingling with the crowds. As I strolled along towards la Canebiere I passed the car I had hijacked and remembered that the owner was still in the trunk. I did not bear any ill will towards him so I opened the boot as I passed and left it for him to work out that he could now escape.
He went straight to the police but it didn't help them catch me, and months afterwards when they confronted me with this man he denied that I had kidnapped him, probably because he was afraid of what I might do to him later. For my part, I always denied that I had abducted him, so that was one charge less to deal with.
I was in the heart of Marseilles with lots of money in my little pack and very tatty clothes.
The jogging suit had seen a lot of action since I put it on under the prison overalls earlier that day and it was time to get into something fresh.
The afternoon shoppers were pouring in and out of the big department store Le Printemps and I joined them. In the men's wear department I found a decent dark suit and the salesman was happy to help me select a white shirt and silk tie to go with it. Shoes, socks and a business like brief case were next on my shopping list. During a quick visit to the men's room I placed the money in the attaché case and stuffed the back pack and dirty old track suit into the waste bin.
By the time I made it to the discreetly screened wig section on the ground floor I looked like any businessman doing a little vanity shopping.
The store was bustling with activity and the great thing about department’s stores is that no one bothers you. So without interference from sales staff I was able to calmly select a nice black wig of longish hair, as was the fashion of the day, and quite unlike my own short clipped light brown hair.
A pair of standard dark sun glasses completed my total transformation.
My own mother, had she ever known what I looked like, would not have recognized me. The driver of my taxi was sympathetic.
I had told him that I was an officer on a ship docked in Toulon and needed to get there as fast as possible so would he please drive me there.
Toulon was about sixty kilometers away and not a part of his usual route. I said, «The ship cannot leave without me and I will have a real problem if I am not there before five o'clock. How much would it usually cost? » «Five hundred francs» he replied, seeing my smart suit and reckoning I could afford that much. «Look. My job rests on my not being late. I will pay you a thousand francs if you can get me there quickly and by the beach route. » Of course he agreed and was only too happy to take me by any route I wanted.
The beach route would eventually bring us to the port and so was not an unlikely route for a seaman rejoining his ship to want to take; but in reality it would take us off all the main highways out of Marseilles where I was sure they had already erected roadblocks. I thought that by now there would be police crawling all over looking for the dangerous prisoner who had escaped. The slow beach route was the most secure, no one would ever normally try and escape that way; it just wandered peacefully along the coastline.
I chatted with the driver and told him that I was a Greek officer about to sail back home to join my wife and family after ten weeks separation.
In return he told me all about his wife and even passed back photos of his children for me to admire.
We parted the best of friends, he pocketing his thousand easily earned francs and I strode off, firmly holding my brief case.
When he had left out I walked for ten minutes and then slipped into another taxi. «Saint Tropez quick as you can. »
I said to the driver «my ship clocked late and I have a beautiful woman waiting for me! » «Sounds good to me, he joked back, and off we sped.
I paid him off outside the Hotel Stube on the port and walked into the arcade that leads to its entrance - then I walked out the other side. Saint Tropez was full of the usual holidaymakers milling around in various states of undress.
My business-like attire was not quite right for this laid back scene, so as soon as I saw another taxi I asked him if he would take me towards Nice. No problem! 'Food drivers who hang around Saint 'Tropez are used to people going all over the place, especially Nice because of the airport.
I sat back and relaxed.
As we approached Nice I asked him to drop me in an unglamorous suburb outside a block of offices. I made it look like I was returning to my office after a day’s business in the more attractive Saint Tropez.
When he had driven out of sight I walked towards one of those impersonal, commercial chain hotels no guest is not worthy and no welcoming host or hostess shows you the dinner menu and invites you to an aperitif in the bar. I looked and felt completely anonymous as I paid the night in advance and I took my room key from a disinterested girl who had not once looked me in the face.
I flopped down on the bed, exhausted.
It had been a busy day. A quick check through the contents of the attaché case confirmed that I had about five hundred thousand francs but I did not count it note for note, I was too tired. I could tell by looking that it was enough for me to proceed to the next part of my plan, and that was all I needed to know. Back in Marseilles alarm bells ringing and all France was on full alert.
But my anonymous little hotel room was silent... I heard no alarms. I fell asleep almost immediately and had my best night’s sleep for months.
Tomorrow was going to be another busy day and the fun was just beginning.
I left the hotel early the following morning, moving briskly, like any businessman with a busy schedule and an early appointment.
I walked for about ten minutes and then caught a bus to an area full of people who looked just like me: men in suits with attaché cases, on their way to the office.
The `office' I went to was a bar-cafe called Le Petit Nice where the owner knew me well. He opened at six every morning for the early trade and closed after midnight.
He hardly ever slept and was the sort of man I like to do business with. No small talk; no questions; no mistakes. As I entered he was leaning on his counter reading the morning paper, a cigarette hanging from his lower lip, as always. He barely looked up as I sat at the bar; he just prepared a very black coffee and a small glass of cognac and put it in front of me as if I was a regular who passed at this hour each morning for the same 'breakfast'.
I took the coffee, the cognac and the newspaper he had left beside them to a seat by the window and looked down at the full-page story in front of me. 'La Premier Evasion Réussie Depuis 40 ans', shouted the headline.
This is “The first successful escape in 40 Years”.
And along with a lot of misinformation about how I had escaped, I read that the only other person ever to succeed in breaking out of Les Baumettes had been a resistance fighter who with a lot of help from his network had escaped imprisonment by the Gestapo forty years before.
The report described me as a 'dangerous individual' who could certainly not have escaped this, the most high security prison in France, without inside help!
According to them I had taken the sudden decision to shin up some electrical wires someone had carelessly left hanging over the wall, then thrown me into the void beyond. Honestly! As I read this rubbish I almost laughed out loud and promised myself never again to believe what I read in the papers.
The prison authorities were saying anything they thought might save them from looking stupid, and excusing themselves by saying that a lot of guards were on holiday and so they were short staffed.
But apart from that they were keeping quiet; just as well too.
Later that day I heard on the radio that they had not even discovered my absence until the Marseilles police had telephone them late in the afternoon to inform them that one of their prisoners was on the loose in the city, kidnapping drivers and beating up lawyers - they had not yet associated me with the two bank robberies.
The motto of Les Baumettes had been, 'On ne s'evade pas de cette maison d.'arret, No one escapes from this jail'. Their pride had taken a fatal blow, and the subsequent fall of the director, the chief of surveillance and other people in high places as a result of my escapade was something for which no one in 'the system' was ever going to forgive me.
They did not like this challenge to their power and reputation, especially by a little nobody like me... Now if I had been a bit time terrorist or Mafia boss with an army of 'helpers' on the outside and unlimited funds to ease things along, the escape could almost have been accepted as a fatality of the profession. But be a small time player from Chile? Heads would roll!
I finished reading the story and carefully folded the newspaper, surreptitiously slipping five thousand francs and an identity photograph taken in a machine that morning, into the inner pages.
Seconds later, Marcel, a man with whom I had never exchanged more than a few gruff words returned and took the paper off the table; a bistro owner reclaiming a newspaper he had leant to a customer, nothing more nothing less.
He was once again leaning on his counter top reading the sports pages when I next looked in his direction.
Marcel, for all his grubby apron and ever present ‘clop’, was a cool operator. He had never been known to have an actual conversation with anyone. From time to time he had monosyllabic exchanges with someone on a telephone but apart from that he seemed to have an almost mystical of a person’s needs, and even seemed to know when they might walk through his door.
His reputation was impeccable, and his ability to establish an 'individuals identity with a 'real' fake passport or identity card in under two hours was legendary. Marcel had never been known to have problems with the police, probably because he was known to such a 'closed' group and accepted very few new 'clients' -- and then only on the personal recommendation of a small, elite circle of people. Some Italian types had put me in touch with him years earlier and since then he had `re-invented' me many times. The procedure was always the same.
Ten minutes later he returned to my table and grunted,'... too early for lunch, sandwich OK?' Good' replied, I’ll take it on the terrace.'
By now the sun was shining full on to the terrace of the small cafe and people were sitting out there and turning their face to the morning rays.
I sauntered out and took a corner table at the back. It was good to be among free people again; girls wearing pretty clothes and men who came and went as they pleased. I leant back and took a deep breath - the man of yesterday was gone and in a short while I would be a new person with a name and provenance no one would challenge.
Marcel came with a crunchy baguette filled with fresh ham and a bottle of cold Sancerre; he knew it was a favorite of mine. This was my first food since a very long time and I asked him to bring me a second sandwich even before I had started the first.
For the next two hours I sat bathing myself in the warm rays of the summer sunshine, eating, sipping the delicious wine and reading various newspapers with their different reports of my escape.
Lots of other people shared the tables around me doing exactly the same thing and I had never felt more 'normal' in my life.
In less than two hours Marcel came with the bill on a little silver dish. It was neatly folded and inside was something that I was looking for but which no one else would have noticed. I put the money for the food and wine on the dish, then I casually picked up the paper and put it in my inside pocket, like I was pocketing the receipt.
I walked off down the street, attaché case in hand. When I reached a small park with children playing I went in. and sat on a seat under the trees. I pulled out the bill from the case and looked at the Italian identity Card neatly folded inside. It told me that I was now Mario Rossi, Textile Industrialist born in Palermo, Italy in 1955. This suited me very well. I look more Italian than anything else and speak the language fluently. 'Let's go Mario', I said to myself, and left the park with plenty of plans for the rest of the day.
It is so easy to get new identity papers, if you know where to go and have the money. My source of new identities was good because they only supplied genuine identity cards which had not been stolen. Only the photograph would be changed. A stolen identity card or passport is useless because it will be posted as stolen and a person using it will soon be in trouble.
My new Identity Card would have been purchased either weeks or days before from someone in Italy who needed money and had no criminal record; someone who has no plans to travel for a while. This person would have made an agreement not to report it 'missing', or lost or stolen for at least six months or longer.
During this period the document remains legal and valid, so although it is not being used by its original owner it is nevertheless a completely safe document for some other person to use provided the photograph fits the description given on the card. Marcel and his colleagues knew how to do that very well.
Boosted by my new identity I hailed a taxi and had it take me to Cannes. The driver dropped me on the best shopping street and I went straight into my favorite men's wear boutique.
I love beautiful clothes and it never takes me long to choose. Within fifteen minutes I had selected five perfect suits: Cerrutti inn light beige silk; an Yves Saint Laurent black 'smoking' or evening outfit and three other suits by Christian Dior. I took two shirts to go with each outfit and a selection of ties and accessories. Casual wear, jackets, pants, sports clothes, underwear and socks were easy to choose, and I went for the up market Italian labels. I was aware that my shoes were all wrong so I paid the boutique and asked them to package up the clothes and deliver them to Louis Vuitton, the fancy leather goods boutique in one hour. I had spent so much money and was so obviously a 'good' customer who knew exactly what he wanted that they did not hesitate to agree.
Wearing one of the new outfits I made my way to the jewelry shop opposite and chose a beautiful watch, a gold chain and a ring with a sapphire set into it. I knew this shop would be easy to rob but today I was in paying mode and was treated with deference.
Further down the street a shop selling the most perfect footwear fitted me out with at least four pairs of soft leather shoes and I started to feel myself again.
By the time I went through the glass doors of Louis Vuitton I was looking and feeling like a million dollars and as always, the sales staff recognized the buzz and was around me in seconds. My wish was their command.
They were not surprised to find that the pile of expensive packages and plastic bags delivered by one of Cannes fanciest boutiques, to be collected by Señor Mario Rossi, represented my mornings shopping.
In no time they had helped me select three perfect, and very expensive, suitcases in which to transport my goods. «How right you are sir, plastic looks so tacky! » one of the young men greeted, a little too close to my ear.
I had them throw in a wallet while they were at it and of course, I chose another attaché case to replace the now inferior model which had seemed so smart yesterday; one might as well carry ones cash in something decent.
Louis Vuitton luggage is immediately recognizable as top of the range, expensive and luxurious; a well-dressed man arriving with a matching set at any good hotel is going to be treated with respect. At least they are not going to ask him which prison he broke out of yesterday!
Thus it was when I turned up at the Hotel Martinez, Cannes, on that happy day following my escape from Marseilles. Monsieur Moneybags had arrived, and was given VIP treatment, if course.
All the news reports said the police and Special Forces were manning roadblocks and combing the Cote d'Azur, and I'm sure they were. But they were combing the wrong parts of the Cote d'Azur.
They were looking very carefully in all the places where underworld characters hang out and in all the seedy, fly blown hotels where a penniless convict might get a room for the night.
They were blocking the roads out of France and - especially into Italy, and as they had still not realized that the two Marseilles bank jobs of the day before were my work.
They did not know that I now had money.
They were not thinking creatively and so they did not imagine that Carlos Sanchez, low life gangster and escape artist, might have transformed himself into Mario Rossi, millionaire industrialist, in so short a time.
They were certainly not looking for him in the most luxurious hotel on the coast, the splendid Hotel Martinez, and, they were not looking at the big spender who had just checked in to one of the better suites overlooking the Sea.
The only thing the bellhops remembered about him were the big tips they received for the entire expensive luggage they had carried to the room.
Carlos' Sanchez was 'dead' and Mario Rossi was blending in very nicely with his comfortable surroundings. He knew how to enjoy privilege and act 'rich'.
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Blackheart by Carlos Sánchez All rights reserved.
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Registered in Chile 2015