Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Theodore "Ted" Cole (February 6, 1913 – December 16, 1937?) and Ralph Roe (1909 - December 16, 1937?) took part in the second documented escape attempt from Alcatraz, in 1937. Although officials were quick to conclude they perished in the attempt, their remains were never found, making the incident the first to shatter Alcatraz's reputation as an "escape-proof" prison.


Cole and Roe, both convicted bank robbers (Cole went into Alcatraz for kidnaping also) in Oklahoma, had been caught during earlier, independent escape attempts from that state's McAlester Prison. Judged to be escape risks, they were both incarcerated in high-security Leavenworth Prison, then transferred to higher-security Alcatraz in 1936. The two were given jobs working in the prison's Mat Shop, a facility at the northernmost point of the island, where discarded automobile tires were cut up and converted into rubber mats for the U.S. Navy.

Roe, an Oklahoma bank robber, was originally captured after a shootout with local police and FBI agents in Shawnee, Oklahoma on December 30, 1933. This same gun battle claimed the life of Roe's partner, Wilbur Underhill. Cole had been given a death sentence by means of an electric chair for his role in the robbery of a bottling works plant in Tulsa, OK.[1]

Escape attempt[edit]

On December 16, 1937, a dense fog swept through the San Francisco Bay, impeding marine traffic and reducing visibility on Alcatraz. At 12:50 p.m., Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe were working in a tire repair shop. A routine headcount showed all prisoners accounted for. At 1:30 p.m., when the guard returned to the shop after inspecting other shops on the island, they were gone. Two iron bars and three heavy glass panes of a window in the shop had a hole eight and three-quarters inches high and 18 inches long. Once through the window, the two slipped down to the gate of a high wire fence during one of the heaviest fogs in years. With a wrench taken from the shop where they had been working they forced the gate lock and dropped twenty feet to the beach. Their trail completely vanished at that point. An exhaustive search of the island revealed nothing.

Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole used cans to keep afloat. Alvin Karpis watched Cole and Roe make their way into the unusually swift currents of the bay. Suddenly the 5-gallon can which Roe was using as a float, shot straight up into the air. Roe was sucked beneath the surface. Cole was carried out by the rapid current towards the Golden Gate Bridge and met the same fate, according to Karpis. Karpis then decided never to attempt to escape from the prison by water.

Hampered by the thick fog, guards were able to turn up only one trace of the escapees: an abandoned wrench from the Mat Shop, which had been used to partially dismantle a gate on the outermost fence. An extensive, multi-day search ensued; portions of the island were flooded with tear gas in an attempt to flush out the escapees, with no result.

An investigation concluded that Cole and Roe had prepared for the escape well in advance, using a hacksaw blade to weaken the window bars and disguising the damage with a mixture of grease and shoe polish. After taking advantage of the fog, they entered the water, presumably relying on floats improvised from tires or fuel canisters. There was no evidence to suggest they had constructed or launched a raft.

Prison officials concluded that Cole and Roe's lives ended, by drowning, shortly after their escape. The swift ebb tides at the time, estimated at 7–9 knots, would have swept even an expert swimmer out of the bay and into the Pacific Ocean. The dense fog was so thick that it would have made it almost impossible for outside confederates to pick them up on a boat, nor could the swimmers know whether or not they were swimming toward shore. It is very likely that Roe and Cole did not survive, but their bodies were never found, nor were their floatation devices.

However, police departments in the surrounding counties and the FBI followed up every tip and rumor, with no success. In the following days, months and years, there were various reports of sightings, but their validity is unknown. Sightings included two hitch-hikers, who claimed they had seen Roe and Cole and identified them to police by their photos. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter in 1941 declared that the pair were living in South America, and a cab driver in Cole's Oklahoma hometown of Seminole told police he had been shot by men he recognized as the two escapees. If Roe and Cole somehow did survive their escape, it is highly unlikely that they are still living today as Cole would be 98 years of age and Roe 102.

The Daily newspaper The Seminole Producer reported on June 7, 1939

Oklahoma officers seemed to intentionally try to not identify the escapees as they continued their hijacking spree in the Seminole, Tecumseh and Shawnee Oklahoma area. The Seminole Producer reported on June 24, 1939:


  • Bruce, J. Campbell. Escape from Alcatraz. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 2005. ISBN 1-58008-678-0
  • Ward, David and Gene G. Kassebaum. Alcatraz: The Gangster Years. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009. ISBN 0-520-25607-7

it:Theodore Cole