Alcatraz once held what was scraped off the bottom of the country’s crime barrel: hit men, kidnappers, stick-up artists and mobsters like Al “Scarface” Capone.
But when it comes to telling lies, those villains who did hard time on the famous 12-acre chunk of rock in San Francisco Bay are punks compared with a Hollywood film crew.
Frank Heaney knows the show biz crowd can twist the truth like no others.
Heaney, a former Alcatraz guard, worked on “The Rock” from 1948 to 1951. Today, he is a public relations man for the Red & White Fleet, the cruise line that ferries more than 1 million tourists a year to the defunct federal prison.
Heaney was in Spokane this week trying to pique my interest in Alcatraz. He succeeded because of a Spokane connection to a controversial Alcatraz character.
Heaney was a consultant for “Murder in the First,” a gripping movie released on video this summer. The problem is that the movie is billed as a true story.
It supposedly is the saga of Henri Young, who ended up in Alcatraz as a teenager because he had stolen $5 from a post office to feed his starving little sister.
If that doesn’t pluck at your heartstrings, just wait.
After a bungled escape attempt, Young is stuck in a dungeon for three years. He is savagely beaten day in and day out by the sadistic assistant warden and his uniformed thugs.
Kevin Bacon, as Young, delivers the performance of his life. You can’t view his graphic degradation without being repulsed that such an evil prison could exist.
But it’s all baloney. “They didn’t want to listen,” says Heaney of the filmmakers. “They just got angry with me.”
Henri Young’s records prove he didn’t get to “The Rock” for petty thievery. He was a bank robber and killer who pulled many of his crimes throughout Eastern Washington.
Before being shipped off to Alcatraz in 1935, Young served nine months in the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge for robbery and a year in the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla for burglary.
Stanley Webster, the federal judge who sentenced Young in Spokane for bank robbery, called him “the worst and most dangerous criminal” he had seen - a man “who would not hesitate to kill anybody who crossed his path.”
Young killed an inmate at Alcatraz and confessed to a murder in Western Washington. He was a violent troublemaker who was cited for misconduct 34 times.
Young never tried to swim away from Alcatraz. In fact, he never spent more than a few months in a detention cell. Nor did he commit suicide as the movie claims.
He did escape from Walla Walla in 1967. He was captured a year later and remained behind bars until his release on parole in 1972.
Young disappeared. He still is classified as a “parole absconder,” though he would be 84, if alive.
“He was well-known as one of our worst inmates,” says Heaney. “And you have to remember that nobody came to Alcatraz straight from the courts. We only took the people that the other federal prisons couldn’t handle.”
Alcatraz opened in 1934 and was closed in 1963 due to high maintenance costs.
But because of its remote location and legendary alumni, “The Rock” remains a fixture of American pop culture. It makes you think of tommy guns and G-men and gangsters in pin-striped suits.
Just 21 when he started work, Heaney was the youngest guard in the prison’s history.
He met plenty of the infamous population: Robert Stroud, whom Burt Lancaster portrayed in “The Birdman of Alcatraz”; Alvin “Old Creepy” Karpis of the Ma Barker Gang; and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
“Alcatraz,” sighs Heaney. The very sound of the name “adds to the mystique and folklore. There’ll never be another place like it.”