8 daring Canadian prisoner escapes

When two Quebec prisoners climbed a rope that had been lowered from a helicopter and flew to temporary freedom on the weekend, their spectacular custody break was only the latest in a long list of escapes by Canadians trying to flee to freedom.
Prisoners have escaped fron institutions across Canada, including Kingston Penitentiary, where bank robber Ty Conn got over a 10-metre perimeter fence at night in 1999 by using a hand-made ladder and grappling hook he constructed in the prison shop. (Canadian Press)

When three Quebec prisoners climbed a rope lowered from a helicopter and flew to freedom from Orsainville Detention Centre in suburban Quebec City this past weekend, their jail break was only the latest in a long list of escapes.

While the reasons for being imprisoned can vary widely, the efforts individuals in that situation make to break free can reflect great daring and ingenuity.

Here's a look at some flights to freedom in Canada, or ones elsewhere that involved Canadian prisoners.

Franz von Werra, 1941

German pilot Franz von Werra is known as "the one that got away." On his way to a prisoner of war camp in January 1941, he leaped from a train near Prescott, Ont.

Helicopter escapes

Helicopter prison breaks may be rare, but the Quebec fugitives who used one for their escape are hardly the first to turn to the flying machines in their quest for freedom. Here are other notable helicopter prison breaks:

A New York businessman convicted of murder, Joel David Kaplan, used a chopper to escape from a Mexican jail in 1971, and went on to write a book about it. The caper also inspired the 1975 movie Breakout, starring Charles Bronson.

What is believed to be Canada's first prison escape by helicopter took place in 1990 when Robert Ford and David Thomas were whisked away from a maximum security facility in British Columbia. RCMP captured them two days later on nearby Echo Island.

Pascal Payet, a French prisoner, used a helicopter to escape on three occasions, the latest on July 15, 2007. He was caught by authorities every time.

Source: Canadian Press

Von Werra made it across the border into the U.S. and then on to Germany. He was awarded an Iron Cross for his escape, but died in battle later that year. His story is told in the 1957 British film The One That Got Away.

Escape from Camp X, 1941

Not long after von Werra's escape, 28 German PoWs escaped from Camp X, near Angler, Ont. They had spent three months digging a 46-metre tunnel.

After a week, two escapees had been killed and the rest captured. Two got as far as Medicine Hat, Alta.

The story of the Camp X escape was first told by a 23-year-old reporter, Scott Young -- musician Neil Young's father.

Escapes from Stalag Luft III, 1943 and 1944

The first escape from this PoW camp near the German-Polish border involved a wooden horse the prisoners built and used for gymnastic vaulting but designed for concealing men, tools and dirt containers.

They would move the wooden horse every day to the same spot near the perimeter fence, for vaulting over it and digging under it. Canadian flight lieutenant Gordon (Moose) Miller was one of the men who carried the horse.

Three POWs escaped on Oct. 29, 1943, eventually making it to Britain. The escape was celebrated in the 1950 film The Wooden Horse.

A second escape, in 1944, was the single biggest escape of the war and was featured in the 1963 film The Great Escape. The man in charge of building the escape tunnels was Canadian pilot Wally Floody, who was a miner in northern Ontario when he enlisted. Floody was transferred from the camp 10 days before the escape.

Nine of the 76 escapees were Canadian. All nine were recaptured. Six of them were then executed by the Germans. Only three of the 76 escapees reach Allied territory.

The Boyd Gang, 1951 and 1952

The Boyd Gang, whose name was given to them by Toronto newspapers, twice escaped from Toronto's Don Jail.

After six bank robberies, Edwin Alonzo Boyd was jailed. There he met two other bank robbers, and together they escaped on Nov. 4, 1951, by using hacksaw blades, which one of them had hidden in his wooden foot to cut the bars and bedsheets and go down the walls. More robberies followed, including the largest haul in Canadian history.

The Boyd Gang's second escape, in 1952, led to the biggest manhunt in Canadian history. It was also the subject of the first news report on CBC-TV. (CBC)

On March 6, 1952, gang members Steve Suchan and Lennie Jackson shot police detective Edmund Tong, for which they would later hang. They were soon captured. Boyd was later tracked down and arrested in his bed.

The Boyd Gang escaped from the Don Jail for a second time on Sept. 8, 1952, again using a hacksaw blade and a cell key they had fashioned from a palm imprint of the original.

That escape led to the biggest manhunt in Canadian history, which lasted until their arrest 10 days later. The escape and manhunt became the subject of the first news report on CBC-TV.

Lucien Rivard, 1965

Lucien Rivard was arrested in Montreal in 1964 on narcotics smuggling charges filed in the U.S. He was held at Bordeaux jail until March 2, 1965, when he escaped with another prisoner. They scaled the jail wall with a garden hose they had obtained on the pretext of flooding the skating rink.

Alcatraz and the Maze

Some high-profile prisons have had high-profile escapes, in some instances with prisoners using their own ingenuity and supplies they found within the walls, and in other cases getting help smuggled in from outside.

One of the more famous prison escapes became the subject of a 1979 movie starring Clint Eastwood. Escape from Alcatraz told the 1962 story of Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin who apparently used a metal spoon and a drill cobbled together from a vacuum cleaner to free themselves from the prison that sits on an island in San Francisco Bay.

They have never been seen since — and no bodies were ever found.

In Northern Ireland, some of the worst offenders arrested during the Troubles were put behind bars in the Maze, a now-closed prison just west of Belfast. In 1983, IRA prisoners with smuggled guns took over a prison block before using a food delivery van to flee. Most of the 38 prisoners were recaptured within days. 

Rivard was on the run for four months before being captured in Montreal. He was quickly extradited to the U.S., tried and convicted, but a bribery and corruption scandal over the Rivard affair had already engulfed the federal government of Prime Minister Lester Pearson.

Two high-ranking officials resigned. A royal commission criticized how the federal justice minister, Guy Favreau, handled the investigation and he, too, resigned.

Rivard was the Canadian Press Canadian Newsmaker of the Year for 1965. The 2008 film Le piège Américain (The American Trap) tells Rivard's story.

Donald Kelly, 1975

Murderer Donald Kelly overpowered a guard at the North Bay, Ont., jail, seizing a rifle as he fled on Aug. 2, 1975. Kelly gained folk hero status as the massive police manhunt went nowhere. Then the famous police tracking dog, Cloud II, joined the search.

Four weeks after the escape, Cloud II tracked Kelly to a cabin deep in the woods near Skead, Ont. Kelly shot and fatally wounded Cloud II, and the dog's handler shot and wounded Kelly.

Kelly was tried and convicted for two 1969 murders and sentenced to life in prison. He died behind bars.

Ty Conn, 1999

Bank robber Tyrone William Conn had already escaped from three other prisons when he was transferred to Kingston Penitentiary in 1998. In 1999, he escaped from there, too.

He got over the 10-metre perimeter fence at night by using a hand-made ladder and grappling hook he constructed in the prison shop. Thanks to a dummy he made by stuffing clothing with paper, his escape was not discovered until the morning.

Conn had robbed his first bank when he was 16 years old. Two weeks after his 1999 escape, police tracked him to a basement apartment in Toronto. He shot himself during the standoff.

Omid Tahvili

Omid Tahvili is still on the run following his Nov. 15, 2007, escape from a maximum security jail in B.C.

Video released by B.C. Corrections shows Edwin Ticne, right, escorting Omid Tahvili through a secured door inside the North Fraser Pretrial Centre during his escape in 2007. (B.C. Corrections)

Prison guard Edwin Ticne helped him escape in exchange for a promised $50,000. Ticne was sentenced to three years, three months in prison in 2008. It was the first time in the history of B.C. Corrections that a guard has been charged with helping an inmate escape, according to B.C. Corrections.

Video cameras caught Ticne leading Tahvili through a series of locked doors. Tahvili, wearing a janitor's uniform, then escapes through the front door.

Tahvili was said to be the kingpin of an Iranian-Canadian organized crime family. He was convicted in absentia of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a man. He is also wanted in the U.S. for telemarketing fraud, allegedly stealing $3 million from mostly elderly Americans.

Tahvili remains on the FBI's Most Wanted list.

With files from The Canadian Press