The SFSD History Research Project

SF County Jail San Bruno Escapes 1935-1962

As documented in the three-part SFSDHistory.com series “San Bruno: ‘The Most Modern Jail in the World’” the facility known originally as County Jail No. 2 had a dramatically mixed history.

Opened in 1934 with much civic hoopla, the institution was touted as a cutting edge, state of the art jail facility that would solve San Francisco’s critical criminal justice problems.

The number one problem in the eyes of local government and much of the citizenry involved certain categories of public offenses such as drunkenness, drug use, and vagrancy. In the 1930s these were considered serious criminal offenses and were frequently punished with 6 to 12 month misdemeanor sentences in the county jail. Which is why the new San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno was dubbed the “The Sunshine Jail Farm” in the local newspapers. The facility featured unique outside work programs on its 242-acre grounds that targeted the “public offenses” criminal demographic, such as a working farm, livestock maintenance, a sewer treatment plant, bake shop and gardening programs.

The concept being that, as opposed to sitting in a jail cell, those convicted of drunkenness, vagrancy or petty theft would spend several months working outside on the jail farm to “dry out” and cure their anti-social behavior.

Built in 1934 just outside of San Bruno's city limits on 242 acres, San Francisco County Jail No. 2 was closer to the Pacific Ocean than to San Francisco Bay. The ocean is less than two miles west behind the former building site, although the direct route is a mass of coastal mountains and rugged, overgrown terrain. San Francisco Bay is just over four miles due east.


The massive seven-story jail also featured large outside windows at the back of each cell to provide fresh air and sunshine, elements that at the time were considered cutting edge health and psychological pathways to achieve rehabilitation. Those exterior cell windows were one of several key architectural and design decisions that would create major security flaws throughout the jail’s entire 72-year life.

Another issue facing the City & County of San Francisco in the late 1920s was chronic jail overcrowding.

The SF Police-managed booking jail at the Hall of Justice on Kearny Street did not have permanent prisoner housing and the Sheriff’s-run “felony” jail behind the Hall of Justice was almost always at capacity. The Sheriff’s Department’s crumbling Ingleside Jail located in the south-central part of the city, housing sentenced prisoners, had finally been completely surrounded by residential growth and there was now intense community pressure to shut the facility down.

San Francisco Sheriff Daniel Murphy taking a San Francisco newspaper reporter on a tour of the fields on the grounds of County Jail No. 2, probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The idea that crops grown at the new jail could be used to feed the prisoners never played out due to the large daily food demands and the use of non-professional inmate labor.

With a great deal of political maneuvering, County Jail No. 2 was built in the northern San Mateo County coastal hills with the goal of fixing San Francisco’s myriad criminal justice problems. But after County Jail No. 2 officially opened it didn’t take long before a series of prisoner escapes occurred which began to erode the enthusiasm of City officials and their hope to change San Francisco’s criminal culture.

Also increasingly alarmed were San Mateo County residents and their elected officials for whom the specter of escaped criminals roaming the north county countryside heightened their mistrust over the decision to allow San Francisco to build a seven-story jail in their county in the first place.

By the 1950s and 60s concerns over public inebriates and the vagrant/hobo culture had been overwhelmed by a series of spikes in serious felony crimes throughout urban centers which eventually led to the creation of tougher State laws.

The resulting new prisoner demographic and a serious increase in jail population would eventually turn The Sunshine Jail Farm into a dank criminal justice warehouse.

Tucked away on page 27 of the 2/26/35 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle is the story of the first escape from County Jail No. 2. It was given a small headline and 12 lines. The Chronicle wrote that the escape "occurred yesterday", which would have been February 25, 1935, but the Sheriff's Department memo states the escape happened on the 26th (which is odd since the Chronicle is a morning paper).

On February 26, 1935, less than five months after the first prisoners were transported to the new San Francisco county jail, the first escape occurred.

Rudolph White (his name was also written as “Randolph Waite”) was an outside trusty who took, as was written in the February 26, 1935 edition of the SF Chronicle, “French leave”. (“French leave” is a xenophobic phrase which originated in the 1760s that meant absent without permission—which perfectly described Mr. White’s intentions and subsequent actions.)

White, who was described a having "a long petty crime record here", was sentenced to one year in jail on February 15th for a home burglary on Franklin Street. Which means he completed just 11 days of his sentence before he decided to leave County Jail No.2.

The first multiple inmate escape at the new San Bruno jail took place just under three months later on May 22, 1935, when Verne Hemme and Philip Lucia ducked out of an outside jail farm detail and crawled through the underbrush on the jail grounds managing to make it to the Skyline Blvd. highway and freedom. Hemme was doing a six-month term at San Bruno for “habitual vagrancy” and Lucia was in on a year sentence for narcotics use. They were part of a 38-man inmate group who had been escorted outside their jail cells to work in the fields at the nearby jail farm.

Not to be outdone by the male custodies, just seven days after the Hemme/Lucia escapes Marjory Gregory and Mitsi Mason became the first women to escape from the detatched San Bruno women’s facility.

Virtually all of those escapees were ultimately captured, but Vern Hemme managed to make it all the way to Seattle before the law finally caught up with him.

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An official San Francisco Sheriff’s Department document, undated but probably created in August of 1962, carefully listed every San Francisco County Jail No. 2 San Bruno escape from its opening in 1934 through July of 1962. The report was titled “OFFICE OF THE SUPERINTENDENT COUNTY JAIL NO. TWO”, and subtitled “ESCAPES FROM COUNTY JAIL” with the additional handwritten note “& S.F. Hospital”.

The document lists a total of 111 prisoner escapes over 28 years. Eight-eight of those escapes occurred at the San Bruno jail, two at "Napa St. Hospital" (during San Bruno transports to or from Napa), one from "Mendocino" (another transportation escape) and 20 at San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH). The hospital had a jail ward where injured or sick SF County Jail custodies were housed. A number of those 20 SFGH Hospital escapes were committed by prisoners being transported to or from from the San Bruno jail to SFGH for some type of treatment.

The report’s various categories listed the names, dates, “status” (captured or at large), and the date and location where each escapee was captured. Unfortunately most of the “where captured” column is not filled in. But along with Mr. Hemme in Seattle, other San Bruno escapees were picked up over the years in places as disparate as Virginia, New York, Arizona, Kansas, Reno, Sacramento, Salinas, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Portland, Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz, Marin County, Montana and Twin Falls, Idaho.

The biggest escape years were 1935 and 1961-- each with ten prisoner escape incidents. Eight prisoners escaped from San Bruno in 1943. 92% of the escapes (102) were committed by men and 8% (9) by women. But the overall jail escape numbers are better understood by noting just the years during which there were no escapes from San Francisco County Jail No. 2-- only three to be exact: 1938, 1941, and 1950.

Three tenacious San Bruno prisoners inflated the overall escape numbers because one of them escaped three separate times and two others each escaped twice:

• Clarence Jacobsen’s first escape was on July 2, 1945. Jacobsen waited two months and three weeks before escaping again on September 23, 1945. He was captured on November 16, 1945 in Twin Falls, Idaho.

• Leo Mall apparently holds the all-time record for San Bruno-related escapes with three. Mall’s first escape was from the jail on May 19, 1946. He was captured the next day. Mall almost made it to the eleven-year anniversary of his first SF County Jail escape when he made his second successful escape, this time from SF General Hospital on May 7, 1957. He was captured fifteen days later in San Francisco.

Leo hit the trifecta on February 21, 1958, once again escaping from SFGH which was turning out to be his preferred point of departure. This time he was recaptured on the same day.

• Mary Seymour escaped from the San Bruno women’s jail on March 27, 1961 but was also captured the same day. Seymour then took off again from the women’s facility on July 12, 1961. There is no notation about her being recaptured after her second escape.

In the history of escapes from the San Francisco County Jail at San Bruno the year 1957 saw an historic first.

Inmate L.J. Rickett, 35, was doing time for petty theft when on July 21, 1957 he became the first prisoner to escape directly from a locked County Jail No. 2 jail cell. Until this incident, all previous escapes had been commited by unsecured prisoner workers outside their cells or walkaways from the jail farm or other areas of the jail grounds. Unfortunately Rickett's bold mode of escape would increasingly be copied over the next 40 years. 

Deputy Sheriff Marcus Mosk was doing his tier rounds at 5AM that Sunday morning when he found Rickett's cell empty. Using a 14 inch iron bar, Rickett had shattered the glass in the window at the back of his cell, then twisted apart the window security bars and pulled them open. Dangling out the cell window was a rope made of blankets and inmate clothing. Rickett had lowered himself 30 feet to the jail's gundeck and then another 25 feet to the ground.

Undersheriff John Figone arrived on scene and immediately ordered a search of all prisoners and their cells. Rickett, originally from Alabama, was later captured in San Joaquin County. This escape further exposed the security issues with a linear-style jail facility. When jail inmates were locked inside their cells, deputized staff had to enter each tier and literally stand in front of each cell to do a security check. And while that was done with some frequency, it couldn't be done 24/7.      

Multiple prisoner escapes on the same day were unfortunately not rare—within the period of the report there were 17 instances of two or more prisoners escaping on the same date. The caveat here is that without the original Sheriff’s Department reports (or the rare newspaper article) we can’t confirm if all the following inmates absconded together or made separate, unrelated escapes on the same day.

Of particular note is the continuing saga of Clarence Jacobsen who made multiple escapes with multiple partners.

1. 5/22/1935 – Verne Hemme and Philip Lucia. Previously noted above as the first multi-prisoner escape in the jail’s history, occurring just over 8 months after the first prisoners were transferred to the new jail on September 14, 1934. Both were later recaptured.

2. 5/29/1935 – the aforementioned escape of Marjory Gregory from the women’s jail also included inmate Mitsi Mason. Both women were recaptured.

3. 12/7/1935 – Two more women, Betty O’Brien and Lolo Driscoll escape from the San Bruno women’s facility, and they were also later recaptured.

4. 7/27/1937 – Mike McGriff and Wayne Vosgier escape and were recaptured.

5. 4/14/1939 - Don McKim and Arthur Emmel escape. McKim was captured on May 4, 1939 and Emmel was captured May 5th.

6. 5/2/1943 - Ben Thompson and George H. Blake escape. Thompson was listed at the time of the report as “at large”. Blake was recaptured on May 25, 1943.

7. 12/26/1943 – Richard S. Woodard and Voyles Hanks escape. Hanks had two days of freedom before being captured on 12/28/1943. Woodard was caught a month after the escape, on January 25, 1944.

8. 7/2/1945 – Clarence Jacobsen,30, and Charles Milton Jones, 27. The same Clarence Jacobsen featured in our individual multiple escapes list above. Jacobsen was serving a year for a burglary conviction and Jones was serving 6 months of Federal time for making a false gasoline application (gas was strictly rationed during World War II). Both escapees were picked up by FBI agents less than 24 hours after their escape, at the corner of Filmore and Haight Streets. And both faced Federal charges because Jacobsen was found carrying another man’s draft card. All of which got Jacobsen an additional year of county jail time.
    
9. 9/23/1945 - Clarence Jacobsen now 31, and Edward T. Sherman also 31. Jacobsen was doing time for his previous escape; Sherman was serving 6 months for petty theft. Sheriff Dan Murphy told the SF Chronicle that both men were found missing at the “4PM check-up on Sunday” the 23rd. Jacobsen was recaptured on November 16, 1945 in Twin Falls, Idaho and Sherman managed to elude capture for almost a year and a half until he was recaptured on February 14, 1947. 

10.  6/27/1946 – Charles W. Owens and William Golden.
Owens was recaptured the next day in Richmond, CA and Golden was picked up July 2, 1946

11. 9/16/1948 – Wesley Bauer and Ellis Walton.
Both recaptured, date unknown.

12. 10/1/1951 – Glene Tilman and Jim McGraw.
Tilman was recaptured in Dallas, Texas and McGraw was picked up in Arkansas, date unknown.

13. 2/11/1957 – Ray Vincent and Donald McFadden.
Both escaped from the jail farm and were later recaptured, date unknown.

14.  5/12/1959 – James R. Johnson,19, and Richard De Summers, 22.
Both men escaped from the 6 North Tier, sliding down the outside of the jail on tied bedsheets. Johnson scrambled up the hills behind the jail and stole a car at the Coast Guard station located on the ridge overlooking the jail compound. He was captured the next day in the stolen car in Santa Cruz, CA by Santa Cruz police. De Summers was free for 10 days before he was picked up in San Francisco.

15.  6/3/1960 – Joseph Hess and William T. Hornick.
The two men escaped from the jail farm and Hess was recaptured in Salinas, CA date unknown.

The 1961 escape of prisoners Julio Sepulveda, George Roper and Albert Martinez from a window in the jail's kitchen was the biggest escape to date in the history of County Jail No. 2.

16. 9/16/1961 – George Roper 35, Albert G, Martinez 19, and Julio Sepulveda 29.
This was the largest escape in the jail’s history to date.
The three men were kitchen trusties who were let out of their cells at 6AM on the morning of September 16th to help the kitchen crew prepare breakfast. At 7AM jail deputies could not find the men, and discovered they had escaped by using a piece of hardwood broken off a hand truck and used as a crowbar to pry an 8 inch opening in a barred window in the vegetable room. Roper was serving time for burglary, Martinez was convicted of grand theft, and Sepulveda was also doing time for grand theft.
Sheriff Matthew Carberry stated to the SF Chronicle that the fugitives “were not considered dangerous”. Sepulveda was captured two months later in New York.

17. 7/29/1962 – Clark Simpson 52 and James W. Pitts 29.
Housed on the 3 North tier, Simpson and Pitts waited until just after the 9PM security check then used a piece of metal to pry apart the bars on their cell window. They used a rope made of blankets to lower themselves down one floor to the jail’s gundeck outside the second story of the jail. From there they leapt two stories (30 feet) to the ground, where Simpson broke his leg. Ninety minutes later Sheriff’s deputies found him in the underbrush in the hills above the jail. An intensive search for Pitts was called off after several hours.

Clark Simpson was described as a “three-time loser from the State of Washington” serving one year for petty theft; Pitts was a former San Quentin inmate who was serving a year for grand theft. Over a month later on September 4, 1962 James Pitts was spotted by San Francisco Police officers Ed Pryal and Harold Suslow as he waited for a stop light to change at Steiner and O’Farrell Streets. He surrendered without a struggle and refused to say where he had been since his escape.
 
The Simpson/Pitts escapes was the final entry in the “Escapes” report. Those final six entries were hand-written in and the document probably then submitted to Sheriff Matt Carberry. Carberry was a former member of the Board of Supervisors who had been appointed to the office in May of 1956 following the death of Sheriff Dan Gallagher, after which Carberry successfully ran for re-election in 1959.

County Jail No. 2 cell window on 6 South cell 45 after a successful 1980 escape by several prisoners.

Anecdotally, the number of escapes from San Bruno increased during the rest of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s as the jail physical plant continued to deteriorate and insufficient staff were assigned to the jail. During this period more escapes occurred directly from jail cells, often by prisoners using handmade tools to break through outside windows, bending or prying off the window bars and using bedsheets or blankets to descend down the side of the building.

The most infamous escape from the SF County Jail in San Bruno occurred on the night of June 17, 1969 when four prisoners pried open a jail window and lowered themselves down the side of the building using a blanket rope. Two of them, Carlos Lopez and Clarence Galindo, separated from the others then climbed over the coastal hills to the coastside town of Pacifica where they committed a home invasion murder and robbery. You can read about that incident on this site at “San Bruno: ‘The Most Modern Jail in the World’ Part 3 of 3”.

New jail cell security screens were installed by the mid-1980s.

In the late 1980s and 1990s deputy and supervisor staffing at the San Bruno jail was improved which helped lower escapes. Also contributing to the decrease in jail escapes was a new prisoner classification system implemented by Sheriff Michael Hennessey in the early 1980s which better identified those prisoners who were security risks and not eligible to work at the jail farm, sewer plant, or anywhere outside the actual jail buildings. In addition, security screens were attached to every outside facing cell window in the facility, which added an additional level of escape security.

From the mid-1990s until the facility was permanently closed in 2006, there were very few escapes from the old San Bruno facility. The last escape from SF County Jail #3 San Bruno (the designation had been changed from Jail #2 to #3) occurred on September 4, 1997. Inmates Greg Knight 26, in jail on burglary and drug charges, and Paul Lociro 21, doing time on a robbery charge, escaped from the jail just before 7:15 that night. They were later recaptured.

The 72-year-old San Bruno jail was shut down in August 2006, replaced by a new direct supervision facility built next to the old structure. Rather than having classic rows of barred jail cells along a concrete corridor, the newer jail is designed as a series of independently-run pods which consist of two floors of divided prisoner housing areas with glass-windowed doors facing a deputy control station.

The design of direct supervision jails creates far greater safety and security for deputized staff, for prisoners, and for the medical and civilian staff who work in the jail. And the chance of a classic prisoner jail escape at this type of facility is virtually eliminated.

    Page 1 - SF County Jail No. 2 escapes 1935-1962 memo, August 1962.

    Page 2 - SF County Jail No. 2 escapes 1935-1962 memo, August 1962.