World's Greatest Prison Escapes No. 1: Jacques Mesrine
The daring and audacious publicity-hungry bank robber and kidnapper Jacques Mesrine has to be one of the all-time greatest prison escapees. In the 60s and 70s he became a folk hero in his native France, known as ‘the Robin Hood of the Paris streets’ for his daredevil raids and for the inability of the entire French police force to catch or hold on to him. He kidnapped and robbed the rich and powerful and even gave away some of the wealth he stole to the homeless.
Mesrine was good looking and charming, with a string of glamorous girlfriends. He was always gentlemanly, courteous and kind, even to those he was robbing or kidnapping. He liked high living, good food and wine, the best restaurants and the best clothes - often robbing banks dressed in the latest fashions. He enjoyed risk and danger but combined this with a passion for meticulous planning and military precision. He was a master of disguise, often wearing two or three wigs on top of one another for swift changes of appearance. Mesrine was constantly protesting over prison conditions and exploiting his notoriety to highlight the issue. And he put this personal hatred of incarceration into practice by escaping from prison in both France and Canada no less than four times, including both the highest security prisons in France and Canada.
On the 17th August 1969, Mesrine and his girlfriend Jeanne Schneider both escaped from Percé prison in Quebec, Canada. They were inside for attempting to kidnap Canadian grocery and textile millionaire Georges Deslauriers after he sacked them both as domestic servants.
Mesrine knew he had to escape from this little local prison before he was transferred to a bigger one. He ripped the handle off an aluminium mug and sharpened it by rubbing it against the cement wall of his cell. Using this as a weapon he captured a prison warder, stealing his keys and locking him in the cell. Jeanne had done the same thing with the warder of the women's wing, and stopping only to raid the kitchens and fill a bag with food, they fled into the woods surrounding the prison.
He was quickly recaptured by the Canadian authorities and sentenced to a total of eleven years in the 'escape-proof' maximum security wing of the Saint Vincent de Paul prison in Laval, outside Montreal. The prison was brand new and supposed to be the most secure prison in the country. But on the 21st August 1972, Mesrine led five others in an escape.
The plan was outrageously simple. While having their morning exercise in the prison yard, they used a pair of pliers stolen from the metal workshop to cut through the three fences surrounding the exercise yard, crawling along the ground between each of the fences. The escapees then stopped two motorists on the nearest highway, commandeering their cars and then later dumping them.
However, feeling that it was unfair that he should be free while others remained incarcerated, Mesrine decided to return to the prison and free the remaining 56 prisoners in the maximum security wing. He immediately started robbing banks to raise the money he would need for the escape plan and a mere two weeks after he had escaped he returned to break out the others.
Along with some friends, he had rented several flats in Montreal under false names, stocking them with enough food for several men to be able to hide there. He had also got enough guns for there to be one weapon between every two escapees. At 2.30 in the afternoon on the 3rd September, Mesrine and his friend Jean-Paul Mercier drove up to the prison armed with sawn-off shotguns. They planned to throw pairs of wire-cutting shears and the guns over two wire fences into the exercise yard. They also had another two get-away cars with drivers parked at intervals up the road.
The escape attempt never worked out. As they drove up to the prison they discovered that since their escape two weeks earlier security had been tightened and there were now cops and armed prison guards everywhere. After a shoot-out with the cops and prison guards Mesrine and Mercier had to make a swift getaway and abandon their break-out plan.
Back in France in 1973, living on the run, Mesrine was aware that eventually he would be caught, so he arranged his escape from prison in advance. He knew when he was captured he would be tried first at the Palais de Justice in Compiègne, on the outskirts of Paris. So he explored the building and drove around the surrounding area, drawing a map. He arranged an escape plan with his friends, showing them where to park the get-away car and demonstrating the quickest route out of town. He also took them into the Palais de Justice and showed them where guns could be hidden.
On the 8th March 1973 Mesrine was eventually caught by the French police. As he was being driven to prison in an armoured van, he turned to one of the cops escorting him and said: "What do you bet me I'll be out in three months?" The cop smiled; he knew Mesrine was being taken to the highest security jail in France - the La Santé in Paris, from which no one had ever escaped.
On the 6th June, Mesrine was taken for trial at the Palais de Justice in Compiègne. All day he had been complaining of dysentery and demanding to go to the lavatory at regular intervals. While being transferred from one vehicle to another, he saw his accomplice who threw his cigarette to the ground: the agreed signal that everything was ready to go ahead as planned. At the court house he again demanded to go to the toilet. When there was no paper in the toilets for the use of defendants he was allowed to use the lawyers' lavatories. Which of course was where the gun was hidden behind a cistern. Stuffing the gun under his belt, he returned to the trial. As he went up before the bench to answer the charges made against him, he sprang forwards and grabbed the judge, holding him at gunpoint and then using him as a human shield to manoeuvre his way out of the court. He then ran through a hail of gunfire for the get-away car that was waiting and sped off along minor roads by his pre-arranged get-away route. Twenty miles away they stole a new car and dumped the old one, making for a pre-arranged hide-out where Mesrine cracked open a bottle of champagne to celebrate: he had kept his promise and escaped within three months.
On the 28th September the police had him again; an accomplice arrested during a bank robbery had grassed him up to reduce his own sentence. Although his re-capture was a disaster for Mesrine, he typically made the best of a bad job by negotiating with the cops sent to arrest him and using the time this bought to burn all his papers, arrange his arsenal of guns and ammunition neatly on the bed, wash, dress, shave and tidy his flat, so that when he finally flung open the door, immaculately dressed and puffing on a big cigar, he was able to welcome his arch-enemy Commissaire Broussard with a glass of champagne, offering him his congratulations on having "won this round".
Mesrine knew he was either facing the guillotine or life in prison. He was sent back to La Santé where he tried unsuccessfully to get himself sent to court quickly in order to escape from the courthouse. Instead he ended up awaiting trial in jail for the whole of 1974 and 1975.
From inside La Santé in Paris, Mesrine was secretly communicating with his old accomplice Jean-Paul Mercier, back in the Saint Vincent de Paul prison near Montreal, figuring out plans for him to escape jail, rob banks, get a load of money, come to France and spring Mesrine from jail. Mercier and 4 others escaped again from Saint Vincent de Paul on 22nd October 1974 but Mercier was killed in a shoot-out with the police while robbing a bank in Montreal a mere eight days after the escape.
While awaiting trial in jail, as well as frequently writing to the press protesting over prison conditions and giving an extensive interview to Paris Match, Mesrine also wrote a wildly exaggerated autobiography called L'Instinct de Mort (The Killing Instinct) in which he boasted of large numbers of murders he had never committed. The book was smuggled out of prison and published three months before his case finally came to trial in May 1977. After a typically show-stopping and totally unrepentant performance in court he was eventually sentenced to what under the circumstances must be regarded as a very lenient 20 year stretch.
In the letters he wrote to friends from prison Mesrine talked openly of escaping. So the prison authorities at La Santé, already the highest security prison in France, built a special new maximum security wing to put him in. And then on 3rd May 1978, the governor of the prison received a call on his direct line, tipping him off that Mesrine was going to try and escape in two days' time on the 5th of May. No one took it very seriously. And indeed Mesrine did not escape on the 5th: it was raining on the 5th of May so the escape was postponed until the 8th...
After intensive study of the architecture and functioning of the prison and meticulous planning, Mesrine perfected his escape from La Santé. At 10.00am on the 8th May, Mesrine and two other prisoners escaped by using a secret cache of weapons that had been smuggled into the prison for them by a corrupt prison warder. They held up their guards, stealing their uniforms and locking them in the cells. Then they accosted a group of workmen fixing new bars on the windows of the cells and ordered them to move their ladder to the outside wall of the prison. Using a rope and grappling iron that had also been smuggled in for them, the escapees climbed over the wall and let themselves down the other side, stopping a passing car to make their getaway. By 10.25am Mesrine and his accomplice François Besse had become the first two men ever to escape from La Santé.
A mere eight days after the escape Mesrine and Besse got back to work, robbing a Paris gunsmiths for weaponry in broad daylight. As usual Mesrine had refused to run away and had simply stayed in Paris. Ten days later the pair robbed a casino.
Mesrine planned a series of revenge kidnappings: first he kidnapped a bank employee who had given evidence against him at his trial and forced him to open the bank vaults for him; then, in a one man campaign against maximum security prisons, he attempted to kidnap the judge who had sentenced him to 20 years, demanding that M. Petit would only be released if all top security wings in French prisons were closed. He said that unless they were closed he would begin to assassinate magistrates. The kidnapping of the judge went wrong but Mesrine managed to escape by running downstairs straight past the cops coming to get him and shouting "Quick! Mesrine's up there!" as he sped past them. As they all raced in the other direction he made good his escape. The one cop who did recognise him he disarmed and handcuffed to a drainpipe. This lonely plod was only discovered later by his colleagues when they had unsurprisingly failed to find Mesrine upstairs.
After another kidnapping of a wealthy banker and industrialist, Mesrine began planning a series of even more high profile kidnappings of major political and media figures. It was while he was engaged in this task that the police he had outsmarted for so long finally caught up with him. This time they weren't going to have him escaping again. On 2nd November 1979, as he was waiting at some traffic lights, his car was ambushed and surrounded by armed police. Mesrine was shot over 20 times in an execution-style killing. He had become an embarrassment to the French government at the highest level - French President Giscard d'Estaing had told the responsible minister only days earlier, "we really have to finish Mesrine off.".
Source: Mesrine - The Life and Death of a Supercrook by Carey Schofield (Penguin, 1980)
And Now... Jacques Mesrine the video! 90 min colour video in French. For a copy send £7.50 including postage (cheques payable to 'Chronos Publications') to: BM Chronos, London WC1N 3XX, UK.