Flashback Friday: 4 Inmates Escaped Over Wall of St. Cloud Prison 60 Years Ago

December 08, 2017 09:33 AM

The newspaper accounts of the time read like they were torn from the script of a riveting crime drama.

On Dec. 11, 1957, four inmates scaled the foreboding granite walls of the St. Cloud Reformatory, stole a car and headed out on the lam. Within 42 hours, all four had been apprehended - two after a bullet-filled chase on a rural Indiana highway.


But if it all seems like the plot of a movie, the events took a very real toll on those impacted by them.

"It really did," said Jean Swenson, whose father Dale Swenson was the prison psychologist at the time, and was one of two people brutally beaten by the inmates as they made their escape.

"He never really spoke to us (his children) about it. He suffered from terrible PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) afterward," Swenson said. "He needed 60 stitches to his head and had hearing damage in one of his ears. He was never really the same, even though he was able to go on to quite a productive career."

The four prisoners - 21-year-old Kenneth Clausen and 24-year-old Vernon Rollins of Minneapolis and 23-year-olds Ronald Manning and Carl Bishop of St. Paul - had apparently been planning the escape for awhile.

Clausen, Rollins and Bishop were all serving time on robbery or burglary charges while Rollins had been sentenced to 25 years for forgery and attempted forgery, reported an article in the Dec. 12 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.

Around 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 11, Bishop and Manning burst into Swenson's office at the prison (now the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud), according to the written account he provided to state officials.

"I immediately got to my feet and Bishop asked me if I thought he was crazy," Swenson wrote. "I told him to sit down and we would talk about it. At that time, he struck at me and a scuffle ensued. During the scuffle, I was hit upon the head numerous times with an object. The scuffle lasted from three to five minutes, and half-dazed and blinded by blood, I went to my knees.

"I was grabbed by some of the inmates, possible (sic) Bishop and Manning, and placed on the floor in my office and tied up. They also gagged me at this time."

Swenson goes on to describe how the inmates took the keys to his office and car, as well as money from his wallet, all as they attempted to saw through bars on his office window. He also describes hearing them attack another man.

That was Al Ethen, one of his co-workers at the prison and a former All-MIAC football standout at St. John's University in the 1930s.

He noticed Swenson's office door had been closed and stepped inside to investigate.

"There was no detectable noise so I opened the door adjacent to his private office," Ethen wrote in his account of that afternoon's events. "I made one step into this office and saw Mr. Swenson lying on the floor, full of blood. This froze me momentarily and just enough to have something come down in front of me, striking me on the forehead.

"At this time, I was spun around by Manning, who was then successful in holding my hands behind my back. In front of me was Bishop, with some object in his hand with which he was trying to strike me over the head. I let out a terrific yell, trying to draw some attention, but soon after received a blow on the skull of my head that buckled my knees."

Collin Gau began working at the prison in St. Cloud in 1972, and served as warden there from 2012 until he was named assistant commissioner of the facilities division in the Minnesota Department of Corrections earlier this year.

He's reviewed the records relating to the escape, and said that when the inmates were unable to saw their way out, they went to Plan B.

"Initially they thought they could cut through the bars and get out that way," Gau said. "But they had difficulty doing that, which made them quite angry. So they managed to grab a truck, threw something to climb with in the back and drove down to a spot on the wall where they went up and over."

As far as he has seen, Gau said it marked the only time prisoners escaped from the facility by going over the walls. 

Once outside, and still wearing their regulation prison uniforms, the foursome apparently made their way through the nearby granite quarries, then owned by St. Cloud State.

They came to a livestock pavilion along U.S. Highway 10, where they stole a car occupied by a Mrs. Oscar Lundeen of Lindstrom. According to the Tribune account, she had been crocheting in the front seat while waiting for her husband to finish business inside.

"They told me to keep quiet and I wouldn't get hurt," she told the newspaper. "But I guess I didn't move fast enough because they dragged me from the car and pushed me down to the ground. I jabbed at one of the men with a crochet needle, but I don't know if I hurt him or not."

The fugitives drove north on Highway 10 and were spotted later that afternoon at a rural grocery store near Amery, Wisconsin.

They somehow circled back to the Twin Cities. The bloodstained car was discovered on the Phalen Park Golf Course the next day, according to an account by The Associated Press.

But the four men themselves made their way to Chicago.

Rollins was arrested there on the evening of Dec. 12 in the bathroom of a gas station on the south side after he scuffled with a woman who discovered him trying to break into a car. Manning was also apprehended after walking into a bus station still wearing his prison uniform.

Clausen and Bishop, though, continued on into Indiana. There, on Dec. 13, they were arrested after a bullet-filled pursuit by a state trooper who succeeded in forcing their vehicle off the road and into a ditch in Sullivan County. Before their arrest, they were alleged to have robbed a pair of gas stations in Boswell, about 60 miles north of Terre Haute, the Tribune reported.

The four were returned to Minnesota, though to the prison in Stillwater.

Gau wasn't there at the time, and said he doesn't know exactly what steps were taken to improve security in St. Cloud after the escapes. But he guessed the event caused a fairly thorough review.

"I'm only speculating, but when something like that happens, it usually leads a place to review all their operating procedures," he said. "You want to see what you need to change to make it more difficult for something like that to happen again."

Swenson and his family, meanwhile, moved to Washington the following year. There, he went on to a long career, including extensive work with juvenile offenders. He died at the age of 86 in 2013. 

His daughter said the move was motivated, at least in part, by fears of retaliation when any of the four escapees were eventually released from prison.

"It felt like being in the witness protection program, even though we didn't change our name or anything," she said. "But we got far away from there."

Jean Swenson said her father struggled with anger over the incident for many years, even as he held positions of increasing responsibility at a variety of facilities in a long and successful career.

"My father really had a higher calling," she said. "At that time especially, he felt as if anybody could be rehabilitated. At the end of his career, he didn't feel that way. He told me once that he felt there were probably some people who were just bad eggs, but he started out with such optimism. He wanted to help every kid he worked with."

She added, "And he did help an awful lot of them over the years."


Frank Rajkowski

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