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The Escape Artist

Ronald Tackmann’s ingenious prison breakouts— and his jailhouse sculptures of soap and toilet paper—have made him a legend of the penal system. It’s freedom he can’t handle.

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On the morning of September 30, the lawyer Joe Heinzmann arrived at 100 Centre Street, the ominous-looking courthouse in downtown Manhattan, for a hearing. At the metal detectors, he removed his keys and iPhone. Then he heard the court officer.

Nobody in. Nobody out. Lock it down.

Steel barricades were placed in front of the doors. What was going on? Was this a drill? A massive line formed. Shortly, correction officers were combing the streets in gladiator garb—flak jackets, riot helmets, leashed dogs.

Heinzmann saw an officer he knew. “What, you guys lose another one?” Heinzmann joked.

In fact, that was what had happened, the cop told him sheepishly.

A con had escaped. The officer showed him a picture of the wanted man—it was one of his own clients, Ronald Tackmann.

“It was my guy,” Heinzmann tells me as we drive to Rikers Island. As assigned counsel, Heinzmann has represented the rainbow of criminal offenders. He’s never defended anyone like Tackmann. “Most people will go through their lives never doing something that bold that successfully,” he says. “The degree of success here is at the absolute highest level. No weapons. No violence. And out the front door of the courthouse.”

There is a kind of genius there. Tackmann is a career criminal, with multiple felony convictions, but he’s something else: an artist in several different mediums—painting, sculpture—one of which happens to be escape. And, as with any artist’s talent, the limitations and difficulties distilled and purified it. Freedom, however, seems to be too large a canvas. A day after his escape, he was recaptured. He faces trial on several robbery charges early in the new year. If convicted, he may spend the rest of his life in prison. “This is a guy who has more fun figuring out the puzzle than completing the puzzle,” Heinzmann says. “The challenge is over, so why bother with the rest? The rest is just detail.”

Heinzmann and I passed Rikers Island’s endless skein of rusted barbed wires and finally arrived at North Infirmary Command, where Tackmann is now being held. “This is where we keep our high-profile inmates,” a captain tells me.

We walk down gray corridors, past a glass case filled with Rikers toys—nails wrapped in string, homemade shanks, cigarette-lighter blowtorches. Up the elevator, we are led into an old hospital room. The room is as cold as a meat locker. An official from the NYC Department of Correction is here to listen in on the interview. Another correction official, who is investigating the escape, is also here. We all shiver in our suits, eager to hear: How did Tackmann do it? “Well, this move,” Tackmann says, leaning in close. “I found this move a couple of months before.”

Tackmann does not look like a prison legend. In fact, he looks ill. His skin is as white as the belly of a frog. He says he has hepatitis C, cirrhosis, diabetes, and a hernia. His hair is an unlikely shade of brown—he colors it with jailhouse coffee—and he combs it over in a Ponyboy-like pompadour. He grins. He chuckles. It doesn’t make sense. He’s looking at sixteen to life for his most recent charges, a life sentence considering he’s been denied parole every time he’s been in front of the board. So what’s so funny?

“You gotta have a sense of humor,” Tackmann says.

Back to the move. When he went to court for hearings, he could see the system was flawed. He would arrive on the twelfth floor in handcuffs and attached at the waist to a dozen other inmates. A correction officer would lead them into the bull pen, an area where inmates wait for their lawyers. From the bull pen, the inmates would follow their lawyers or court officials either up a set of back stairs into a courtroom or down a set of stairs.

The more Tackmann went to court, the more he noticed that once the inmate at the head of the line would get uncuffed and turn into the bull pen, he would be out of view of the correction officer at the back of the line. He could then avoid the bull pen and dart down the rear stairs.

He’d still have to get out of the building. And for the knowledge to accomplish this, he had to reach back to his hard years of criminal apprenticeship. In his upstate sojourns, Tackmann was often housed near celebrities like John Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman (“Not a bad guy; he has a wife that looks just like Yoko Ono—that’s fucked up!”); serial killer Joel Rifkin (“He always treated me right”); and Howard “Buddy” Jacobson, the famous horse trainer convicted of murdering his model ex-girlfriend’s new lover. Jacobson escaped. He persuaded a friend to pretend to be his lawyer. In the lawyer-conference room, Jacobson’s friend removed a suit and razor from his briefcase. Jacobson changed into the suit, shaved, and walked out of prison pretending to be his own fake lawyer.


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