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The Escape Artist

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Tackmann at Rikers Island prison.  

Tackmann’s ruse was hatched in the same spirit. On the morning of September 30, Tackmann prepared for court in Manhattan. He dressed in a light-gray three-piece suit that he thinks was his stepfather’s. He wore two sets of dress socks. One around his feet, the other around the Rikers Island slippers he was ordered to wear (“to make them look like shoes; they looked like suede shoes”).

As he was bussed to the courthouse, he rehearsed the move in his mind.

When you come up to the twelfth floor, you’re handcuffed with like twelve people on a chain. The C.O. is right there with you.You have to be ready, so if the move is there …

That day, the move was there. “I was in the front of the line. The C.O.—it was some new guy. He un-handcuffed us in the hallway, and I was the first one around the corner.”

Tackmann raced down the stairwell and knocked on a courtroom door. A court officer opened it.

Tackmann had the shtick worked out—the lawyer in distress. “You know,” he said, “I was just with a client, and my mother is real sick in Bellevue. Could you tell me how to get to Bellevue? I gotta get over there fast; she is 80 years old.”

He wanted to sprint. The adrenaline was gushing. He calmly walked to the courtroom entrance as the sweat trickled around his neck. He raced down several flights of stairs and tried the door. It was locked. He walked down another flight. Locked. What is going on? Did they find out I was missing already? One more flight down. The door was open. He jumped in an elevator, got out on the ground floor, and walked into the street. Freedom. But not for long.

Tackmann’s rap sheet runs 24 pages long, with 57 arrests, including 27 felony charges that span the past four decades. Aside from a few incidents (like selling glue in 1969), Tackmann is a perennial stickup man. Sometimes he’d stash a toy gun in his waistband, or use a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun, or push his finger into the cloth of his jacket to simulate a weapon. His preferred targets were kid-friendly retail stores with names like Yogurt Rainbow. His crimes were crude theater, a game of dress-up. He’d walk in with a disguise, flash the fake weapon, and bark movie-sounding demands like, “You know what I want.” He was so unconvincing that sometimes his would-be victims chased him away. He was a hard-living party guy in tight jeans and half-buttoned shirts. He robbed to feed his drug habit.

“When we were doing stickups, it got to the point where it was like having a credit card,” he says. “I used to tell my partner, ‘We’re spending so much money on coke, we’d be better off having heroin habits. There’s no way we could spend this much on heroin.’ ”

He grew up in Queens with an aunt and uncle—his mother was working and his father, who was in the entertainment business, was out of the picture. Tackmann says he dropped out of school in the third grade to work on a hot-dog cart, a claim he later told me was an exaggeration. (“It was the fifth grade,” he corrected.) He was good with his hands and worked a few straight jobs, installing carpet or floor tile or aluminum siding. He even bought his own van and his own tools. But his lifestyle was more expensive than his means, and he began collecting criminal charges.

By 1985, the justice system had lost patience with him. And the feeling was mutual. The same year, facing a hefty sentence in state prison, Tackmann decided to escape for the first time. His inspiration came from statues that Hispanic inmates had carved from soap.

“I looked at them and said, ‘Didn’t John Dillinger make a gun out of soap and escape?’ So I carved out a gun.” He used black paint pilfered from his Rikers art class to paint the barrel, brown paint for the handle. He stole small screws from old clippers in the barbershop and plugged them into the soap. Another metal piece he used for the nub. He cannibalized a broken pair of eyeglasses and used part of the frame as the gun’s trigger guard. To stash it, he built a secret compartment out of cardboard. He painted it the same color as his cell wall and placed the compartment near his toilet.

Next, he conducted a test. To use the soap gun in his escape, Tackmann needed to convince himself it was real. He pulled it on an inmate to see if the appearance was menacing enough. The man’s fearful recoil told him all he needed to know. He also needed a handcuff key and was able to purchase a plastic one from inmates who got them on the black market. He then needed the courage. On a transfer upstate from Rikers, near exit 7 on the New York State Thruway, he tapped the metal nub of the soap gun against the metal screen on the Department of Correction bus.


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