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The Escape Artist


“You know what’s faster than the speed of light?” he says. “Thought. Think about it. We can think about Mars and be there. You can travel anywhere with the mind.”

In 2006, Tackmann was released. He hadn’t been to New York in twenty years.

“That was flipped out,” he says. “Like stepping out of a time machine. The only one in ’85 who had a cell phone was Captain Kirk.”

He pulled a life together for himself. He got a job laying flooring and got a girlfriend, Nancy Bruno. She has full lips and round cheeks, an easy smile. She didn’t know—why would he tell her?—about all of Tackmann’s years in the Box and his escapes. By the time he had won her over with his tireless charm, the way a day with him seemed to last forever—he had so many ideas, so many impulses, so many places he wanted to go—she didn’t notice that she had fallen for a failed stickup artist with a nasty cocaine habit. She herself was addicted to his personality, and when he was laying carpet she handed him his tools, just to be with him.

On a May night in 2008, Tackmann had friends over when plainclothes detectives pounded on the door late at night. The noise woke up Nancy and Tackmann’s mother, Genevieve Devine, who is 80 and has memory problems. They watched the cops put Tackmann in handcuffs and take him away. In police custody, he was questioned about the robbery of a Subway near a room he had rented in Queens and a half-dozen robberies a few blocks away from his mother’s apartment on the Upper East Side—stickups that had all of Tackmann’s signatures.

“I normally hit around First and Third avenues because I was lazy,” Tackmann allegedly told the police. “I never meant to hurt anybody … I just did it to get money for drugs.” At a Dunkin’ Donuts: “I think I got around $100. I left and went uptown (around 90th Street) to buy drugs. I think I was wearing a green camouflage hat. I was also wearing a plastic nose … I had a fake silver gun that I used, which was a cigarette lighter.” At World of Nuts Ice Cream: “I was wearing a black gangster hat with a big rim ... I pointed a fake black gun at him ... He told me the gun isn’t real, then he came around the counter and swung at me ... We rolled out into the street, like it was an old cowboy movie. He got me in a headlock.”

Back in Rikers, Tackmann was now facing such a stiff sentence for the robberies that he couldn’t possibly plead guilty, because any plea deal would probably mean he’d die in prison. He was also sick, wondering how many years his liver had left anyway. In visits to Rikers, Nancy did as she was told. She smuggled Ronnie the slice of cheesecake he wanted, the BLT, the rolling tobacco, a match, the vitamins he said would help his liver. She hid the vitamins in her underwear and slipped them to Ronnie under the table. He squirreled them away in a compartment he fashioned in the sole of his shoe. A guard spotted her. She spent three nights at Rikers. “My heart couldn’t tell him no,” she says. She listened to him tell her to wait for him, that he would get out. She didn’t believe him. “The only way he’s getting out is in a coffin.”

But he got out, at least for a while.

On the morning of September 30, near 77th Street, his first act as a free man was stopping for a cup of coffee. He walked to his mother’s building a few blocks away, nodded to the doorman:

How you doin’? I just got out.

The doorman noticed his suit.

You look good.

Tackmann rode the gilded elevator. He knocked on his mom’s door.

What are you doing here?

I’m out. I got bailed out. But I gotta run.

He grabbed $7,000 he had stashed in his mother’s apartment and disappeared. It would have been reasonable to assume that a man with Tackmann’s criminal smarts would be on a Greyhound bus to Virginia or Florida or anywhere across state lines to get out of New York. But he went to Spanish Harlem. He purchased French fries at a White Castle, he says, and two cell phones. He then went to an apartment of a woman he knew named Candy and there met a man named Mike who lived in an apartment in Washington Heights. Mike offered his couch to Tackmann, who paid the man $100 to crash there. Tackmann stayed until early morning, when Mike’s female roommate came home from working a night shift and told him to leave.


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