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The Escape Artist

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The morning was bright. It was his birthday, he was 56, and he was free. He went to a diner and saw himself in the paper. He got nervous, paranoid. He didn’t think the escape would be big news. He thought he’d get noticed if he traveled by subway. He hailed a taxi downtown to the wholesale district, around 28th Street, to buy supplies.

That night, he went to celebrate his birthday. “Steak dinner,” he says. “With what do you call it? Onions. And mushrooms. I had some wine with it. Like two, three glasses. I was high from that.”

He hailed the M101 uptown. He rode to Washington Heights to spend the night again at Mike’s place. He stepped off near 174th Street, at Amsterdam Avenue, and saw Mike sitting on his stoop. He walked toward him and stepped into the trap. Tackmann was taken into custody at 8:49 p.m. The police had been covering the block for the past hour. They’d been tipped off.

“Somebody gave me up for my fucking birthday,” Tackmann says. “Ain’t that something?”

Police searched him at the precinct and found, according to vouchers, a red wig, a red beard, black gloves, a black stocking, a makeup brush, makeup sponges, stage makeup, nose and scar wax, three hats (blue, tan, and black), a forged passport, a blood-sugar-reading device, two fake guns, and a small bag of cocaine.

"He was such a good boy, everyone liked him, even the prison guards like him,” his mother, Genevieve Devine, says when we meet. Her apartment on East 78th Street was old-school Upper East Side and is now a collection of plastic bags: his and her stuff bundled up from a recent bedbug fumigation. Tackmann’s prison belongings—his art, his porn—are bagged up in here. I can see his paintings on the walls. She points to one drawing under glass. “He did that one when he was 2 years old.”

The painting is a mess of snakes, shaded and colored in pencil.

“He’s too damn smart,” Genevieve says. “That’s what his problem is.”

Tackmann goes to trial in Queens for the Subway robbery in early January. Then he goes to trial in Manhattan for the additional robberies. His defense is that the man captured on videotape is really his oldest son, who looks just like him (the resemblance is remarkable). But the problem Tackmann has with this defense (aside from its highly questionable parental values) is that, even on the remote chance that a sliver of it is true, it all sounds like bullshit. If Tackmann’s son did the crimes, then why did Tackmann confess to them?

Tackmann’s response here is also problematic. He says he can’t read and was forced to sign his confession by the police. Tackmann has trouble reading—his jailhouse letters to Nancy, for instance, are peppered with poor spellings (“intress,” “cair”). Still, he managed to write the letters. He’s also an extreme escape risk. “He can’t even blow his nose without asking permission,” says his lawyer Heinzmann.

With his trials looming, Tackmann is upbeat. He calls constantly. At lunch, at dinner. He wants to talk about Libya, why I should invest in gold, whether I know anyone who wants to buy his mother’s television. Recently, he invited me to the Hanukkah party at Rikers Island. The party is held at night in a gym. Through the gates of their cells, inmates howl at the female guests (“Hey, mami!”) and bark at me (“What the fuck you looking at, faggot?”) as we enter the facility.

Tackmann scans the room as Lubavitch boys sing and dance to a keyboard klezmer. In Rikers, he decided to become Jewish because he likes the kosher food and the rabbi. He declines to wear a yarmulke (“It messes up my hair”) and eyes the gefilte fish suspiciously. At other tables, inmates sit with wives whose fresh eyeliner applied in the visitor’s bathroom now washes away in tears.

Tackmann ran out of tears long ago. We talk about his next disappearing act. He’s found “five ways off the island” but “only with the help of friends, you know, missionaries.” He doesn’t even dream of escaping from prison upstate. “You need four hours to get away before they find you, and those farmers, they got guns.”

I ask Tackmann’s tablemates what they think of him.

“He’s meshuga,” says Kenneth Glassman-Blanco, who has spent three years on Rikers awaiting trial on attempted murder.

“Well done,” Ivaylo Ivanov of Bulgaria says of the escape. He’s spent the last two years on charges involving spray-painting anti-Jewish slurs and swastikas in Brooklyn Heights.

“You’re that guy! It’s an honor to meet you, man,” says Mark Inesti, charged with robbery. He had had a question for Tackmann about the lawyer ruse.


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