Teen fugitives were no match for sheriff


Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

A group of teenaged fugitives were no match for Madera County Sheriff Marlin Young, shown here on the right being congratulated by Governor Ronald Reagan.

It was approaching midnight as the seven teenagers gazed wistfully up at the ceiling of their second story cell in the Madera County Jail. They had all been arrested for burglary and were ostensibly awaiting their appointed time to see the judge, but none really expected to make that appearance. They had spotted a pathway to freedom if only they could remove that metal cover over the air vent on the ceiling.


This was not the first time that the vent had lured a teenager to attempt an escape from jail. A little over a year before, in early 1956, one incarcerated lad managed to break the vent cover loose and made his way to the top of the building. Alas, upon reaching the roof, his planned flight from justice went awry. Although he had no rope with which to descend, he jumped anyway. Upon hitting the ground, he broke his neck and died instantly.


Now on March 12, 1957, just two weeks before Madera celebrated the 50th anniversary of its incorporation as a city, that second floor air vent once again became the object of teenage affection. This time, however, the escapees would hit the roof prepared.


Somehow one of the boys had been able to smuggle a file into their cell. It was old and rusty, but it would do the trick. About 10:30 P.M. the young jailbirds began to put their plan into action. One of them used the hacksaw to remove the heads of the bolts that held the cover in place, and from that point, entry into the vent passage was an easy matter.


Each prisoner ripped the cover off his mattress and took it with him. When they reached the roof, they used the material to fashion a rope, down which they all slid to the ground. With the air of their newly acquired freedom rushing into their lungs, the fugitives ran for town. They would need transportation to put any real distance between them and the law.


Shortly after crossing the Southern Pacific tracks, however, one of the boys got cold feet and returned to the jail. He climbed back up the mattress cover rope and returned to his cell, the same way he had left it. Meanwhile the other six runaways split up and hit three of Madera’s car lots. Two of the youths stole a vehicle from Pistoresi’s, drove it for a few blocks and then for some reason abandoned it. They returned to Pistoresi’s for a second auto, which they then drove out to the country toward Calvary Cemetery. On their way, they helped themselves to some fuel from a tractor.


When the young criminals reached the cemetery, however, their flight from the law came to an abrupt halt. Madera police officers, Clyde Aguirre and Charles Dunn, having been alerted to the presence of prowlers at Pistoresi’s, pulled them over and took the duo back to jail. Their freedom flight had lasted just a little over an hour. Now there were just four escapees still on the loose and it wasn’t even Midnight yet.


One of the boys decided to “go it alone,” and chose Shebelut’s to provide him with transportation out of the area. He stole a pickup truck and headed for Firebaugh where he was arrested at approximately 3:30 A.M. Soon he was back in the Madera jail with three of his cellmates. He had been out of jail for nearly four hours. This left just three of the seven fugitives still at large, and their recapture would prove to be just a bit more challenging.


The remaining trio of young criminals had chosen a 1954 club coupe from C & S Auto Sales for their getaway vehicle. After stealing the car, they drove first to Chowchilla and then to Winton where they burglarized a market for food and money. Following that heist, the boys headed for the hills. By early morning, the news was out. According to Sheriff Marlin Young, “the escape had revealed an architectural flaw in the otherwise escape-proof jail.”


All morning long, nearly every lawman in Madera County scoured the countryside with no success. Then just as the focus of the search was about to shift to other counties, Sheriff Young got the break for which he was looking. Someone from Raymond reported seeing three boys in a club coupe in that town. The sheriff immediately dispatched a bevy of officers to the foothills.


All day long foot patrols searched the countryside around Raymond without hitting paydirt. Then at 4:13 p.m. Deputy Woody Milligan, driving slowly up Raymond Road, met the fugitives coming from the opposite direction on a curve. Milligan pointed his revolver out the window and ordered them to stop, but the driver went on ahead around the curve. In a split second, Milligan had turned his car around and was in hot pursuit.


Knowing that they could not outrun the squad car, the three fugitives bailed out of their stolen vehicle as it was still moving. Milligan captured two of them and held them at gunpoint, but the third made good his escape by running down a hill to Gnat Creek and headed toward the Daulton Ranch. At that point, with the sun beginning its descent, prospects for capturing the lone escapee grew dim. The young fugitive, however, had reckoned without the determination of Madera’s sheriff. Marlin Young would not be outdone. He enlisted the aid of a pilot and borrowed an airplane from which he carried on a nighttime air search.


Finally about 8 p.m. Young spotted some movement in the brush below. He contacted the county road department by radio, and within minutes the seventh and final teenage escapee had been captured. In less than an hour he was back in jail in the company of his crestfallen comrades.


Two weeks later, Madera celebrated the 50th anniversary of its incorporation and the 80th year of its founding. While the young ne’er-do-wells could take no part in the festivities, they did create something of a watershed in Madera’s history. Theirs was the first mass jailbreak in the 70 year-old history of Madera County’s granite jail. One has to wonder what these resourceful teenagers might have accomplished had they been on the right side of the law.

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