In late February 1972, all my friends finally ended up in block 2. The winter was harsh. We had more than three feet of snow. Right away, Jean-Paul Mercier became a close friend. We saw eye to eye about everything. I knew he was capable of going to the extreme limit in even the most improbable situation. I knew he was ready to risk the impossible. He worked in the metal shop with Pierre. The equipment was controlled by a guard, sole owner of the keys to the tools’ stockroom. Same deal on my side. The winter was bad, but spring brought the melting of snow and some hope.
During a walk, I took Jean-Paul aside:
“Listen, we’ve got to find some way, even if it means risking our lives. We’ve got to find a way to get past these damned fences.”
“You mean, during the walk?”
“Yes, in full daylight.”
“But it’s suicidal!”
“We’re already fucking dying here already . . . what’s the difference?”
“Nothing, you’re right. OK, Jacques. Let’s give ourselves a deadline; otherwise we’ll go insane from thinking too much.”
“Before next fall, we’re out, or else forget it, deal?”
I smiled at him and shook his hand to seal our commitment.
“Free or dead, even if we rip ourselves up to shreds on the barbed wire.”
We were going to keep our promise.
We had noticed during our walks that a few guards would doze in the watchtowers, especially on Monday mornings. We came to the conclusion that they drank too much on Sunday. Over the course of several weeks we studied this human weakness, to check the lapses of attention of the men in charge of watching us. Several times I tossed a tennis ball near the fence and walked across the white line without triggering any reaction from the watchtowers. There was the flaw; it was up to us to exploit it. We noted the names of five such sleepy guards. Jean-Paul was overexcited:
“Can you imagine, Jacques, if two of the five find themselves in the watchtowers one Monday morning? What do you think?”
“We need tools to cut the fences. You work in the metal shop. Up to you to find a solution. Do you think you could swap out triangular files? If you can, get me some iron filings and I’ll use them to cover the fake wooden files I’ll make for you—guaranteed to be a perfect imitation. Don’t forget I used to be model maker . . . . It can come in handy to have once been honest!” I told him with a smile.
“But to get them out of the shop . . . . That’s impossible. Neither of us can manage that.”
“Neither of us will have to do that. Gauthier will do it.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me! He’s the head of security.”
“Exactly. He’ll never suspect what I’m cooking up. This is what I’m thinking. We’re the ones making the wooden tennis rackets. All we’ll have to do is to break a few of them and ask to have them replaced. I’ll make them myself and I’ll insert the files into the handles. Since the shop foreman will give the rackets to Gauthier, he’s the one who’ll give them to us in the courtyard. If he runs them through the metal detector, we’re screwed; but I am positive he won’t do it. How could he possibly think of something like that?”
Jean-Paul laughed his ass off.
“Yes! Yesss! That one takes the cake! To get out of here with the complicity of the head of security! Ok, Jacques, I’ll do what I can with the files.”
Little by little our plan took shape. I told all our friends what we were up to because we needed the full complicity of both shops to complete the first part. Everything went as planned.
On August 21, 1972, we went out in the yard for our walk. My friends took their positions to watch whether the guards were paying attention to us. Each move that they made looked natural but signaled a code that meant something to me. One guard was standing outside the fences on our right, his dog sitting at his feet. He was armed with a .12-caliber pump-action shotgun filled with buckshot. He was talking with the guard in the watchtower on the right, who, as a result, had his back to us. The guard in the watchtower on the left was dozing off. I placed our chessboard on the roller that was used to smooth out the tennis court. I had been doing this regularly for a month to get the guards used to seeing us play in that spot. Two of my friends were facing me. Jean-Paul was squatting behind them. We were against the wall, only fifteen feet away from the fence on the left. Lafleur was sitting on the sandpit, which was located across from the watchtower on the left, pretending to read. Another friend was doing gymnastic exercises across from the watchtower on the right; his moves could become coded signals in case of danger. I glanced around the yard. Everything was OK.
Jean-Paul nimbly crossed the white line and stretched out on the ground, face against the fence. He was totally motionless. His green-colored clothes blended with the grass. No reaction from the watchtowers. The man with the dog was still talking. Jean-Paul was supposed to cut only when I told him to. He was my hands, I was his eyes. The slightest mistake and it was all over.
“Go ahead, cut!”
With his triangular file, he severed one link after another, moving upward. In ten minutes the passage was big enough to let one man pass. I saw him slip through the barbed wire between the two fences. If even one of the guards noticed him, he was dead, sure to be shot down on the spot. But he coolly made his way out. The moment he was about to start working on the second fence, I heard the patrol car coming.
“Don’t move. Not one move.”
The car followed the road that encircled the whole walk on the outside. Jean-Paul saw the tires pass four feet from his face. The car drove on and stopped in front of the watchtower on the left. If, by some misfortune, one of the guards from the patrol car got out with the dog that accompanied them, anything could happen. The man in the watchtower leaned forward to greet the driver. Our nerves were shot; we were so close to the goal! When the car drove on, I waited for a moment, then told Jean-Paul:
“All right, keep going.”
He went back to work as cool as a cucumber. Then I saw him crawl outside. He had managed to pass through to the other side. Body glued against the fence, he told me:
“Your turn, Frenchie.”
My friends created a diversion. I, too, crawled through both openings. I only had one thought: I was going to be free. We had agreed that we would leave two by two. The first departure belonged to us by right. We had taken all the risks, and they were huge. Indeed, if we were spotted, it was certain death—we’d be shot down like dogs by vindictive guards. But it would be the death of a free man, a man who has made his choice. I felt no fear—my moves were guided only by a great determination.
I found myself lying down next to Jean-Paul. Our hands met. They sealed a bond between us that would never be broken. Until his death, three years later, shot down by the Montreal police.
We had to cross the road. Our clothes risked standing out against its light color. A new diversion was created when I made a sign. I could see my friends who were still prisoners, those who had believed in our plan and those who had always doubted. I promised myself not to forget them and to keep my promise to attack this penitentiary to try to free them all.
By quickly rolling our bodies across the road, we reached the ditch. The grass was high, and we blended in with the surrounding green. Our backs to the watchtower, we began to crawl. I got a glimpse of the third watchtower, which was catty-cornered to the entrance. I visualized the look on Gauthier’s mug and couldn’t help smiling. We had to crawl for another three hundred feet until we reached a thicket where we could finally get up without being seen. Jean-Paul gave me a friendly tap on the head.
“We made it, Frenchie. Can you believe it, we’re free!”
“Let’s hurry, kiddo…we need a car.”
I could see the penitentiary through the trees. This man-eater hadn’t devoured me. The men were walking around the courtyard as though nothing had happened. Everything was quiet. The next departure would take place in a few minutes. Lafleur, Pierre Vincent, then Imbeau and Ouillet, and the others if they could.
We started to run. The trees protected us all the way to the highway, which we crossed to reach a little wood. A creek ran through it; we crossed it. We had been gone from the prison for more than fifteen minutes now, but we were still in the danger zone. At the moment we were about to exit the woods we heard a helicopter. We threw ourselves to the ground.
“Fuck, they already sounded the alarm,” I said.
“No, look, it’s flying over the highway, it’s one of those copters that give traffic info to the truck drivers. Damn, that scared the shit out of us!”
He was right, the copter was flying away.
In the distance, peasants were working in the fields. We waved at them, and they casually waved back. We got to a crossroad. At that moment, a car occupied by two men slowed down to make the turn. I rushed to the back door and got into the vehicle, to the men’s great surprise. Jean-Paul did the same on the other side.
The driver tried to protest: “Hey! What are you doing?”
The answer came, dry and threatening:
“Shut the fuck up. We just escaped from the SCU. You do as we say or you’re dead. Your choice.”
The simple word SCU was synonymous with “killer” for all the people in the area. The driver was freaking out. I quickly reassured him:
“Just drive us to Montreal, that’s all.”
His friend, who was much calmer, made him understand that it was best to follow my orders, so we took the highway. I forced the driver’s companion to open the glove compartment to make sure there were no weapons in it. Jean-Paul searched it and emptied the guy’s pockets. He didn’t say anything. He seemed to be amused by the situation. With a humorous tone, I told him:
“I’m just borrowing a few dollars from you for the phone. You can ask the SCU to pay you back. I wouldn’t want you to think I’m a thief!”
And I gave him back the rest of his money.
We got close to Montreal. The alarm had certainly been sounded. We still had to go over a bridge; maybe they had set up a roadblock.
“Pull over here.”
“But . . .”
“I said, stop here.”
He stopped the car.
“You and your friend, get out of the car. Things might get pretty hot in a little while. We’ll go on without you, unless you want to get shot at, if the police are waiting for us at the bridge.”
His friend told him to do as we said. Physically, neither of them was strong enough to confront us.
Jean-Paul quickly got behind the wheel and we took off, leaving the men on the side of the road. There was no roadblock waiting for us. Once we got to town I rushed to a phone booth. I immediately called Lizon, the name of a woman Pierre told us to contact.
“Hi Lizon? I’m a friend of Pierre’s. We made it. Quick, come get us.”
I told her where we were.
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
Jean-Paul parked the car in a parking lot and came back to join me. We removed our shirts to be in our undershirts. With our pants dirty with soil, we could easily pass for construction workers, but certainly not for escapees on the lam.
We had to wait for Lizon, so we walked into a little restaurant and—relaxed as can be—we ordered our first coffee as free men. The young woman at the counter was listening to her transistor radio with the volume turned low. It had been forty-five minutes since we had left the SCU. On the radio, we were startled to hear the news release.
“Warning . . . warning . . . police news release. There has been a breakout from the high security center. Six dangerous criminals have escaped. These men are extremely dangerous and might be armed. If you see them, do not try to stop them. Contact the Laval police precinct. Once again, these men are dangerous. We will give you more information as soon as it’s available.”
And the music came back on. Jean-Paul looked at me, like, “Six . . . not bad, hey, Frenchie?”
I smiled at him. The girl behind the counter said to her girlfriend:
“They must be far away. Hope they don’t catch them!”
I felt like telling her that we couldn’t be any closer and to thank her for her good wishes, but I pretended not to have any interest in the information.
According to the restaurant clock, fifteen minutes had passed. I got out first. I recognized her immediately from Pierre’s description. I nodded to her. She nodded back and walked toward a car. I climbed in the front and Jean-Paul in the back.
“Hey guys,” she said. “What about Pierrot?”
“Out and about… If everything works well, he should join us soon.”
“There’s everything you’ll need in the duffel bag.”
The two .38 specials and a sawed-off M1 rifle, along with three cartridge clips with twenty-five bullets each, were welcome. There were also several bright-colored shirts. We each put one on. I looked at Jean-Paul with satisfaction:
“Now, kiddo, we’re truly free.”
An excerpt from Mesrine, the autobiography of Jacques Mesrine, translated from the French to English by Catherine Texier and Robert Greene (TamTam Books). Copyright TamTam Books
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