Like many people, Albert J. Steele Jr. closely followed news reports about the prison escape of two convicted killers and their ability to elude police.
But Steele watched with an unusual perspective.
The South Buffalo man led a life of crime in his younger years. He was arrested 27 times, spent much of the 1970s in six different correctional facilities and busted out on three occasions.
He also did time in Clinton Correctional Facility, where Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped June 6.
Steele eventually went straight and today runs a successful demolition company.
He agreed to an interview with The Buffalo News, offering his insights into what motivated Matt and Sweat and how they were able to pull off their escape.
To begin, Steele was amazed that the two men were able to break out of the high-security prison.
“Of all the prisons I was in, I would say Clinton would be the toughest to break out of,” said Steele, who did five months at the maximum security facility.
“It was like a dungeon there; a dark, gray, very tight, old-style prison, with very strict security,” he said. “If the authorities ever are able to find out everything that happened there, I think they’re going to find there were a lot more prison officials involved than the few they have caught so far. I think these guys had a lot of help.”
But he also said a prisoner “can always find” someone among corrections officers and prison employees who is susceptible to being bribed.
“There will always be someone who needs money, or has some other reason for helping a prisoner,” Steele said.
And Matt and Sweat had nothing to lose, he said.
“They were convicted killers, and they were never going to get out on parole," Steele said.
“These two guys had nothing to lose. I did not expect either of them to be taken alive,” he added.
But he did not think it was unusual that the two – including Matt, who had a history of escape – were allowed to live in the prison’s honor block, which gave them many privileges.
“No, that didn’t surprise me,” Steele said. “Even though I had escaped three times and I had ‘ESCAPE RISK’ stamped on all my records, they had me working in a metal shop at the Auburn prison. I was working with metal tools and making license plates. It was all based on your recent behavior in prison. By behaving and staying out of trouble for a few months, you could get a good assignment.”
Prisoners’ reputations are built mostly on how they conduct themselves in prison, Steele said.
“What you did when you were on the street is one thing. What you do in the prison is another thing,” he said. “You never mess with a guard, because if you do, you’ll be treated like dirt. I saw guys get clubbed and beaten on a regular basis because of something they did to a guard.”
As others have observed, Steele said it was obvious that Matt and Sweat had no alternative plan when Joyce Mitchell, the prison employee who befriended them and helped with their breakout, failed to pick them up after they got outside the prison.
“It looks like they had no Plan B,” Steele said. “She didn’t show up, and it looks like they were just wandering around after that. They had no compass, no one to help them."
Changed his ways
While Steele was willing to discuss his past criminal exploits, he said he wanted to make clear that he is not proud of his past.
He said he is now a hard-working, legitimate businessman who no longer depends on crime for his livelihood. He said he has worked hard to change his ways and has not been a criminal since the early 1980s, when he finished his last prison stretch.
He got a job at a Buffalo junkyard in 1982. After that, he drove tow trucks, plowed snow and worked for asbestos removal and demolition companies in Buffalo.
In 2005, he went into business for himself. Today, his Hannah Demolition company earns millions of dollars each year tearing down houses and other abandoned buildings in Buffalo and nearby communities.
If he had turned all his energies toward legitimate business for his entire life, “I think I would be a billionaire by now,” said Steele, sitting at his desk at his demo company office on Baitz Avenue.
“I don’t have regrets about my three escapes from prison, but I do regret the way I lived my life back then,” he said.
His early crimes started as a joy-riding car thief at age 14. Steele spent most of his teenage years getting into trouble with his brothers Merle, Howard, David and Michael. They were known as the South Buffalo-based Steele Brothers Gang, one of Buffalo’s most notorious gangs of burglars and car thieves.
“I was young and foolish,” recalled Steele, now 60. “I did things on impulse in those days. I would break out of prison because I wanted to see my family or be with my girlfriend. They always caught me, because I always returned to my home grounds.”
The first time Steele Jr. broke out of prison was 13 days before Christmas 1974. He had been sent to the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden for 12 months after convictions for auto theft and possession of stolen property.
He escaped from climbing under a bakery truck and hanging on to the undercarriage as the vehicle left the jail on grounds after making a delivery.
“It was kind of a spur of the moment decision,” Steele said. “I was 19. I missed my family. I wanted to spend Christmas with my family.
He was working in the prison bakery when he saw the chance.
“I had worked on big trucks like that all my life, and I knew there would be something I could grab onto and a place for me to put my feet underneath the frame,” Steele recalled. “One morning, my chance came and I took it. It was nothing like the intricate plan” that Matt and Sweat employed for their escape.
Steele said he got off the truck when it stopped at the county nursing home near the prison.
“Then, I ran into the woods, stole a car and made my way back to South Buffalo,” he said.
He had a place to hide there.
“I had built a false wall in our house on Abbott Road so I could hide in there when the police came looking for me," he said. “One day, I stood in there and I could hear the deputies searching the house and saying, ‘We know he’s in here somewhere.’ ”
Police arrested him Jan. 9, 1975, when they caught him driving a car “at 105 miles per hour,” he said.
After pleading guilty to an escape charge – and promising a judge he would never again try to escape – Steele was returned to Alden. One guard was so upset with Steele after Steele’s first escape, that he handcuffed himself to Steele during a prisoner softball game, Steele said.
“This guard was handcuffed to me while I was running the bases after I hit the ball,” Steele said with a laugh. “After that, the guard was told that was a little too extreme, so they let me play ball without him cuffed to me.”
But during another softball game, on June 27, 1975, Steele took off again.
“The guards and prisoners all saw me climb up onto a building, and then jump onto a prison wall. They were all yelling, ‘Albert, don’t do it, come back here,’ but I kept going.”
This time, he was recaptured in South Buffalo after nine days. Officers went to the home of a girlfriend he was visiting.
“I heard them coming, jumped through a window into a yard, but a deputy was waiting with a gun pointed at me,” he said.
Again pleading guilty to escape, and again promising never to do it again, Steele was returned to Alden for the third time.
“I told them I would behave, and at the time I said it, I meant it,” Steele said.
But he escaped again Sept. 24, 1975.
Assigned once again to kitchen duty, Steele fled after breaking out a window screen. He climbed up and over an 18-foot recreation yard wall with barbed wire at the top, cutting himself in the process.
He was arrested off Clinton Street in Buffalo after police spotted him in a stolen car Oct. 5, 1975.
A frustrated Alden superintendent told reporters that Steele was “a maximum-security prisoner in a minimum-security” facility who showed “wild abandon” for his own safety.
“He seems unable to control his urges to take off. Most prisoners think about it, but don’t do anything,” Frank M. Festa told reporters at the time. “That son of a gun is going to give me either gray hair or an ulcer.”
“He was right about me. I had no regard for my own safety in those days,” Steele said.
After that, Steele pleaded guilty to a felony escape, and this time he was sentenced to three years in the more secure state prison system.
He never escaped again, though he thought about it a few times.
His last prison term came when he was sentenced to a year in a Pennsylvania prison for stealing about $10,000 in mechanic’s tools during a 1979 break-in at a bus company in Erie, Pa.
“Somehow, they found my fingerprints in there,” Steele said.
His brother, Merle, let out a laugh as he listened to Steele tell a reporter about it.
“I told you to wear gloves that day,” Merle Steele said.