Updated: Aug 29, 2019
The world lost a true ‘Rock-Star’ in 2017 with the passing of Robert Victor Luke, former bank-robber, Alcatraz prisoner, champion sportsman and devoted husband. Mr. Luke was ninety-one.
After fifty-plus years of keeping his time on ‘the Rock’ a well-guarded secret, Bob Luke first revisited the infamous prison in 2011 – with wife Ida at his side, of course.
With Ida’s encouragement, this reluctant former prisoner agreed to attend the annual ‘Alcatraz Alumni’ reunion that year, an event begun decades earlier by former prison guards and their families. Former prisoner #1118AZ would now join a short list of other former ‘Rock-Cons’ who have attended the unique get-together on Alcatraz Island in recent decades.
Robert Luke’s well kept ‘Rock Secret’ would be revealed by his attendance, and much to his surprise, he was treated more like a ‘Rock Star’ than a ‘Rock Con’! The dreaded, dark societal stigma which convicted felons encountered after release from prison was especially intense for Alcatraz ‘cons’, making it difficult to ‘land work’ or enter relationships. Alcatraz prisoners were commonly referred to as ‘the worst of the worst’.
For five decades, Robert Luke had ‘never wanted anybody to know’ about his criminal past, and had only shared his well-guarded secret with his future wife on their second date – fearing damage to a blossoming relationship if not truthful.
Fifty years earlier, after five years on ‘the Rock’, Robert Luke had become one of only seven men to be released directly from U.S.P.- Alcatraz onto ‘the streets‘. Alcatraz prisoners were generally returned to the prison which had sent them to finish their sentences. Robert Luke was given a ride to the S.F. airport and a plane ticket to Los Angeles, where he could stay with his brother.
In his difficult early years, Bob Luke was a tough character with a self-described ‘short-fuse’ – and fist-fighting was just part of life. Later, he would take his street-learned talents into the boxing ring as sparring partner to top pro-fighters in a Los Angeles city gym. He would also continue his boxing career during a troubled stint in the U.S. Navy.
After enlisting, his tour of duty would take him ‘around the world’ on a refueling tanker, which he loathed, and Luke re-enlisted only after being promised a re-assignment. Luke looked forward to serving a more active role in the Korean conflict, and when the transfer failed to materialize, Luke became angry and agitated, which led to conflicts with superiors and his eventual desertion.
Robert Luke had endured a less than idyllic childhood in Provo, Utah. Raised by a single mother – who worked nights in a train-station diner – Bob Luke did not receive a nurtured upbringing as most others did. As Bob put it, “I was dealt a bit of a short hand”. Now, it appears, he had also been double-crossed by his own Navy.
After turning himself in to Navy authorities, Luke’s punishments included solitary confinement, and a term at the Navy’s Terminal Island Detention Facility in southern California. These early confinements would prepare Luke for eventual stays in several tough prisons – including California’s San Quentin and the Federal Penitentiaries at McNeil Island, Leavenworth, and finally – Alcatraz.
After accepting a dishonorable discharge from the Navy, Luke landed back in Southern California and found a job as a warehouse worker. A co-worker recruited Luke as his accomplice in some petty robberies, which included ‘sneak-thieving’ – entering hotel rooms with a pirated pass-key – then snatching cash, jewelry and any other valuables as guests slept.
As often is the case, these small-scale heists would lead Luke to the temptation to commit bigger ‘jobs’ -and a friend introduced him to a new crime partner – one with experience ‘knocking-over’ banks. Their capers included a Los Angeles Bank of America branch, where the two men were the day’s first ‘customers’ – producing compact sub-automatic weapons from beneath their jackets, and forcing bank employees into a store-room – before scooping the ‘loot’ from the cash drawers.
Accomplice girl-friends waited in the front seat of a parked car nearby – engine running – until the armed ‘dangerous duo’ ran up and jumped into the back seat. The car sped away as the men counted the money. Robert Luke would report for his warehouse night-shift later the same day.
Luke’s new crime partner, John Dellamura – already a convicted bank-robber – was picked out of a photo line-up by bank employees. Federal agents tracked and arrested Dellamura two weeks later – along with the two ‘girls’ – at a Florida motel. Under interrogation, the female accomplices did not hesitate to provide information about Bob Luke in exchange for light sentences. Luke was arrested the next afternoon, without incident, while on a date at a Bakersfield, California ice cream parlor.
At trial, a bank employee pointed at defendant Luke and identified him as the second armed-robber – stating emphatically, “I’ll never forget those ‘cold, blue eyes!” Bob Luke was sentenced to federal prison in 1954, after his conviction for armed bank-robbery. Fortunately, his partner in the heist, Dellamura, was a seasoned criminal with enough resources to hire a competent attorney. The lawyer was able to reduce his sentence from a possible twenty-five years – to a much more appealing ten.
Now, Robert Luke finally caught a break, as his public defender successfully argued that his client should receive the same sentence as Dellamura – ten years in Federal Prison.
Shortly after arriving at U.S.P.- Leavenworth, Robert Luke attempted an impulsive escape through a high clerestory window. Caught in the act, he didn’t even make it out of the building. Luke was soon transferred to America’s first ‘Super Maximum-Security‘ Federal Penitentiary – U.S.P.- Alcatraz, a.k.a. ‘the Rock’ – as an ‘escape risk’.
On Alcatraz, Robert Luke would choose to be a loner. Placed in a cell for his first two years next to Alvin Karpis, a legendary gangster from the 1930’s, amazingly the two men never uttered a word to each other. Bob Luke, now just 1118AZ, would be assigned a job in the prison kitchen and dining hall busing dishes and cleaning tables – which he thought beneath him. Luke filed petition after petition to be reassigned to the Prison Industries the workshops where the most of his fellow convicts worked. Petitions ‘DENIED’.
The angst and anger Luke felt about his work assignment intensified with each petitions’ rejection, and after a few months, eventually reached the ‘boiling-point’. The fighter in Bob Luke would now re-emerge, and the guards, their Captain – and even the Warden – would all know how he felt about his treatment!
After ‘lights-out’ one evening, Robert Luke quietly made preparations in his cell to ‘make a statement’. He removed the bedding from the cot, rolled the blankets up to create a makeshift woolen ‘dam’ – which he placed on the floor across the barred cell-front. His plan was to plug the toilet and flood the cell to the height of the temporary dam. That his cell was on the second tier, should create an impressive waterfall when he would quickly remove the dam as an integral part of his ‘plan’. Hopefully, the guards would slip and fall when they – undoubtably – would come running to his ‘ruckass’.
Next, anything combustible was piled up high on the cot’s mattress – and the toilet was clogged with Lukes only two pair of socks. Now, Robert Luke would wait. Finally, hours later, when the ‘graveyard’ shift of guards had settled down, Bob Luke would begin executing his plan of revenge. The toilet was rigged to fill – and to keep running – until water spilled over onto the concrete floor. Luke would watch as the water created a four or five-inch deep ‘reservoir’ – held back by his woolen-blanket dam.
As soon as the water was as deep as possible, the socks were removed from the latrine, halting the overflow to preserve the surprise factor of a ‘dam-break’!
Then, our disgruntled prisoner would strike a match and put it to the pile of shredded book-pages, writing-paper and other combustibles on top of the cot. Blowing on the flames brought the fire to fruition and fellow prisoners nearby began to stir.
Knowing full-well, that his fate would surely include a trip to the much-dreaded ‘dark-cells’ in D-Block – prisoner #1259AZ felt a rush of adrenaline as he grasped the porcelain sink. Now, with a surge of brute- downward force – the ‘fighter’ snapped the fixture completely off the concrete back-wall!
The next step in Luke’s crude plan, would prove to change Federal prisons across the entire country. After ‘removing’ the sink from the wall, Robert Luke proceeded to violently, and repeatedly, smash the sink against the cell’s toilet, reducing both fixtures to many jagged chunks of sharp porcelain.
Cold water gushed from the severed plumbing to join the six-inch deep reservoir now cresting above Bob Luke’s bare ankles. With thick smoke now filling the the cell, and wafting throughout the cell-house, the gun-gallery guards began feverishly blowing their metal whistles, and the sound of leather boots could be heard fast-approaching. Time to raise the ‘flood-gate’! . . . Whoosh!
Other prisoners began to yell and cheer – as some yelled ‘fire’! Sharp pieces of the shattered porcelain conveniently joined the rush of water from the cell, crossing the three-foot concrete walk, before descending ‘B-Block Falls‘ and crashing onto the ‘flats’ below.
The buoyant chunks quickly spread across the concrete corridor – possibly into the reach of other desperate prisoners. These ceramic chards might be secreted – and then used as very effective weapons against the prison guards, hostages in an escape-attempt, or against other prisoners in a fight.
Cell -house lights were thrown on inside and out as the prison population – 275 very bored men – were now all now fully awake. Many rejoiced in this break in the monotony, as others swore at the mystery perpetrator for disrupting their precious sleep. All seasoned ‘cons’ know that the best way to do time is to work hard and sleep hard. So, Bob Luke made some new friends and enemies with the same action of revolt.
An ‘extraction team’ – made up a pre-selected group of the toughest cell-house Correctional Officers was immediately dispatched to the suspect cell to remove the perpetrator. Commonly referred to by the Alcatraz ‘cons’ as the ‘Goon Squad’, these officers were well trained to deal with the most troublesome prisoners needing temporary transfer to ‘Segregation’ – the ‘Isolation Unit’, also known as ‘D-Block’.
Stays in ‘Segregation’ routinely began with a relatively short stay in a ‘Dark Cell’ – a 5 foot by 9 foot metal walled, floored, and ceilinged confinement – featuring a case-hardened steel-barred, and keyed, cell-front. The pitch-black dark-cells were also complimented with an additional metal encased concrete outer wall- and a solid four-inch thick keyed swing-door leading to the outer D-Block corridor.
Amenities in the ‘dark-cells’ included a diet of bread and water – with a ‘real meal’ every third day, a four-inch diameter ‘hole in the floor’ – for ‘taking care of business’ – when necessary. Not usually a big problem, as in addition to the two small ‘chunks of bread’prisoners received each day, the ‘real meal’ was served – every third day – to the dark-cell in a 12-ounce paper cup – usually barely warm or room temperature.