Noir Crime: Attempted Jailbreak Thwarted In Riverhead


On April 30, 1950, Bernard Salsbury drove to the Suffolk County Courthouse in Riverhead and reported for work as usual. He had no idea that by the end of the day he would be hailed as a hero.

Mr. Salsbury, who lived in East Hampton, had worked at the courthouse as a turnkey—or a type of security guard in today’s parlance—for years. He was the kind of guy who took pride in his work and paid attention to the details. It was this quality that alerted him to something unusual during his rounds that day.

In 1950, prisoners appearing in court were housed at the courthouse. It was Mr. Salsbury’s job to keep a close watch on them.

He was inspecting the first floor detention cells when he noticed a picture frame in one cell. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something was not right.

The man who currently occupied the cell was John Leslie Wells, who had been transferred from a grand jury cell in the upper tier of the building to the ground floor for closer supervision. The upstairs guards had claimed that Mr. Wells was acting too fidgety.

In spite of his nervousness, the man who had been thus labeled a “two-time loser” and “garage burglar” in the newspapers, possessed a gifted ability to persuade. His skill at persuasion would become increasingly apparent as the day unfolded, as was his adeptness at the art of concealing (he was somehow able to sneak $400 cash into the courthouse in the band of his trousers even though he was searched by officers).

Originally from Mastic Beach, Mr. Wells was arrested by the Westhampton police and indicted on three counts of third-degree burglary for robbing Raynor’s Garage, along with two other unnamed Westhampton area businesses. Whatever his faults, he would prove to be a skillful detractor.

At the same time Mr. Wells was awaiting trial downstairs, 21-year-old Angelo Cravotta and 27-year-old Duncan Johnson were enjoying trusty status at the jail. Mr. Cravotta had been arrested for petty larceny and Mr. Johnson for disorderly conduct.

Inspired by the painting hanging on the wall of his ground floor cell, Mr. Wells somehow convinced the two inmate trusties to find and smuggle in three hacksaw blades. He offered them $50 apiece.

Mr. Salsbury’s suspicions were on target, as the hacksaw blades had been secreted inside the picture frame that had given him pause. The turnkey immediately notified the warden and an investigation was undertaken.

It took no time at all for Mr. Wells to start ratting out everyone who had helped him. As it turned out, the list of people willing to put their own freedom on the line for a mere $50 was impressive. It seemed that he had everyone at the jail working for him.

Almost immediately after Mr. Wells made his request, Mr. Cravotta and Mr. Johnson approached the boiler engineer, Robert McPhall. He was from East Moriches and had been working at the courthouse for a number of years. But when the two trusties made him the offer of $50 for the blades, Mr. McPhall took the three from the boiler room tool chest and passed them along. Mr. Cravotta and Mr. Johnson then smuggled the blades upstairs to Mr. Wells, who hid them in the picture frame.

Once the items were discovered, a search revealed that Mr. Wells had already sawed through one of the steel bars on the window of his ground floor cell and had been working on another.

Mr. Cravotta, who was described the newspapers as “an erstwhile hospital attendant,” had already served most of his 180-day sentence when he met and abetted Mr. Wells. Mr. Johnson, a sign painter from West Babylon had been given 0nly 90 days to serve for his crime.

As a result of their participation in Mr. Wells’s attempted escape, both men would be facing an additional seven years at “Sing Sing” in Ossining, New York, for “aiding a dangerous prisoner in an aborted jailbreak attempt.” Both pled guilty and were placed in solitary confinement until they could appear before Judge Ormonde Ritchie.

When he heard the case against Mr. Cravotta and Mr. Johnson, the judge reportedly looked at both men and asked the question that had been on everyone’s minds: “What’s the matter with you? Haven’t you any brains at all?”

Mr. McPhall, the boiler room engineer, was not indicted but he was fired from his long-time job at the courthouse. He was not allowed to appeal the decision.

Mr. Wells had a lot less to lose for his efforts. He had been facing a much stiffer sentence—5 to 10 years for burglary in the Westhampton case. The press reported that after he spent time “up the river” for the burglary charges, the “gun-toting cracksman” was scheduled to serve three years in a federal prison for parole violations. It would be years before he would face charges for the escape attempt at Riverhead.

In the end, Mr. Salsbury was the only person who benefited from the attempted jailbreak. He was hailed as a conscientious jail guard and was given his credit due for thwarting the escape and saving the day.

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