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Meet the female convicts who busted out of the big house

Smooth criminals

Prison breaks aren’t just a man’s game

By Brigit Katz on June 8, 2015

This past weekend, two convicted murderers escaped from a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. Richard Matt and David Sweat used power tools to cut through steel walls and pipes, working for several days to chisel their way out of the prison. For the pleasure of rubbing a little salt into the wound, the felons left behind a sticky note bearing the phrase “Have a nice day!” As of the time of publication, Matt and Sweat are still at large. It’s like a real-life Shawshank Redemption, minus the warm-hearted omniscience of Morgan Freeman.

The sheer audacity of successful jailbreaks make them a little bit frightening and endlessly fascinating. The majority of prison escapes have been perpetrated by male convicts, but a slew of women have made notable attempts at busting out of the big house (PSA: a Google search for “escape from women’s prisons” will turn up a bountiful selection of links to a pseudo-pornographic movie from the 1970s). Here are several, erm, resourceful female convicts you should know about.

1. Joanne Chesimard (a.k.a Assata Shakur)

Assata Shakur

Joanne Chesimard, who is better known as Assata Shakur and the grandmother of Tupac, was a leader of the Black Liberation Army. In 1973, she was convicted of murdering a state trooper and sentenced to life in New Jersey’s Clinton  Correctional Facility. Six years into Shakur’s sentence, two armed members of the BLA captured two correctional officers in charge of operating a prison van. They drove out of the jail complex with Shakur in tow. She escaped to Cuba, where she has been living for almost forty years. In May of 2013, Shakur was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.

2. Susan LeFevre (a.k.a. Marie Walsh)


Dubbed the “fugitive soccer mom” after her high-profile appearance on Oprah, Susan LeFevre was arrested for selling heroin in 1975. LeFevre insists that she did not partake in the drug deal, and only agreed to plead guilty so she could get away with a probationary sentence. Much to her surprise, the judge slapped her with a 10-year term in a Michigan prison. After spending less than a year in the jail, LeFevre and her grandfather hatched a relatively low-key escape plan. On an early morning in February, LeFevre bolted for the gate of the prison and climbed over it. She ran through the woods that surrounded the camp to where her grandfather was waiting with his car.

LeFevre absconded to California, where she eventually got married, had three children, and lived in an upscale suburban neighborhood under the name Marie Walsh. For more than 30 years, LeFevre successfully hid her criminal past from her family, but she was tracked down by police in the spring of 2008. LeFevre spent 13 months behind bars. She was not made to serve the remainder of the sentence that she had evaded so many years before.

3. Judy Lynn Hyman

Judy Lynn Hayman escaped from a Michigan prison in 1977. Photo: ABC 10 News
Photo: ABC 10 News

Judy Lynn Hyman’s escape from a Michigan correctional facility is only remarkable because it was so thoroughly unremarkable. Halfway through her misdemeanor sentence for shoplifting, Hayman walked out of the prison block and into freedom. She does not seem to have hatched any elaborate scheme, and in fact, Hayman’s story became far more intriguing after her escape. Hyman surrendered in 1982, and her sentence was subsequently dropped. She legally changed her name to Jamie Lewis in 1983. Almost 10 years later, a Michigan Corrections Department officer, who was stuck at his desk during a snow storm, pulled Hyman’s prints and sent them to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Police apprehended Lewis at her home in San Diego, not connecting the old arrest warrant to Lewis’s pardon in 1982. She spent five weeks in a California jail before the mishap was cleared up.

4. Dorinda Samantha Lopez


Dorinda Samantha Lopez escaped from prison in a helicopter flown by her boyfriend Ronald McIntosh, who was an army pilot during the Vietnam War. At the time of the jailbreak, both Lopez and McIntosh were serving sentences in California, for robbery and fraud, respectively. They met in 1985, while working in a prison business office. McIntosh escaped first, sneaking away from the bus that was supposed to transfer him to another prison. Posing as a land developer, he hijacked a helicopter and flew it into the prison yard, where he had told Lopez to wait for him. Lopez and McIntosh eventually ditched the helicopter and headed to Sacramento, where they were arrested on their way to pick up wedding rings. The couple married in 1987; the bride and groom wore matching prison jumpsuits. If you ignore all the flagrant violations of law and order, it’s really quite romantic.

5. Sarah Jo Pender


The so-called “female Charles Manson” was arrested in October of 2000 for the shooting deaths of her roommates, Andrew Cataldi and Tricia Nordman. She did not actually pull the trigger; Pender’s boyfriend, Richard Hull, murdered Cataldi and Nordman while Pender was away from the home that they all shared. She did, however, purchase the murder weapon (from Walmart, naturally) and helped her boyfriend dispose of the bodies.

In August of 2008, Pender escaped from the Rockville Correctional Facility in Indiana with the help of a corrections officer named Scott Spitler. Most narratives frame Spitler as a victim of Pender’s manipulative charm (a Lifetime movie about the case is titled She Made Them Do It), but he did accept an offer of $15,000 from Pender in exchange for his assistance. Spitler smuggled civilian clothes and a cell phone into the prison. Pender changed into her new outfit, and then walked in plain sight to the fueling station where Spitler was waiting with his van. Pender hid under the seat of the van and the duo took off. She was later picked up by her former cellmate, Jamie Long.

Several months later, Pender was apprehended in Chicago, where she had been living and working under a false name. In the event that this case was not sufficiently convoluted, a recent development has thrown things into further confusion: the prosecutor responsible for putting Pender in jail has claimed that new evidence indicates testimony from a key witness was false, and that Pender was wrongly convicted.

6. 28 prisoners of Brazil’s Nova Mutum jail


In February of this year, 28 female inmates escaped from a prison in Brazil after three women seduced the on-duty wardens. The women, one of whom was reportedly the girlfriend of an escaped convict, dressed up like sexy police officers, invited the guards to participate in an orgy, and plied them with spiked whiskey. Inmates then left the prison through the front door, taking an ample supply of guns and ammunition with them. The guards were found the next day, naked and handcuffed inside the jail.