The Prisoner Who Escaped From The OC Jail By Digging A Hole

Sep 18, 2019

Back in the 1950's, career criminal John Halasz didn't really like spending time in the Oneida County jail... so he escaped.

Gary Entz has the story for this week's A Northwoods Moment in History.

In 1953 there was a statewide ring of outboard motor thieves of which John Halasz, a career criminal from Milwaukee, was a part.  The ring would steal outboard motors and boats in one part of the state then resell them in another part.  With its numerous lakes and tourist resorts, the Northwoods represented a prime target for Halasz, and he was spotted lurking around Rhinelander and Tomahawk in early September of 1953.  On Friday September 11, the Decker Service Station reported the theft of three outboard motors while a Tomahawk dealer reported the loss of three outboard motors from his property at the same time.

During the weekend, police in Oshkosh spotted a suspicious looking vehicle with one boat tied to the roof and a second boat on a trailer behind.  This was Halasz’s car, and inside were eight outboard motors.  After a tussle, police arrested Halasz.  Halasz claimed he bought everything in Duluth, but the dealers identified six of the outboard motors as the ones stolen from their property.  One of the two boats was also identified as having been stolen from Tomahawk.  Halasz was subsequently remanded to Oneida County authorities and locked up in the Oneida County jail to await trial.

Halasz was unable to make bail and the trial was delayed because of a change in defense lawyers, so Halasz had plenty of time to get to know his cell block in the Oneida County jail.  On December 29 at 4:40 a.m. a suspicious-looking man driving a 1940 Studebaker with dealer tags pulled into an Antigo service station and asked for the tank to be filled up.  He tried to pay with what the attendant recognized as a phony check, and when the attendant refused it the driver took the car’s spare tire, rim, and jack and dumped them on the ground in exchange for the gas.  Before he drove off, the attendant called the Antigo police who in turn called both Lincoln and Oneida County authorities to see if they knew who it was.  However, they were unable to get through for several hours, and unable to detain the driver any longer, he left.

When a call finally made it through at 7:00 a.m., the driver was identified as Halasz.  During the three months while he awaited trial, Halasz discovered an old plumbing repair in the floor of his cell block in the Oneida County jail.  Using steel taken from his bed springs, Halasz dug out the mortar and managed to loosen enough bricks that he could soap himself up and tunnel his way through the hole to the basement below.  From there he simply opened a window and crawled out.  He stole the Studebaker from Able’s garage on Brown Street and drove off.  Halasz was finally nabbed near Plymouth on January 5.  Because of the escape, the Oneida County jail was declared obsolete, and Halasz was remanded the more secure Lincoln County jail, from which he nearly again escaped.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this commentary came from Podington Bear.