CHICAGO — Employees at a high-rise lockup in downtown Chicago knew something wasn't right when they arrived at work and saw a makeshift rope fashioned from bed sheets hanging from the bars of a cell window about 20 stories above the ground.
Inside the cell Tuesday morning, investigators found a broken window and bars inside a mattress, according to an FBI affidavit. Stuffed under blankets on two beds were clothing and sheets, shaped to resemble a body, the affidavit said.
Authorities believe it was the handiwork of two daring convicted bank robbers — the first inmates to escape from the federal facility in nearly two decades. They remained at large Wednesday.
What's less clear is when Joseph "Jose" Banks and Kenneth Conley managed to flee, apparently by scaling down the roughly 20 stories from the cell they once shared.
The affidavit states both men were in their assigned area of the jail for a headcount around 10 p.m. Monday.
U.S. Marshals Service spokeswoman Belkis Cantor said they were unaccounted for during a 5 a.m. headcount. That count is not mentioned in the FBI affidavit, which states that jail employees noticed the makeshift rope around 7 a.m. and that Banks and Conley were not present for a subsequent headcount.
The owner of a shop near the jail said police helicopters and canine units didn't start swarming the area until close to 8:30 a.m.
Hours after the escape, the rope of bed sheets could be seen dangling down the side of the Metropolitan Correctional Center. At least 200 feet long and knotted about every 6 feet, the rope was hanging from a window that was 6 feet tall but only 6 inches in diameter.
It appeared to illustrate a meticulously planned escape from the 27-story facility just a week after Banks made a courtroom vow of retribution. The men, who have yet to be sentenced, are facing hefty prison terms, and the FBI said they should be considered armed and dangerous.
SWAT teams stormed at least one home in Tinley Park, a suburb south of the city. Although neither man was found, evidence suggested that both had been at the home just hours earlier, according to the FBI.
Some schools went on lockdown after being inundated with calls from nervous parents. Mike Byrne, a superintendent in Tinley Park, said "our parents are so emotionally charged right now" because of the school shootings in Connecticut.
The facility is one of the only skyscraper lockups in the world, and experts say its triangular shape was meant to make it easier to guard, theoretically reducing blind spots for guards. The only other escape from the nearly 40-year-old facility occurred in the mid-1980s, Cantor said.
Both Banks, 37, and Conley, 38, were wearing orange jumpsuits, but police believe they may have quickly changed into white T-shirts, gray sweatpants and white gym shoes. The FBI believes both men were in Tinley Park, a heavily wooded area about 25 miles south of Chicago. Authorities were scouring a local forest preserve in the afternoon.
Banks, known as the Second-Hand Bandit because he wore used clothes during his heists, was convicted last week of robbing two banks and attempting to rob two others. Authorities say he stole almost $600,000, and that most of that still is missing.
During trial, he had to be restrained because he threatened to walk out of the courtroom. He acted as his own attorney and verbally sparred with the prosecutor, at times arguing that U.S. law didn't apply to him because he was a sovereign citizen of a group that was above state and federal law.
After he was convicted by U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, he said he would "be seeking retribution as well as damages," the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune reported.
When the judge asked how long he needed to submit a filing, Banks replied: "No motion will be filed, but you'll hear from me."
Pallmeyer, a prominent federal judge who oversaw the corruption trial of now imprisoned former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, appeared to stick to her regular schedule Tuesday and there were no signs of extra security. Her office declined comment.
Conley pleaded guilty last October to robbing a Homewood Bank last year of nearly $4,000. Conley, who worked at the time at a suburban strip club, wore a coat and tie when he robbed the bank, and had a gun stuffed in his waistband.
Both men were being held in the Chicago lockup, which houses around 700 inmates awaiting trial in the Dirksen Federal Building a few blocks away.
Architect Harry Weese designed the building in the mid-1970s shortly after notorious prison riots in Attica, N.Y., and was asked to design a "more humane" lockup, said Jennifer Lucente of Chicago Architecture Foundation. That was one reason Weese ensured each cell had a window, she said.
The brother of Hollywood director Christopher Nolan also tried to escape in 2010. Matthew Nolan, who was being held pending an extradition request, was sentenced to 14 months in jail for plotting to escape the high-rise jail by hiding a rope made out of bed sheets in his cell.