News Article Details

'Prison Houdini' just can't help himself

Record - 2/19/2019

Feb. 19--STOCKTON -- A man who has become known for his multiple escape attempts from prison during a tormented adulthood landed last week in the San Joaquin County Jail and is awaiting extradition to his home state of Florida.

Mark DeFriest, 58, has battled mental demons, possible autism and substance abuse throughout his life, his advocates say. The story of the so-called Prison Houdini was told in "The Mind of Mark DeFriest," a documentary that aired on Showtime in 2014.

DeFriest's years of incarceration, his advocates say, reflect a justice system that routinely fails those suffering from mental illness, substance abuse and disabilities.

"(The system is) broken and subpar," said Julia Perkins, director of shelter services for Community Outreach, a residential substance-abuse and mental health facility in Corvallis, Oregon. "We can't expect somebody experiencing mental illness to behave the way a person without mental illness would."

DeFriest has been afflicted by mental illness his entire life and may be on the autism spectrum, his advocates say. He also has spent years battling addiction.

Most of DeFriest's adult life has been spent in the Florida prison system, where he landed after stealing tools nearly 40 years ago. He has been in the San Joaquin County jail since Friday, awaiting extradition to Florida on Wednesday for a parole violation.

"I'm really working right now with a number of people to rectify a situation that got out control," Gabriel London, the filmmaker who documented DeFriest's story, said in a phone interview Monday.

"If he goes back into Florida's custody, he never gets out. He needs intensive clinical treatment to get on a medical regimen to supersede whatever drugs he's gotten in prison."

DeFriest's years of incarceration, the majority of it in solitary confinement, began before his 20th birthday when he was arrested after stealing tools belonging to his late father. Had DeFriest waited a little longer, those familiar with his case say, he would have inherited the tools from his father's will. Instead, he received a four-year prison sentence.

His serial escape attempts -- he succeeded seven of 13 times -- repeatedly increased the length of his sentences. His various means of escape earned him the nicknames "Prison Houdini" and "Houdini of Florida."

According to DeFriest's Wikipedia biography, his first escape attempt, from the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, involved lacing staff members' coffee with LSD. He made it over a fence and hotwired a car before being recaptured.

His savant-like skills earned him a reputation as a master escape artist. DeFriest is said to be capable of replicating keys after memorizing their patterns, and he taught himself to fashion a zip gun from a toothpaste tube.

Over time he ran afoul of fellow inmates and guards in Florida and reportedly was transferred for his own safety to Kern Valley State Prison, 35 miles from Bakersfield.

DeFriest finally was paroled Feb. 5 on the condition he spend 12 months in a mental-health and substance-abuse treatment facility. Perkins' facility in Corvallis, Oregon, was selected because of its proximity to DeFriest's wife of about 25 years. He met Bonnie DeFriest, who is more than 30 years his senior, through a prison pen-pal program.

After his release earlier this month, DeFriest spent a brief time with London in Southern California.

"We all enjoyed his company," London said. "He dove into the Pacific Ocean. It was 48 degrees."

They also went for a run together.

"I saw him pick up leaves and put them to his face to smell them," London said.

DeFriest's favorite taste of freedom, London said, may have come during a visit to an IHOP, where he downed a stack of pancakes, four orders of bacon, a club sandwich and french fries.

London was part of a group that drove DeFriest to Corvallis on Feb. 7 to check into Community Outreach. The first few days went well, Perkins said. DeFriest was calm and visited his wife at her home 10 miles from Corvallis.

"Mark was completely appropriate all day," Perkins said. "He seemed to be acclimating well. He was respectful to staff and other residents."

But by Feb. 11, Perkins said, DeFriest was displaying signs of "bipolar mania," and in the days that followed, a blood test revealed he was suffering from kidney failure and a urinalysis came back positive for methamphetamine.

On Feb. 13, DeFriest's behavior led to him being kicked out of Community Outreach and ultimately resulted in the revocation of his parole. For reasons that are not entirely clear, San Joaquin County was chosen as the first stop of DeFriest's return to the Florida prison system.

Bonnie DeFriest and two others drove DeFriest to the county on the request of San Joaquin County probation officials. DeFriest was booked into jail in San Joaquin County, according to London, after a warrant for his arrest was issued in Florida.

Officials from the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, declined to comment Monday when asked about the situation. DeFriest is scheduled to be escorted to his home state by Florida law-enforcement officials Wednesday.

In the meantime, Perkins and London said they are hoping to find a 12-month treatment program for DeFriest that will spare him from landing behind bars once again.

They are helping him, they said, because he cannot help himself.

"We're asking for a negotiated compromise that would be more humane," London said. "I think if California says, 'We'll keep him for a year, keep him for six months in a locked treatment center, Florida would be amendable to it.' "

Perkins added, "It takes experts to know who to call and how to move mountains. Mark can't be expected to know how to do that when he's been isolated for the past 40 years."

Contact reporter Roger Phillips at (209) 546-8299 or rphillips@recordnet.com. Follow him on Twitter @rphillipsblog.

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(c)2019 The Record (Stockton, Calif.)

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