Florida’s Prison Houdini Could Finally Go Free

Only 19 when he landed in jail on a minor charge, Mark DeFriest’s many clever escape attempts led to insanely harsh treatment—but his long wait for freedom may soon be over.

02.25.16 5:03 AM ET

He escaped straitjackets, leg irons and prison cells, and once forged a working key just by eyeballing a keychain hooked to a guard’s belt. During one incident, the savant spiked nurses’ coffee with LSD in a bid to flee a mental institution.

Mark DeFriest, dubbed the “Houdini of Florida,” even set fellow inmates free by mysteriously popping open all the locked doors in his cellblock. He succeeded in seven of 13 attempted prison breaks and landed in Florida’s worst penitentiary, locked in solitary confinement without seeing daylight for years.

“If I was a rapist or a murderer, they’d let me out. But I’m the idiot who made them look like idiots,” the guardhouse Macgyver declared in a 2014 documentary about his case, The Mind of Mark DeFriest.

DeFriest has served 36 years for a shockingly minor offense: stealing tools left to him in his father’s will before it was probated. He was only 19 when the “burglary” occurred in 1979. But repeated escapes and hijinks snowballed DeFriest’s four-year sentence to 105 years.

His supporters say the Florida system turned DeFriest, a low-level nonviolent offender, into a notorious prisoner despised by jailers.

Indeed, advocates say the 55-year-old is mentally incompetent and never belonged in jail. DeFriest’s lawyer says a psychologist later determined DeFriest is on the autism spectrum, and his wife has said he exhibits signs of Asperger’s syndrome. At a hearing in November 2014, his stepsister said, “I truly believe it’s an autistic thing, but they didn’t know that at the time. It was heartache after heartache.”

Now the Sunshine State’s own Houdini is inching closer to freedom.

On Wednesday, the Florida parole commission ruled DeFriest, who is now at an Oregon prison, must serve another six months to prepare for his release. But it’s not necessarily guaranteed. He still faces nearly three more years for previous violations in California and Alabama—detainers which London and other supporters are petitioning state officials to overturn.

“He’s really nervous. He has many fears about whether they’re going to send him back to Florida,” said Gabriel London, the filmmaker who’s spent 15 years researching and documenting DeFriest’s story.

“He’s in a negative mind state. He just thinks this is going to go on forever,” London told The Daily Beast, after speaking to DeFriest on the phone Wednesday following the parole hearing.

Supporters say DeFriest’s case illustrates the horrors of the justice system for people who are mentally ill or have developmental disorders.

“It is one of the cases you look at and you can see the whole prison world through that lens,” London said. “You can understand how the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. is built up. And it’s around people like Mark.”

John Middleton, an attorney for DeFriest, said the parole commission cut his sentence so he could enter a release program in Oregon in late 2014. But Florida’s corrections agency sent erroneous files indicating DeFriest had a life sentence.

Now in Oregon, he’s locked in a maximum-security cell with few privileges “all because of a bureaucratic screw-up,” Middleton said. The attorney said the hearing Wednesday was held in part to fix this blunder.

“I see this as a victory,” Middleton told The Daily Beast, adding, “A total victory would be to parole him to the detainers [in California and Alabama].”

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Middleton called DeFriest a “low-level offender” with mental health issues, who was put in a detention system with no room to help him.

“I understand their frustration with Mark,” Middleton told The Daily Beast. “He can’t conform, and he’s too damn smart. His way of getting even with them [detention officers] is making them look stupid with escape attempts.”

“All of this is done not while he’s being a vicious person and hurting people, but because he’s reacting to the system,” the lawyer continued. “Mark reacts. He doesn’t understand the consequences of reacting the way he did. It became a mental game with him.”

London’s film portrays DeFriest as a clever artist and engineer, who can fashion intricate artwork from the silver linings of potato chip bags, and draw illustrations of himself as a clown in a straitjacket. In jail, he got into trouble for creating zip guns from toothpaste tubes, broken glass, or anything else he got his hands on.

He was a tinkerer and misunderstood troublemaker in his youth, taking apart clocks, radios, and telephones, playing with electronics and chemicals, and even rerouting his sister’s phone calls to a loudspeaker that played into the streets, according to one interview with London.

Raised in Gadsden County, just outside of Tallahassee, DeFriest was trained in “guerrilla warfare.” His ex-military father, who served in World War II and in the OSS, taught his only son to prepare for a communist invasion. In childhood photos, he’s shown hoisting a gun in his backyard.

“I was trained from age 6—guerrilla warfare, guns, explosives, bombs, anti-tank rockets,” DeFriest said in the documentary. “My father was … into that whole ’50s and ’60s thing about the fucking reds were coming and shit.”

“The fucking dude was nuts. He really was,” DeFriest laughs. “I never saw a Russian yet.”

The escape artist called himself a “wild child.” His close bond with his father was in stark contrast to his mother, who sent him to a school for disruptive boys, relatives said in London’s documentary.

After his beloved dad died, he used his own key to unlock a shed and collect his father’s mechanics tools. But his stepmother called police, and a family spat turned into a criminal record for DeFriest.

He would bounce from mental institution to jail after he attempted to bolt from the facility by lacing the staff coffee pot with LSD he’d snatched from the pharmacy. Employees went wild—one of them attacking a washing machine—and security guards intervened to foil DeFriest’s escape plan.

DeFriest was transferred to the Bay County Jail, where he was naked and had no mattress, lights or running water. To flee the lock-up’s draconian clutches, DeFriest agreed to enter a guilty plea relating to his escapes. He was sentenced to life in prison, despite four out of five psychiatrists finding him incompetent. The fifth psychologist has recanted his diagnosis of faking a mental illness and is involved in the fight for parole.

DeFriest’s erratic behavior and penchant for getaways later catapulted him to the Florida State Prison—a place one former warden in London’s film called “the hellhole of this earth,” and the mere mention of which inspired instant cooperation among Florida offenders.

At Florida State Prison, DeFriest encountered a living hell. He claims he was gang-raped by 15 inmates and had to undergo surgery from the heinous assault. To protect himself, he “got this crazy Cuban husband” and “could never take a break from my role in the play as his woman,” DeFriest recalled.

He was the only nonviolent offender in the prison’s X-wing, a 24-cell end of the line, with windowless 7-by-9-foot cells, where he spent about two decades in solitary confinement. At one point, he went without seeing the sun for 10 years, his attorney said.

A glimmer of hope came in the form of his second wife, Bonnie, who is 30 years his senior and whom he met through letters.

“The bottom line is, it’s an injustice all the way around,” Middleton told The Daily Beast. “But it’s not really caused by Mark. It’s caused by the way our corrections system is set up.”

“The way they cope with mental illness is, many times, to put people in a padded cell and Thorazine them up and call it a day,” he added. “You don’t have the mental health treatment you need in prisons.”

In 1999, DeFriest witnessed guards fatally beat death-row inmate Frank Valdes, who died after suffering a broken collarbone, nose, ribs, a bruised heart, and other massive facial injuries, and provided a statement saying so.

Afterward, he was transferred to a prison outside of Florida for “security reasons,” a corrections spokeswoman said at the time, and his disciplinary record improved at a New Mexico lockup, according to London.

But after moving from the low-security New Mexico clink to Oregon, his privileges were taken away because Florida prison officials errantly classified him as serving life in prison, despite having that sentence overturned years before, London said.

“He was recommended for the lowest level of custody, he had a job, was in programs, had plenty of yard time,” London told The Daily Beast, adding, “That’s why it’s so wrong he was sent to Oregon with the wrong file.”

After London’s film came out, he embarked on what he calls “the court of public opinion tour,” allowing viewers to vote on what should happen to DeFriest. He presented those results to Florida officials last year.

“The court of last resort is the audience itself,” London said. “People really came together to write a happier ending for Mark, and we’re still at it. It’s not over yet.”