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Breaking Out 

One thing a former Western Pen escapee wants to leave behind now is the story of his jailbreak.

 

There was blood streaming down Andrew Heim's forehead when he emerged from a hole in the ground during his escape from Western Penitentiary in January 1997. But Heim may not have cared.

 

 

 "It was 15 degrees out and all of us were pouring sweat," he remembers. "It was unbelievable. The adrenaline rush didn't wear off until we was halfway across Ohio."

 

Heim, then 27, was in the third year of a 4- to 15-year sentence for a string of auto thefts and related charges. Today, out of prison since January and standing outside the rust-colored door he exited in a rush eight years before, Heim seems unmoved. 

 

After 123 years of operation, Western Pen was closed in January in favor of more modern prisons in other counties. The shades on the watchtowers are drawn now; no one can see in -- or out. Posted in the empty visitors' parking lot are empty warnings from the state Department of Corrections about vehicle searches and weapons possession.

 

Heim is the first escapee to emerge from prison and talk to local press about the episode, which lasted 12 days. He wants to tell his story, he says, "Just to show people I'm not the crazy person they portrayed me to be. I'm not a violent person. I still get some funny looks from people who know me or recognize me since I've been out. Right now I'm trying to just move on."

 

The tunnel, according to media reports in 1997, was 15 feet deep and 40 feet long, dug beneath a prison engineer's office, where one of the inmates worked. One prison guard reported finding everything from a hydraulic jack to dust masks in the hole.

 

 "I went along with them guys," Heim says of the other escapees: two murderers serving life sentences (Carmen Keller, then 36, and George Conard, 66); Leslie Kevin Billingsley, 30, serving 23-77 years on several charges, including assault and robbery; Thomas Berkelbaugh, 48, 10-20 years for robbery; and Nuno Pontes, 30, 10-24 years for burglary and other charges.

 

 "I jumped on the bandwagon at the end there," Heim explains, adding, "I did none of the digging. I knew about it all along. I ran interference here and there. I'd relay messages, pass certain stuff -- different items of contraband."

 

On Jan. 8, the day of the escape, Heim says he got out of his cell at 6:30 a.m. "They let certain workers out early," he recalls. "I worked in the laundry at that time. A couple of the other guys worked in the maintenance office, one worked in the laundry with me, another had a fake hospital pass. It wasn't hard. You could do what you wanted at the time. The complacency of the guards made it possible. It wasn't no big plan or nothing. Once you got up that morning, you didn't think about it not working. We met up under that machine-shop building. We all went into the crawl space."

 

Heim and four others waited half an hour for the last escapee to show up. "It was 110 degrees down in that tunnel. I think Kevin Billingsley went first. I went right behind him. As he was coming out of the hole, he stepped on this brick that was lodged in the dirt. When he boosted himself up it came loose and fell down on me. It hit me in the head.

 

 "I think maybe Carmen Keller came through next, then Tommy Berkelbaugh. His glass eye had popped out down in the tunnel. He spent a few minutes down there, looking for it. It was comical."

 

The six emerged inside a prison outbuilding. Its garage door was not alarmed and slid open easily. That led to a courtyard, its walls topped by barbed wire and patrolled by a video camera. But the door to the outside was held shut by a simple latch.

 

 "If they would have had a good deadbolt on that, we might have been stuck for a while," Heim says.

 

Besides digging implements and flashlights, the group had secured blueprints and duffel bags full of tools. Western Pen prisoners were allowed to wear civilian clothes at the time, and the group was hoping they'd be mistaken for workmen once they saw daylight in this heavily industrial part of Woods Run, along the Ohio River.

 

"We walked right across the street" to the parking lot of a moving company, he says. "We spread the blueprint on the hood of a car. I went in and stole the car for the getaway. We drove up on to the North Side to try to find somebody who had been in with us."

 

Who was that?

 

Heim just smiles.

 

Heim, now 35, lights up visibly at the description of another vehicle he stole along the way west in 1997: "A custom van -- captain's chair, TV in it, so we could watch the news."

 

But there was nothing about the fugitives on national television. Nothing in USA Today the next morning either. They stopped in an Illinois motel the first night, near St. Louis the next. "We had the old man go in and rent the rooms," Heim says. They figured convicted-killer Conard, a senior citizen, looked the least harmful.

 

Where did the group get its money?

 

"We've got to leave that part out," Heim says.

 

By the next day they were in Houston, Texas. "Kevin Billingsley had people down there, friends who were helping us," he reports. "My final destination? I was thinking maybe San Diego, Southern California, right on the border." Funding their freedom with a series of robberies wasn't in Heim's plans, he says. "That wasn't me. I was a car thief but I wasn't no stick-up man. I didn't bust out to rack up a hundred new cases."

 

In Houston, the group moved from motel to motel every couple of days, once to a trailer owned by Billingsley's acquaintances.

 

"His friends were helping us get documents together to get all fake IDs," Heim says. "They were doing a lot of stuff on computer. ... We had birth certificates, military discharge papers, all that stuff. He had a good little connection there." Someone in the group also secured "a sawed-off shotgun and a couple of handguns," he adds.

 

Did the six men get along? "Yes and no," he says. "There was drug use, methamphetamine use. Everybody was paranoid. I don't think any of us really liked each other. Did I trust any of them? No, not at all. Why would I?"

 

Heim was worried about the others giving themselves up "all the time. But you knew that from the start. You don't really think about it 'til afterwards."

 

 

 

Shortly after arriving in Texas, Berkelbaugh took too much meth, Heim says. News reports at the time described him babbling in the bus station, others as having a seizure on the station floor. "He basically lost his mind. He was hallucinating. We dropped him off at the bus station. The next morning we was watching TV and saw that he was caught. We thought he would get on the bus and go to Florida, like he was talking about. We knew we was running out of time. Luckily, [Berkelbaugh] was so far gone he didn't know where we was at."

 

Nonetheless, Heim believes, with Berkelbaugh's capture the police now knew their general location, the types of vehicles the group had and that they were armed.

 

Several days later, Carmen Keller was caught after a miles-long car chase. Associated Press reports placed him 50 miles east of Houston at the time. "Him and Nuno Pontes ... were in the car on the way back to the place we was staying when the police tried to pull them over for not wearing their seat belts, of all things," Heim says. The remaining escapees watched television coverage of Pontes being chased by dogs through a swamp.

 

 "We was sitting there laughing," Heim recalls. The group didn't laugh after Keller was returned to prison in Greene County. Police soon knew the group's exact location and the identity of those assisting them in Texas.

 

"The day we got caught, [police] followed the people who were helping us for a few hours until we all met in one place," Heim says. The Texas accomplices brought food to the escapees' motel on their 12th day away from Western Pen. Heim and Billingsley were in the hallway, buying sodas. "I had like four or five cans of Coke in my hand, Kevin was feeding quarters into the machine. The next thing I knew, I was surrounded by 40 police, with guns in my face. Never seen 'em coming. [If] there would have been maybe another two weeks, we could have all had our IDs and be splitting up.

 

"I was so wired out and high on meth that it didn't dawn on me until I was in the county jail the next morning what I had gotten into," Heim recalls. "Out of the 10 days we spent in Texas, I slept maybe three nights." Heim had done coke and heroin in Western Pen, he says, but it was his first experience with meth.

 

"Luckily, nobody got hurt or killed," he adds. "Some of the other guys didn't have anything to lose."

 

The trial of the first four escapees "was a circus," Heim recalls. And, he admits, "I was a clown, yeah. I didn't understand the whole point of the trial."

 

Heim, Keller, Conard and Berkelbaugh were tried in February and March, 1998, while the remaining escapees fought their extradition from Texas.

 

According to Post-Gazette coverage of the trial, Heim stuck a red question mark to his forehead during pretrial proceedings and wrote "Free Andy" on his shoes for the trial itself. After one of the defense attorneys gave an opening statement, Heim stood and inadvertently confessed, saying, "My attorney has just informed me that I have no right to tell why I escaped from prison, that I have no defense whatsoever." He said he was hoping to cite prison conditions as a rationale for his escape. "I'm not saying the cells were too small or the food was bad, you know," Heim told the court. "How does a guy go into prison and pick up a drug habit? Am I supposed to be in fear of my life all the time when I walk around the jail?"

 

Heim's performance caused one defense attorney to ask for a mistrial and Heim's own court-appointed lawyer to assure the judge that, although an insanity plea had been considered for Heim, psychological tests had shown he was perfectly sane.

 

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David S. Cercone offered to take his testimony about the circumstances of incarceration, but only while the jury was out of the room. Heim walked off the witness stand.

 

"Never mind. I don't even care," he said. "I'm done."

 

Heim, Keller and Conard were found guilty of escape and criminal conspiracy, and Berkelbaugh guilty but mentally ill. Pontes and Billingsley were found guilty later.

 

"I guess they'll never know the truth," Heim shouted at his sentencing. He got the most time of the first four tried: two-and-a-half to five years, tacked onto his remaining sentence as a car thief. A few Western Pen employees were disciplined after the escape, and there was much public hand-wringing about prison security. The Department of Corrections concluded: "It is clear to us that responsibility [for the escape] lay with the inadequate and lax operation of the SCI Pittsburgh facility," referring to Western Pen by its official name, the Post-Gazette reported

 

But as for blaming prison conditions for his escape, "That was bullshit," Heim says now. "They knew I was just being an idiot, wasting money, wasting time. But there was nothing they could do. It was my right as a defendant.

 

"Now that I look back at it, I'm thankful I only got two-and-a-half to five years, when I could have been facing seven-and-a-half to 15."

 

All told, Heim was in jail from Aug. 1993 through Jan. 2005 -- minus those 12 days on the run, of course. Prison was still no picnic, he says. "I've been pepper-sprayed, I've been stun-gunned, I've been hit with the stun shield. A few of the times I probably deserved it, because I [was] refusing to leave the cell or something, but when they do it, they go overboard."

 

Did he think about escaping again? "I had, yeah," he says. "After they brought me back to Pennsylvania, they kept me in the hole, the RHU [restricted housing unit], solitary, for six-and-a-half years. So my chances were very limited. I went through all kinds of changes. You can only read so much. There's periods when you'll exercise. I got into depression. I went for probably two or three months without talking to anyone. There was a point where I couldn't have a conversation. I'd stutter, just from not having talked to anyone, or talking too fast, just trying to get everything out."

 

Heim says he was first hit with a stun shield after three years in the hole.

 

 "That was probably the most alive I felt in three years. That's how fucked up it is.

 

"I don't hold no grudges, though," he says. "Even I realize it's my own damn fault I got where I was."

 

Heim now lives with his mother in Beechview and works at a local restaurant. "Wasn't too bright" escaping so close to his possible parole time, he admits with a laugh. Now he'll be on parole until 2013. "The hard part is staying clean. It's a struggle. Hopefully we can just let it go now."

 

If he could return to 1997, would he try escaping again?

 

 "That's a hell of a question," he says. "If I could go back and do it over again?

 

 "I would do just a few things different once I got out."

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