Three San Quentin inmates escaped the infamous prison’s walls on January 29, 1962 with one destination in mind: the coast of Mendocino County. The trio stole a car in Richmond, peeled north, and by February 8, 1962 one had gone rogue making his way to Fresno where he was apprehended.
Mendocino County law enforcement would receive word the two other fugitives were holed up in a rural cabin somewhere within the Point Arena-Manchester area hoping to wait out authorities. Local law enforcement had other plans.
In a manner befitting the swagger and cocksureness of Mendocino lawmen, a plan was hatched to deploy a force of deputies, some on horseback, to scour the land while planes commanded the skies to capture the convicts who dared seek shelter in their own backyards.
An article in the February 8, 1962 issue of the Ukiah Daily Journal explained the San Quentin escapees had snuck out of the Bay Area prison by hiding away in a garbage truck. Jumping out of the vehicle in Richmond, California, the three men would steal a 1947 Mercury sedan and speed north into the sanctuary of rural Mendocino County.
One of the three went rogue. After the three abandoned the Mercury sedan, 41-year-old liquor store robber Gray A. Cornell went off on his own, stole a pickup truck near Manchester, and drove eastward until Grass Valley, a small town tucked into the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. There, Cornell stole another vehicle and continued south where his newfound freedom was cut short after being nabbed by authorities.
Back in custody, Cornell spilled the beans and revealed his comrades’ plans to shack up for 10 days “in one of the lonely cabins hidden in the rugged country.”
The two men that remained at large using the Mendocino County woods as cover were 29-year-old convicted robber Melvin Brigham and 27-year-old rapist-burglar Leonard L. Patton. Both Brigham and Patton had distinguishable tattoos on their right forearms: Brigham sported a “dagger and flowers”; Patton’s simply said “Mary.”
Mendocino County Sheriff Reno Bartolomie doubled the coast’s night patrols and assigned Deputy Merlin Milsap and Deputy Elmer Rogers to search the wilds upon horseback for any sign of the escapees. He told the Ukiah Daily Journal he was waiting for the weather to cooperate, but he would be deploying airplanes to search from above.
Besides a similar article in the Mendocino Beacon, no more articles could be located that shed light on the search efforts for the two men locally.
But, we do know that Brigham and Patton would eventually emerge from their Mendocino County hiding places and cross state lines in their pursuit of freedom.
The two men would part ways and despite best efforts, the long arm of the law would find them. An article in the San Rafael’s Daily Independent Journal published March 10, 1962 described how the two men found themselves back in custody under the yolk of Johnny Law.
Patton would be arrested in Rockingham, North Carolina after an attempted nighttime burglary of a shoe store being free for approximately 40 days. Melvin L. Brigham tasted freedom for less than a month, being apprehended in Denver, Colorado 28 days after he escaped San Quentin.
Forty days after their brazen escape from California’s oldest penitentiary, the three men who dared leave the institution found themselves once again in the grip of the institution.
Johnny Cash would play a concert for San Quentin inmates seven years after these events, and there is a possibility one of the three sat in the audience.
If they were listening closely, Cash’s lyrics in his song “San Quentin” might have touched a nerve particularly sensitive in the aftermath of their temporary taste of freedom: “San Quentin, I hate every inch of you/ You’ve cut me and have scarred me through and through/ And I’ll walk out a wiser weaker man.”