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Ex-Alcatraz inmate and guest author dies

Former Alcatraz inmate and guest author Darwin Coon passed away on Monday at 78-years-old.
Former Alcatraz inmate and guest author Darwin Coon passed away on Monday at 78-years-old.
NARA/AP/Eric Risberg

He dressed in vintage clothing, wore a cross around his neck, and gold rings on the finger stumps of his right hand. Coupled with a blank stare, he looked every bit the part of an ex-con.

“As a guest author he knew only three things,” said his friend Al Blank. “This is my name, my number, and the years I was here.”

Darwin Evert Coon was inmate 1422-AZ, and served four years at Alcatraz from 1959-1963.

Mr. Coon died on Monday, Feb. 7, at age 78.

He suffered a stroke a few weeks ago and was being cared for by his family.

Until recently, he’d lived in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, and been a regular guest author on the island. He was also a narrator of the cellhouse audio tour, and speaker at the annual Alcatraz Anniversary Gathering.

Born on January 23, 1933, the Iowa-native was a petty criminal throughout his adolescence. “I cut class and learned everything a kid shouldn’t know,” he said. “I also lost my fingers in a meat grinder at reform school when I was 13-years-old. They released me so my parents wouldn’t sue.”

By his 24th birthday, he had a rap sheet lined with two robbery convictions, another for interstate transportation of stolen property, and multiple prison stints.

While being held on robbery charges in Las Vegas, Coon struck up a friendship with career criminal George Albert Mills, and on September 18, 1957, they escaped from Clark County Jail after Mills stabbed a guard.

During their 11-month crime spree they committed numerous robberies, burglaries, and auto thefts. They escaped twice, attempted another, and even held a bank president and his wife hostage during a robbery. They spent all of their loot on women, booze, and gambling.

Once caught, they recieved 30-year terms. Mills was sent to the Rock and Coon joined him in Sept. 1959 via Leavenworth where he’d been accused of attempting escape.

He was transferred on the same chain with Harlem gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. “He was a sweet old man,” Coon said of Bumpy. “But he’d cut your arms off if you crossed him. We had no problems.”

Coon worked in the kitchen where he ate well, drank hooch, and had access to daily showers.

He also played bass in the prison band.

He saw two near-fatal assaults, and referred to Hiller "Red" Hayes as the Rock's toughest con.

Coon was sent to the hole once for carrying a knife, but never attempted to escape Alcatraz.

He claimed to have given his rain coat and tools to John Anglin who departed with his brother Clarence and Frank Morris on June 11, 1962. He always believed they made it. Six months later two of his kitchen co-workers John Paul Scott and Darl Parker also escaped, but were caught.

On Jan 21, 1963, he was sent to Leavenworth where he eventually became the institution’s middleweight boxing champion.

After a cellhouse lawyer named Courtney Taylor helped him get his sentence reduced, Coon was released from FCI-Terminal Island in 1972, and remained a law abiding citizen thereafter.

He moved to Iowa and worked with prisoners in the Christian Fellowship program. He also ran a store for the church, and became a foster parent to 94 children.

Relocating to California, he published his memoirs "Alcatraz: The True End of the Line " and ironically became an employee at the same place he’d been an inmate—Alcatraz. “I sign books in the same spot I butchered meat as an inmate,” he joked.

Late in life, he still smoked Camels and sipped Vodka-7’s at the Red Jack Saloon. There, he generously bought Rock employees and curious tourists drinks—never vice versa. He even married in the bar in 2009.

He and George Mills lost touch and never reunited. Mills died in Hawaii in 2001.

Darwin Coon was reserved, cautious, and instinctive. If all you had were questions about Alcatraz you were greeted with one word answers and little detail.

If you showed him genuine respect, he knew it, and made sure it was reciprocated.

He was a celebrity to most, but preferred to be treated like another fella at the bar shooting the breeze about sports and ladies.

His passing is a sad occasion and he will be missed.

Mr. Coon is survived by his wife, Mickki of Sacramento; sister, Harriet Ralston of Stockton; numerous foster children; and friends.

So long Darwin.

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