Parole commission hears 'prison Houdini' case

Filmmaker spent 13 years making a documentary of man in prison for stealing tools

By Brendan Farrington
Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Mark DeFriest has spent nearly 35 years in prison for stealing tools his father left him in his will.

DeFriest, then 19, didn't realize he had to wait for the will to be read and he ran from police after taking the tools from his stepmother's home. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

But four years has turned into what is now essentially a life sentence after a series of elaborate escapes and escape attempts that earned him the nickname of the "prison Houdini."

He made keys out of paper by glancing at their design dangling from guards' belts and crafted makeshift guns from materials he found in prison. In one escape, he stole a car and broke into a friend's home. More and more years were tacked onto his sentence and he won't be released until he's well past his 100th birthday unless the Florida Commission on Offender Review lops decades off his release date.

The commission heard the case Wednesday. It's one they are familiar with. Filmmaker Gabriel London spent 13 years making a documentary on DeFriest, "The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest," which makes a strong case that he shouldn't serve a life sentence for a crime that some say was ridiculous to begin with.

London and DeFriest's lawyer, John Middletown, say DeFriest is high functioning autistic and his mental health issues have contributed to his inability to fit into the prison structure. They say he's a genius.

DeFriest, 54, has never hurt anyone, they say, and has been imprisoned far longer already than merits his crimes.

DeFriest has served more time than people who have killed, Middleton said. "The system doesn't work for somebody like Mark and so many people like him that have some mental issues. We are warehousing people who have mental health issues in prison."

DeFriest is no longer in Florida. He was transferred out of state after witnessing the beating death of another Florida State Prison inmate, Frank Valdes. The guards involved were acquitted in the case, but DeFriest was sent out of state to protect him from retaliation. Authorities will not disclose where he is.

But the stories London and Middleton tell of DeFriest's time in prison are both frightening and fascinating. He was gang raped, he was kept in a cell without being allowed outside for years. In one of his escape attempts, he pulled out one of his own teeth to get medical help before pulling a handmade gun on a guard. He laughed in documentary footage about spiking a coffee pot with LSD in Florida State Hospital, an institution that houses felons with mental health issues, in a failed plot to confuse staff so he could escape with a key he made.

In another escape attempt, he successfully climbed razor wire atop a prison fence.

"There's an art to everything. My dad taught me how to deal with stuff like that," DeFriest said in an interview with London. When London asked, incredulously, that his father taught him to get over razor wire, DeFriest responds, "Well not that particular brand of it."

Published: Thu, Dec 18, 2014

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