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- November 10, 1975
- Vol. 4
- No. 19
The Chilling Tale of a Young American Who Escaped from a Turkish Prison
Just last month Hayes was in a fetid Turkish jail. He shared a prison barracks and an open latrine with 40 other men on Imrali, a bleak mountainous island in the Sea of Mamara, 17 miles from the Turkish mainland. Hayes had already served five years of a 30-year sentence for drug smuggling. Even with time off for good behavior and a partial amnesty, he still had three years to go.
Then, on a stormy night in early October, Hayes left the prison compound, crawled across a garbage-covered beach, swam to an empty boat and rowed toward freedom.
"I had no doubt if caught I'd be shot," says Hayes now. "But winter was coming and I knew I wouldn't last until spring." His American attorney, Michael Griffith, acknowledges: "I knew he was planning something and pleaded with him not to try. I felt we were within weeks of arranging a transfer, setting legal precedent, whereby the Turkish government would allow Billy to complete his sentence in an American prison. Billy told us, 'You do your thing, but I have to do mine. This time I'm going all the way.' "
Doing his own thing put Billy in jail in the first place. He had boarded a Pan Am flight out of Istanbul for New York with four pounds of hashish (worth $4,000 on U.S. streets) strapped around his waist. That was in the fall of 1970, at the height of the skyjack alarm. A routine on-board security check discovered his stash, and Hayes became one of 12 young Americans who have run afoul of Turkey's notoriously stringent anti-drug laws. In 1972, after Billy had served half of a four-year sentence for possession, the Hayes case was appealed by the public prosecutor. In response, Turkey's highest court found him guilty of the much more serious offense of smuggling and imposed a 30-year sentence.
"That's when I really began to plan an escape," recalls Billy, who outwardly behaved as a model prisoner, but soon became prison-wise. With $60 a month from home, Billy was able to supplement the prison diet with fruit and vegetables, but his teeth deteriorated badly anyway. "I was beaten three times," says Hayes, "but only around the feet and legs. They always remembered I was a tourist." Hayes says he was not sexually molested. He rose at 4 a.m. to read and practice yoga—to build his strength for an escape. Early last year, after bed check, Billy stood watch while an American friend used a smuggled Swedish sword to hack at his window bars. "It was suicide, but we were only a night away from escape when he was caught; he refused to name me. They beat him beyond recognition."
Eight months ago Hayes's good behavior paid off with a transfer to minimum-security Imrali, where he could wander the island and swim every day. "One morning after a storm I noticed that some small boats had taken shelter near our dock," relates Hayes. "For two months I sneaked down to a cement bunker between the dock and the guardhouse and watched. On October 2 the storm I wanted came. At 6:30 in the evening I hid in the bunker. When the storm broke I slid into the water and breast-stroked out to an empty boat. It took me another hour to cut the rowboat free with a kitchen knife. My teeth were chattering so from fright I was sure I'd be discovered."
The remainder of the trip Hayes simply calls a nightmare. His hands are still calloused from rowing against the current. At dawn he reached the shoreline near Bandmira, a tiny village 150 miles from Istanbul. Pretending to be drunk, his hat pulled over his face, Hayes staggered into town, hid till evening, and caught a bus for Istanbul. He had $45 in Turkish currency, wrapped in plastic inside his clothes.
"The worst was in Istanbul. It was crawling with police," recalls Hayes. "But my luck held. It was Ramadan [a month-long Muslim celebration] and the crowds made it easier." In a fourth-class hotel that didn't require a passport, Hayes dyed his hair black and darkened his face. Then he headed west by bus to the Greek-Turkish border. "I only learned after it was over I had gone through a minefield," he says with a shudder. Until debriefed by the State Department, Hayes is vague about his exact border crossing and the 12 days he spent in the custody of the Greek army after being picked up wandering barefoot in the woods. He insists he had no help. "God, I wish I had," he smiles. "I could have used it."
When released by the Greek authorities, Hayes contacted the American consul in Thessaloníki who was waiting with a passport and air fare to home. Twenty days after his escape, Hayes flippantly mailed a postcard showing a naked girl to the prison director at Imrali and boarded a plane for home.
Dottie Hayes hadn't seen her son in five years. "He's so restless," she says, "up, down, in, out, he doesn't sleep." Hayes also developed a slight accent from speaking Turkish. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he says. "I'd like to do a book to repay some of the money Dad spent on legal fees and expenses [$30,000]. But jobs, college, all those things seem very transitory. In prison I gained a lot: I learned to accept myself for what I am, and that brings me peace. That and being free are enough."
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