Alcatraz East: Driven to Crime
Alcatraz West was never a good place. Alcatraz East is, and it’s reopened.
Posting notice that it’s the “most arresting crime museum in the United States,” the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, offers guests permanent and temporary interactive exhibits and artifacts about crime history and prevention; our penal and justice systems; CSI and law enforcement; and six crime-related vehicles.
Just reopened May 15 after a COVID-19 shut-down, the venue is at the entrance of The Island entertainment campus, 2757 Parkway, five miles north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and near Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country, owned by area native daughter, country-western legend Dolly Parton.
The 25,000-square-foot two-story museum includes 100-plus interactives in five galleries. Current temporary exhibits include the “Tennessee Bureau of Investigation,” until June 2020; “From Car to Incarceration: Ted Bundy’s Final Arrest,” until October 2022; and permanent displays featuring items such as “Old Smokey,” Tennessee’s electric chair.
“Although the building looks 19th century, it was built in 2015–2016. Alcatraz East blends together a mixture of design features that represent both Tennessee and Alcatraz,” explains Summer Blalock, sales and marketing manager for the museum.
She adds: “In 1898, the Tennessee State Prison was the first prison within the state, which opened just outside of Nashville. The prison was designed to look like a castle: a fortress of thick stone and masonry walls. The Alcatraz East design incorporates the ornate features of the Tennessee State Prison as well as guard towers inspired by the Alcatraz lighthouse and modern-day watch towers.”
The museum’s advisory board includes law enforcement officials, collectors, a medical examiner and crime scene investigators. They are Jim Willett, a retired prison warden; Anthony Rivera, a combat veteran and Navy SEAL chief; and Judge Belvin Perry, Jr., best known for the Casey Anthony trial.
On display in the Getaway Cars Gallery and outside the museum are vehicles used by the good guys and the bad guys (and girls):
•John Dillinger’s 1933 Terraplane –– In March 1934, bank robber John Dillinger bought the new car, manufactured by the Hudson Motor Car Company of Detroit, from Potthoff Brothers Motor Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. “John Dillinger was already a household name by the time he purchased it,” Blalock explains.
On March 31 in this car, Dillinger and girlfriend Evelyn Frechette escaped FBI agents in St. Paul after he took a bullet to the leg. Two slugs from the shootout are still in the front cowl panel, which supports the windshield and separates the passenger compartment from the engine on the inside of the car.
Unfortunately, after the car was restored, you can’t any longer see the bullet holes from the outside. The car was also not originally red but likely black or a dark green, she says.
On April 7, while hiding out with his family in Mooresville, Indiana, Dillinger and his brother, Hubert, crashed the Terraplane in a field and it had to be abandoned. The next day, the outlaw signed the car over to Hubert, who retrieved it from the field.
Two months later, John Dillinger was dead.
•1934 Ford V-8, Bonnie and Clyde Death Car –– This is the car seen in Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the movie that established “New Hollywood” film-making with intensive sex and violence. Films had previously been more restricted by the Motion Picture Production Code, which banned the filming of nudity, drug usage, firearms use and showing men and women sleeping in the same bed.
The final “ambush” scene was one of the first to show blood spatter and how bodies reacted to being shot as well as showing both shooter and victim in the same shot.
The film was nominated for best picture, director, writing and all four acting awards, but only Estelle Parsons won Best Supporting Actress in 1967 as Blanche Barrow, the wife of Clyde Barrow’s brother, Buck.
The film had some historical inaccuracy, though. The family of Frank Hamer sued the studio for defamation of character for its inaccurate negative portrayal of the lawman, who was awarded an out-of-court settlement.
The actual 1934 Ford V-8 was stolen after the shoot-out. The new car had been stolen earlier from the driveway of Ruth Warren of Topeka, Kansas, on April 29. Later, she showed up in Louisiana to claim her car, but the local sheriff demurred, and she did not receive the car until the case went to court.
She later sold it to a carnival operator, and the “Death Car” became a popular traveling sideshow attraction. In a 1969 lawsuit, the Ford was established as the real “Death Car” and is displayed at Whiskey Pete’s Casino in Primm, Nevada.
•Ted Bundy’s 1968 Volkswagen Beetle –– Bundy had two VW Beetles: the one owned in Utah and the other he stole in Florida. The museum car is the one the mass murderer owned, and it was integral to the murders he committed and his conviction because it provided DNA evidence.
His documented killings began in early 1974 with the assault of Joni Lenz, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Washington. He continued to kidnap and kill women in Washington State at the rate of one per month until he moved to Salt Lake City to attend the University of Utah’s law school.
A man named “Ted,” on crutches or with his arm in a plaster cast would ask young women to help him carry books, ski boots or other items to his car. Several women reported having been approached but wisely declined. He removed the passenger seat to conceal them after they had been fatally lured to the VW.
On August 15, 1975, Bundy was stopped by police who searched his VW Beetle and found a crowbar, a box of large green plastic garbage bags, an ice pick, flashlight, gloves, torn strips of sheeting, a knit ski mask, handcuffs and a mask made from panty hose. They also noted that the passenger seat had been placed in the back seat. Bundy was arrested for evading an officer, but he was released.
Six days later, officers arrested him for possession of burglary tools, but again he was released on bail. The next day he cleaned the Beetle and sold it to a teenager.
Two months later, three witnesses picked Bundy from a police lineup, and he was charged with attempted murder and kidnapping. The Volkswagen he had sold was searched for further evidence; hairs matching those of victims appeared.
Found guilty and sent to prison, he escaped and killed again, but in 1978, he was arrested in the stolen orange Volkswagen Beetle in Florida. There, he was executed by electric chair on January 24, 1989. He confessed to thirty murders but had alluded to more.
•1993 Ford Bronco –– On June 17, 1994, a TV news break-in showed a white Bronco on an empty California highway. Former NFL star O.J. Simpson had a gun pointed to his head in the back seat.
The Ford was owned and driven by Simpson’s childhood friend and football team mate, Al Cowlings, who was behind the wheel driving during the “chase” and called police, pleading for them to back off to prevent the suicide.
An arrest warrant had been issued in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. They had been found brutally stabbed outside her Brentwood, Los Angeles, home.
The chase continued for two hours. Detective Tom Lange, who had interviewed Simpson before, attempted to keep him talking on the phone to prevent his suicide. When Simpson arrived at his home, he surrendered. Cowlings was never charged with aiding a fugitive.
Simpson also owned a white Bronco. The night Nicole Brown was murdered, police found blood on this Bronco, and it was confiscated. The vehicle technically belonged to the car rental company, Hertz, for which Simpson was a spokesman. Hertz allowed the forensic team to do the tests, and after it was returned, the Bronco was dismantled and sold for parts.
•Sevier County Sheriff’s Car –– Purchased new in 2007, this Dodge Charger, displayed in front of the museum, was used by three members of the sheriff’s office during its nine-year career. Retired in 2016, it is on loan to the museum to educate the public on crime response.
•Government Surveillance Van –– Also located outside the museum, the van was used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a Georgia police department. A display inside the museum gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the cramped quarters law enforcement spends time in during a stakeout, with barely enough room to stand and little privacy to use the toilet. The van was in active criminal investigations, including drug crimes and burglary surveillance.
The cars tell different stories: “Our crime cars each represent a cautionary tale, symbolizing a warning about the consequences of crime, while our law enforcement vehicles are positive reminders of all law enforcement does every day, both in public and behind-the-scenes, to keep us safe,” Blalock explains.
General admission tickets are $14.95 for children, $24.95 for adults. Group ticket sales are available. The museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., with the last ticket sold 60 minutes before closing. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit alcatrazeast.com.
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