30 years after made-for-movie jailbreak, man gets parole hearing

30 years after made-for-movie jailbreak, man gets parole hearing »Play Video
The photo on the left is of Stephen Kessler as he looked in the 1980s. The photo on the right is what he looks like today.

PORTLAND, Ore. – A convicted felon will go before a parole board Wednesday morning and ask to be set free. But this isn't just any prisoner.

In 1982, Stephen Kessler crafted a cunning scheme and escaped from the old Rocky Butte Jail in Portland.

A prison guard who was held hostage during that escape passionately opposes setting Kessler free.

The escape rivaled the "Shawshank Redemption."

Six inmates pretended to be priests. Their mastermind, Kessler, was a smart and manipulative bank robber.

And behind the sturdy stone walls in the summer of 1982, Kessler and his cohorts concocted a plan to steal their own freedom.

"July 25. It was a Sunday afternoon, which was fairly quiet in the jail," said Jim Turney, a former Rocky Butte Jail guard, on Tuesday.

Since it was a Sunday, volunteer chaplains walked the cell blocks, preaching peace.

Kessler, 42 years old at the time, turned to violence, overpowering the men of God with a smuggled gun, stealing their clothes before surprising rookie Sgt. Jim Turney in the mess hall.

"My first thought was, 'what the (expletive deleted) is Steve doing in civilian clothes?" Turney said. "I grabbed for the gun. Well, there were three inmates there. Three to one is not good odds. I got knocked down and kicked."

Turney was hurt but not as bad as his colleague.

"The real injustice is to Deputy Irv Burkett who was shot," Turney said. "He lived the rest of his life in a lot of pain – in a wheelchair, in a hospital bed."

Thirty years later, Turney's retired. Kessler, who was captured just a month after escaping, is now a much older man, pushing 70 in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Turney's not happy that Kessler could be a free man. The prisoner who got the best of him that July afternoon could find his freedom again – this time, the legal way at a parole hearing.

But Turney plans a vehement plea and a five-page speech to stop it.

Wednesday at 10 a.m. will be the first time the two men will see each other since the escape.

If Turney could be one-on-one with Kessler, he would say this to him: "Hey, Steve, what's the deal with the gun? How did that thing get in there? What did we miss?"

Kessler does have a few friends in the right places. One of them is the very same judge who sentenced him after he was captured. The judge wrote a letter to the parole board, saying Kessler should be released and that he's reflected on what's done.

The board won't decide Wednesday. The hearing is a first step.