Playing Dumb

By Beacon Staff

Convicts’ minds play unfunny jokes … on themselves.

They conjure up bright ideas of squeezing through rat holes, distracting prison guards and beginning clean-slate lives. Memory is suppressed, if only momentarily, and that’s all it takes.

When Kelly A. Frank, the man once accused of plotting to kidnap David Letterman’s son, and William Willcutt rendezvoused at the Montana State Prison ranch earlier this month, they agreed on a cockamamie idea: Run for it.

The brain is tricky like that.

Theirs told them to steal a truck and head north, maybe toward Canada, maybe toward Letterman’s Choteau ranch. They made a pit stop in Clancy, where police believe Willcutt stole food, knives and a box of ammunition. Maybe then they had second thoughts – a moment of clarity. In between bites, Willcutt may have turned to his partner and said, “this was a bad idea,” before offering him a piece of licorice.

The percentages were stacked against them. It’s so rare for an escapee to remain escaped that each time it’s pulled off successfully it’s made into a movie, and there has only been a few of those.

But Willcutt and Frank chose to forget. It’s not surprising, given recent studies concluding the brain can do just that: Store unwanted memories where you don’t have to look at them, think about them or foresee the added prison time awaiting your capture. Instead the fugitives may have remembered Tim Robbins in “The Shawshank Redemption,” sanding a boat on a white sand beach in Mexico.

U.S. research teams in Oregon and California found that people can, in fact, hide away memories, backing up Sigmund Freud’s original belief of “voluntary memory suppression.”

This study, released a few years back, was greeted with some derision. It was supported, according to the BBC, “by what seemed an intuitive fact about humans – that the more you try to forget something, the more often it comes back to haunt you.”

Frank and Willcutt may have felt haunted when they were bathing in a river in the Swan Valley. All of those memories, now unsuppressed, might have flooded their cerebra. They were spotted and they made run for it again, this time half naked.

“What were they thinking,” Montanans muttered as they read about the escapees. Along with, “Hey honey, there’s a manhunt in the area, grab the guns.”

The recent escape resembles one I covered as a reporter in Bozeman in 2003. That summer officers chased Shane Savage all over the country. Savage had been charged with threatening to kill a man and a girl, pistol whipping a woman and possessing cocaine. Serious charges but, with good behavior, he could have been released within the decade.

Maybe Savage thought about that, for just a split second, before he threw a basketball down a hallway to distract a detention officer, barged through an emergency exit and scaled a chain-link fence surrounding the jail.

When the inevitable happened, and a Taser-wielding officer electrocuted and apprehended him in Billings, Savage was sentenced to 40 years. His memory must have failed him twice, since this was the second time he had escaped from jail.

That’s the token defense: “I wasn’t thinking.” That’s what Frank and Willcutt will argue before they are handed hefty sentences.

The brain is tricky. It can convince itself to be dumb.

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