Five Decades After Crime Spree, The 'Flash Bandit' Lives Quietly Cliff Redden, 74, Of Chester, Is Alcatraz's Only Two-timer.

Posted: July 31, 1994

CHESTER — He seems like any other resident of Palmer House, a federally subsidized high rise for older adults. At 74, his demeanor is gentlemanly, his hair white and thinning, his apartment meticulously clean.

But among his collectibles and family photos is a keepsake that sets Cliff Redden apart from his brethren and offers a clue to his past:

A picture of Alcatraz.

Redden, whose armed-robbery rampage in 1945 earned him the nickname "Flash Bandit," did time there. Twice.

Redden held up 39 stores, banks and theaters in and around Chester in three months during 1945. When police got too close, he fled, committing 30 more robberies across the country before he was caught in San Diego. Redden served time in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia's Fairmount section and wound up in Alcatraz on two occasions - the only man to have such a distinction.

"I needed action," Redden said, explaining why he left a good job to join the Merchant Marines during World War II and why he had robbed people at gunpoint instead of settling for a dreary day job.

A Chester native, Redden worked as a crane operator at Sun Shipyard in the city until 1941. Married with three children by the time he was 21, he didn't stand a chance of being drafted for the war. So he signed up with the Merchant Marines.

"I was so stupid. I had such a good job," he said. "You could go anywhere if you were a crane operator in those days."

But when he returned four years later, he found he could go nowhere. The shipyard that had had 28,000 employees when he left had kept just 9,000.

He looked for comparable jobs, he said, but had no luck and little money. But he had a souvenir from the war - a 1941 German Luger pistol that he had bought from a sailor.

"I decided to go into business for myself," Redden said, smiling. "I held up six places in one night, hitting anything I ran into." Most of the time, his gun wasn't loaded, and he never hurt anyone he robbed, he said.

Police finally identified Redden as the bandit in late October 1945, when he robbed the Apollo Theatre at Third and Lloyd Streets. The manager, it turned out, was a former acquaintance of Redden's.

Redden took his wife, Louise, and his oldest son, George, then 4 years old, with him as he outran the police. The couple's other children, Joanne and Clifford Jr., stayed with Louise's mother. In nearly every city that Redden hit, from Chester to San Diego, he saw his own FBI wanted poster, he recalled.

In Baltimore, Redden said, he sent a postcard to a Chester police detective.

"Having a ball, wish you were here!" Redden said he wrote, signing it, ''Elusively yours, Flash."

Turned in by a drinking buddy in San Diego, Redden was caught in December 1946. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 50 to 100 years in Eastern State Penitentiary by Delaware County Judge Albert Dutton MacDade.

Louise Redden, who knew what her husband had been doing, was never prosecuted for aiding him. He said he made sure that was part of the deal.

His sentence was commuted after just 8 1/2 years at Eastern State. The term left him with a small scar above his left eye from a bloody prison brawl and an abiding bitterness for the place he called a "roach-ridden, rat- infested human jungle."

Another less-than-fond memory concerns Redden's parole officer. "He would say things to me like, 'You think you're free? You're not free. They just extended the wall around you,' " he said. Soon, Redden was back to his old ways - robbing banks this time, paired with a friend from prison.

Son George, now 53, doesn't remember much about his father in those days, just that he wasn't there often. "I remember he'd come around and say, 'Here's a hundred dollars; go buy yourself a pair of sneakers,' " the son said.

"And I remember the FBI crashing our door down in the middle of the night one time looking for him. That's when I knew he was a wanted criminal and that he was back to doing what he'd been doing before," George Redden said.

Redden was caught again in 1959, and, this time, the sentence was 25 years - at Alcatraz.

"I told myself, if I survived Eastern State, I can survive Alcatraz," he said.

He had to survive only 2 1/2 years there that time, because his mother campaigned successfully to have him transferred. His father died of throat cancer while he was in prison, and his wife couldn't wait for her husband, so she asked for a divorce. Redden, now even angrier, tried to escape from the prison in Lewisburg, Pa., where he'd been transferred.

He failed - and found himself again on the boat crossing the San Francisco Bay to the 12-acre rock known as Alcatraz.

After Alcatraz closed its doors in 1963, Redden was sent back to Eastern State. He was paroled in 1965.

Today, Redden has formed close relationships with his children and grandchildren. On his closet shelf are full boxes marked small, medium and large toys - things he bought for his 10-year-old granddaughter, Heather.

His ex-wife has moved to Delaware and remarried. She declined to talk about her past, afraid her neighbors and friends would find out who she once was.

Back in the city where it all began, Redden is profiting from his life of crime.

He recently published a 12-page, $3 booklet called, 60 Simple Safeguards Against Burglars. On the cover is his last prison photo and the words, "Is your home a target for burglars? Read this booklet, and it won't be!"

And soon, Redden promised, his latest book, I Survived Alcatraz . . . Twice, will be completed. He speaks frequently to local clubs and has donated advice on avoiding robbery to convenience stores in Upper Chichester.

Today he runs to the law instead of from it. In his wallet, Redden carries the cards of several FBI agents and two or three local police chiefs he calls friends.

Brookhaven Police Chief John Eller met Redden when the ex-bandit gave him a copy of his anti-burglar booklet. "He's kind of neat," Eller said. "He and I clicked right away." Eller said he didn't see a problem with Redden gaining fame and fortune from his past.

"If the guy's turned his life around and he's trying to do good, what the heck?" Eller said.

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