Escape | By Dennis Cockerham

My Story (Part 2) Serving Time | Noah Bergland

Escape. A word with so many meanings.

It was 1986 and I was 14 years old.

A Saturday afternoon shortly after lunch at the Detention Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, a holding facility for the Youth Authorities. I got there after running away from my previous facility; police had caught and arrested me in a stolen vehicle. 

Danny, my friend, accomplice, and co-conspirator, was standing on top of the pool table in the middle of the facility screaming, “That’s it, we are busting out of here. We have it all planned out!”

Danny had a pool ball in each hand just daring any of the staff to come at him, to try and take him down.

It was true Danny, Shelly, Bobby, and I had formulated a way out. We had all been arrested together and we were determined to leave together. But Danny’s pool table stunt was nowhere in the plan.

The plan was to wait until we were on outside recreation on the fenced-in volleyball court. We had recruited a couple of the other kids from the Center to lift us over the fence. The staff usually stayed inside and watched over us with the cameras installed in the area so our plan would give us the head start. We thought that was all it would take.

But now Danny had gone and changed the plan all on his own. As staff surrounded the table, he yelled out to each of us by name. He somehow believed that if we jumped the staff, we could take control of the whole facility. We could only look at Danny in confusion.

Danny’s premature stunt had screwed up the plan and we could see on his face that he realized it, too. The staff tackled Danny and took him to solitary confinement. Shelly, Bobby, and I were all escorted to our rooms and placed on lockdown.

One might think that after such a failure I would have had enough. But nope, not me. 

I was physically abused by my grandparents and I did not know that this was not normal. My aunt witnessed the abuse and told me that nobody, not even a 10-year-old kid had to live like that. She contacted Social Services and Law Enforcement. She arranged for me to run away. It worked in that I escaped the abuse but it was the only coping mechanism I had EVER been taught. So, anytime I was in danger, in trouble, or just didn’t like the circumstances, the only thing I knew how to do was run.

So when my crew’s escape collapsed with Danny’s stunt, I had a back-up plan. Less than eight hours after being placed on lockdown, the staff caught me making a make-shift noose in my cell. I was transferred to the Lincoln Regional Center for a fourteen-day psychological evaluation.

I’d heard that although the Center was locked down, it was directly connected to an outpatient facility with an underground tunnel system — the same underground tunnels that secured residents used to get to recreation.

I planned on using these tunnels for my “great escape.” I figured I would then go back and help the rest of my crew break out. Everybody was counting on me.

The first 48 hours were strict supervision and even then I was not allowed to go to rec until after a 72-hour intake assessment. I made use of every minute of the final 24 hours: disguising my questions as ones of curiosity and anxiety, I secretly interviewed all the other residents on the details of recreation, the tunnels, and freedom.

The journey through the tunnels to the gym was long. The two facilities were connected through a shared commissary with access through the basement for us and through the outside door for the outpatient facility. This was going to be my way out!

As the day arrived I was tense and focused. I put on three different sets of clothes so I would be described as wearing one set of clothes as I escaped, but then I’d peel each set off and I would be long gone.

A dozen of us going to rec that night and we walked there with one staff leading and one bringing up the rear. I strategically placed myself toward the back, about three people ahead of the last staff member. The way I figured it, this would be the only person that I would have to outrun. He would see me take off, but I was fast and I had no doubt I could beat him. The staff leading the group would not even know that I had gone until the one behind me had a chance to radio him. 

Just as I’d found out, it was a long walk and there was plenty of three-way and two-way splits in the tunnels. There were big green signs on the walls like interstate bypasses, but it felt like a maze. I did remember pieces of the conversations I’d had: “We will follow the signs for the security gym all the way there;” “There is a ‘Y’ split just before the commissary;” “The sign is posted right before we get there.” It was enough for me to think I could do it.

And then there it was: commissary left, security gym right. This was my time. I dropped back as if to talk to the staff. As he looked over to me, I smiled and said “See ya, bye-bye!” and took off. I ran with everything I had. I took a glance back. Nobody. I had lost them. Freedom was just around the corner. One more long stride.

I can’t explain it. I did not slip and I did not fall. I somehow threw my leg so far out in front of me that it just kept going without ever landing. I slide to the ground in the splits. I heard something pop, but I paid no attention. I still had the drop on them and I could still make it.

I pushed up off the floor, reached out to take that first step, and fell again. Something just was not working right with my body. One more failed attempt and it was too late. I saw the staff rounding the corner.

I did end up leaving the compound that night after all. And I also returned — in a wheelchair. My running days were over for at least the next six months. The fall in the tunnel had broken my pelvis. The doctor said that it was a wonder that I had been able to stand up at all after that.

The good news was that I got to see my whole crew again soon after. The bad news was it was in court. In my absence, the remaining three had heard of my second failed attempt, so they decided to put the blame of the staging and planning of the first one on me, too.

While they were all released home on probation, I was not. I was sentenced to my first term at the Youth Development Center in Kearney, Nebraska.

That day, as the judge handed down my sentence, as those officers took me into custody, I had only one thought:

Whenever I get there
Whenever I touch down at this new place
I know that most definitely, without a doubt…
I am going to escape!

When I Get Out of Here | Dennis Cockerham

Trying to be cool | Noah Bergland

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