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Rope used in 2012 MCC escape might be displayed at FBI HQ in D.C.

FBI spokesman Garrett Croon displays one of the ropes Joseph “Jose” Banks and Kenneth Conley used in their escape from the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The jail cell on the 17th floor of the Metropolitan Correctional Center once held a pair of daring bank robbers.

But by the time FBI Special Agent Timothy E. Bacha stepped inside late in 2012, it was filled with little more than a cool December breeze. Bacha found a “pretty decent size” hole at the base of the floor. And a rope, wrapped around a bunk bed, anchored to a pipe.

Bacha said he stuck his head through the hole that day, looked down at the rope dangling over the ground below, and simply thought: “Wow.” Then he joined the pursuit of two men who pulled off one of the most brazen jailbreaks in Chicago history.

Now, with Joseph “Jose” Banks and Kenneth Conley locked up in a Supermax prison in Colorado, the public may get its first look at the bank robbers’ notorious rope since Dec. 18, 2012 — the day the men rappelled down the side of the MCC to freedom. Bacha said he hopes to send a portion of the rope to be displayed at the FBI Education Center in Washington, D.C. Bacha was the case agent assigned to the escape.

A rope protrudes from the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop after two convicted bank robbers, Joseph "Jose" Banks and Kenneth Conley, escaped on December 18, 2012. | Getty Images

A rope protrudes from the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop after Joseph “Jose” Banks and Kenneth Conley, escaped on Dec. 18, 2012. | Getty Images

“You walk by that building, and you look up, and you’re like, ‘No way,’ ” Bacha told the Chicago Sun-Times. “And it happened. We’ve learned from it, and hopefully it will never happen again. But it wasn’t your ordinary walk-away. It wasn’t, you know, somebody helping — like some of the previous escapes you’ve had. These are two guys who defeated a wall.”

The bank robbers actually made two ropes out of bedsheets and dental floss. Three years later, the material has a musty odor. The men had enough rope to have escaped from even higher, Bacha said. But he declined to discuss how they managed to make it and break through a wall undetected. The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on whether any of its employees were disciplined as a result of the escape.

The agent suspects they hid the ropes inside their mattresses, sleeping on top of it. The mattresses were missing foam when investigators entered the cell after the escape, he said.

Bacha said he hopes to also send pieces of concrete and a metal bar from the cell to the Education Center, which is inside the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building. He doesn’t have clearance to send it all yet, but he hopes to soon. He has given other pieces of the rope to the MCC for training.

Banks ultimately spent two days on the run before he was caught on the North Side. Conley was captured in Palos Hills after nearly three weeks of freedom.

In December 2012, Banks and Conley fashioned ropes from bedsheets and floss to escape from the MCC. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

In December 2012, Banks and Conley fashioned ropes from bedsheets and floss to escape from the MCC. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

When Conley was taken back into custody, Bacha said he identified him by the tattoo on his upper right arm — it showed a devil with long fingernails and a muscular chest. Once he spotted it, Bacha said he looked at the prisoner and said, “How you doing, Ken?” But Conley, inside an ambulance after a tussle with police, simply played dumb.

“It’s interesting that they had this elaborate plan to get out,” Bacha said. “And once they hit the ground, we caught one of them within about five miles of the prison, and the other one was 20, 20-some miles away. So the plans once they got out weren’t the best. At all.”

The special agent, a member of the violent crimes task force, said more than 100 of his colleagues at the FBI, as well as the Chicago, Cook County, Tinley Park and Palos Hills police, worked the case. Tips came in about a bar in Wisconsin and even from Florida.

This image provided by the FBI shows the wanted poster for Jose Banks, left, and, Kenneth Conley, who escaped from the Metropolitan Correctional Center on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012. | Associated Press

Wanted poster for Jose Banks (left) and Kenneth Conley. | FBI image via Associated Press

Bacha said he never had a chance to interview Banks or Conley. But he said, “you’ve got to be kind of desperate” to take such a risk.

“I would never be able to look out that [hole] and feel good enough that that rope was going to hold me and go down the side of that wall,” Bacha said. “They didn’t have the proper gear that, you know, people that rappel do. They were just freestyling. And you know, it’s a cold night. It’s the middle of the night. And here you are, hoping for the best.”

The feds didn’t bother pursuing escape charges against Banks, who wound up with a 36-year sentence for bank robbery anyway. But the stunt earned Conley, who was sentenced to 20 years for bank robbery, an extra 3½ years in prison.

Bacha acknowledged that the pair likely have “status” in prison now because they pulled off such a daring escape. And it may even grow if their rope goes on display in the nation’s capital. But that could be cold comfort as they serve out their long sentences, in their new prison cells, in Colorado.

“What they did got them where they’re at,” Bacha said. “And it’s not a nice place.”