Dean Wickliffe has spent 41 of his 69 years in prison. He was jailed for life in 1972 after he shot Wellington man Paul Miet dead during an armed robbery. For much of his sentence Wickliffe was at Auckland Prison at Paremoremo, the country's toughest jail. In 1976 he was four years into that sentence when he tried to escape. To date, he is the only inmate who has escaped from Paremoremo twice. He has penned a book about his lags called A Lifetime Behind Bars, which he self published with the help of his mate, a former prison guard. Spanning more than 500 pages and 30 chapters, the book tells Wickliffe's story from his childhood in Maketu to his first major robbery, first stint in prison and his life, loves and crimes along the way. In this extract he reveals how he got out of the super-maximum wing of the prison in 1976 — and how his freedom was shortlived.

I asked [my girlfriend] to contact my accomplice in the robbery to tell him the time had come for him to repay the debt he owed me for my silence in protecting him from arrest. I needed a getaway vehicle to be waiting at a pre-arranged place and time. The details I would provide when I was ready.

My plan was simple. Relying on speed, fitness and some luck, I planned to go from the yards late in the afternoon, just before the 3.30pm escort movements back to our cells.

Dean Wickliffe, is one of New Zealand's most high-profile criminals. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dean Wickliffe, is one of New Zealand's most high-profile criminals. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Being mid-winter, it was dark by 6pm, giving me the cover of darkness if anything went wrong. Paremoremo, in those days, was surrounded by privately owned paddocks stocked with sheep and cattle. The prison was built on a peninsula that jutted out into the upper Waitemata Harbour and enclosed on both sides by a tidal estuary.

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From a security point of view, it was an ideal site for a maximum security prison.

No one had succeeded in escaping from it as yet. To get out of the yards and over the two 24-foot-high walls and the two 24-foot-high perimeter wire mesh fences, I had asked each of the prisoners upstairs with me to donate a sheet, which they did.

I then tore each sheet into three equal strips and sat up all night to plait them into a 45-foot-long rope.

The day before, I had plaited a rope made from our string mats, but it broke on my first practice attempt to climb it, so the sheets made for a better plan.

The first attempt was not detected by the prison officers. The joins were important to get right.

Tying them together would not do, because a rope, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. So I plaited the three strips of each sheet into the next three strips of the following sheet, leaving around 18 inches of sheet for the join and knotting the ends so they could not slip out when I put my weight onto the rope.

For hooks, I had to improvise as for obvious reasons, lengths of steel to make a hook out of were just not available.

Instead, I removed some of the aluminium pins that held the corrugated iron sheets of our yard shelter to the steel framework. These were approximately 10 inches in length.

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Wickliffe has become one of the nation's most high profile inmates over his 41 years in jail.
Wickliffe has become one of the nation's most high profile inmates over his 41 years in jail.

I fashioned several of them into S-shaped hooks, which I doubled and tied together for strength.

I then bound each pair to one end of the rope in such a way that no matter how the rope landed against the fence, I could count on at least one pair of hooks to take hold of the wire mesh. When the watch tower guard had settled in his seat (to read a book) close to the time I wanted to go, a fellow inmate, who was keeping a watch on him, signalled the, "all clear" to Dennis [Hines — fellow inmate] and we sprang into action.

It took a few attempts before Dennis, was able to get enough of the rope over for me to reach it on my side of the wall. I quickly climbed up the rope to the top of the wall and pulled up my end of the rope behind me, but not the end Dennis held. He still had a job to do for me.

The next part of the escape plan was the most dangerous for me.

I had to run along the top of the middle wall separating our yards and jump the 12 feet across to the top of the outside wall, which was the main wall.

The outside wall was three feet higher than the yard walls, so I had to jump across and up to it, with the weight of the rope in one hand, using my free hand to steady myself on landing.

If I jumped short, I would fall around 24 feet to the concrete below and risk breaking a leg.

If I jumped long, I had the rope, still anchored by Dennis to prevent me going head first over the other side, where I would likely trip the alarm wire running along the top outer edge of the main wall.

Wickliffe flanked by police during his earlier years as a criminal. Photo / File
Wickliffe flanked by police during his earlier years as a criminal. Photo / File

But I didn't hesitate.

I had made hundreds of practice jumps in the yard over the previous weeks, having measured the distance I had to jump between the two walls with a length of cotton.

I ran along the top of the middle wall and leapt from the outer edge of the yard wall on to the top of the main wall, landing perfectly.

The alarm wire was held by rubber insulated metal brackets six inches out from the top outer edge of the wall. I threaded my end of the rope between the wall and the wire, then lowered myself to the ground while Dennis again anchored it from within his yard.

On reaching the ground and taking my weight off the rope, Dennis knew it was safe to let go.

I then pulled the rope carefully towards me, so as not to allow the rope to touch the alarm wire. So far I had gone undetected.

On reaching the ground and pulling the rope back after me, I gathered it up and rushed to the inner fence, right under the tower.

While I couldn't be seen by the officer in this tower, I knew I was now exposed to the view of the sentries in two of the other corner towers about 600 feet away on either side, if they were looking my way. But even if I was seen, I relied on speed and fitness from this point on and every second gained improved my chances.

The next part of my plan could also lead to failure, if I didn't get it right. I had to throw the rope up near the top of the fence without actually going over the top and setting off the alarm wire running along the top.

I also had to hope that my improvised aluminium hooks took hold and were strong enough to take my weight.

Then if all went well, I realistically expected to be detected once I had hauled myself up to the top of the first fence.

Wickliffe taking in his new freedom at Mount Maunganui after he was released on parole in 2017. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Wickliffe taking in his new freedom at Mount Maunganui after he was released on parole in 2017. Photo / Brett Phibbs

I would be almost within touching distance of the circular balcony surrounding the circumference of the tower at that point. It would be all go from there. I threw my rope and everything went like clockwork. I wasn't detected until I was halfway up the second fence, the last barrier to freedom.

The tower door opened and the astonished look on the officer's face was worth all my efforts to get this far. He said, "Wickliffe, where are you going? Come back."

I scrambled up to the top without replying and literally flung myself on to the barbed wire that coiled along the top of the outside fence without feeling the barbs that cut into my flesh. The officer rushed back into the tower and a few seconds later the escape siren sounded.

I was wearing only shorts, singlet and white tennis shoes.

I struggled free of the barbed wire and dropped to the ground. Picking myself up off the ground, I crossed the road encircling the prison, leapt the fence enclosing the nearby paddock and ran like hell towards the dirt road, 400 yards away to where I expected the getaway car to be waiting.

I had gone 50 yards, when I heard the sentry shout, "Wickliffe, stop or I'll shoot." Glancing back over my shoulder as I ran, I saw him standing on the balcony aiming at me. That was the one thing I was unsure about, whether the sentries in the perimeter towers were armed.

I began zigzagging as I ran, half expecting to hear shots ring out at any moment. Again the sentry shouted, "Last chance, Wickliffe. Stop now or I will shoot you."

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It only spurred me to run faster, zigzagging as I ran, half expecting to hear shots ring out at any moment. No shots came. I looked back again from about, 100 yards away, still running.

Dean Wickliffe's new book is available now.
Dean Wickliffe's new book is available now.

The sentry was standing on the balcony but not aiming anything at me. He held a broom in his hand. His bluff had failed.

I stopped zigzagging but continued running across the paddock. Halfway to the back road, I couldn't see the getaway car waiting for me. My accomplice in the robbery who owed his freedom to my silence had let me down. My heart sank.

I knew that my chances of getting away now were not good. But I was not about to give up without trying.

I had a Plan B. I always thought there was a possibility that my accomplice would let me down.

In that event, I would just keep running until I got to the estuary and swim across to the scrub on the other side that I had seen from my cell and hide out until darkness.

I would then cross the ridge and the farm lands beyond to the Rodney Forest 10 miles away.

It was not much of a plan but it was all I could come up with in a difficult region with no outside help. I was fit, determined and desperate. Those were my strengths.

Unknown to me as I ran on, the fittest officers in the prison were gathering for rugby practice at the local field in the village. When the escape siren went off, the security van that circles the prison remained on standby at the front gates.

It picked up the officers preparing for training and rushed them to the back of the prison to pursue me across the paddock. By this time, I had crossed the dirt road. If the getaway car had been waiting, they would not have caught up with me.

Dean Wickliffe as a child. He speaks about his childhood at Maketu in his new book. Photo / Supplied
Dean Wickliffe as a child. He speaks about his childhood at Maketu in his new book. Photo / Supplied

However, when I reached the estuary, I found that the tide was out and instead of water to swim across, it was virtually mud flats with a water channel in the middle.

I jumped off the bank into the mud and sank up to my thighs. My heart sank.

I tried to wade through it but had made only 50 feet before becoming stuck. When the first officers arrived on the scene, I couldn't move forward or back. Dejected, I had to let them pull me free from the mud.

A Lifetime Behind Bars is dedicated to Wickliffe's partner Dionne Chapman, who died from breast cancer in 2008. "She touched me in a way no one ever has before and brought out the better side of me," Wickliffe said in his dedication. "She was able to do what four decades behind bars failed to do."


• To purchase A Lifetime Behind Bars by Dean Wickliffe, visit https://www.deanwickliffe.co.nz/