'The state's biggest prison break since the 1930s': History Guy looks back on 1981 escape from Lansing

Tim Hrenchir
Topeka Capital-Journal

Four murderers, including two who had killed people in Shawnee County, were among seven inmates who escaped 40 years ago this week from what is now Lansing Correctional Facility.

This week's History Guy video at CJOnline focuses on that escape, which ended with all seven being recaptured. 

The escapees included Terry McClain, who had said the previous year to then-Wichita Eagle reporter Ken Stephens that he would break out of prison if he could.

McClain, the president of a group of inmates serving life sentences at Lansing, made that statement during an interview in which Stephens wrote that McClain calmly and articulately voiced opposition to proposed stiffer mandatory sentencing.

When Stephens asked why McClain would risk his chance for parole by attempting escape, McClain said he would have to live in prison to be able to understand.

McClain was in prison for first-degree murder and aggravated robbery in the 1974 killing of Gene Scott, an area manager for 7-Eleven stores, who had fired McClain from his job as a store manager.

Scott was robbed of $5,000, shot eight times and left in a ditch near S.E. 69th and Stubbs Road.

Participants in the escape also included Marvin "Butch" Thornton. He had been convicted of second-degree murder in the 1977 killing in Topeka of Benjie Salsbury, who was shot twice in the head after an argument.

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Terry McClain, second from right, is pictured in Lansing Correctional Facility in this file photo from the Topeka Capital-Journal.

'The state's biggest prison break since the 1930s'

The escape occurred Sept. 6, 1981. Authorities called it the state's biggest prison break since the 1930s.

The inmates stole a prison guard's uniform, overpowered a guard who mistakenly thought one of them was another guard, then stole firearms and ammunition. They split into two groups, each of which stole cars.

Three of the escapees, including McClain and Thornton, were captured that same day.

A Bonner Springs police officer chased the car they were in until they holed up in an empty house about 15 miles south of Lansing.

The officer circled to the rear of the house, where he was shot four times but survived. The escapees fled into a wooded area behind the house and were subsequently captured.

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After an extensive manhunt, the other four were all captured during the week that followed in southwest Missouri.

Two of the seven died in prison. Four eventually got out, including Thornton, who was paroled in 2015 and died at age 67 in 2019.

One of the eight remains in prison. That's McClain, 71, who's being held outside Kansas as part of an interstate compact.