Tribute For Ronald Tackmann, Escape Artist Better at Art Than Escaping, Dies at 66

It was the best escape Ronald Tackmann ever made, though that really isn’t saying much.

At the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse on Sept. 30, 2009, Mr. Tackmann, a neophyte artist and professional prisoner, put on a light-gray three-piece suit and covered his orange inmates’ slippers with black socks to try to pass as his own lawyer. (At the time, inmates were allowed to change into court clothes before facing a judge.) Briefly uncuffed and unchained and momentarily out of the view of guards, he fled down a back staircase, sauntered outside and vanished into the streets.

It wasn’t his first escape attempt. Twice before he had tried to hijack Correction Department vans that were transporting him and other convicts to court or to prisons upstate, using fake guns he had fashioned out of bars of soap and remnants of eyeglasses and aluminum cans.

In the end, Mr. Tackmann fared poorly at both crime and as an escape artist. Recaptured, he wound up spending a very long time in prison and a very short time on the lam. But he did find some success: as a prison artist.

Behind bars his true creativity came to the fore. Besides visualizing his getaways and fashioning the tools he needed for his escapes, he sculpted and painted, allowing him to conjure up exotic places and people he would never otherwise see.

“I’ve been all around the world — in my paintings,” he said.

In January, afflicted with liver cancer, Mr. Tackmann was granted a medical parole from the Mohawk Correctional Facility in Rome, N.Y. He died at 66 on Saturday in a hospice in the Bronx, his lawyer, Joseph Heinzmann, said.

He was not the most fearsome of criminals. Mr. Tackmann stole to support a cocaine habit, sometimes brandishing a toy pistol, or a cigarette lighter shaped like a weapon. Or he might extend his index finger beneath his jacket to simulate a gun.

During his last robbery spree, in Manhattan a little more than a decade ago, he netted $100 or so from a Dunkin’ Donuts on the Upper East Side; a similar amount, along with a cup of pistachio ice cream, from a Sedutto’s store; and a beating at a World of Nuts & Ice Cream outlet.

The counterman there “told me the gun wasn’t real,” Mr. Tackmann recalled in a profile of him in New York magazine in 2009. The employee then came out from behind the counter, swung at Mr. Tackmann, wrestled him to the ground — “we rolled out into the street, like it was an old cowboy movie” — and put him in a headlock until the police arrived.

“I never meant to hurt anybody,” he told the writer of the profile, Geoffrey Gray.

“Indeed,” his lawyer said, Mr. Tackmann “has never harmed anybody in his life.”

His escape attempts made him an obvious security risk, and he was confined in solitary for about 20 years. There, improvising where he had to, art became his life.

He substituted food coloring for paint, used his own hair to create brushes, and molded papier mâche out of white bread and toilet paper. Among his Dalí-like drawings, he depicted a child gleefully clinging to a supermarket-ride rocket, a jet outracing an eagle, and a skeletal inmate serving a 210-year sentence. A carving of a buffalo, made out of prison soap, shows an intricate touch.

Ronald William Tackmann was born in Manhattan on Oct. 1, 1953, to William Tackmann and Genevieve Latko Devine. His father was an executive of the New York Titans football club (which became the New York Jets) and later worked in the entertainment industry, requiring him to be out of town frequently. His mother also worked outside the home, and Ronald was largely raised by an aunt and uncle in Queens.

Dropping out of high school, he took jobs running a hot dog cart and later installing carpeting and aluminum siding.

But crime kept calling. His rap sheet, at last count, filled 24 pages, a catalog of 57 arrests over some 40 years, the first coming at age 16, for selling glue to other teenagers looking for a quick high.

His marriage to Joy Ianni ended in divorce. Mr. Tackmann is survived by two children, Derek Marzlock and Louise Rosario, and two grandchildren. His mother died of the coronavirus in April. (In her apartment, she had kept under glass a drawing that her son had made at age 2.) Another son, Christopher, died in a boating accident in 1985. Mr. Tackmann contended that two attempts to flee from custody that year were made so that he could deal with family issues.

In the first, in April, he used a phony .38 caliber pistol to commandeer a Correction Department bus traveling on the New York State Thruway en route from Manhattan to the State Correctional Facility in Fishkill. He locked the guards in the back and drove the bus back to Manhattan. But when he freed the other inmates on board, two of them, hoping to win reprieves, tackled him, released the guards and turned him over to them.

That September, after fabricating another bogus gun, Mr. Tackmann tried to commandeer a prison van traveling from Brooklyn to court in Manhattan. Employing a matchstick trigger and graphite from a pencil, the fake gun ignited. The guards, unintimidated, seized him. He wound up in the state’s maximum security prison at Attica.

Mr. Tackmann was released in 2006 and returned to New York City for the first time in two decades. He got a girlfriend and a job installing flooring but soon returned to his old habits. He was charged with committing five robberies and attempting another — all near his mother’s Upper East Side apartment — from December 2007 to April 2008. The police confiscated a phony passport, two dummy guns, a red wig, a red beard and a fake nose.

It was after that arrest that he made his break from the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in September 2009, in the gray three-piece suit. He was recaptured within 36 hours, but not before he had hung out at his mother’s apartment, retrieved $7,000 in cash and splurged on a steak dinner to celebrate his birthday. He was heading to a friend’s couch to stay overnight when the police, acting on a tip, nabbed him.

He was sentenced to 28 years to life in prison for the robberies and the courthouse escape.

Some of Mr. Tackmann’s paintings and sculpture sold for several hundred dollars each, but little of his original work remains available, except for a book he put together, titled “Million Dollar Ideas.” It includes Rube Goldberg-like schematics of inventions ranging from the fanciful (one would dispense peanut butter and jelly from the same tube) to the prescient (an electric bicycle, conceived in 1967).

“He could have gone anywhere, but I don’t think he had the capability to execute or the mental fortitude to finish a project,” Mr. Heinzmann, his lawyer, said.

Mr. Tackmann may have had the same attitude about his escape artistry.

“I think like many creative people, it was all about the chase,” Mr. Heinzmann said.

He added: “This is a guy who has more fun figuring out the puzzle than completing it. The challenge is over, so why bother with the rest? The rest is just detail.”

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