How I Learned to Escape Handcuffs and Evade Pursuers

Last weekend, I did something really exciting: I took a class in Boston held by a company called OnPoint Tactical. The name of the class: ‘Urban Evasion and Escape’. I learned about this class through Neil Strauss’s book Emergency, a book that serves as a kind of investigative journalism account of the survivalist subculture as well as a how-to guide; he took the class in Kentucky and it sounded not just exciting, but pragmatic in the event of a natural/manmade disaster. The instructor, Kevin Reeve, taught at Tom Brown’s Tracker School for wilderness survival in New Jersey for 7 years before forming OnPoint and teaching urban escape. I learned some cool skills: lockpicking, picking out of handcuffs, breaking duct-tape bindings and flexicuffs, improvising weaponry, and general self-preservation in the event of a societal collapse. After two days of lecture and hands-on learning, what I learned was put to the test.

Early Saturday morning, I cached a go-kit of water, granola bars, disguises and my lockpick set in some bushes in a park near the Charlestown Bridge.  My classmate and I met Kevin at a strip mall several blocks away.  I was cuffed and placed in the back seat of an SUV, a pillowcase duct-taped over my head, and a light interrogation with some light waterboarding ensued.  My captors left, and I picked my handcuffs with a bobby pin I had clipped to my underwear.  My classmate got free and we made our way to a rendezvous spot in a bakery, searching for concealable weapons while walking.  Mine was a sharp stick I could use to stab an attacker in the eye– zero points for originality, but short of stealing someone’s property or breaking the law, this was the best I could do:  Charlestown is a pretty clean area.  We met with our partisan, gave him the password, and he gave us our next objective:  we had to make our way across the Charles, and he made it clear the bridges were under surveillance.  The paranoia was real; we noticed we were being followed upon exiting the bakery.  We circled around the neighborhood casually to lose our tail, and made our way to our cached gear.

I had to decide how I would cross the Charlestown Bridge without being detected.  The day before, I went to Party City and Marshall’s and bought my disguise kit in under an hour.  I wanted to look unassuming:  a flat-brimmed deadmau5 baseball cap, changes of clothes, nerd-costume glasses repurposed as hipster spectacles (different from the hipster specs I usually wear), a change of shoes and a Puma basketball bag.  I bought Donald Trump bronzer makeup to give myself a fake spray tan, and a Christlike wig/beard.  I wanted several potential disguises to choose from.  In the two days of classes, I wore the same outfit.  I needed to dress substantially different than what they expected.  I told my classmate that they’ll be looking out for two guys crossing the bridge, so we should split up and stay in contact via text and cell phone.  I changed my T-shirt, grabbed my shopping bag full of gear, put on my wig and gave myself a ponytail.  I checked my reflection on my phone screen:  I looked like Norman Bates.  This wouldn’t convince anyone.  But one of the stipulations of the exercise was I was not allowed to stay in any one spot longer than fifteen minutes, so it was do or die.  I affected a limp and hobbled across the Charlestown Bridge, keeping it casual.  I acknowledged the police crossing guard, arousing no suspicion with my hefty Marshall’s shopping bag and awful wig.  I kept all passing vehicles in my peripheral vision, making no eye contact with drivers but keeping watch for suspicious activity and potential pursuers.  I zigzagged the streets through an Italian section of Boston, keeping mindful of my movements to avoid looking too erratic.  I had to make my way to the southernmost point of this park, locate a padlock chained to a tree, and pick the lock without attracting attention.

I discreetly walked through the park and sat on a bench.  I profiled older men wearing Bluetooth earpieces intently.  I texted my classmate for an update with no response.  I scanned the park and saw him kneeling a few yards behind me, picking one of the locks.  I took the picks and tension lever I needed from my kit and pocketed them.  After a couple of laps, I went to the tree, located right next to a high-traffic sidewalk and street.  Across the street, a large dance class was taking place.  I was sweating into my Jesus wig.  I kneeled down and pretended to tie my shoe, then I started picking, trying not to jerk my arms excessively.  My face was hot from the tension, but after several uninterrupted minutes, I picked the lock and texted a picture of the defeated lock to the instructor.

I went back to the side streets I started from and did laps to find a bathroom I could change in (and pee in; my bladder was full of morning coffee and disagreed with me).  I settled on a taqueria; I went in and they allowed me to use the restroom.  I changed into my hip-hop/bro outfit, and had to ditch my wig to fit my other outfit into my small Puma bag.  My bag was stuffed, and if the need arose, could be used as a weapon.  Ten minutes passed and I had to leave the taco place.  The guy at the counter didn’t bat an eye that an entirely different person exited the bathroom than went in.  I walked around the wharf area, trying to find another bathroom to “tan” in.  A 7-Eleven clerk said the IMAX Theater has public restrooms, so I went into the handicapped stall and smeared makeup on every exposed inch of skin.  I smelled like a costume shop.  I made sure to wipe the makeup off my clothes, headed out, and borrowed someone’s phone to call the Security Attache.  Then I made my way to Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall.  I lapped around casually, taking discreet reconnaissance pictures of water sources, payphones, “acquirable” transportation, hiding places, and other resources.  I sat on the steps of a federal building downtown to fire off a text message; a few feet away, a guy who was not acting casual: he was using pliers to remove the security lock from a pair of shoes he had stolen.  After I completed my objectives, I enjoyed Faneuil Hall as a tourist until it was time for the debriefing.  I was never spotted.

I walked away from the class with a refreshed alertness, and a new appreciation for the fact that any skill can be learned with patience and attention– I learned basic lockpicking and handcuff-picking in under an hour.  The Urban Evasion class gave me a new, confident way of seeing and experiencing the world, and also attacked my complacency and showed me aspects of life I was taking for granted.  I’ll be looking forward to any future classes with OnPoint Tactical.

By: Paul McCain