This article originally appeared on VICE Greece
On the evening of the 6th of June, 2006, a small helicopter landed in the yard of the Korydallos maximum security prison in Piraeus, a port city in southern Greece. A few moments later, it took off, carrying two prisoners – Vassilis Palaiokostas and Alket Rizai.
This was Greece's first ever helicopter prison break. A week later, the pilot would tell police that, on the day of the escape, "Two men asked for a ride over Athens, paying the €1,400 fee in advance. A few minutes after takeoff, they threatened me with a gun and a grenade, and forced me to land in Korydalloss."
Rizai was eventually arrested four months later in a village in south-west Greece, while it took police another three months after that to find Palaiokostas, only for both to escape via helicopter again in 2009 as they waited to face trial for their first prison break. Palaiokostas was never found, but Rizai was arrested nine months later and has been serving a life sentence ever since.
Their story is remarkably similar to that of another serial prison breaker, Redoine Faid – one of France's most infamous criminals – who helicoptered out of a French prison last week and is still on the run. Twelve years after his first escape, Rizai agreed to speak with me from Korydallos about that incident and what it was like to be hunted by the police.
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VICE: What made you decide to break out of prison?
Rizai: I had nothing to do with the murders that I was accused of. I'm not saying I've never done anything wrong, but I had nothing to do with that particular crime. The only reason I was charged and sentenced to life was because the head of the homicide department wanted to settle an old score against me. It wasn't until after the Court of Appeals rejected my case that I decided to plan an escape.
How did you organise it?
I did it with the help of my cellmate, Palaiokostas. We asked a friend on the outside to take a helicopter ride over the prison to scout out potential exit points and to see if it was even possible. After he reported back that there was no security, we got planning.
On the day of the escape, there was a huge rally nearby, so there were loads of helicopters flying around anyway. Soon after taking off, they told the pilot the real plan and disconnected his radio equipment. When they arrived, they realised they couldn't land because the pilot would have to switch off the engines, so they hovered a few metres above the ground.
How did they know exactly where to land?
We had coordinated it all beforehand, but we also waved a red Che Guevara flag that could be seen from a distance. After we took of, we flew to the Schisto cemetery in Athens, where we picked up two motorcycles that had been hidden nearby in some woods. I tried setting the helicopter on fire before we rode off, but the pilot refused to get out. I was afraid he would chase us down with the helicopter, so I pulled out a few cables to stop it from flying and then took off on our bikes.
How did you feel at the time?
I can't really describe the feeling. I was so full of drugs and adrenaline, I could barely show any emotion – I just sat there stunned. But when we eventually switched into cars, I just drove as fast I could, knowing that I didn't have to think about prison anymore. It felt like paradise.
Did you have a good time while you were on the run?
No – there is nothing worse than being hunted down. I was so stressed, I almost never left the house. I would see a priest and wonder if they were a police officer in disguise.
You're currently eligible for temporary prison leave. Do you think your two escapes are working against you?
I've said for a long time that I've hung up my cape, and I want to start a family and rejoin society. But they always bring up the escapes as an excuse not to grant me leave. Yet, if you think about it, we escaped in the nicest way – we didn't hurt anyone, including the pilot. We left like gentlemen.