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One afternoon, police detective Walsh helps an apparently handicapped man load luggage into his car, but when the man acts suspiciously, Walsh arrests him and discovers that he has a gun taped inside the sling on his arm. After the man has been arrested, numerous weapons are found in the car, which is discovered to be stolen, and although the man refuses to give his name, the police discover that he is John Omar Pinson. Pinson, who is listed as the FBI's "Public Enemy No. 4" because of his many robberies, is sentenced to life imprisonment at the Oregon State Penitentiary. The ruthless, arrogant Pinson becomes the leader of a band of inmates, which includes Louie Feth, Mike Denike and Slug Bennett, but cruelly rejects the pleas for friendship from young criminal Wayne Long, who believes that Pinson is a mastermind. After a few months, Pinson sews himself into a bag of flaxseed and escapes from the prison. He begins stealing automobiles, but one day, while he is again employing his sling ruse, patrolman Rondeau investigates his activities and Pinson shoots him to death. Walsh and his partner, Detective Fuller, are among the policemen who set up roadblocks to trap Pinson, but Pinson is able to elude them. When Pinson attempts to leave the state, however, Walsh catches him at a train station, and he is returned to the penitentiary. After several months of good behavior, Pinson is allowed to exercise in the prison yard, and there meets up with his cohorts. Pinson promises to take them with him during his next escape, and so the men arrange to work in the motor pool so that they can be together. Their attempt to distract the guards with a fire in the tool shed fails, however, and Pinson is sent to solitary confinement. Hoping to win the approval of his hero, Wayne slips Pinson a file in a loaf of bread. After three months of sawing the door bolt, Pinson escapes from his cell, then knocks out a guard and steals his uniform. Using the guard's keys, he releases Bennett but leaves the pleading Wayne behind. During their climb over the prison wall, Bennett is shot, and Pinson is forced to drag him along to Lovers' Lane, where they steal a car. They then break into a pharmacy, where Pinson uses his training as a chemist to treat Bennett. The police, alerted to the break-in, shoot at them, and Pinson is seriously wounded while he and Bennett run away. They manage to escape into the hills and cross the Columbia River, thereby confusing the pursuing bloodhounds, but Pinson grows increasingly weak. Pinson asks Bennett to steal a shovel from a nearby farmhouse, and when Bennett returns, he believes that Pinson is dead. After burying Pinson, Bennett is forced to go to a doctor because of a terrible pain in his jaw. The doctor tells him that he has cancer, and the distressed Bennett attempts to commit suicide but fails. Knowing that he is dying from the cancer, Bennett leads Walsh to the site where he buried Pinson, and the men are stunned to discover that the grave is empty. Meanwhile, in the prison, Louie and Mike believe that Pinson is dead, but Wayne insists that he is alive, and that he knows how to contact Pinson. Intrigued, Walsh sends Fuller on an undercover mission to the prison, where he poses as a new prisoner assigned to be Wayne's cellmate. Louie and Mike, who have long boasted about having two machine guns hidden on "the outside," finally relent and tell Wayne where they are located. Because Fuller was unable to obtain any information, Walsh arranges for Wayne to be paroled, after which Wayne goes to the boardinghouse where the guns are stashed and retrieves them. Believing that the way to draw Pinson's attention is to get his name in the news, Wayne steals a truck and murders the driver. Wayne then attempts to rob a bank but is wounded as he attempts to escape. In custody, Wayne explains his warped plan to impress Pinson, which prompts Walsh to leak a story to the newspapers that Pinson is alive and in contact with Wayne. Pinson, who is indeed alive and living quietly, is infuriated and decides to flee the country. Needing a new identity and passport, Pinson contacts Petey, a forger, but the canny Walsh has Petey's poolhall under surveillance, and Pinson is apprehended. In Walsh's office, Pinson relates how he woke up after Bennett had buried him and staggered off to freedom, certain that he was safe. Pinson is sent back to the penitentiary, and on the night that Wayne dies in the gas chamber, Pinson merely smiles and goes to sleep.