First they stole a prison guard's uniform--hat, shirt and pants. No one knows how.

Two days later, about 8:30 a.m. Sunday, an inmate dressed in the uniform convinced an inexperienced tower guard to lower a key 40 feet by rope.

That enabled four convicted murderers and three others to steal two shotguns, a rifle and ammunition, and escape from the Kansas State Penitentiary here in what authorities have described as the biggest prison breakout in the state since the 1930s.

Since their escape, the convicts have stolen at least five cars, wounded one officer in a shootout and held at least six people hostage for brief periods in a kidnaping and robbery spree.

Late today, three were still at large, being sought by authorities in a wooded area of southwestern Missouri.

Three of the men were caught Sunday afternoon about 15 miles south of the prison near the town of Bonner Springs, Kan.

The other four made their way from Kansas to Missouri Sunday night, with three breaking into the home of a farm couple near Lansing.

The retired farmer, 66, and his wife, 69, who recently had been released from the hospital, were not harmed. The three convicts tied the couple up, took their car, $200, and a shotgun, and ate some leftover birthday cake.

The woman, Roseline Seymour, described what happened when one of the escapees pointed a gun at her.

"He said, 'You see this gun here?' I said 'Yes.' He said, 'If you help us out of this we won't hurt you.' I was shaking. He said, 'Don't be scared, lady, I've got a mother, too.' I told them I was just an old lady and we weren't going to harm them. I said, 'Take anything you want to, just don't kill us.' "

Her husband, Robert, said it was just bad luck that led to his encounter with the convicts. "It's like playing the slot machine," he said. "I got three lemons."

The three convicts, and a fourth who was not with them at the house, apparently drove the Seymours' car to Springfield, Mo. There, they met a college student at a pool hall and drove with him to a fast food restaurant and then to his home. After they finished eating, the convicts tied the student to his bed with his shoelaces and stole his car, some clothes and a shotgun.

One of the four was captured Tuesday afternoon, after a brief chase on foot through Aurora, Mo., about 40 miles southwest of Springfield. He was unarmed.

That the prisoners tried to escape wasn't surprising. Four of the seven had escaped or tried to before. For Everett Cameron, 32, of Wichita, the escape was the fourth time he had tried a jailbreak. Twice before, Cameron had tried to tunnel his way out of Lansing. Once he made it; the second time he was caught in the tunnel.

Cameron and another of the seven, Robert Bentley, 29, also of Wichita, broke out of the Sedgwick County Jail in 1973 while waiting to be tried for the crimes that eventually sent them to Lansing--the two were convicted of raping a 16-year-old bride on her wedding night in 1973 in a Wichita motel.

Cameron and Bentley were two of the three still at large today.

One of those caught Sunday, Terry McClain, 31, of Topeka, was president of the "lifers club" in Lansing and a prison reform activist. Last December, in an interview with the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, McClain predicted that he would try to escape. "If I ever get a chance to escape from here, I'll do it, and I'd advise all my people to do it," he said.

Prison authorities say they don't know how the inmates obtained the uniform.

Prison director Robert Atkins said a routine check Friday night disclosed that the guard's uniform was missing. But, Atkins said, no prisonwide shakedown was ordered. "Absolutely not," he told reporters. "You don't do that. If you want to start a riot, that's the way to do it."

Kansas Gov. John Carlin has ordered an investigation. "I believe it is critical for us to know exactly what happened at Lansing and how it happened," Carlin said.