A Burning Cold Morning (Part 68)

Ed Ortman probably did not even hear the two of them enter the bank.  He at least appeared genuinely startled as he turned to enter the cashier’s cage and caught sight of Leo, whom he recognized immediately.

“Damn it, you again!  What for, the last time wasn’t enough?”

“Oh no, this is personal, just for you.  I’ll teach you to swear falsely against me,”  Leo replied while waving a gun very close to the teller’s face.  

“Wasn’t nothing false in what I swore against you.  Look at yourself, you just being here proves that, don’t it?”

“You shut your mouth and get to giving me that money!”  Leo shouted back, his cheeks flushed with anger.  As he did so Williams, who had faded back a few steps, told him to keep his voice down.  As Leo turned to answer his partner Ortman made a break for the office area at the rear of the bank.  Both of them took off after the man and it was Leo was managed to grab him by his coat collar just as he was trying to slam the office door shut.  He pulled the man close and pointed the gun directly at his face.

“Why would you run like that?  You trying to get shot or something?” 

Ortman, who seemed to be keeping his composure better than Leo, gave a small smile before replying.  “Well, you didn’t shoot me last time now,  did you?”

“You didn’t give me no reason to.  Don’t take things like that as promises about the future.  Now, I got a score to settle with you about that affidavit,”

“Hey, look out now!” Williams interrupted from his position a few feet away which he has taken up so he could observe the front door.  “We got company.”

Leo, still holding the teller firmly by his collar, dragged the man along as he took a few steps toward his partner.  As he did so, the two men whom Williams had observed walking up to the bank stepped through the door.  They were both in their early to middle fifties, dressed in work clothes, with the taller of the two men smoking a cigarette.  Before they were even two steps into the building Williams raised his gun and pointed it at them.

“You two, get your hands up!” 

Both men stopped but did not comply, looks of confusion quickly changing to fear as they realized what was going on within the bank.  

“Hands up boys, right now!  And start walking toward my partner over there.”

This time they both complied, slowly stepping toward and past Leo, who waved them on toward the back with his gun.  Ed Ortman tried to reassure the men, who both were regular customers and one a personal friend.  

“Take it easy Bill, you too Frank.  These guys aren’t planning on hurting no one.”

“Except you,” Leo rejoined, “I got some business with you after we get the cash.”

Ortman’s face betrayed his apprehension at that remark but he smiled at his two customers anyway in an effort to keep them calm.  Leo made the two men lay face down on the floor, then pushed the teller toward the cashier’s cage.  

Bank Cashier Cage

Bank Cashier Cage

“Get me my money!”

Ed did as he was told, stepping into the cage and then handing back a bag.  Leo glanced inside it and his cheeks flushed again.

“You better not be trying my patience!  Give me the rest!”

“Christ man, we got more company!”  Williams was also now talking rather loudly.  “Lots more!  We gotta scram right now.”

Leo could see that his partner was correct as six or seven men, all in typical farmer’s attire, were approaching the door of the bank.  It was far too many men for the two of them to handle.  He turned to Ed Ortman.

“I guess I’ll have to come back another time to finish up with you.” 

He then took off running toward the front door, cash bag in hand, and Williams followed closely behind.  They pushed their way past the farmers, sprinted to the car and jumped in with Leo gunning the engine before Williams had even closed his door.  As the witnesses would later recount for the FBI, the vehicle first headed east and then it made a careening turn to the south before disappearing from their view.  

The word went out quickly in the community and the sheriff’s department was alerted within five minutes of the bandits getaway. The radio call, which detailed the vehicles general direction of travel, reached the squad car of Deputy Arthur McIntee.  He was on patrol in the area just north of Paynesville, a small town twenty miles to the south of Meier Grove.  Arthur was fairly new to the force, having joined just nine months before, and was a stocky, blond-haired young man with a hastily receding hair line.  The call excited him as he had joined the department with the intention of making a name for himself and hopefully becoming sheriff one day.  Capturing two fleeing bank robbers would be a great start to accomplishing that goal.  Having grown up just ten miles west of Paynesville he knew the area well, and pulled his vehicle into a hidden driveway north of the small community.  Sitting at that vantage point he would be able to see any vehicles coming from the north and hopefully be able to intercept the fleeing bandits. 

Back in Meier Grove Sheriff Paul Henderson had quickly formed a posse to pursue the men and they headed out of town in six private vehicles and two police cars about thirty minutes after the robbery.  Just as they did so Leo and Williams, who had stopped at an unknown location for fifteen minutes when their vehicle started to overheat, slid around a turn in the road that exposed them to Deputy McIntee.   As they came into view, driving at a very high speed and in a vehicle matching the radio broadcast description, the young law enforcement officer put his patrol car into gear and prepared to speed out and intercept the getaway vehicle.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 67)

After a few brief comments about the general type of vehicle he was looking for Leo and Williams followed the salesman around the lot for about ten minutes.  There were also a few cars displayed inside on the showroom floor and as they stepped inside Frank Stiles turned back toward Leo.

“So, how’s the city planning on paying for this purchase?”

Leo shrugged and turned his palms up.  “They never give me the details on stuff like that.  The boss just told me to come check out cars and find one that’ll work.  Then I guess he’ll be in contact.”
“Hmm, well ok, what’s the name of your boss down there?”

“I think we’d like to give that one over there a quick test ride,” was Leo’s non-responsive answer.  

“You two been with the city for very long?”

“Oh, you know, seems like forever,” Leo replied and added a short laugh.  

“Yeah, I bet,” Frank chuckled back, “I’m just going to give them a quick call down there, protocol you know, just to verify things.” 

Leo smiled broadly before replying.  “You bet, no problem.  When you talk to them, let ‘em know that me and Sam here are planning to stop for lunch on the way back, will ya?  I don’t want to get no grief about it if we come back later than expected.”

For whatever reason that information seemed to ally the salesman’s concerns and he instead introduced Leo and Williams to a few of the employees who were hanging out inside of the dealership.  Then he reached behind a desk and pulled out a set of keys.

1928 Oldsmobile

1928 Oldsmobile

“Here you go then Mr. Owen.  They’re for that blue Olds you pointed out.  Go ahead and take her out. I think you’ll find it’s just what the city needs.”

“Thanks Frank, really good. I’m sure it’s gonna be the one.  We’ll just run it ‘round the block a few times so we can say we did what we were told.”  Leo winked and shook the man’s hand, then he and Williams climbed into the vehicle and eased it out into the street.  They of course then took the first right turn, just out of the dealership’s line of sight,  and sped off toward the edge of town.  

It took about ten minutes before Frank Stiles got worried and twenty before he called the police to report the stolen vehicle.  By then Leo had managed to acquire a handgun (although the specifics of where it was obtained were never determined) and the two fugitives were on their way toward Meier Grove.  On the way Leo spent much of the time retelling the story of his previous robbery of the First State Bank, railing against the bank employee who had ID’d him, and also against everything that had happened at the Marlborough. 

Melrose Mn Corner Drug Store courtesy lakenwoods.com

Melrose Mn Corner Drug Store courtesy lakenwoods.com

Although they did drive through Meier Grove so Williams could see the bank, Leo decided they would stay in nearby Melrose, and they paid for a small room above the Corner Drug Store and settled in for the night.  

Williams went out later in the evening to grab them some food and came back also clutching a wanted poster he had torn down.  As he set the bag of sandwiches on the coffee table, he smoothed out the large sheet of paper on the floor.  

L Humbert and J Williams Wanted Poster

L Humbert and J Williams Wanted Poster

“Look at this, will ya?” he said, “I’m a very dangerous character!”
“What?”

“Yeah, look at this, it’s a different one than they had up in the city.  This thing has it up to two hundred each for our heads!”

Leo walked over and looked down.  “Nice picture Francis.”

“Hey, you look like a damn accountant and you better watch yourself, you shouldn’t be taking any chances with me,” Williams snapped back sharply but with a twinkle in his eye, “I might just have to kill you.” 

Brainerd Daily Dispatch 12oct1929

Brainerd Daily Dispatch 12oct1929

“You just try it buddy, and don’t take these things too seriously.  Look at the article I was reading,” Leo replied and then shoved a folded page toward his partner.  “They can’t get anything right.  This says I was arrested weeks after the robbery but that’s not how it went at all.  Not to mention that I didn’t leave any damn shoes in Chicago.  Don’t expect things you read about us to be true, even wanted posters.”  With that Leo walked away and sat down in the paisley-colored armchair that was next to the room’s one window.  He would not get into it with his partner but he wanted to be the one mentioned as being dangerous.  This was his operation, he was the mastermind and he should be the one about who warnings to the public should be issued.  

After eating their small meal the two men spent about half an hour discussing the robbery they planned to commit the next day and then both of them went to bed.  Leo was up first in the morning and rousted Williams a few minutes later.  After a hurried breakfast of toast and coffee at the drugstore food counter Leo drove them to Meier Grove and parked under an Elm tree about three hundred feet west of the bank entrance.  While they waited Williams softly hummed gospel songs with his eyes closed while Leo kept his eyes trained on the building.  At seven fifty-five he nudged his partner, who stopped humming, and gestured toward a tall man who had just walked out from somewhere inside the bank and unlocked the front door.  That man, who was in fact the bank teller Edward Ortman who had sworn out the affidavit against Leo,  was currently standing outside and lighting a cigarette.

“That’s him right there.  He’s the one who’s gonna get some pay back today.” 

“Sure, sure, whatever it is for you, let’s just get this job done and then be on our way.  It’s money-making time.”  Williams had a reckless look in his eye that Leo had not seen before as he stepped out of the Oldsmobile.  

“You keep it together now friend, “ Leo said.

“Oh, I’m fine, worry about yourself,” his partner replied.  

They both waited until Ortman walked back inside the bank and then started in that direction themselves.  Williams now was focused almost exclusively on the bank, leaving it to Leo to do a check of the surrounding area to make sure that no one else was approaching.  All was clear as he reached out and pulled open the door.    

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 66)

Leo and John Williams did not go too far, traveling just one hundred miles back to Minneapolis, where they ditched the stolen car outside of the city near a newly painted farm house.  They then walked fifteen miles along several dusty roads before coming to the city proper, where they holed up in a nondescript boarding house.  Leo, who on top of being tired and hungry had also been badgered by Williams the whole way about the promise to rob a bank, was quite irritated when they finally settled into the small room.  It smelled like moldy socks to Leo although his partner seemed oblivious to that, commenting instead that he liked the fact it had a big dresser.  Leo mumbled a reply to that and then, taking his shirt off and tossing it onto the bed closer to the door, snapped, “I’ll need a few minutes, you take that other bed.”  He slammed the door behind him and stalked down to the community bathroom.  Ten minutes later, his face washed and shaven, Leo returned to the room in slightly better spirits.  Williams had kicked off his muddy shoes right in front of the door and was lounging comfortably, and mostly undressed, in the one chair available in the room.  His boxer briefs looked filthy and Leo was not impressed.

“You go get yourself fixed up,” he snapped at Williams while motioning toward the door, “it’s your turn.”

Williams took a deep breath before replying.  When he spoke, his voice sounded tired but petulant.  “I’ve had enough already, I just wanna sit here for a few more minutes and then crawl into my rack and sleep for a damn long time.  I’ll square myself away in the morning.”

Leo wrinkled his nose up a bit.  “Better do it now, no sense in putting it off.”

“You know,” Williams replied, “if you’re so worried about something maybe it should be that we need to find a bank to do the job at, you know, find it and hit it fast, get some cash and get outta this state.  That’s what we should be talkin’ about.” 

“We’ve got time for that, don’t worry.  You trust me fella, I know about this stuff, ok? Right now, it’s hot out there.   We’re too hot right now to be out on the streets planning a job.” 

“That’s where you’re one hundred percent wrong I tell ya,” Williams retorted, “and I know things too, about the damn police around here.  What is really the truth is that there’s too much heat for us not to be doin’ something real quick.  We need to act now and get out before they find us around here.”

“We can wait,” Leo replied as he laid back into a flat pillow covered by a dingy pillowcase.

“We shouldn’t, we really gotta get out.  Let’s just pick a bank around here, anyone will do.  We just hit it and then go.”

“Oh no,” Leo sighed as he replied, “it definitely cannot be just any old bank.  It has to be just one bank, just one.  This thing’s personal.”  He then drifted off to sleep even though Williams was continuing to argue with him.  

The next day the two men took a short walk out into town with the intention of getting a few supplies and trying to get an idea of exactly how much notoriety they may have gained.  That question was answered clearly enough when they saw the wanted posters that were hanging up in many of the businesses they passed by and also pasted up to the exterior walls of several brick buildings.  That fact seemed to spook Williams who went to the effort of tearing down two of the posters and stuffing them into the pocket of his jacket.  Sensing that things were even more perilous for them than even Williams had imagined, they quickly returned to the boarding house without stopping for any supplies.  Once they were inside they began to argue again about the same things as before and by the night of October fourteenth Leo had endured enough.  He agreed that if Williams would just shut up for the remainder of the evening then he would agree to go with him and do the bank robbery the next day.  He did, however, stipulate that it was still going to be the bank he “owed a little pay back to.”  

They both awoke early the next morning and collected the few belongings they had with them.  Pulling hats low over their faces they stepped out and walked briskly to the corner where a small diner was located.  Leo, despite Williams protests, had insisted that they get a good meal, “just in case things go badly for us, at least we will have eaten well.”  His partner had commented that sitting around and eating was exactly what was likely to make things go badly for them but had really been too hungry to protest for very long.  Both of them had subsisted on very little food over the previous two days.  Their meal was consumed uneventfully and Leo then led the way seven blocks north to the location of Miner Motor Sales.  As they approached the lot Williams hurried along beside him.

“What’s the plan here then?” he asked.

“You just play along with me, or better yet, just be quiet,” Leo replied.  “We’re going to need a ride and this is where we get one.” 

“But what,”

“Shhh!” Leo interrupted, “just act like an official type of person, ok?”
Before Williams could answer, a tall and gangly salesman with a brown suit on approached with his hand out.

“Frank Stiles gentleman, what can I interest you in today?”
Leo shook the man’s hand and replied.  “Lee Owen, from the city manager’s office.  We were sent your way because our office has need of several additional vehicles.  I’m sure that’s music to your ears.”  Leo laughed as he finished and Frank laughed back.

“You bet it is friend!  You’re just my kind of people.” 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 65)

“Funny cat you are, Leo, very funny,” Williams replied.

“I’m not foolin’ you.  We need to get some chewing gum before we go much further.  We’ll be cutting through them metal bars and that gum is the way to make them much more quiet.”

“What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

“We chew it up, ok, get it soft.  Then, we put it on the saw blades and that squeaky whine you get when cutting through metal, well, it goes away.  Without that gum those guards are going to hear us.”

“Bushwa!”  Williams snapped back at Leo.

“You’re gonna have to trust me on this, ok?  I’m telling you that’s what we need to do.”

Williams did not exactly believe Leo but he did agree to go along with the plan.  That night the only action they took was to both go through the hole and scout out the particulars of the office and window they would be using to escape.  The next day they both purchased several packs of gum from the small commissary the jail had available for prisoners and that night they got to work on the bars.  Williams was surprised when Leo’s gum trick actually worked, making the saws silent except for a dull scraping sound which neither of them believed could be heard even directly below the second-story window.  The process of replacing the gum was tedious at times but certainly well worth the effort.  

Over the next seven nights the two men worked diligently on their project, taking turns cutting almost completely through each of the bars except for one that they intended to leave intact.   They would use this bar as an anchor to which they planned to fasten some tied together blankets as an aid in climbing down the wall.  On the morning of the sixth an inmate, newly incarcerated the day before,  threatened to expose the plot but was quickly silenced after a short discussion with Big Black Terry.  During the night of October tenth Leo and Williams completed all the preparatory work possible, leaving only the last minute effort of fully cutting through each of the bars and achieving their goal of escaping.  They did not tell any of the inmates about their success and slept more than usual during the eleventh so they would be ready to go that night and be alert as possible.  That evening, awake to get the meager dinner the jail provided, they sat together eating and talking in a corner.

“We gotta go tonight, we can’t risk no delay,” Williams whispered.

“Yeah, it’s tonight.  We’ll be running free by the time the sun comes up,” Leo replied, a grin on this face as he though about freedom.

“I’ll start telling the others now, ok, so they’re ready to go.  We waited long enough today.”

Leo just held up his hand in reply and stared across the cell area, not speaking or eating.  That dragged on for several minutes after which Williams thought he knew what his partner was considering.

“You can’t go back on the deal, you can’t I’m tellin’ ya.  That’s what you’re thinking, ain’t it?  You’re thinkin’ a slipping out tonight and leaving these guys behind?”

Leo did not speak but turned to look at Williams.  He blinked slowly several times, his piercing blue eyes seeming to look beyond his partner.

“You can’t do it, we made a promise, we gotta make good, ok?”  Williams reiterated, speaking just loud enough to get curious looks from several of the prisoners.  Finally Leo shook his head.

“Of course, of course, we’ll make good on it.  You tell Terry and he’ll set it up with the others.  Get a few blankets together while you’re at it.”  Leo then went back to eating after which he laid down and closed his eyes.  

Immediately after the eleven-thirty head count the two men stood up and made their way to the hole, where Terry had stationed himself earlier in the evening.  Before stepping aside he leaned in and whispered to Leo.

“I’ll be waitin’ for your sign’l, understand?  I’m right here, yo’ make sure to tell me when you’re through them bars.  We’ll all be right behind ya.”

“We’ll let you know like we said we would.  It’ll be a couple hours though, ok, there’s still work to do before we’re through.”

Terry patted both men on the cheek and then removed the cut-out for them, after which they crawled through, pushing the blankets ahead as they squeezed through for what they hoped was the final time.  They began work immediately and it was just after two a.m. when they quietly removed the last bar and Williams tentatively stuck his head out the window to check the area immediately surrounding their point of escape.  All was clear so the men made their blanket-rope, secured it and prepared to lower it out the window.  Williams pulled on Leo’s sleeve at this point and nodded his head back in the direction of the cell.

“Yeah, you go ahead and tell him then.  Make sure he knows to wait ten minutes so we can get clear down below,” Leo said.

One minute later the tattered edge of a blue prison blanket peeked out of the second story window and was slowly followed by four more blankets, all of which were carefully tied together.  Leo’s leg then appeared and over the course of the next minute he quietly descended to the ground.  Williams followed and, although he almost lost his grip twice, successfully joined his partner.  The men exchanged smiles and an exuberant handshake before creeping off into the darkness.  Twenty minutes later Leo had stolen a vehicle and the two fugitives were making their way out of town.

Back in the jail, things did not go according to plan.  Big Black Terry had actually waited a full fifteen minutes before starting to go through the hole, only to discover that his large body would not fit.  After several attempts he gave up, threw the cut-out across the cell area and sat down in front of the hole.  One brave inmate approached him only to be met with Terry simple challenge.

“If’n I ain’t goin’ through, ain’t any one of you goin’ unless ya go through me first.”  

No one cared to take him up on that offer and he stayed there until six-thirty a.m. when it was time for the morning head count.  The prisoners did not try to hide anything at that point, with the first one to step up to the door simply stating, “You all got two boys running loose right now.”

Several minutes later the prison guards and deputies had verified that claim, viewed the escape path and had started to look for Leo and Williams. 

humbert and williams wanted poster

Humbert and Williams wanted poster

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Corning (Part 64)

Later that day Leo had another visit from his lawyer and was informed again, and in much more detail, about how the information provided by Otto, the Marlborough’s janitor, had led directly to his arrest.  Leo kept the fact that the man had also stolen the money hidden in the shoes to himself, and that, coupled with the details from his lawyer, drove a growing rage within Leo.  Added to his already bottled up anger toward the bank teller for signing the affidavit and the Marlborough in general for cooperating with police, this all had him in quite a state of agitation when his lawyer departed.  Once he had returned to the cell area he spent twenty minutes telling Williams about how he, “had been about to get a good start on things, get some real cash and a good reputation going in Minnesota,” only to be brought down by, “a dew drop janitor, sleazy banker and god damn hotel that can’t respect people’s privacy!”  He also mentioned quite loudly that he was, “going to get even with all of them!” Williams pointed out that Leo probably should have handled several things differently, which almost led to a fist fight.  In the end, both men walked away and were chatting quietly about the escape an hour later.  

phone

phone

The first part of their plan was initiated by Williams the next morning, who told the guards he needed to call his lawyer.   They pointed out that is was Saturday but he persisted, saying that he just happened to have a really hard working attorney who would be in the office on the weekend.  After about an hour of badgering the guards relented and led Williams out to the phone in the hallway.  He dialed a number and had a conversation which sounded like a simple discussion between a prisoner and his attorney.  At least it seemed that way if you were not paying close attention, which the guards did not seem to be doing.   The next day Williams had a visitor, a man named Clifford Washington, who was later a cooperating witness during the investigation.  Their conversation was short and to the point with Williams uttering a simple request;  “We need saw blades, and a lot of them.”

Alice Lanning aka Betty Talyor Betty Markword

Alice Lanning aka Betty Talyor Betty Markword

Exactly how it was done or who managed to get those blades to Williams is a mystery that is likely to remain unsolved.  An examination of the jail records from September twenty-ninth to October second shows that three people signed in to see him over those days; his lawyer, a man named Jack Mills and a woman named Betty Taylor.  It may or may not be a coincidence (given the commonplace nature of the last name) that Betty Taylor was a known alias of Alice Lanning, who was also known as Betty Markword and was the one-time wife of Leo’s former cellmate at McNeil Island.  Regardless of how they were smuggled in, by the late afternoon of October 2, 1929 Leo and John Williams had a collection of saw blades and were ready to get started on the next part of the escape.

The word had quietly spread among the prisoners that Leo was serious about his plan and was going to act on it.  Although he would have preferred to keep the whole thing a secret it was obvious that it would be impossible to do so, especially since they were going to need everyone’s cooperation to be successful.  Leo played up the angle that once he had made his own escape, anyone who wanted to could follow him out as long as it was understood that they needed to go their own way once free from the jail.  That opportunity likely kept anyone from telling the guards, although it also helped that another one of the prisoners, known as “Big Black” Terry had made it clear what would happen to anyone who did rat out the plan.  He intended to be one of those following Leo and Williams out and, “any’ya that cause a problem’s gonna be seein’ me up close an’ personal.”   Given his six foot four, two hundred and forty pound size and known violent disposition, that threat definitely meant something to the others. 

That night, promptly at eleven-thirty p.m.,  the small window slid open in the door and a guard called out, “Line it up!” from the other side.  As they did every night, the prisoners formed a straight line on their side of the door, then stepped up to the window one after the other, stating their name and having their presence verified by the deputy looking through the hole.  Once that was over all the lights, except for two in the ceiling at either end of the cell, were turned off and the area officially entered “quiet time.”   As had been observed by several prisoners previously, and by Leo himself when he could not sleep, the guards almost never looked through the door again until the morning wake-up call.  After waiting thirty minutes to allow the guards to settle in for the night, Leo and Williams got to work.

Their mission on this first night was just to cut out the piece of the wall that would allow them to slip in and out of the office space Leo had observed.  It took four hours of very slow sawing, working their way through the wood and plaster with great care, as they wanted to keep the piece as intact as possible.  They had to take several breaks to rest hands that had gotten cramped both from the slow motion required to limit the noise and also the narrow grip needed to hold the saw blades.  Eventually, tired but triumphant, they lifted the rectangular piece out of the wall and Leo slipped through the opening to ensure it was large enough.   

That ended their work for the night and the next day, per a prior arrangement facilitated by Big Black, various prisoners took turns sitting on the floor in front of the cut-out.  That piece, even though it had been carefully removed and then replaced, still had some flaws which could potentially be seen by a keen-eyed guard, especially if they made another trip inside of the cell.  These prisoners were paid in cigarettes from Leo and Williams, who tried to catch cat naps throughout the day so they would be ready for more work the next night.  Before they got started again though Leo pulled his partner aside.

“I forgot something, forgot to tell you something we needed to get.  We’re gonna need some chewing gum.”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 63)

Leo was happy to see Williams step through the door because it meant that his time emptying out the latrine buckets was over.   Six days of that duty had been enough.  Unknown to him at the time was the fact that this person was a criminal of a similar type to himself although Williams had a more extensive criminal record than Leo.   They also were fated to be linked through a notorious incident in Minnesota criminal history.  John F. Williams, aka Joseph Francis Hendricks,  also presented a bit of a contradiction in terms of other people’s perception of him.  He was variously described as, “troubled but pleasant,”  “a very dangerous character,” and “young and not looking the desperate part of a criminal.”  His most recent arrest, the one which brought him to the Stearns County Jail, had been in Anoka.  That warrant had been for suspicion of robbing the Saint Michael’s State Bank and “planning other crimes,” charges for which he had entered a not guilty plea.  When he first walked into the community cell,  Leo had immediately caught Williams attention due to the commotion he continued to raise about the conditions of the jail.  Once Leo finally stopped haranguing about this in the general direction of the closed metal door he wandered over to the window and stood there looking out.  Several minutes later Williams observed that he was now doing a close inspection of the window and the wall surrounding it, which prompted him to go aver and ask what Leo was thinking of doing.

“What’s it to you?” Leo snapped back.

“Easy bud, just making conversation I suppose. John by the way,” Willams replied sticking out his hand.

Leo looked at it but did not offer to shake.  Instead he turned his attention back to the window.  “I was just hoping to find a way out of this place, that’s all.” 

“You think this is it?” Willams asked.

“Hardly,” Leo replied, “I believe it is reinforced behind this wall and besides it’s too damn visible to the guards.  They don’t look through that little peephole in the door too often but when they do, this is right in their view.  Even if I wanted to risk it I would need a couple saws and I ain’t got no way to get them right now.”

“You not from around here?” 

“No, not, well, not recently anyway.  Not for a long time.”

Williams reached up and attempted to shake the bars.  “That’s pretty thick and sturdy.  You even think it’s possible to cut them?” 

“Of course it is, well, at least I could.  You don’t know it but I’m an engineer, these things are possible if you know what you’re doing.  Still, it’s too visible like I said.  Too bad though, I’d like to get outta here.”  Leo turned and took a step before Williams grabbed his elbow.

“You’re probably right, it’s too visible.  Now, you don’t know me either bud, but I’m in good around these parts.  You keep thinking with that smart brain of yours and if you figure something out, you let me know, ok?  I could get you some things you might need, you just gotta take me outta here with you.  Deal?”

Leo looked at Williams for a few seconds and then replied.  “I’ll think about it.”

Nothing much happened the next day and then, during the afternoon of the twenty-seventh, three guards stepped through the door.  Leo was leaning up against a wall about halfway down the corridor and wondered exactly what was about to happen.  Up to this point in his incarceration there had never been a guard inside of the temporary cell.  He quickly looked to see if any of them were armed but they had taken the precaution of removing their firearms prior to entering.  Leo figured there was also a few extra officers on the other side of that door ready to come in and assist if anything got out go hand.  Most of the prisoners ignored what was going on although Leo, Williams and a few others kept on eye on them as they walked down the hallway and stopped next to a door.  As two of the officers turned and faced toward the prisoners, the other one removed the padlock and opened the door.  

This action took place almost directly across from where Leo was standing.  The door was only open for a few seconds as the deputy stepped inside and then closed it, but in that brief glimpse he saw that the room inside had a window.  It was barred also but sparked an idea in Leo’s mind which he started to mull over.  Three minutes later the guard remerged with a file box and the door was again secured, the trio of officers then exiting the temporary cell area.  About an hour later Williams wandered over and sat next to Leo, who had taken a seat on one of the wooden benches and been sitting there silently since the guards had left.

“You alright there?” he asked, to which Leo made no reply.  “Hey bud, you ok?” 

“Hmm, yes, yes,” was the only answer he received, Leo continuing to stare toward the secured office door which had so recently been opened.

“Well, you’re thinkin’ a somethin’ I’m sure of it.  You gonna tell me about it?”  Williams asked.

Leo stayed silent for another ten minutes or so but then spoke. “You really think you can get some tools in here for me?”

“What’s the plan? You tell me that first.”

Leo then explained his idea to Williams, which began with cutting a small, low hole in the corridor wall outside the office that had been opened by the guards.  This opening needed to only be large enough for him to low crawl through at night, and the piece that was cut out of the wall would need to be carefully preserved.  That piece would be used to hide the hole both as he worked within the office on his plan and of course during the daytime hours.  That work inside the office would consist of cutting through the bars of the window, making it possible to escape from the jail.  They would need some cooperation from the other prisoners but Leo was confident he could get them to assist. 

“So, can you get me some tools, some saw blades?” he asked Williams again.

“Sure I can but like I said, you need to take me with you.  And when we’re out, well, you gotta rob a bank with me, ok?”

Leo did not hesitate.  “That’s a deal.  And I know just the bank.” 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 62)

Sterns County Jail courtesy theclio.com

Sterns County Jail courtesy theclio.com

The Sterns County Jail at the time had quite a significant overcrowding problem, bad enough that it was a well-known issue around the state.  That did not prevent Sheriff Schomer from taking Leo there and promptly getting him secured as an inmate.  As he emerged from the area where he had been processed into the jail Leo was met with a surprise.  Instead of being led down the grey corridor toward the entry to the proper jail, he was instead walked toward a hallway that turned to the right off the jail entry.  Across the front of that corridor a temporary wall had been erected, one that had a black metal double-door set firmly in the center.  That door was secured by a thick piece of chain that ran through the door handles and was attached by a padlock.  In front of the door stood a deputy and a jail guard, both holding shotguns.  The guard walking Leo grabbed his elbow to stop him about ten feet from the double door. 

1930's handcuffs

1930’s handcuffs

“Alright, now you’re going to be a resident of our special containment unit for right now, until a proper cell opens up, whenever the hell that might be.  You’ll be in there with a few other fellas so you’d better behave yourself, ya hear me?”

Leo nodded his head in reply, wondering exactly what he was about to experience.  He could already detect a very strong smell, one that was a mixture of body odor, urine and dirty canvas, and he could hear the distinct hum of voices from the other side of the wall.  The guard took off Leo’s handcuffs and then the deputy unlocked the padlock and pulled the chain before opening the right side of the door and motioning him inside.  

What greeted him on the other side was more than a “few other fellas”, as it was in fact the entire overflow from the county jail, all being held in the corridor of what looked to have previously been an office space.  The walls were cement and painted a dull brown, the ceiling white with a crack running down the middle.  Although it was bright at the entry, the lighting was uneven along the length of the hallway with some areas very dim especially near the far corners.  The doors to the rooms that had opened up off the hallway were all solid wood and were secured by gate hasps and padlocks.  There was a single window, about two feet by three feet, at the end of the corridor which had bars covering it.  That wall was also, for some unknown reason, painted a stark white.  When Leo later managed to look out that window he confirmed his belief that this cell was on the second floor of the jail building.  Wooden benches lined the sides and there were four small tables and about ten chairs scattered around the open floor space.  Some of the prisoners occupied these sitting locations although the majority of them were lounging about on the floor itself with ten of them fast asleep.  There were no mattresses or cots, just a collection of pillows and blankets which were apparently community property.  Leo would come to find out that it was best to retain those items when you did mange to get your hands on them, as there was no guarantee you would get either of them back if you lost possession.  In a corner near the metal doors were three large buckets that the men used to relieve themselves and which were emptied twice a day by the designated “newest rat”, which as of that moment was Leo.  He later also learned that the men were taken out of the community cell in pairs once per day to “tend to their business” and it was considered to be proper protocol to save your messier bodily functions until that time of the day.  All in all, it was a very unpleasant situation and Leo was quite upset at being held in such a place, something that he let the guards know right away and continuously during his imprisonment.  

Several days later he had the first opportunity to meet with a lawyer, at which point he found out that Otto’s betrayal of him extended far beyond the theft of the eight hundred dollars.  He also was informed about the Marlborough’s cooperation with the investigation and that the bank teller in Meier Grove had been the one to positively identify him and swear out the affidavit which led to his arrest.  All of this left Leo in a rage, one that he carried into the courtroom that day for his arraignment.  When asked to enter a plea he instead launched into a bitter diatribe about the jail conditions, his refusal to be kept in such squalor and the fact that he vowed vengeance on everyone who had betrayed him or been involved in his, “faulty and manufactured arrest.”  Although the judge let him go on for a few minutes, watching him with an amused, patient look on his face, eventually Leo started attacking the court’s credibility at which point a not guilty plea was entered by the judge and he was forcibly hauled out of the courtroom.  

barred window

Over the next couple of days Leo did manage to calm down, just as he always did when incarcerated, and began to seriously consider the situation in which he now found himself.  He was well aware that if convicted of armed bank robbery the prison sentence was going to be quite severe, a situation he wanted to avoid.  Based on the evidence against him that he knew about he also felt that a conviction was likely.  That left him with the determination to escape.  At the time the Stearns County Jail was only seven years old, having been completed in 1922, and was lauded as being inescapable, a boast that was often repeated by prison guards and inmates alike.  Leo took that into consideration as he wandered around the large improvised cell, testing the door hinges on the former offices, the window bars and anything else he saw as a potential avenue for escape.  The other inmates all told him to forget about it, that they had already tried all of that, but Leo pointed out that he was a civil engineer who had went to Duke University, and as such had a far better chance of figuring out weak points.  That was mostly met with shrugs and laughter, but he remained undeterred for several days, finally abandoning the idea on the twenty-forth.  He would need to come up with some other plan for escape.  

It came to him that night, as he lay on the cold tile floor of the hallway, absent a blanket that had been stolen from him earlier in the day, and comforted little by the thin pillow beneath his head.  Staring up at the ceiling he decided that despite his own embarrassment over his diabetic condition, he needed to try to make use of it.  The next morning he went to the double-door and started pounding on it.  Finally the small slit, which had been cut into it as a window to allow the guards to occasionally observe the cell, opened and a grey eye stared back at Leo.

“What’d you want, boy?” 

“I need to speak to the warden.  Right now.”

Laughter from the other side.  “This ain’t no prison dummy, it’s a jail.  We ain’t got no warden.  Go sit back down.”  Leo blushed at his mistake, feeling even worse because he realized the other’s had heard the whole conversation and it would effect their perception of his criminal credibility.  He almost gave up but then went back to pounding on the door.  It took almost two hours but finally the guards were so tired of his hammering on the door that they hauled him out of the cell and into the jail administrators office.  Once there, Leo outlined his medical issues and insisted that he needed to be placed in the infirmary.  The administrator just stared back at him and laughed.

“Prisoner, that cell is just as damn crowded as the one you’re in, so no use in trying this trick.  And don’t waste nobody’s time with this nonsense again.” 

Three minutes later Leo was back in the community cell, and one hour after that John F. Williams was booked into the jail and joined the group.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 61)

Leo’s exit from Louisville ended up being just in time to avoid capture.  Once the police realized they had missed catching up to Leo in Minneapolis they had gone back over their notes.  Giving more attention to some of the ideas Olivia had given them, they started to call around to the specific cities she had mentioned her brother having lived in at some point.  By the afternoon of the sixteenth they had the Louisville police, who had connected the MBCA info with their Robert O’Hara file, out chasing down known associates of Leo’s.  That eventually led to a knock on Lucy’s door and her admission that the man they were seeking had been there recently, although she did put up a good verbal battle with the police before admitting to it.  She also did not disclose that she had mailed the letter.  Initially excited by the near miss, the MBCA quickly realized that they now were going to be involved in a game of trying to trace their fugitive all over the United States.  By the evening of the seventeenth no further information had surfaced and it was beginning to be thought that Leo might have slipped away.

Doanldson's Glass Block restaurant

Doanldson’s Glass Block restaurant

That thought prevailed for much of the next morning and at lunchtime the small task force that was involved in the case sat down to lunch at the Donaldson’s restaurant.  The elegant and airy eatery, located in the department store’s large Glass Block building, was a strange place to hold a law enforcement meeting.  The Minneapolis police chief commented on that fact as they all sat down and it was quickly explained by the Stearns County Attorney, James Quigley, that his wife was related to the Donaldson’s and had arranged the luncheon.  Also present were  Stearns County Sheriff B.E. Schoemer,  an unknown FBI agent assigned to assist the investigation and several other officers who had been involved in the search up to that point.  The group had just finished their soup and were discussing the lack of new leads when a Minneapolis police officer appeared and walked quickly to the table.  After a whispered conversation with the man the MPD chief turned to the group.

“Well gentleman, I think we just got the break we need.  Our man has written a letter to the Marlborough requesting his shoes back!”

After a few moments of disbelief at such an odd mistake being made by an experienced criminal, the men all left the restaurant and hastened to the hotel to recover the letter from the manager.  Thirty minutes later attorney Quigley and Sheriff Schomer were on their way to Chicago, arriving there by nightfall.  Several hours later they had arranged a stakeout with the cooperation of the city police and had the hotel staff informed of what was happening.  The two Minnesota men remained on duty the entire night, sitting in an unmarked vehicle provided to them. 

1929 Checked taxi cab

1929 Checked taxi cab

There was of course no way of knowing just what Leo meant when he wrote he would be “arriving soon”, or even if the whole thing was some kind of a joke he was playing on the police.  It certainly made no sense to anyone in law enforcement that a criminal would be interested in getting back a pair of shoes, especially given the risk it involved.  Both men had started to think that was more and more of a possibility as the afternoon dragged on, with each of them swapping out attempts to take a nap in the uncomfortable vehicle seats.  At three p.m. Quigley walked over to a nearby diner and purchased a couple of sandwiches.  He was on his way back to the vehicle when he saw a Checker taxi cab pull up to the Drake.  Keeping his eye on it as he slid back into the stakeout vehicle, he watched the passenger emerge from the cab.  The man was the correct height and build but had a fedora pulled low over his face and kept his head down as he strode up to the hotel door.  Nudging the sheriff, Quigley pointed the man out and the two of them watched as he disappeared inside the building carrying a small brown valise and a briefcase.  At this point the rest of their plan played out well.

Leo would of course have to identify himself as Leo Humford, as that was the name he had used at the Marlborough and which they would have used to forward his forgotten belongings.   Once he did that, the Chicago police had arranged for the hotel to direct him to a room down the hall where he was told parcels were kept until picked up.  Although he headed that way a little reluctantly, he did walk to the room.  After stepping inside he was confronted by a police detective who held him while the hotel staff summoned the two Steans County officials from their vehicle.  

After being handed over to Sheriff Schomer Leo was led into a small room near the lobby of the hotel where he was briefly questioned.  That interview began with Quigley dramatically producing the brogues and placing them on the table in front of Leo.

“I believe you wanted these back?” he said. 

Leo scoffed before replying.  “I guess I did, I like nice clothes and shoes.  Is that a crime?”

“Hardly, but robbing banks is,” the sheriff replied.  

“I didn’t rob no bank,” Leo snapped back.

“You mind if I look through your bag?” the sheriff asked.

“You won’t find nothing in there, at least nothing you’re looking for anyway.  It’s just clothes and letters.  Oh, and a few pictures that might offend your lawful sensibilities. But go ahead, I don’t give a damn.”

The small bag did in fact include a nice suit and a few personal effects along with a large numbers of letters to and from various women and the risqué pictures Leo had mentioned.  As Schomer shuffled through the letters Leo spoke up.

“Whatever happens, don’t let them get out, ok?  You might ruin a lot of pretty ladies lives with what’s written in there.”  The sheriff raised an eyebrow at that but kept looking through the items.  

He did not find much else as, other than the content of the valise, Leo had four hundred dollars, a watch and some newspapers stuffed into his briefcase.  When the inspection of his belongings was done the sheriff informed him that he had been identified as the man who robbed the Meier Grove bank and that he would be seeking Leo’s extradition back to Minnesota. 

“Ya don’t need to bother with that, I’ll waive it,” Leo replied, “I didn’t do nothing and the sooner we get this over with the better.” 

One hour later the two men from Stearns County and their prisoner were on the train back to St. Cloud.  As they pulled out of Union Station attorney Quigley had a question for Leo.

“Whatever possessed you to write that letter anyway?  I mean, a pair of shoes and some clothes?  Surely they cannot be that important and you could easily get others.  Why risk being captured over that?”

It was then that Leo realized that Otto had stolen the eight hundred dollars.  

Brainerd Daily Dispatch 19 Sept 1929

Brainerd Daily Dispatch 19 Sept 1929

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 60)

That early morning conversation which Olivia had with law enforcement was a detailed one, in which she told them about Leo’s real name, his use of aliases including the ones she knew about and also a list of places that he had lived.  She of course informed them about his recent incarceration in Kentucky as Robert O’Hara after which they contacted the prison for more information.  Finally, as they were wrapping up the interview, Olivia gave them a description of the Essex along with a partial plate number.  She stated that she believed Leo would have fled the state and be in hiding until he turned up somewhere else under another name.  The detectives thanked her but had their own suspicions that Leo had not gone far and put the information out to other law enforcement agencies in the state.  To obtain a recent photo quickly the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension convinced the prison in Eddyville to send an official to meet their officer in Rockford, Illinois, about halfway between the two cities.  That allowed them to have a mug shot in hand by late afternoon, after which the bank teller quickly identified it as the man who had held him up.   He swore out an affidavit to that effect and the MBCA thought they had a good start on chasing down their fugitive. 

By the next morning this information had started to pay off as a Minneapolis police officer found the Essex, promptly alerted the MBCA and county sheriff, and an intensive manhunt began in the downtown area.  As that search got within two blocks of the Marlborough Hotel Otto happened to be at another business nearby, which was owned by the same man, and where he picked up occasional extra work.  It took him only a moment to determine what was going on and he hastily made an excuse that he had to leave for a few minutes.  He walked quickly back to the Marlborough and found Leo sitting in the lobby reading a newspaper.   Other than a cleaning woman the rest of the area was deserted, a quiet and calm Saturday morning with thin rays of light falling across the plants and art work on display.  Otto had only managed to get about five words out when Leo held up his hand and quickly went to the front entry, stepping out slowly and looking up and down the street.  He then repeated this at the back entry after which he walked briskly to his room, Otto following quietly behind him.  At the door to the room Leo turned around and told him to stop and wait in the hall.  

clubhouse brogue shoe courtesy thepeoplehistory.com

clubhouse brogue shoe courtesy thepeoplehistory.com

Once alone with the door closed behind him, Leo sank into a faded grey armchair that was next to a window overlooking Third Avenue.  He had already seen that the police were very close and that his escape was going to have to be quick and done with a minimum of encumbrance.  That meant he would have to leave behind most of this personal belongings including all of his new suits and hats.  After a minute or two, he rose with a sigh and hastily packed up a small valise. He then took the remaining cash he had obtained from the robbery, around eight hundred dollars, and stuffed it into one of his clubhouse brogues.  He figured that if he was captured it would not look good to have almost the same amount of cash on him as the amount taken from the bank.   He then placed those shoes and some miscellaneous other clothing and personal items into a large black suitcase.  Stepping out into the hallway he motioned to Otto who was leaning against the wall several doors down.  When the young man approached, Leo handed him the suitcase and asked that he keep it safe, stating that it contained one of his best pairs of shoes and he would either send for it or retrieve it himself very soon.   He then shook Otto’s hand, thanked him for the tip-off and walked away down the hallway.  Several minutes later Leo had slipped past the police that were out and about on the streets and was on his way out of town.

He had of course failed to give Otto any money for providing him with the information about the police, something that did not sit well with the young janitor.  It had only taken him about three minutes of contemplation before he opened the suitcase Leo had given him, determined to at least get a good pair of shoes out of the deal.  Several moments after finding them he also had removed the eight hundred dollars and was much happier although he still held a grudge against Leo.  About an hour later, when the police arrived at the hotel to continue their search, the staff could not positively identify the man in the photo as having stayed there.  Otto took that opportunity to pay off his grudge, marching up to the officer in charge, stating it had definitely been Leo who had stayed there and directing them to the room.  As it was being searched he decided that it would be a bad thing if he somehow was caught with Leo’s personal effects.  Going back to the detective, he turned them over, stating that he had found the suitcase in the alley and the shoes in the hallway outside the door of Leo’s room.  He then provided a very detailed description of the fugitive and mentioned the discussion they had about Louisville.  

That was exactly where Leo had gone, making good time by hitching rides and arriving by mid-afternoon of Sunday, September 15th.  He was angry when he arrived, about several things, and had stormed into  Lucy’s house without even knocking on the door.  Startled as she had been by his entrance, she quickly recovered and tried to calm him down and by nightfall they were enjoying each other’s company.  The next morning, having collected the items and cash Lucy had been keeping for him, he penned a short note to the Marlborough:

Sirs:

Having recently left your establishment, I found that I have forgotten a pair of my best shoes along with several other personal items.  Please inquire of your staff, especially the janitor named Otto, as I feel they are certain to have found these items.  I expect my belongings to be forwarded  immediately to The Drake in Chicago, where I will soon be arriving.  Your prompt action is appreciated. 

L Humford

Giving it to Lucy with stern instructions that it must go out that same  day via Special Delivery, he gave her a passionate farewell kiss and walked out of the house.  The last she saw of him he was stepping quickly down the street swinging his brown valise as he went along.  

…to be continued