A Burning Cold Morning (Part 6)

Just how Leo Humbert, who at the time of his conviction in the territory of Hawaii was a civilian, ended up as a prisoner at the Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison on Alcatraz Island is partially lost to the passage of time.  On October 18, 1921, when Leo was received there, Alcatraz was a prison used to house, with very few exceptions, military prisoners.  The men held there were broken up into two group; those in what were referred to as disciplinary companies, and those referred to as general prisoners.  In the spirit of rehabilitation, the disciplinary companies were used to try to restore men who had committed relatively minor crimes to active duty.  They basically served a four month period of training during which they received military-oriented instruction, more privileges than the general prisoners, the right to be referred to by name rather than number, and the ability to be evaluated at the end to go back onto active duty.  The program proved rather successful in the short period of time it was in place on Alcatraz.  Leo, prisoner number 13267, was not a member of this special company.

mcneil island prison courtesy legends of america

mcneil island prison courtesy legends of america

Although it is possible that the Army had intervened in some way to get him sent there, it is more likely that he was transferred there only as a stopping point on his way to McNeil Island prison in Washington, where he ultimately ended up serving the majority of his time.  Leo spent about three and a half weeks as a prisoner of Alcatraz, transferring out on November 9th, so any additional punishment the Army may have hoped he would receive by being in the general prisoner population there was short-lived.  No other records exist of his time there and the next mention of him is of being received at the United States Penitentiary McNeil Island, Washington on November 11, 1921.

gardner escape mcneil island newspaper

gardner escape mcneil island newspaper

It was a rather tense time at the prison when Leo arrived.  Just a few months before, on September 5th, prisoner Roy Gardner had made good on his escape threat from McNeil, running off during a baseball game while the guards were distracted.  The drama surrounding that, with Gardner recaptured in Arizona just the day before Leo arrived, had everyone at the prison on high alert.  Guards were wary, procedures were tight and even the prisoners seemed to sense that screwing around was not a very good idea, especially with the count of armed guards having been increased over the last few months.  Most of that increase was attributable to the fact that over seventy-five rounds had been fired at Gardner as he ran off, all of them failing to actually stop him.  Things like that tended to be a little embarrassing and every guard was determined to not have a repeat performance.

thomas maloney courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

thomas maloney courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

None of that seemed to make the slightest difference to Leo, who was fascinated by the entire Gardner escape and constantly asked questions about it.  Guards, prisoners, even the warden Thomas Maloney, none of them were exempt from questioning, with Leo spending his evenings jotting down notes in a small paper pad he kept tucked into his bed frame.  He asked about which guards were on duty, who knew about it beforehand, what everyone thought had happened during Gardner’s time on the lam, and every other detail you could imagine.  He also convinced a few of the prisoners to draw a map, as best as they could remember, of exactly how the caper had went down that September day.  He was vocal about it too, not really bothering to hide the fact that he considered Gardner to be a hero.  Eventually a few of the prisoners, possibly following some prompting from the guards, cornered Leo behind the bakery and gave a him a fairly good beating.  That worked for four days, the amount of time that he was confined to the infirmary, healing up his black eyes, bleeding kidneys and other injuries.  As he walked out of sickbay that day he yelled up to a guard in a tower, “I’m hoping your aim is still lousy” and then laughed before lighting a cigarette.

mcneil island guard tower 1920 1950 courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

mcneil island guard tower 1920 1950 courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

When he returned to his cell, the notebook of course was gone, and he found that his privilege of even having access to any kind of paper had been taken away.  That did not stop Leo, it just hindered him a bit as he slowly managed to trade away cigarettes and other small items for pieces of paper and eventually an even smaller notebook than he had possessed before his beating.  These items came from those prisoners who were less afraid of the guards and shared some of Leo’s thinking on the relative merits of Gardner’s escape.  He continued to collect information, make maps, and keep notes during the remainder of his time at the prison.  It is also likely that he managed to figure out the identity of the outside accomplice who had aided Gardner in the days immediately following his escape, something the authorities had never been able to do.  That person would play a role in some of Leo’s future endeavors and may have actually been in contact with him while he was imprisoned there.  Although he never actually escaped from McNeil, it is very possible that this is where the first inklings of the idea of prison escape started to form in Leo’s head.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 5)

That statement by Robert Lester was indeed the truth.  Leo had arrived in Hawaii with a scheme to get in with the Paymaster section and siphon off funds that way; however, the Army had transitioned that section out of the Quartermaster Corps in 1920 before he could get assigned to work there.  That had only stopped him temporarily, as he had quickly figured out that although there was a huge amount of paperwork associated with Army supplies there was not much accountability.  Records were easily falsified and then just as easily lost within the myriad pathways that the paperwork was passed along within the Quartermaster Corps.  He had tested this idea, taking ten Model 1901 .38 caliber revolvers back to his barracks room one day, wrapping them up in a blanket and stashing them in a trunk.  He waited, wondering how long it would take before someone at least asked a question about them, but no one ever did.  In fact, his section had been inspected three days later and the missing revolvers were not noticed at all.  His falsified paperwork indicating they were sent to a specific field unit was not questioned or verified and he had received a meritorious day of leave as a reward for the good inspection.

Liberty Truck

Liberty Truck

A few more tests, including one that involved a Liberty truck, all proved successful, and Leo had been doing small deals on the side ever since then.  His problem, as Robert had pointed out, was that he was not doing very well, mostly because Leo lacked the connections out on the island.

That changed with their new criminal partnership and they began a brisk business of diverting supplies out of the Quartermaster Corps and onto trucks driven by Robert and a few of his hand-picked drivers.  These men, mostly new to the unit, never really understood that they were involved in a criminal enterprise and none of them were charged when the whole thing came to an end one day.  Surprisingly perhaps, that did not happen while Leo was still in the Army.  He was discharged in late 1920, his service over although his partnership with Lester was still intact.  Leo had contemplated staying in so that he could continue to provide supplies for their scheme, but then had decided he could make an even bigger impact if he was working on the outside.  Recruiting another man with a criminal bent to take his insider position, Leo mustered out and formed the Kilauea Mercantile Company.  He rented a small building out in Hilo and even paid for a new sign to be painted for the front.

The idea for this new iteration of their enterprise has come from Leo.  Although they had not been caught so far, there had been a few awkward moments when an especially observant fellow soldier or officer had asked about where certain items had been shipped.  After a few instances like this, Leo realized that the issue really was that there was no official requisition form that indicated a request for particular items.  In other words, why did these fifty bandoliers leave the warehouse if no one ever asked for them to be sent anywhere?  No one ever seemed to  question where they were going or why, there just needed to be a requisition form that made sense on the surface.  Leo solved this problem by forming his company, whose abbreviation KMC mirrored that of the shorthand unit designation for the Kilauea Military Camp which was also located in Hilo.  This allowed their new inside person to fill out requisitions to KMC and the supplies could even be loaded onto trucks going to Hilo and dropped off at Leo’s shop there.  It was an elegant solution and business was going at a brisk pace in early 1921.

Then one day in June of that year, a man stating that he was a city official from Hilo came into the small office that Leo kept at the front of his KMC building in Hilo.  This official, a small, compact native named Akamai, stated that he was checking into a report that military supplies were being sold out of Leo’s business.  This man, who was actually a police officer with the territory, had an informant who was involved in the transfer of the goods from KMC to ships at the docks.  Akamai did not tell Leo that, stating instead that he was just doing a check to ensure that everything was on the “up and up,” as the city did not want any hassle with the Army.  Leo, his voice just a little squeaky and nervous sounding, assured him that it was and that he even had the records to prove it.  That statement proved to be a mistake, as Akamai asked to see those files.  Leo stammered a few times and then stated they were at another location.  In his most reasonable voice, Akamai then asked if Leo could bring them down to his office the next morning just so he could verify them, and he received a promise to do so in reply.

Once Akamai left his office, the remainder of the day had been a whirlwind of anxiety for both of the men involved in the scheme.  They knew that the fake requisitions were not going to hold up under scrutiny, as the actual KMC military unit could easily be contacted to check on receipt of the supplies.  Instead, Leo and Robert had spent the entire night writing up and back-dating transfer orders from the base to Kilauea Mercantile Company and forging the signatures of several of the fort’s quartermaster officers onto those forms as authorization.  Those authorization signatures were required whenever military supplies were transferred to a civilian company, so falsifying the documents was the only way to make the whole thing look legitimate.  Exhausted by the whole ordeal, Leo had drank a last cup of coffee in his office and then walked down to the small city office building looking pale and tired. After a brief review of the documents by Akamai, two of the quartermaster officers whose signatures had been forged stepped out from behind the door of a small closet, which spelled the end for Leo.  He did stick to the criminal code, refusing to give any answers to questions after Akamai arrested him, but the military police took care of Robert Lester that same day.  Leo was a civilian and as such faced prosecution by the territory of Hawaii.  His initial arrest records indicate a charge of embezzlement; however, it was for forgery that he was actually convicted.  After a very short stint in a local Hawaii jail, Leo Humbert was transferred to Alcatraz.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 4)

There is not any conclusive evidence as to when Leo first started to experiment with changing his name.  He would use several aliases throughout his criminal career and it is likely that he began the practice before he left New Munich for the first time.  There are a few records, old and difficult to accurately assess, that seem to indicate that he used the name Lee O’Dare (a play on his first name) at some point in the mid-1910’s while he was still in school.  These references are on documents from the Sauk Center and Meier Grove areas where he may have been picking up work in the summer.  It would appear from the records available in New Munich that he was still going officially by Hombert when he graduated from Saint Boniface Catholic School in 1918.  After that the trail of the name Hombert stays in New Munich with his family while that of Leo starts to go in a different direction.  Soon after his graduation, Leo enlisted in the United States Army under the name Humbert and served in the Quartermaster Corps until 1920.  During that service he ended up in Hawaii and it is there that he began to commit more serious crimes and where he also met a man with whom he would cross paths again in later years.  That man, Robert F. Lester, would in fact try to kill Leo in the late 1920’s, although they started out as true brothers-in-crime.

The Valley of the Giants poster

The Valley of the Giants poster

It was the beginning of 1920, January 12th, when Leo first met Robert in the mess hall of the Army fort where they were both stationed.  The fort was a large one and the mess hall was always busy, with seating hard to come by during the peak breakfast and dinner hours.  You pretty much had to grab an open space wherever you could find one and on this day Robert did just that, grabbing a open spot next to Leo just after a sergeant stood up to leave.  After a few minutes of silent eating, Robert asked Leo if he was going to attend the movie that night in the airplane hanger.  He was met with silence, which did not discourage him as he was one of those overly-talkative kinds of people who seem impervious to social signals telling them to leave people alone.  Robert launched into a monologue on his opinion about the movie, The Valley of the Giants, which he had seen four times already and which he thought was a terrible film.  He did seem to think that Grace Darmond was quite excellent as Shirley Summer but the rest of the cast “stunk it up.”  Leo did not reply to any of it although a few others at the table jumped into the conversation, most of them agreeing about the general quality of the movie and wondering why the Army insisted on showing it to them every few months.  Somewhere during that discussion Leo slipped away, his tray neatly returned to the kitchen wash line before Robert noticed the vacant seat across the table, one that was then immediately filled by another man.  Ten days later he passed Leo in the courtyard outside the supply office and tried to speak with him again.

“Hey there, you remember me?”

Leo looked over his way, seeing a tall, olive skinned man with jet-black hair and a wide, open face approaching.  The man walked with a small limp and had arms that swung too much as he walked.  Leo shook his head and kept walking.

“Hey there, quiet man, I’m talking to you!” the tall man called out, “you there, stop for a minute.”  By then the man was walking abreast of Leo and pulling at his sleeve.

“What do you want?”

“I’m just trying to talk to you for a minute.  Don’t you remember me?  From the other day in the mess hall?  We were talking about movies and I,”

“Yes, I certainly do,” Leo interrupted, “and I’m hoping to not get another dose of it right now.”

“How about you there, you’re not a very nice egg are you?”

“I’m plenty nice but not to every random person I meet.”

“It don’t hurt you none to talk to people, does it?”  The tall man patted his pockets quickly then continued.  “Butt me, will ya? I’m out.”

Reluctantly Leo reached into his pocket and pulled out his cigarettes, offering one to the man with a look of displeasure.

“See there, you’re not so bad after all.  Robert Lester by the way.”  He stuck out his hand, which Leo took without offering his name in reply.  He started to step away but the man grabbed his arm.

“No rush, what could it be?  Nothing around this place these days needs that much of a hurry attached to it.  Why don’t you smoke with me?”

“Why would I?”

“Well, it’s the friendly thing to do and I might have something interesting to say.”

“Judging from the last time I would doubt that,” Leo replied, although he did have a slight smile on his face now, which Robert picked up on.

“See there, you’re better already.  Now, let’s talk about making a few clams together.”

It was there, in the courtyard of an Army fort, that Robert Lester outlined in a low voice to Leo Humbert a scheme that would ultimately land them both in prison, although it would also make them a good amount of money for a short amount of time.  Robert was a truck driver in the motor pool, a man who drove large delivery vehicles all over the island on a daily basis.  Leo was a part of the quartermaster’s department, and had access to quite a large amount of inventory.  Those items were desired by various groups and organizations out in town and also at ports around the islands, and people were ready to pay for them.  Robert knew those people and could facilitate the deals.  All he needed was a partner on the inside of the quartermaster department.  Leo, who had been glancing around nervously as Robert spoke, shook his head slowly when he finished.

“I can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too dangerous.  Besides, you don’t strike me as the safest person to do business with anyway.  You talk too much and too openly.  I mean, look at where we are right now.”

“No one can hear us, there isn’t anyone else here.  Trust me, I know my onions on this, we can make good money.”

“Why ask me anyway?  I could just as easily turn you in.”

“I doubt it.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re already selling supplies yourself, you’re just not very good at it.”