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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s