A Burning Cold Morning (Part 72)

“You’re new.” Leo commented when the man stopped just a few feet away from the table where they were playing cards.

“I am, just yest’day in fact, over from Ramsey jail.  On a robbery charge.”

“You must’a been found guilty then,” one of the other card players commented back.

“Yes, yes indeed.  It was just a little thing really, easy job, shoulda been a clean getaway.”

All three of them men playing cards chuckled.  

“Ain’t they all,” Leo commented before motioning to the man to sit next to him.  

After another hand of the card game was played Leo took up the conversation again.

“Leo,” he said, pointing at himself, “and that bald-headed fella is Larry and then Mike.” 

“James Fillmore, but call me Jimmy.”

“Where you come from originally?” Mike asked.

“Ohio born but mostly Illinois.  Spent my young’r days in Chicago,” Jimmy replied.  

“How’d you get pinched on your last job?” Leo asked.

“Hell, it was that damn explosion that did us in.  Christ, what a mess that was, almost blew up the whole damn place.”

Browning King and Company Building courtesy cassgilbertsociety.org

Browning King and Company Building courtesy cassgilbertsociety.org

Jimmy went on to relay a story of the safe-cracking crew he had been working with and their attempt to break into the vault that was within the Browning, King and Company store in Saint Paul.  He had done two previous jobs with the same crew except that this time they brought along a new member, a fellow that they called the Clockmaker.  After a question from Larry about what they needed a clock repair man for on a robbery job, Jimmy informed them that this man actually was an explosive expert who apparently fixed clocks as a hobby.  

“At least they all thought he was an expert.” Jimmy said.  “That lasted right up until he set that charge off, supp’sed to just be enough to open that big ol’ safe.  Instead, blew up everything in sight and almost killed every damn one of us.  We ran like hell out of that place but people were alr’dy in the street and the police not far behind.”

“Funny, I knew a clockmaker once,” Leo commented, “he was an odd fellow, getting a little crazy I think when I last knew of him.” 

“This fella seemed a bit off for sure, mumbled to himself a lot.  Never found out too much about him ‘cept that he was from California.  Well, that and the thing about the clocks.”

Leo cocked his head to the side when he heard that piece of information.  “California?  Not Bakersfield I hope?”

“Yeah, I think it was there. Somethin’ like that anyway, I don’t know much about places in California.”

Leo then asked for a description of this man, which turned out to not sound exactly like the man he had been a partner with a decade prior.  He asked some more questions and over the course of about five more minutes it became apparent to him that this Clockmaker was in fact, through some kind of ridiculous coincidence, Stanley Bittenhopper.

They continued on playing cards after that but Leo was not focusing on the game.  Once the yard time was done and he was back in cell, he laid back and considered this new piece of information.  Then he applied it to his current obsession and soon came to what he knew was going to be the final plan, the one he would use to get some satisfaction.  He would use his old friend Stanley’s newly acquired bomb making skills to get his revenge on Otto and the Marlborough.  All he needed now was for his parole to be granted and then he would put his plan into action. 

Good news in that regard arrived on November 26th and on December 2nd of 1937 Leo walked out of Stillwater Prison on parole.  The revenge plan was definitely a priority but he stopped first to visit Jenny Tillman, a tall blonde woman to whom he had been writing while incarcerated. They spent three days together at a small cabin she had arranged at Leo’s insistence prior to his release.  Borrowing some money from her, he then traveled to Minneapolis where he spent a day spying around the Marlborough to verify that Otto was still employed by the hotel. 

Cherokee Heights Grocery

Cherokee Heights Grocery

After that, funded now by a quick hold-up job he pulled in Saint Anthony, he took a room above the Cherokee Heights Grocery in West Saint Paul and started trying to reach Stanley by phone.  It took four days of calling around before his old partner finally answered.

“Hello.”

“Hey Stanley, guess who?” Leo said, his tone friendly but condescending.

“Who is this?”  The man answered quietly.

“Don’t you remember my voice, old pal?” 

“I don’t know who you are.  I’m hangin’ up.”  

“Whoa! Hold up now, it’s Leo, it’s me Stan.  Remember?”

A silence followed, about ten seconds of nothing, then Stanley replied.

“Leo huh? Yeah, I remember.  What you been up to?”

Leo started to answer but Stanley cut him off.

“Good lord man, it’s been ages, ya know?  It was such a damn long time ago, what a time we had back then!  Those were the best times.”   His voice was exuberant and filled with happiness. 

Leo was taken aback by the sudden change in Leo’s tone and manner.

“Yeah, we had fun, made some money,” he replied.

Stanley ranted on for about three more minutes before falling into a sudden silence again.

“You there Stan?” Leo asked.  “Stan? Hello?”

It took another minute but finally a reply was heard.  “I’m here.  What do you want, anyway?”  The voice was soft again, with a timid, hesitant tone.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 71)

Stillwater State Prison

Stillwater State Prison

As Leo settled into his life at Stillwater Prison he turned to his usual practice of playing up his criminal credentials, all of his exaggerations now augmented with some of the recent real-life escapades with which he had been involved.  He was a bit of a minor celebrity due to the double robbery of the bank in Meier Grove and he took every opportunity he could get to tell the story of his act of revenge.  Occasionally the details of his tale would be contradicted by Williams, who seemed more content with the actual version, but Leo’s personality was much louder than that of his partner.  As such, he managed to become known as a player of some importance within the society of prisoners while Williams faded into relative obscurity.  In his free time Leo continued to read civil engineering books, play cards and write letters to various women, some of whom he had known on the outside and some who were lonely heart types that wrote to prisoners at the prison.  

He did have several issues with his diabetes during his incarceration, although he usually self-reported when he was feeling ill and refused to be seen for any kind of regular treatment.  For this reason, although the individual incidents were recorded by the medical staff, no formal entry was made in his prison record to indicate he was a diabetic.  Leo was generally well behaved and there are no indications that he was ever disciplined for violating major prison rules or causing any issues.  In fact, the major entry in his file involves him protecting another inmate during an exercise yard fight.  During that incident Leo shielded the man, who already had a broken arm suffered during a previous assault, from a group of four prisoners who were intent on either killing the man or causing some further severe injuries.  It is noted in the file that Leo’s action, “likely saved Foster from death.” 

One issue that Leo spent a lot of time thinking about, especially in the early morning hours and before going to sleep at night, was Otto Knaack and the Marlborough Hotel.  He had certainly stewed, ranted and raved about it before but during his time in prison in the 1930’s this became a full blown obsession. Leo became even more steadfast in his belief that Otto’s actions and the hotel’s cooperation with the authorities had robbed him of his prime years as a criminal, interfering in the growth and improvement of his skills and reputation.  He believed that without their interference he would have gotten away with the initial robbery in Meier Grove and gone on to further success, happiness and most importantly, noteriety.  Leo wrote many letters, full of threats and promises of revenge, only to tear them up once he had completed them.  He did want to do something to make the hotel and the janitor pay though, and this time he wanted to make sure that it worked out the way he intended.  

L Humbert

L Humbert

As the years went on, Leo’s features changed of course and he went from looking like a rather severe-minded accountant to the appearance of a middle-aged salesman.  His hairline receded a little bit more, although it still stayed a dark chestnut color and his eyes remained alert and intense.  Some of his fellow inmates would say that when he had his glasses on he looked like FDR from the side, but Leo always scoffed at that. He would tell them that his nose was much too sharp and he was not, after all, a Democrat anyway.  

Time moved on and as October of 1937 approached Leo was informed that he was going to be up before the parole board the next time that it was in session.  This caught him by surprise, as he did not believe he was eligible until 1939 but was told that the warden had actually recommended him for early consideration.  Apparently this was due to his good behavior, as no one including Leo could come up with any other reason why the warden would have taken this action.  He had done nothing to especially ingratiate himself with the man during his time at Stillwater.  

Leo prepared himself well though and when he went before the board he made a very positive impression.   He talked about “going straight”, finding a job in the civil engineering field that he had educated himself in, and played up his protection of Jack Foster during the prison yard fight.  The board president asked him a few questions about how he planned to stay away from crime and seemed satisfied with the answers.  After he was dismissed from the hearing Leo went back to his cell feeling like things had gone well.  He received confirmation of that over the next several days and became convinced that he would be paroled when the board announced their decision in late November.  That belief got him more focused than ever on plotting out specific ways to enact revenge on Otto and the Marlborough.

Leo went through a long list of possibilities in regard to accomplishing this goal, a few of which he planned out in much greater detail than others.  He wanted to stay clear of a murder charge but stilll included a plan to run down Otto with a delivery truck and another one which involved poisoning the janitor and starting a fire in the hotel’s main administration office.  In all his plans though he was very focused on Otto and the hotel itself and abandoned ideas that would involve too much risk of hurting other guests and residents of the building.  On the afternoon of November 15th Leo was playing cards with two other inmates during their time in the exercise yard when a third man approached the group.  He was a tall, thin black man with closely cropped hair, walking with a slight limp and whistling softly.  Leo did not recognize him and one of the men he was playing with commented that this inmate had just arrived yesterday.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 70)

Both of the captured criminals were taken back to the Stearns County Jail, the irony not being lost on either of them or the officers involved in their transport.  As the in-processing of Leo was being finished a short, balding man with grey hair came through the door accompanied by the jail supervisor.  After a short comment from his companion, the short man walked right up to Leo and introduced himself as Earl Foley, a state inspector.  

“What’ya think I care about that for?” Leo snapped back, not shaking the man’s proffered hand.

“Well, I hear you’re the man who made it out of this place.  Must think you’re pretty clever.”

“I’m clever enough to have beaten these dumb Dora’s, aren’t I?”  Leo wiped the ink from the fingerprint process off his fingers and glared back at the man.

“Bet ya that you can’t make it outta this place a second time.” 

Leo sneered at the man before replying.  “Tell ya what, you give me thirty minutes alone in that corridor and I’ll take that bet.”  

The man, nonplussed by the bravado, walked away, leaving Leo to snicker at him as he was grabbed by a deputy and escorted to a regular cell.  

So concluded what had been a very full day for him and he settled back into the hard cot with resignation and weariness.  Nine days later, on October 25th, he was in court for a preliminary hearing during which immediate charges were not pressed for the second robbery.  Instead he was bound over for sentencing in regard to the first Meier Grove bank job to which he had confessed.  

His partner Joe Hendricks also was not immediately charged for the second Meier Grove robbery.  Instead, he pled guilty to the St Michael’s robbery, the one he was being held for in Stearns County when he escaped with Leo, and was sentenced to life in Stillwater State Prison.  He was joined there on December 26th of 1929 by Leo, who entered as prisoner number 10038.   The prison would be his home for quite some time but it would not hold him forever.  

brainerd daily dispatch 16 oct 1929 part 1

brainerd daily dispatch 16 oct 1929 part 2

brainerd daily dispatch 16 oct 1929 part 3

modesto news herald 16 oct 1929

brainerd daily dispatch 17 oct 1929 part 1

brainerd daily dispatch 17 oct 1929 part 2

brainerd daily dispatch 17 oct 1929 part 3

brainers daily dispatch 19 nov 1929

…to be continued