A Burning Cold Morning (Part 9)

I guess it would be more accurate to say that these aliases were born at some point during Leo’s confinement in prison, as it was certainly something about which he had been thinking.  These are the main alternate names he would continue to use throughout the remainder of his life and their origin is fairly easy to determine.  Lee O’Dare is a play on his first name and Robert O’Hara uses the first name of two men who had played a role in his early criminal development.  Leo used those names interchangeably in the years to come, along with a few variations closer to his actual identify, as he traveled along the path of crime that he seemed incapable of escaping.  He also sprinkled in a good number of other aliases, although those were used only for very short periods of time in attempts to mask his identify from local law enforcement.  He would actually be arrested under these various names several times in his life including the first time he was taken back into custody after McNeil.  That was, however, several years in the future and for now he has just emerged from prison.

Leo did seem to make another attempt at legitimacy, applying to the University of Hawaii immediately after his release and lingering for a month or two in Washington State waiting for a reply.  During this time he lived under his real name at a shabby rooming house in Olympia, with a few reports indicating he worked part-time at a nearby hardware store.  Eventually the answer did come, a simple letter expressing the university’s regret that they could not admit him, and he departed the area sometime in early 1925.

Pacific House Hotel Kansas City MO

Pacific House Hotel Kansas City MO

Using a combination of train and bus travel, Leo arrived in the Kansas City, Missouri area in February of 1925, setting himself up at the Pacific House Hotel.  This lodging establishment had previously been the best in town but had fallen from that stature by the time Leo arrived.  Although it could claim that the James brothers had hung out at the bar, and that it had housed occupying Union troops during the Civil War, by 1925 it was a rundown building with seedy clientele.  When Leo moved in he promptly met Chuck Miner, a small-time operator in fencing stolen property.  Miner happened to be in the outlying orbit of a man, Tom Pendergast, who was becoming increasingly powerful in Kansas City and the surrounding area.

Tom Pendergast courtesy vcu.edu

Tom Pendergast courtesy vcu.edu

Tom Pendergast had been making his way up the ladder of Kansas City politics and influence for quite awhile, beginning with assisting his brother James in gaining control over the West Bottoms area of the city.  Much of their influence came from providing vice opportunities to the working class in this poor and rundown area, and their wealth came from the profits associated with those illegal business ventures.  James eventually became an alderman and fought for the working-class residents of his ward, promoting ideas such as citywide garbage collection, parks and the maintenance of fire stations.  The family business, however, remained fixed in the areas of vice that they had always profited from and James used his influence to protect those enterprises.  He also provided jobs, via the political spoils system, to members of his family including his brother Tom who began his ascent as a constable in the court system.  Following James’ death in 1911, Tom ran for and won his council seat and by 1925 was poised to basically take over the political power in the city.  That power, wielded freely and in a wide-ranging way by Pendergast, provided opportunities for some of the criminal elements in Kansas City.

Leo only factors into the history of the 1920’s Kansas City crime scene in a small way.  Chuck Miner struck up a conversation with Leo, who inflated his criminal resume by including several arrests and a prison term in Hawaii that never happened.  These tall tales matched the stories Leo had been telling at McNeil during the latter part of his imprisonment, which was fortuitous for Humbert.  Chuck knew a man who had also been imprisoned there and just been released, and that man verified that Leo was an experienced criminal.  Convinced that he was a like-minded fellow, Chuck gave Leo the name of a person who could provide him with some opportunities to make money.   These jobs were of course illegal in nature, something to which Leo did not object.  Although he proved to have little talent or interest in making liquor runs or strong-arming merchants and voters, he did prove to have skills in car theft and converting stolen property.  He spent almost a year in Kansas City, living well enough to eventually move out of the Pacific House and avoiding arrest mostly through the corruption of the local police force.  Leo also made several more connections on the edges of the city’s criminal world and was known as a competent and trustworthy operator.

Although it is hard to tell exactly when Leo changed his name in Kansas City, the first record available is when he moved out of the Pacific House.  Every reference to his stay there lists him as Leo Humbert and when he moved into the Savoy Hotel in June 1925 he is known as Lee O’Dare.  His room, a third floor corner space that overlooked 9th Street, was fashionable for the time and a big step up from his former address.   There were several other residents at the Savoy who were also members of the city’s criminal element, and this group would often sit around and drink their morning coffee in the hotel restaurant.  It was a small group of small-time operators but they looked out for each other and passed along excess jobs when they could.  The group had no leader but Leo was considered to be smart and well-mannered and he may have eventually risen to a position of influence in Kansas City.  However, this was not to be as one day in December 1925 Leo crossed the wrong person.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 8)

At this point in our story it is early 1922, just after New Year’s and Robert Markword is already gone from McNeil.  Leo has the majority of his sentence in front of him and has settled into the flow of daily life at the prison.  In the complicated social structure of the criminal residents there he is considered to be a small-time crook, a fact with which he is not satisfied.  His interest in the Gardner escape is still prevalent although it does seem that he took the advice of Robert Markword before he left, which was to stop making himself so noticeable to the guards and other inmates.  This fact is known due to a letter that Leo wrote in January 1922 to Robert Lester, apparently believing that his former partner was still a free man.  The letter was intercepted by the McNeil Island guards and, after finding that the addressee was actually also a federal prisoner and known associate of Humbert,  it was placed in Leo’s file as potential evidence of illicit communication between criminals.  The handwriting is legible in an overly-loopy sort of a way, with the words in neat lines on what is now yellowing paper.

Robert – 

It is just past New Year’s 1922 and I have landed at McNeil Island.  You may have heard about it over here, the whole toot about the Gardner escape, it happened just before I arrived.  I asked too many questions about that though and took a good beating for it from a bunch of prison bimbo’s – they broke my cheaters and now I have to wear prison issued ones that don’t have the right prescription.  Guess it’s best to keep quiet and discreet about that now, which is what my cellmate told me when I started showing him my notes.  He’s a good fella, name of Bob, a bank robber he says, and gave me some info on surviving in this place.  He left after a few weeks so I’m waiting on a new one but have the cell to myself for now.  I’ve been thinking about the future and hoping to make the best of it once I get out of this place.  Send me back if you can 

Leo

PS – If you’re wondering, I stayed quiet – L

Why Leo wrote such an explicit note, especially given that he had apparently been warned about being discreet, is not known, although loneliness and his general criminal naiveté may have been a contributing factor.  From the looks of the letter, it would appear that Leo wrote the post-script at least twice, erasing it and then writing it again.  As the rest of the letter has no such corrections, I think he likely thought better of it due to its rather incriminating inference to something that merited silence.  Ultimately, as it was included in what he tried to send, Leo probably could not resist the urge to make sure Robert knew he had not betrayed him to the authorities.

As 1922 went on Leo made efforts to improve his image and reputation among the inmates.  Most of his thinking at this time, up until June of that year, is also known through letters, all of them to Robert Lester and all of them of course undelivered.  His comments show a man who wants to be thought of as an experienced criminal and what Leo references several times as a “hard-boiled guy.”  In the language of that time, this meant a tough guy, someone who other people respected and probably feared.  He went out of his way to argue with the guards, pick fights with other inmates and embellish his criminal history as much as possible, especially to those that came into the prison after his own arrival.  He also continues to make references to the Gardner escape, although they tend to be much more veiled than before, and he complains about getting no replies back to his letters.  The most interesting thing among these seized communications are a few sentences from April of that year.

Still having fun with my hobby – found a good specimen last week.  Hoping to have more to tell later. 

That entry would be less remarkable were it not for the fact that one week later he received the one and only person who ever visited him while he was in prison.  This person, who signed in as Grace Melcher, was very likely a woman name Veronica Stillman, a local of the area known to have also visited Roy Gardner prior to his escape from McNeil.  She was known to have many aliases, most of which she used to visit prisoners, and had used this particular one before.  There was much speculation following the Gardner escape about how he managed to get off of the island, with the most prevalent theory being that someone picked him up in a rowboat.  Nothing else is known of Veronica’s visit to see Leo and she never returned to see him.

By June 1922, likely due to the lack of response from Lester, the letters stop and the only remaining information we have on Leo is what is contained in his prison record.  Those facts are sparse indeed and reflect only a few stints in isolation due to fighting and a trip to the hospital to have his appendix removed.  There is also a mention, in August 1923, that Leo had briefly been a trustee within the prison, followed by a terse note in September of that year, “trustee status revoked for noncompliance”.  By 1924 he had been approved for an early release, mostly due to the non-violent nature of his crime.  The last entry in his McNeil Island record, called the Exit Evaluation, was written by Finch Archer who was the warden at McNeil Island when Leo was released.

finch archer warden mcneil 1922 1934 courtesy digitalarchives.wa.gov

Leo C Humbert #3905 – record of prisoner is mostly unremarkable although early interest in Gardner escape may indicate future plans or inclinations.  Not known to be in league with any large criminal enterprises.  Has not shown interest in vocational training or preparation for return to law-abiding society.  No family visits or communication during incarceration, and only one visit total from a local woman who is known to pursue relationships with prisoners. Letters to former associate R Lester seized as prohibited between prisoners.  Likelihood to offend again is high.

On September 13, 1924, three days after this evaluation was written, Leo Humbert was released from McNeil Island Penitentiary and Lee O’dare, sometimes known as Robert O’Hara, was born.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 7)

This is a good time to take a quick side-journey to learn about another person who had an impact on Leo Humbert, a gentleman named Robert M. Markword.  Although he will not be around toward the end of our story, he did have an impact on Leo’s life.

Robert was born on February 20, 1896 in South Dakota, although some records indicate his place of birth as Ursa, Illinois.  His father Karl was a laborer and often worked far away from home.  His mother Bessie, a pleasant but strictly no-nonsense kind of a woman,  took in laundry to assist with the family expenses.  She was the kind of mother who Robert later described as, “hugging you with one arm and switching your back with the other.”   She often had her only son, a trouble-maker from a very young age, go and cut his own branch off the birch tree in the backyard which she would then use to discipline him.  As that happened fairly frequently, it should probably be no surprise that Karl returned home from a long absence one Sunday to find his wife crying on the front steps and their son gone forever.

Robert Markword possibly at lake setting

Robert Markword possibly at lake setting

Already predisposed to trouble, Robert took up quickly with a loose association of criminals in Alabama, specializing mostly in small-time robbery and extortion over a period of a few years.  He was of medium height and slender build, with brown hair that had a strange tendency to appear black in any kind of low light setting.  His eyes, also brown, had a slightly bloodshot look to them all of the time, and his face was rounded out by protruding ears, a long thin nose and a strong chin with a dimple in it.  It was during these early years of his criminal career that he was tattooed with the image that would eventually be used to identify his body many years later; a cowgirl wearing a kerchief.  It was not very well done and his associates took to teasing him about the “winged mermaid” he had on his arm, but Robert liked it and would often wear short-sleeve shirts to put it on display.   Five weeks after getting that tattoo the gang decided to improve their financial position by banding together to rob a local bank on a Friday afternoon.

That robbery, although successful at first, fell apart as most robberies involving a good amount of cash and too many robbers do, because some of them just could not refrain from spending their loot.  It took about two weeks to round up all the individuals involved, with the very last one being Robert Markword who was quietly hiding out and not spending any of the money.  Feeling betrayed by his companions impulsiveness, he cut a deal to provide off-the-record information that the police would later use to secure the conviction of all the other members of the robbery gang.  This information involved the location of various incriminating pieces of evidence relating to the planning of the robbery, all of which had been rather sloppily concealed under the floor in the house of the gang’s leader.  To try to protect him, the police instructed Robert to plead guilty before the others were tried, resulting in a sentence that had him incarcerated at McNeil Island.  There, in November 1921, he welcomed his new cellmate Leo Humbert.

Robert Markword

Robert Markword

When they first met, with Robert calling a “Hi ya there” in a slow, whispery drawl to the newly in-processed Leo, the latter assumed his cellmate was from the south.  That impression stuck for a few days until they got around to sharing a few things about themselves.  When Robert heard that Leo was from Minnesota he stated they had grown up neighbors, which drew a blank expression from Leo in reply.  It took a little bit of convincing on Robert’s part but eventually he did persuade his cellmate that he was from South Dakota.  His accent was just something he had picked up while in Alabama, his interpretation of their manner of speaking which he much preferred over the plain, midwestern tone with which he had grown up.

They spoke often after that, Leo mostly about the Gardner escape and Robert about his bank robbery.  Although it had been his first he never told Leo that, building himself up to be much more experienced than he actually was, presenting tips and lessons learned as though he had been at it for years.  To further bolster his reputation, he showed his cellmate a scar on his chest, and another on his back, which he claimed had come from being shot during a robbery.  Leo paid attention and it was this misguided advice, delivered in Robert’s slow drawl over the course of six weeks, that would serve Leo poorly in his own bank robbery career.  Their conversations can to an abrupt end one day when two guards and a tall man in a pinstripe suit came and took Robert from the cell.  Leo never knew it of course, but his cellmate had only been placed at McNeil for a short period of time to provide some cover for having sold out his companions.  It seemed like a reasonable idea, putting a snitch in prison just long enough for it to seem real to those he had betrayed, but Robert Markword would learn much later that this trick had not worked at all.

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.”

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 3)

Kodak Folding Camera

Kodak Folding Camera

The photographer had arrived late and the practice was wrapping up as he set up his Kodak Folding Pocket camera.  The team was tired and sweaty so Charlie told them all to take a few minutes to get cleaned up as he chatted with his brother.   During this conversation they spoke about the receipts from the last game, which Charlie had forgotten to put into the bank, a fact that he laughed off although his brother seemed less amused by it.  The receipt can was apparently stashed in the tool box of the car that Michael often used, a Peerless Touring model.  Sitting on the ground a few feet away was young Leo, drawing circles in the dirt with a stick.

The Peerless Touring car

The Peerless Touring car

The men returned to the field area and Michael grabbed the handles of his brothers wheelchair and started pushing him across the field, waving at the men to follow him toward the outfield fence.  As they did so, Leo got up and wandered away toward the small dirt circle where the Peerless was parked.  He looked behind himself several times, stopping to lean up against a broken fence post when he saw a few of the players looking in his direction.  Several moments later, with all of the men staring at the camera, Leo slipped around the side of the car, opened the toolbox and dumped the contents of the receipt can into his pocket.  It was all loose change which made a noticeable bulge, so he untucked his shirt on that side to cover it and softly walked away, the vehicle shielding him from the team’s view. His father could not find him when he walked off the field after the picture was taken and, after looking around for a few minutes, left to go back home.  Leo appeared about an hour later, stating he had went for a walk in the woods.  The theft had already been discovered by that point and by eight a.m. the next morning it was the talk of the small town.

It came to light that there had been a very small window of opportunity for this crime to have occurred.  Charlie had actually seen the can in the toolbox about ten minutes prior to the photographer arriving.  A player had found a rough spot on a bat and asked Charlie for the piece of sandpaper he was known to have in the toolbox for these occasions.  Getting to it involved moving the receipt can, so Charlie knew it had not been empty when he gave the sandpaper to the player.  Both of them had stayed by the side of the car as the player fixed his bat and the sandpaper had gone directly back into the toolbox after he was finished.  Charlie had wheeled himself back toward the field at that point.  Michael had been back at the car about two minutes after the photo was taken, and then had driven him and Charlie home.  Several minutes after arriving and wheeling his brother into the kitchen, Michael had gone out to get the receipt can, intending to give it to Charlie with a stern reminder that he needed to get to the bank the next day.   Discovering the money gone, the police had been alerted and the investigation had begun.

The Hombert residence was just on the outskirts of New Munich and the news had not traveled there the prior evening.  The very small police force had taken the brother’s statements and spoken to a few of the players who lived nearer to town.  The police did get to the outskirts the next morning, although Ben had already left for the day to work at another farm after tending to his own very early in the day.  Leo was also gone, having told his mother after breakfast was finished that he was going fishing.  The policeman asked Lizzie a few questions and then went to find Ben out in the fields.  He answered their questions and went back to work, slightly disturbed by the fact that anyone would steal money from the team.  Meanwhile, Lizzie had told her son Jospeh to keep an eye on the other children and went in search of Leo.

They say that mother’s know their children well and Lizzie, despite many prayers and an abundance of wishful thinking, knew that her son Leo did not have the moral character of her other children.  She also knew that he was not very fond of fishing.  His statement earlier in the day had struck her as odd although she had been too busy to do more than frown at Leo before telling him to be back by lunchtime.  Now she felt that perhaps something else was going on, a slight ball of nausea and worry forming in her stomach.

the diner

the diner

It took almost an hour but she did find him, sitting at the counter of the diner downtown, sipping on what appeared to be at least his third ice cream soda.  He did not see her come into the diner and when she grabbed him arm he yelped in surprise, knocking over the glass and spilling it onto the floor.  The diner grew quiet as Lizzie stood there, her son’s arm held tightly, watery ice cream dripping off the edge of the table and her face turning red from the attention she was receiving from the other patrons. Leo had recovered quickly and was now smirking at his mother’s embarrassment.  A few long moments passed and then a waitress came to the table with a rag.  She spoke in a low voice to Lizzie, telling her she could just take the boy and go, that the ice cream was already paid for, and then began cleaning up the mess.  Before she could act, Leo twisted his arm loose and ran out of the diner, his mother following quickly after and calling to him to stop which he did not do.  When she arrived back at their house Leo was sitting on his bed and his mother let him remain there until Ben came home.  The decision he reached that night after a long discussion with his wife was one they both would grow to regret.  Although neither of them had any proof, Lizzie was certain that Leo was the one who had stolen the receipts and there was no other explanation as to why he had any money at all to use on ice cream.  Ben went up and asked his son about this, to which Leo issued a single denial and then stopped talking.  They chose to punish the boy severely at home, a lashing that left blood seeping through the boy’s shirt, and hoped that would send the proper message to their son without having to admit to the community what Leo had done.  This would happen several more times in the following years, a pattern that was the main reason Leo managed to stay out of trouble with the law until he was almost twenty one years old.  It was also one which Ben and Lizzie later realized was part of the reason he progressed from a troubled and incorrigible boy into an adult criminal.  By the time of his first arrest their son had been gone from their house for several years and was living under a different, but similar, name.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 2)

I am sure that convicts, even dying ones, tell lies all the time.  I do not think that sets them too far apart from the rest of humanity.  Truthfulness may not be our strongest virtue.  Researching things as frequently and as in detail as I often do has also made it obvious that there are all kinds of false leads, apocryphal stories, urban legends and misreported facts about every imaginable historical event.  So, some random journal entry about a generally insignificant criminal’s death is not exactly a eureka moment.  I have always given a little extra weight to “dying utterances” though and it did seem likely from the info in the journal that Leo probably knew his time was up when he pulled that guard in close for those last words.  It struck me as interesting and worth a second look so I dove in and, well, that was a long time ago.  The story that unfolded from my research is truly an interesting one, a hidden tale of Minneapolis and the surrounding area that includes all of the usual trigger words; criminals, murder, deceit, gangsters and explosions.  It also includes things that will give you more hope, things such as bravery, courage, forgiveness and redemption.  And I definitely found out that Leo Humbert was not as insignificant as he seemed to be at first.  For now, let’s step back into time a ways and onto the baseball field in New Munich, Minnesota on July 6th, 1910.

new munich mn 2017

new munich mn 2017

 

It was, and still is, a very small town, although between 1900 and 1910 it had gone through one of its two large population booms.  A forty percent increase had left New Munich with one hundred and ninety residents by 1910 and that growth would continue for another decade, ending in 1920 when the population was three hundred and twenty five.  Since that time, things have pretty much stayed the same.  The Hombert’s (for that was Leo’s last name at birth) had been in the area for awhile by the time this growth started, having moved to the area in 1891 after getting married in Ohio.  The patriarch, Benjamin Hombert, a man with sloping shoulders, blue eyes and thick brown hair, was a farmer and occasionally picked up extra work as a day laborer.  He and his wife Lizzie produced a large family of four girls and four boys, of whom Leo was the third youngest of all, and the most junior boy.

part of 1910 census hombert family only

part of 1910 census hombert family only

As a child Leo was wiry and “all angles and edges” as his mother wrote in her diary several times, and he had the sharp features which he would carry with him through most of his life.  They all helped their father on the farm and the family was generally known as honest and hard-working.  The Hombert’s took good care of their children and seven of them became solid parts of the Stearns County community.  Leo, however, would do little to ever repay or appreciate the nurturing and safety they provided.

Ben Hombert’s  great passion, other than his family, was baseball and he played on the local team, a collection of energetic and scrappy men, all much younger than him.  The team was known for getting into fights on the field, although Leo’s father never participated and was know as “Softy” because of it.  He played mostly in the outfield and could still catch up to a fly ball pretty well although his arm was “not the force it used to be,” as he would say.  Ben encouraged his children to come and watch his games and practices, hoping to give them insight into his own love of baseball.  He had not been greatly successful in this though, and although his daughter Olivia though it was a grand game, Ben had hoped one of his son’s might pick up the sport and play alongside him.  Leo seemed to be his last chance for this and he often would take the boy, protesting or not, along with him.  It probably was not the best way to encourage a youngster to like something, and young Leo would usually misbehave in some way as his father was on the field.  This usually amounted to pranks or general mischief but this particular day would mark what could later be identified as the beginning of a long criminal career for Leo Hombert.

It was a Wednesday, their usual practice day, and the team was trying to get in a practice session before the rain, which was threatening in the eastern sky, started to fall in earnest.  A game was coming up against a good Saint Cloud club and every man on the team wanted to beat them.  Light, intermittent showers had been falling throughout the day but there was a break in the weather around two p.m.  Although on many occasions only a few of the players made it, this session was fully attended as the local newspaper was sending a photographer to take the team’s picture.

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

Whether they would admit it or not, all of the men were looking forward to cutting that page out of the edition in which it appeared, or buying a few extra copies to keep around and show off.  There were not many opportunities for celebrity in New Munich.

The team manager was Charlie Amsden, a man born in Sauk Centre who had moved over to New Munich to work in a bank owned by his brother Michael, who was also the owner of the local baseball club.  While Michael was tall and imposing, Charlie had been crippled by an accident in his early teens and years of limited mobility had left him frail and thin.  He often looked like he was wearing clothing that was several sizes too big, usually because he just could not find items to fit his very thin frame.  The move to New Munich though had seemed to energize him and his brother had purchased a top of the line wheelchair for Charlie.  After that he was often seen zipping down the aptly named Main Street of the town and the residents liked his quick smile and dry sense of humor, especially when he applied it to himself.  He also had taken on the task of managing his brother’s baseball club and found great enjoyment in the camaraderie of the team.  As they were all assembled that day, circled around their proud owner in front of the chicken wire outfield fence of the field, Leo began his life of crime with a crippled man as his victim.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 1)

humbert at time of death

Humbert at time of death

Leo Humbert was an old man when he gave up his last secret, the one he had kept over all the years and even through all of the rather abrupt revelations about his life.  Those had started the moment he was arrested in Denver on September 23, 1967 for the robbery of two state banks in Minnesota; Grey Eagle and Loretto. Both of those robberies had happened earlier in that same year and the arrest exposed a man who had successfully hidden a long and interesting criminal past from his wife of twenty-three years, their daughter and everyone else with whom they associated.  They knew him as the simple, very successful and soft-spoken traveling salesman who lived with them on 39th Avenue Northeast in Saint Anthony, Minnesota, accompanying them to church at Victory Lutheran every Sunday.  Leo was an average looking man, five foot nine and around one hundred and sixty pounds with thinning brown hair that formed a stark window’s peak on his pale forehead.  His features were sharp, with his blue eyes piercing you when he was serious and lighting up when he laughed.  He was diligent, kind and caring, although often absent due to his work and sometimes a little too distracted by newspapers.  When he was home, his early morning walk down to the newsstand was mandatory, regardless of wind, rain, snow or any other inconvenience or obligation.  He would return to the house to read them in detail at the kitchen table, drinking repeated cups of dark, thick coffee and nibbling on saltine crackers.  That was about all they knew of him until the call he made from the Denver jail on September 25th, informing his wife Amanda that he needed to explain a few things.

He had not told her everything, supposing I think that his version would be the only one she might hear.  That turned out not to be true at all, especially as the agents of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension did an excellent job of questioning her in detail about his life.  Even though she had not known him until 1943 they seemed intent on figuring out if she happened to know about anything he may have done before that, and they had plenty of questions about what he had been up to since.  Her answers had been simple and straight-forward; she knew nothing, could not imagine him doing anything like robbing a bank, and certainly did not think he had committed any other crimes.  The investigators eventually left her alone but not before much more of her husband’s story had become obvious to Amanda.

Leo Humbert picture

Leo Humbert

Leo Humbert was born on March 7th, 1901 and managed to stay out of any significant trouble with the law for exactly twenty years and two hundred twenty-five days.  His arrest on that morning, October 18, 1921, for an embezzlement scheme that netted him four years in prison, set off a long run of crime and punishment that occupied the next twenty-two years of his life.  Along the way he stole cars, forged documents, trafficked in stolen goods and ultimately began robbing banks.  His most notorious known robbery was of the Meire Grove bank, which he held up twice in the space of five weeks, along the way picking up an accomplice by the name of John Williams.

humbert and williams wanted poster

Humbert and Williams wanted poster

The two of them also managed an escape from the Stearns County jail and spent time on the run with a two hundred dollar bounty on their head.  Eventually they were caught and Leo received a life sentence in 1929, which he began serving at Stillwater State Prison.  Things went well enough for him there that he received parole in 1937 but he only made it a few months before being returned due to violations of his release.  After that he stayed there until 1943, when he received another chance at parole and began the life with which Amanda thought she was familiar.

humbert at parole 1943

Humbert at parole 1943

He had kept his past a complete secret from her and she had been devastated by the revelations of the agents as well as what she started reading in the newspapers.  Reporters, along with detailing the sordid details of Leo’s crimes, had dug up the fact that he had married a stripper from the Gay 90’s nightclub in downtown Minneapolis.   That marriage had taken place in Albuquerque just the year before his arrest, on what Amanda had believed to be one of Leo’s business trips.  This revelation had been enough for her, and she had taken her daughter and moved away into obscurity and sorrow.  Those reporters had also managed to find an entry in the Who’s Who of Commerce and Industry that listed the high school drop-out and career criminal Leo Humbert as a doctoral graduate from Duke University and a retired Army colonel.  That entry still remains a mystery.

His story is interesting of course, and certainly caught my attention for a few long hours of research one Sunday.  It would have ended there except for the fact that I also turned up a journal entry from a guard at the Hennepin County Jail.  Leo had been transported back to Minnesota by the US Marshal’s service after his arrest in Denver and he was housed in that county jail, awaiting a hearing on the bank robberies.  This guard had been on duty the night of Sunday, October 22nd 1967, the night that Leo was reportedly found unresponsive in his cell.  He would die that night, just a few hours later,  and the official reporting has always referenced insulin shock as a possible cause of death.  That seemed plausible as, although no medical history supported it, Leo had told Hennepin County officials during his admitting process to the jail that he was a diabetic.  This guard’s journal entry seemed to tell a different story:

10/22/67

On duty today at jail – the usual for most of the shift.  Around 7 pm I took my break and left Chaz (the new kid) at the gate.  When I got back, he stated that a doctor had come to check on Humbert (a bankrobber brought in from Denver for a stick-up job in Grey Eagle).  Stupid kid – no medical visits that late at night except for emergencies and there weren’t none of those.  Went to check on the guy but it was too late – eyes were rolling back in his head.  I got to him just before he passed out.  He grabbed my collar and said something but I couldn’t hear it.  He said it again – still not sure but I think it was ‘that hotel fire, 1940, murder, look up the clock-maker.’  Weird stuff – might have been 1914 he said but the rest I’m pretty sure about.  Covered for the kid of course (he hadn’t even made the faker sign the book so wasn’t much to it).  They’re saying it’s a diabetes thing – here’s hoping to that sticking.

…to be continued

A Faraway Song (Part 30)

That is where I left it all of those years ago, taking with me a head full of questions, a real feeling of having left things unresolved and that little toy car as a memento of my adventure.  I had left reluctantly but also had sensed the danger I was in, a strange feeling that I would have thought impossible to experience in the civilized world.  On my long drive back to my regular life I had vowed to go back at some point and keep seeking answers, much more brave as the distance between myself and Clyde Forks increased.  I never did of course, life taking over and the pressing need to solve the mystery fading softly away.  I would go back to it occasionally, usually triggered by some other event in my life, but it always seemed very distant and remote, all the burning questions consumed by time.  I would dream about Clyde Forks sometimes, or some member of the cast of characters I had met, or stay up an extra few minutes wondering about my experience up there.  Most of the time I found it hard to believe I had been so wrapped up in it, or so convinced of a great conspiracy.  It was a just an innocent small town, weird for sure, but innocent.

That was right where I was with it when I happened upon that podcast.  That program detailed the disappearance of a young boy from an area near Calabogie.

article courtesy re cbc.ca

A good, quick summary is also available here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disappearance_of_Adrien_McNaughton

Listening to that podcast brought everything back in a wave of memory and those old events suddenly seemed much clearer than before.  That led me to digging through a pile of old boxes until I found the journal I had kept on that trip.  Sitting down and reading it left me with those questions I posed at the beginning of this story.  How could I have just left and stopped looking into what happened up there?  And, what did it all have to do with this missing boy?

The End…for now