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 69)

In the vehicle Williams was complaining loudly to Leo.

“Damn it! You’re throwin’ me all over the place in here.”  Just as he spoke Leo pulled out of the sliding turn he was in, jamming his partner back against the passenger door.  

“No time, no time for keeping you cozy,” he snapped back.  “Besides,”

That was a far as he managed to get in that sentence before catching a flash in his peripheral vision.  It was the windshield of Deputy McIntee’s squad car, which was bearing down on them from the west.  Yelling a quick curse word, Leo slammed on the brakes and yanked the steering wheel harshly to the right, causing the vehicle to careen in a small semi-circle and almost roll completely over.  His quick action did cause the police vehicle to miss them and they heard the squeal of its brakes as the deputy tried to avoid crashing into an oak tree.  Taking advantage of the moment, Leo jammed his car back into second gear and stomped on the accelerator, tearing off back onto the road and speeding away toward Paynesville.  A minute later they passed by a group of women who were apparently out for a walk, and also heard the roar of the police vehicle approaching again.

1929 Colt revolver

1929 Colt revolver

“Damn, damn, damn!” Williams shouted.  “I’ll kill that copper!”

Taking his gun out of the pocket in which he had stashed it, he rolled down the window, flung his arm to the rear and started shooting.  Leo reached over and grabbed his partner’s shoulder, trying to pull him in enough to get the firing to stop.

“Knock it off!  Idiot!  You’re going to hit one of those people on the road.”

Williams fought back, slugging Leo in the side and pushing him away.  “Shut up old Grundy, you gotta toughen the hell up.  You think you wanna go away for this?  You know what it means, gettin’ pinched for bank robbery?  Life is what it means.  You drive.  I’ll take care of the coppers.”

With that, Williams went back to firing out the passenger window and Leo, who had enough to worry about as he tried to control the vehicle at speeds that exceeded seventy miles an hour, did not try to stop him again. 

Deputy McIntee was doing his best to stay close to the fugitive’s car, sustaining several hits to this police cruiser from the shots being fired.  He had radioed in his location and knew that help was on its way but he wanted to be there to arrest these two criminals.  The firing stopped for a minute and he figured they were either out of ammunition or reloading.  

Back in the getaway vehicle it turned out to the latter, and as Williams fumbled getting the shells into his pistol, Leo spoke up again, his voice a little high-pitched from excitement and stress.

“We gotta ditch this thing and get into the brush somewhere.  They’ll be setting up a roadblock for sure, can’t hardly believe we haven’t run into it already.  Get loaded up and then I’m pulling over.  You plug that deputy and then we run.”

“Shuck that all to hell friend, we keep going in this car.  On foot we’re as good as dead or cuffed.”

“No way, we’re gonna hit that roadblock anytime.  We ain’t got enough ammo to shoot it out with the whole police force.”

“Probably the FBI too by now,” Williams replied with a glint in his eye, “keep driving.”

“It’s my damn show,” Leo snapped back but did not get a chance to finish as the front right wheel, which had drifted off the road, ran into a tree stump.  The impact only caused the vehicle to jump and rattle around, but once it has settled back down it was obvious that a tire had been blown off its rim.   

Forest

Forest

“Looks like you’re getting your wish,” Williams stated as he snapped the chamber closed on his gun and stepped out of the car.  “We gotta get to running.”  He turned toward the patrol vehicle which had stopped about thirty feet away and fired once, then took off at a sprint into the nearby woods.  Leo, pulling his own gun but not firing, followed closely behind.  Before the deputy had the chance to pull his weapon and return fire they had disappeared into the thick greenery of the oak, elm and fir trees about ten feet beyond where their vehicle had come to a halt.  

McIntee could hear the men thrashing their way through the underbrush and, although he knew he was supposed to wait for back up, decided to go after them.  Radioing in that he was a going in pursuit, and not waiting to hear the reply, he checked his weapon and headed into the trees.  He was about twenty feet in, moving quickly but trying to stay under cover for protection, when he heard the other vehicles of the posse pulling up nearby.   He could hear the sheriff cursing him out for not waiting and then instructing the men to follow him into the woods.  McIntee kept on pressing ahead, determined to make the arrest.

It was a cat and mouse game for awhile, with the two fugitives occasionally in sight but quickly disappearing.  The deputy almost had a shot once, just as Williams crested a small rise and had to step over a large tree that had fallen fairly recently.  The branches of that tree made the criminal slow down and his entire upper body was silhouetted against the light slipping in from the holes in the canopy.  McIntee was just about to pull the trigger when Williams disappeared from sight.  It was five minutes after that when the deputy almost met his own end as he was standing behind a large oak tree.  He believed that he was in cover and did not realize that the suspects had partially doubled back in his direction.  Leo had slipped into a small grove of strawberry bushes and had a clear line of sight on McIntee, raising his gun slowly while breathing heavily.  He held it there, arm shaking slightly from the exertion of the past forty minutes, watching the law man peek around the tree in a direction he and Williams no longer were headed.  Then, with a deep sigh, he lowered the gun and moved on.  The resources of the posse, which was large at twenty-five men but not near the one hundred that was later reported, eventually won out.  Leo and Williams ended up surrounded just on the other side of a small creek that cut its way through this particular forest.   Although there were a few tense moments before they gave up, eventually both of the fugitives emerged from cover with their hands held high in the air.  McIntee did get to put the handcuffs on Williams, with Sheriff Henderson taking care of Leo.  

“We got ya, boy, we got ya and now you’re going away for good,” Henderson stated as he clicked on the cuffs.

Leo shrugged and replied, “Well, it’s all just part of life, I guess.” 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 68)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You two, get your hands up!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bank Cashier Cage

Bank Cashier Cage

“Get me my money!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 67)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1928 Oldsmobile

1928 Oldsmobile

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

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

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

Melrose Mn Corner Drug Store courtesy lakenwoods.com

Melrose Mn Corner Drug Store courtesy lakenwoods.com

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

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

L Humbert and J Williams Wanted Poster

L Humbert and J Williams Wanted Poster

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

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

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

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

Brainerd Daily Dispatch 12oct1929

Brainerd Daily Dispatch 12oct1929

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 66)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what,”

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

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

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

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 65)

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

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

“What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

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

“Bushwa!”  Williams snapped back at Leo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

humbert and williams wanted poster

Humbert and Williams wanted poster

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Corning (Part 64)

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

phone

phone

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

Alice Lanning aka Betty Talyor Betty Markword

Alice Lanning aka Betty Talyor Betty Markword

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

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

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

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

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

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

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 63)

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

“What’s it to you?” Leo snapped back.

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

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

“You think this is it?” Willams asked.

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

“You not from around here?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…to be continued