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 62)

Sterns County Jail courtesy theclio.com

Sterns County Jail courtesy theclio.com

The Sterns County Jail at the time had quite a significant overcrowding problem, bad enough that it was a well-known issue around the state.  That did not prevent Sheriff Schomer from taking Leo there and promptly getting him secured as an inmate.  As he emerged from the area where he had been processed into the jail Leo was met with a surprise.  Instead of being led down the grey corridor toward the entry to the proper jail, he was instead walked toward a hallway that turned to the right off the jail entry.  Across the front of that corridor a temporary wall had been erected, one that had a black metal double-door set firmly in the center.  That door was secured by a thick piece of chain that ran through the door handles and was attached by a padlock.  In front of the door stood a deputy and a jail guard, both holding shotguns.  The guard walking Leo grabbed his elbow to stop him about ten feet from the double door. 

1930's handcuffs

1930’s handcuffs

“Alright, now you’re going to be a resident of our special containment unit for right now, until a proper cell opens up, whenever the hell that might be.  You’ll be in there with a few other fellas so you’d better behave yourself, ya hear me?”

Leo nodded his head in reply, wondering exactly what he was about to experience.  He could already detect a very strong smell, one that was a mixture of body odor, urine and dirty canvas, and he could hear the distinct hum of voices from the other side of the wall.  The guard took off Leo’s handcuffs and then the deputy unlocked the padlock and pulled the chain before opening the right side of the door and motioning him inside.  

What greeted him on the other side was more than a “few other fellas”, as it was in fact the entire overflow from the county jail, all being held in the corridor of what looked to have previously been an office space.  The walls were cement and painted a dull brown, the ceiling white with a crack running down the middle.  Although it was bright at the entry, the lighting was uneven along the length of the hallway with some areas very dim especially near the far corners.  The doors to the rooms that had opened up off the hallway were all solid wood and were secured by gate hasps and padlocks.  There was a single window, about two feet by three feet, at the end of the corridor which had bars covering it.  That wall was also, for some unknown reason, painted a stark white.  When Leo later managed to look out that window he confirmed his belief that this cell was on the second floor of the jail building.  Wooden benches lined the sides and there were four small tables and about ten chairs scattered around the open floor space.  Some of the prisoners occupied these sitting locations although the majority of them were lounging about on the floor itself with ten of them fast asleep.  There were no mattresses or cots, just a collection of pillows and blankets which were apparently community property.  Leo would come to find out that it was best to retain those items when you did mange to get your hands on them, as there was no guarantee you would get either of them back if you lost possession.  In a corner near the metal doors were three large buckets that the men used to relieve themselves and which were emptied twice a day by the designated “newest rat”, which as of that moment was Leo.  He later also learned that the men were taken out of the community cell in pairs once per day to “tend to their business” and it was considered to be proper protocol to save your messier bodily functions until that time of the day.  All in all, it was a very unpleasant situation and Leo was quite upset at being held in such a place, something that he let the guards know right away and continuously during his imprisonment.  

Several days later he had the first opportunity to meet with a lawyer, at which point he found out that Otto’s betrayal of him extended far beyond the theft of the eight hundred dollars.  He also was informed about the Marlborough’s cooperation with the investigation and that the bank teller in Meier Grove had been the one to positively identify him and swear out the affidavit which led to his arrest.  All of this left Leo in a rage, one that he carried into the courtroom that day for his arraignment.  When asked to enter a plea he instead launched into a bitter diatribe about the jail conditions, his refusal to be kept in such squalor and the fact that he vowed vengeance on everyone who had betrayed him or been involved in his, “faulty and manufactured arrest.”  Although the judge let him go on for a few minutes, watching him with an amused, patient look on his face, eventually Leo started attacking the court’s credibility at which point a not guilty plea was entered by the judge and he was forcibly hauled out of the courtroom.  

barred window

Over the next couple of days Leo did manage to calm down, just as he always did when incarcerated, and began to seriously consider the situation in which he now found himself.  He was well aware that if convicted of armed bank robbery the prison sentence was going to be quite severe, a situation he wanted to avoid.  Based on the evidence against him that he knew about he also felt that a conviction was likely.  That left him with the determination to escape.  At the time the Stearns County Jail was only seven years old, having been completed in 1922, and was lauded as being inescapable, a boast that was often repeated by prison guards and inmates alike.  Leo took that into consideration as he wandered around the large improvised cell, testing the door hinges on the former offices, the window bars and anything else he saw as a potential avenue for escape.  The other inmates all told him to forget about it, that they had already tried all of that, but Leo pointed out that he was a civil engineer who had went to Duke University, and as such had a far better chance of figuring out weak points.  That was mostly met with shrugs and laughter, but he remained undeterred for several days, finally abandoning the idea on the twenty-forth.  He would need to come up with some other plan for escape.  

It came to him that night, as he lay on the cold tile floor of the hallway, absent a blanket that had been stolen from him earlier in the day, and comforted little by the thin pillow beneath his head.  Staring up at the ceiling he decided that despite his own embarrassment over his diabetic condition, he needed to try to make use of it.  The next morning he went to the double-door and started pounding on it.  Finally the small slit, which had been cut into it as a window to allow the guards to occasionally observe the cell, opened and a grey eye stared back at Leo.

“What’d you want, boy?” 

“I need to speak to the warden.  Right now.”

Laughter from the other side.  “This ain’t no prison dummy, it’s a jail.  We ain’t got no warden.  Go sit back down.”  Leo blushed at his mistake, feeling even worse because he realized the other’s had heard the whole conversation and it would effect their perception of his criminal credibility.  He almost gave up but then went back to pounding on the door.  It took almost two hours but finally the guards were so tired of his hammering on the door that they hauled him out of the cell and into the jail administrators office.  Once there, Leo outlined his medical issues and insisted that he needed to be placed in the infirmary.  The administrator just stared back at him and laughed.

“Prisoner, that cell is just as damn crowded as the one you’re in, so no use in trying this trick.  And don’t waste nobody’s time with this nonsense again.” 

Three minutes later Leo was back in the community cell, and one hour after that John F. Williams was booked into the jail and joined the group.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 60)

That early morning conversation which Olivia had with law enforcement was a detailed one, in which she told them about Leo’s real name, his use of aliases including the ones she knew about and also a list of places that he had lived.  She of course informed them about his recent incarceration in Kentucky as Robert O’Hara after which they contacted the prison for more information.  Finally, as they were wrapping up the interview, Olivia gave them a description of the Essex along with a partial plate number.  She stated that she believed Leo would have fled the state and be in hiding until he turned up somewhere else under another name.  The detectives thanked her but had their own suspicions that Leo had not gone far and put the information out to other law enforcement agencies in the state.  To obtain a recent photo quickly the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension convinced the prison in Eddyville to send an official to meet their officer in Rockford, Illinois, about halfway between the two cities.  That allowed them to have a mug shot in hand by late afternoon, after which the bank teller quickly identified it as the man who had held him up.   He swore out an affidavit to that effect and the MBCA thought they had a good start on chasing down their fugitive. 

By the next morning this information had started to pay off as a Minneapolis police officer found the Essex, promptly alerted the MBCA and county sheriff, and an intensive manhunt began in the downtown area.  As that search got within two blocks of the Marlborough Hotel Otto happened to be at another business nearby, which was owned by the same man, and where he picked up occasional extra work.  It took him only a moment to determine what was going on and he hastily made an excuse that he had to leave for a few minutes.  He walked quickly back to the Marlborough and found Leo sitting in the lobby reading a newspaper.   Other than a cleaning woman the rest of the area was deserted, a quiet and calm Saturday morning with thin rays of light falling across the plants and art work on display.  Otto had only managed to get about five words out when Leo held up his hand and quickly went to the front entry, stepping out slowly and looking up and down the street.  He then repeated this at the back entry after which he walked briskly to his room, Otto following quietly behind him.  At the door to the room Leo turned around and told him to stop and wait in the hall.  

clubhouse brogue shoe courtesy thepeoplehistory.com

clubhouse brogue shoe courtesy thepeoplehistory.com

Once alone with the door closed behind him, Leo sank into a faded grey armchair that was next to a window overlooking Third Avenue.  He had already seen that the police were very close and that his escape was going to have to be quick and done with a minimum of encumbrance.  That meant he would have to leave behind most of this personal belongings including all of his new suits and hats.  After a minute or two, he rose with a sigh and hastily packed up a small valise. He then took the remaining cash he had obtained from the robbery, around eight hundred dollars, and stuffed it into one of his clubhouse brogues.  He figured that if he was captured it would not look good to have almost the same amount of cash on him as the amount taken from the bank.   He then placed those shoes and some miscellaneous other clothing and personal items into a large black suitcase.  Stepping out into the hallway he motioned to Otto who was leaning against the wall several doors down.  When the young man approached, Leo handed him the suitcase and asked that he keep it safe, stating that it contained one of his best pairs of shoes and he would either send for it or retrieve it himself very soon.   He then shook Otto’s hand, thanked him for the tip-off and walked away down the hallway.  Several minutes later Leo had slipped past the police that were out and about on the streets and was on his way out of town.

He had of course failed to give Otto any money for providing him with the information about the police, something that did not sit well with the young janitor.  It had only taken him about three minutes of contemplation before he opened the suitcase Leo had given him, determined to at least get a good pair of shoes out of the deal.  Several moments after finding them he also had removed the eight hundred dollars and was much happier although he still held a grudge against Leo.  About an hour later, when the police arrived at the hotel to continue their search, the staff could not positively identify the man in the photo as having stayed there.  Otto took that opportunity to pay off his grudge, marching up to the officer in charge, stating it had definitely been Leo who had stayed there and directing them to the room.  As it was being searched he decided that it would be a bad thing if he somehow was caught with Leo’s personal effects.  Going back to the detective, he turned them over, stating that he had found the suitcase in the alley and the shoes in the hallway outside the door of Leo’s room.  He then provided a very detailed description of the fugitive and mentioned the discussion they had about Louisville.  

That was exactly where Leo had gone, making good time by hitching rides and arriving by mid-afternoon of Sunday, September 15th.  He was angry when he arrived, about several things, and had stormed into  Lucy’s house without even knocking on the door.  Startled as she had been by his entrance, she quickly recovered and tried to calm him down and by nightfall they were enjoying each other’s company.  The next morning, having collected the items and cash Lucy had been keeping for him, he penned a short note to the Marlborough:

Sirs:

Having recently left your establishment, I found that I have forgotten a pair of my best shoes along with several other personal items.  Please inquire of your staff, especially the janitor named Otto, as I feel they are certain to have found these items.  I expect my belongings to be forwarded  immediately to The Drake in Chicago, where I will soon be arriving.  Your prompt action is appreciated. 

L Humford

Giving it to Lucy with stern instructions that it must go out that same  day via Special Delivery, he gave her a passionate farewell kiss and walked out of the house.  The last she saw of him he was stepping quickly down the street swinging his brown valise as he went along.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 59)

When Leo awoke the next day, September 3, 1929, he could not have known that he was just nine days away from initiating a series of events which would leave him as a minor criminal celebrity and grant him the place of notoriety for which he had been looking for such a long time.  It began with him sitting on the low brick wall that ran behind the motel he was staying at, trying to put together a plan on what he was going to do next.  Much of his prison time had been consumed with thinking about bank robbery and he knew that was the direction in which he wanted go in regard to the future.  It was time for him to make a move into more serious crimes.  He felt he had accumulated a good amount of information over the years and was ready to take action.  The only limitation he put on himself was that he was not going to do anything illegal in New Munich, mostly out of a sense of responsibility toward Olivia, something he had not thought would really matter.  It did though, now that he was back and had seen her again, he just felt a kind of family connection and knew that she was seen as a respectable part of the community.  He did not want to ruin that.  

He spent the remainder of the morning sitting in his room at the small table by the window, writing down some ideas on nearby towns to scout for potential targets.  Around eleven-thirty he had gone into the bathroom and when he came back out was surprised to find Olivia standing in his room right next to the table at which he had been writing.  His notebook was open and he hastened over to close it while attempting to not seem too concerned.  He did not know it at the time but she had indeed looked over the page and had made a mental note of a few things that were written down.  Olivia then invited him to lunch, which he declined, and she left after a few more minutes of conversation.  Leo, resolved to get things into motion as quickly as possible, got into his Essex and drove out of town for the day.

The communities closest to New Munich included Greenwald, Melrose and Freeport, and Leo drove through all of them scouting out the banks.  It was in Meire Grove though that he found a promising opportunity.  The First State Bank of Meire Grove was a small brick building situated on a road near the edge of that town.  This road branched off into two directions about three hundred feet from the building, giving Leo a choice on escape routes and also potentially adding to the difficulty for police in pursuing him.  Pulling over under a tree near the bank, he got out his notebook and sketched a map of the area.  Then he walked into the bank and pretended to be lost, asking a clerk for directions to Melrose.   Chatting with that man for a few minutes, Leo took in the general layout of the bank and tried to assess the place for any potential pitfalls or problems.  When he left, he felt fairly confident that he had found his target, and he spent the next eight days doing more scouting and planning.  He was ready by the evening of September 11th and he went to bed that night with a strange nervousness in his system, one that made his stomach uneasy and caused him to have difficulty falling asleep.

The robbery itself seemed anti-climatic to Leo, especially when he had the opportunity later to look back on it.  His plan had been to commit the hold-up by himself, partly because he did not want to split the money but more due to the fact that he really did not have any criminal connections in the area.  He wanted to get this robbery done and over with so he had some cash and could maybe start putting together his own gang.  That was how he pulled it off too, just Leo going into the bank and sticking a gun into the cashier’s face, despite the fact that some later newspaper reports would say several men were involved.  After getting the  money, which amounted to eight hundred sixty dollars, from the bank, he took off toward the Twin Cities and abandoned the Essex on a street near the Mississippi river in downtown Minneapolis.  He then walked to the Marlborough Hotel and registered under the name Leo Humford, figuring that slight variation should be enough to conceal his true identity.  It also was an alias he had not previously used, at least as far as can be determined from historical records.  As he was walking out of the hotel lobby to go to his room, the hotel’s extroverted janitor Otto Knaack commented that Leo was a, “nifty dresser,” a comment which of course got Leo’s attention.  He spoke to the man for several minutes after that as the floor was wet from just being mopped.  That conversation quickly went from that brief compliment into a rambling discussion of Otto’s family, his recent stint in jail for punching a man he thought had insulted a hotel guest, and why he did not like Ford motor cars.  During this conversation Leo even discussed his opinion of Louisville after Otto mentioned he had a sister living there and working as a seamstress.   As he said good-night to Otto, he made the further mistake of thinking they shared some kind of criminal bond due to the jail time the janitor had mentioned.  Leo told Otto that he would pay him generously for any info he could bring to him in regard to potential police activity around the hotel.  It was more conversation than an on-the-run bank robber should have had and it would come back to haunt Leo. 

St Cloud Daily Times Headline 12 Sept 1929 - Evening Edition

St Cloud Daily Times Headline 12 Sept 1929 – Evening Edition

Back in Meire Grove, law enforcement was at a dead end in regard to trying to to apprehend whomever had robbed the First State Bank.  They had a description of the man, a few conflicting ones on the vehicle and that was about it.  The information went out to all local police agencies and it was of course picked up on by reporters, with the story running on the front page of the next day’s newspaper.  In New Munich Olivia read that article while drinking coffee after breakfast and recalled immediately that Meier Grove was one of the town names she had seen written in Leo’s notebook.  She had not been quite sure at the time what it related to, and was still not certain, but after some soul-searching she made contact with the police.  The information she gave them was unknown to a peacefully resting Leo who had just asked Otto to go out to a local diner and pick him up some lunch.  

…to be continued