A Burning Cold Morning (Part 46)

For the next two days Leo did not do much, choosing to linger around the motel and try to make a friend out of the manager.  He was not the most social of people but was also out of money and needed to build up a little bit of goodwill.  His hope was that he would be able to transfer that goodwill into being allowed to stay in the room on credit while he figured out a way to start generating some income.  It seemed to work as Margie, the thin, chain-smoking blonde who ran the place told him that she would give him two weeks before he needed to pay her.  Leo was pleased, both by the offer and at his own skill in pulling his plan off, although he learned on his third day there that Margie was expecting a few favors in addition to his eventual payment for the room.  Over the next three days these favors included handyman work around the property but by Thursday night she had propositioned him for sex and it was clear that refusing her was not going to be an option.  She proved to be a rather eager and energetic lover and the following morning, March 11th, an exhausted Leo realized he had to get some money together, pay her off and then leave.  He then collapsed into his own bed and slept for much of the remainder of the day.  

That weekend, in between trying to avoid Margie, he started to work on a plan.  Although he did not know anyone in the area, Leo started walking around to scout for opportunities.  This part of Los Angeles was  known as Van Nuys and, although having only been founded sixteen years prior, had a growing population and an established criminal element.  After a couple afternoons and evenings of asking around Leo made contact with a man named Clark Mason who needed some assistance with his numbers game.  Establishing his bona fides with this man through a series of discussions over cigars and whiskey, Leo found himself part of the operation a few days later.   It vexed him a bit, having to join up as a small time player in someone else’s scheme, but he knew he needed to get some cash together so he could move out of the motel.  Another week passed, long days followed by equally long nights meeting Margie’s demands, Leo trying to catch naps between pick-ups for the Mason operation.  Finally, he was set and he gladly marched into the motel office, plunked down the money he owed, demanded a receipt and walked off down the street.  

Cloud 9 Motel sign

Cloud 9 Motel sign

He only went six blocks away, to another cheap motel which was called the Waverley although the decrepit sign out front read Cloud 9.  Leo kept working for Mason while trying to develop a scheme that would, if not be as big as his Bakersfield operation, at least allow him to work for himself.  He also continued to be a voracious reader, finishing three more textbooks on civil engineering by the beginning of June 1927, and self-testing himself via the example exams in those books.  It was at this point that Leo believed himself to be fully educated in the field and he would claim at various points later in his life to be an actual civil engineer.  

He tried a few small schemes but quickly learned that all of the grifting, stolen goods trafficking and numbers operations in the area were tightly controlled by a consolidated group of criminals known as the Valley Boys.  Clark Mason was a member of that group and, once word reached him about Leo’s activities, had cautioned him strongly against running any further operations of that kind in the area.  That limitation, and Leo’s inability at the time to leave Van Nuys due to financial restrictions, were what pushed him into the next level of his criminal career. 

In the past he had of course pushed against such constraints, having been a bit of a maverick up to this point.  It was an interesting list; the theft of the money from the owner’s of his father’s baseball team, stealing goods from his own Army unit, embarrassing a well-known gangster in Kansas City and turning down Jerry Salazar’s offer to work together in Olympia.  Leo had definitely not been bound by conditions or restrictions that other people may have found reasonable to take into consideration.  This time though he did heed them as Clark Mason had made it a point to show Leo an example of the treatment that awaited those who infringed on the Valley Boys territory.  That example, delivered via a baseball bat to a man named Stan Liberman, had left an impression on Leo that he would not forget.  

Instead he decided to move into armed robbery, an area which he had made sure was not covered by any of the Valley Boys operations.  Mason had even told him specifically that his group only dealt in non-violent crimes as it allowed them to keep the police at bay as long as they were paying them off regularly.  Leo saw that as an opportunity and, although he did not have much experience in the area, started to formulate a plan for an armed hold up.  Although his initial thoughts were about banks and trains, he eventually realized that he needed to start much smaller and decided on robbing an oil and gas station.  He figured that such a place would have few complications as there was likely to be only a couple of employees on duty and he would be able to get in and get out quickly.  He also recalled something that his cellmate at McNeil, Robert Markword, had taught him about armed robberies.  He had told Leo that figuring out the patterns of the local police was important, as all law enforcement operations tended to operate in a routine way.  If you can figure out where the police are going to be at any particular time then you can plan the robbery, and your escape, accordingly.  Police, Markword stressed, are creatures of habit and almost never break out of their established routines.  Get them figured out and you will be in the clear.  Leo took that advice to heart along with another bit of Markword advice, which was to always have a second man there with a gun just in case you needed to control more people than anticipated.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 45)

As it turned out, Stanley did have the nerve to do it, and he quickly left town after taking all of the money he could find in the room, not just the cash that was sewn into Leo’s valise.  He was not sure exactly what prompted him to look through every drawer, every pocket and every piece of Leo’s belongings, but he did it and managed to secure a total of five hundred and eighty-five dollars.  Afterwards he would realize that he was angry at how he had been used, his talent with metals corrupted by a criminal and turned into something bad.  That act had now made it necessary for him to abandon his father and a relatively simple life, making him into a fugitive.  He would understand later that he was scared about the future and that the money made him feel at least a little bit more secure.  In the moment though, rifling through the room at the Mayfair, he just did what felt right and that was to take all of the cash he could find.   Right before he left he paused at the door, reached into the small burlap sack in which he had collected all of the money, and put a twenty dollar bill on the table for Leo.  That way he was not leaving him totally broke.

twenty dollar bill as issued until 1929

twenty dollar bill as issued until 1929

Leo healed slowly at the hospital, experiencing a few complications in the days immediately after Stanley left which had the result of denying the police the opportunity to talk to him.  In the moments he was awake and lucid Leo spent most of his time thinking about how angry he was with Lester and planning out a way to get back at him.  He knew that although the police were currently cutting him some slack due to doctor’s orders, that this would change soon enough and legal trouble could follow.  The remainder of his time was spent doing more reading on civil engineering, his books and other personal belongings having been brought to his room when the hotel officially kicked him out.  Upon the delivery of his property he had soon figured out that all of his money, save the twenty dollars, was gone but he had kept his own counsel about that issue.  It was something he would deal with later.  It was January 3, 1927 when a detective, different from the one who had first spoken to him, next sat down for an extended discussion with Leo.  

“Feeling better?” the detective, a heavy-set, green-eyed and balding man in a black suit, asked. 

“Well, a little but not much.  I’ve had some other issues.”  Leo had decided he was going to play out his injuries for all they were worth, trying to gain extra time to effect some kind of an escape.

“Yes, we were told, but they say you are now healing up pretty quickly.”

“We’ll see,” Leo replied slowly, trying to look as feeble as possible.

The detective went over his story again, pressing him for more personal details and not being as easily dissuaded as the last officer.  After a few minutes of verbal sparring about this the detective closed his notebook.

“Look Leo, you’re going to have to start being straight with me.  I’m going to track down the info on you and something tells me it’s not going to be all charity work and honest employment.”

“You have such little faith in me?”

“I’m not new to this game.  Besides, the Bakersfield PD already called down and want to speak with you.  That surprise you?”

“What do they think I did?” Leo asked.

“Well, they just said they have some questions for you, that’s all.  I guess if they really thought they had something on you, well then they’d be down here to arrest you.  But they do definitely want a chance to talk.”

“Hmm, well, I guess I’ll try real hard to get better than,” Leo replied sarcastically. 

He feigned drifting back to sleep and the detective left, although not before announcing rather loudly that he would be back soon.  Leo did his best to remain in the hospital’s care, coming up with a continuing list of ailments for them to check out, none of which proved to be medically significant.  None, except one that is, as a nurse had informed him that they thought he might be a diabetic but a few more tests would be required.  As all of this was going on, the questioning by the Pomona police continued and then, one day in late February, a Bakersfield officer accompanied the detective.  That interview was difficult for Leo as they did seem to have a good amount of information on his scheme but just not quite enough to arrest him.  He did his best to seem cooperative while not giving them any information that could seal his fate, a plan which worked because the Bakersfield officer left with only an admonition to Leo that he had better never return to the city.  After that, Leo knew his time was running out and he needed to get at least a little bit of distance away from Pomona.  

In his last interview with the heavy-set detective on March 3, 1927, Leo spent most of the discussion stressing that he wanted everything possible done to track down and arrest Lester for attempted murder.  Although he could not know where his old partner had run off to, he did provide what information he knew about his time Washington, Hawaii, and California, just in case that helped in finding him.  As they were talking a nurse came in, telling Leo that it was time for him to go for the additional diabetes tests, but Leo waved her off stating that he felt fine and did not want to have any more needles jabbed into his body.  She protested for a few moments but then withdrew, stating that a doctor would need to come speak with him.  Leo then told the detective that he was planning to move to Los Angeles but would stay in touch and be ready to come back once they apprehended Lester.  Later that day the doctor did speak with Leo, telling him that it was critical that he take part in the tests as an untreated case of diabetes could be deadly.  Leo promised to be more cooperative the next day and then, late that night he packed up his belongings and slipped out of the hotel during a few minutes when there was no one at the nurse’s station. 

van nuys blvd 1926 courtesy ciclavalley.org

van nuys blvd 1926 courtesy ciclavalley.org

He checked into a cheap motel on the outskirts of LA the next morning, registering as Leo O’Malley.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 43)

Stanley had gone on a pretty good tour of the hotel, even stepping outside for a few minutes despite Leo’s instructions to not do so.  He had picked the small side entrance door for his quick excursion and was just stepping back inside when he first heard about the shooting.  A tall man, well dressed and with a silver-headed cane, strode past quickly while commenting, “watch out for bullets” in Stanley’s direction.  It had been an odd thing to say and caught him off-guard as he had not heard anything out of the ordinary.  Not thinking too much of it, he continued on down the hallway toward the lobby.  It was the second person who mentioned it, a hotel bellman, that sprung Stanley into action.  That man had stopped him as he entered the lobby saying, “There have been some shots fired inside the hotel, sir.  Manager says all guests are to stay in their rooms until the police get here.” 

elevator 1926

elevator 1926

That comment had scared Stanley and he had complied, turning around and heading for the elevator.  Before he got on, it occurred to him that his roommates could have been involved in the shooting, which left him conflicted about returning to the room.  Stepping off the elevator, he paused in the hallway, listening for anything that might indicate danger.  Instead, he heard a low groan which prompted him to quickly open the door.  

It was obvious from his first look that something had happened in the room as the furniture was out of place and some items had been knocked to the floor.  He could not see either Lester or Leo and at first thought maybe the sound he had heard originated from another room.  He stepped through the door, closed it softly, and was just turning around when he heard it again.  It definitely came from inside this room.  Stanley stepped around the end table which had been pushed into the pathway toward the kitchen and saw Leo lying on the floor by the sofa.  His face was very pale and some drool and blood had leaked from his mouth and run down his cheeks.  The shirt he had on was partially pulled up and soaked in blood, and a small pool of it had also formed on the floor.  Stanley stayed there, frozen in shock, as Leo mumbled softly for help.  It took him so long to recover that his former partner had started to struggle to sit up, which prompted him into action.  Kneeling down, he touched Leo’s shoulder and pushed him back onto the floor.

“Easy, easy.  Lay down and stay still.  I’ll ring for an ambulance.”

“No,” Leo replied in a soft but urgent voice.

“I have to Leo.  I heard about the shots and, well, it’s you that got it.  I can’t fix this and you’re bleeding all over.  You need a doctor.”

“Shh, shut up. No.  I can’t go to any doctor or hospital.  Just help me up.”

“I can’t, I don’t know how to fix you from getting shot.  We need help.”

“We don’t damn it!” Leo snapped back, some strength back in his voice, “Get me up and onto a bed.”

Reluctantly Stanley complied and a few minutes later had managed to get his former partner situated somewhat comfortably, although blood still leaked out of the two bullet wounds.  Leo seemed to pass out for several moments but then woke back up and grabbed Stanley’s arm.  

“Listen, you have to keep the cops out of here.  Did they get called?  Are they here yet?’

“I’m not sure if they’re here but the hotel manger called them I think.  They told me to go back to my room until they arrived.”

“Damn!  How did they know it was our room?”

“Huh?” Stanley replied.  “Oh, no, not that.  I mean, I was in the lobby and they told me that all the guests had to go back to their rooms until the police arrived.  They don’t know nothing about me or us up here.”

“Oh, good, good.”  Here Leo paused and closed his eyes, breathing erratically for a minute or so.  Then he continued.  “Ok, so listen.  You gotta keep them out of here.  I can’t move right now, I gotta rest.  You gotta bandage me up, but that’s for later.  Right now you gotta keep them out of this room.” 

“How the heck am I supposed to do that?  Don’t ya think they will want to talk to all the guests, check their rooms?  I mean, what could I say?”

“I don’t know, I really don’t, but you’re going to have to figure it out.”  Leo then lay back slowly and either fell asleep or passed out, leaving Stanley to ponder what to do next.  It took him a few minutes but then a thought occurred to him and he ran out of the room.  He was just getting to the lobby when the police walked in the front door.  Fortunately, the bellman he had previously spoken with was not present.   Striding up to the officer Stanley began to speak excitedly about how he had been smoking outside the side door and had heard the shots coming from the alleyway that ran behind the hotel.  The officer pointed out that they already had several reports of them coming from inside the hotel, which prompted Stanley to tell about the man he had seen running out of the alley just a few seconds after he heard the sound of shooting.  That seemed to sway the officer who took the description and then stopped the next officer who entered the hotel, saying they had a suspect on foot who had left the scene.   Expecting that his ruse would not last long, Stanley hung around the lobby for another twenty minutes but the police never returned.  He would find out in the next day’s newspaper that his story had become the “facts of the situation” and the police had apprehended a known criminal who fit the description but had the audacity to insist that he had not been involved.  By some fateful stroke of misfortune this unlucky man also had a pistol in his pocket with some empty shells in the chamber. When he read it, Stanley just shook his head at the charmed turn of events that had occurred to cover up the truth.  For now though, once he felt comfortable that they would not be back soon, he rushed back up to the room to check on Leo.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 39)

That was as far as the conversation went though as a few seconds later a gunshot rang out that sounded like it was a few streets to the west of the L&S shop.  The policeman came running out of the alleyway, followed closely by Lester.  The officer continued on but Leo grabbed his partner by the lapels of his jacket.

“What the hell was that?  What were you going to tell him?” Leo demanded.

Lester seemed unfazed with finding Leo in close proximity to his police encounter and shoved him off, stopping to fix his collar before replying.  “Not a damn thing Leo, not a damn thing.”

“I heard you back there,” Leo continued loudly, “I heard it all.”  

“You better quiet down friend; what will all your nice neighbors here think about you being so worked up about the police and me?”

“I still heard it,” Leo repeated but in a much lower voice, and then he dropped his voice even further to a whisper and finished with, “and it’s Lee, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah.  Don’t worry about the police.  He came up to me on the street right there in front of the mercantile.  I got him to take it into the alley in case he asked about your place.  You know, so no on else would hear?”

“You said you were going to tell him the whole story.”

“I tell a lot of stories.  It wasn’t even about you, but if it had been I wouldn’t have given him anything useful, really ok?”

“I still heard it.  I don’t trust you,” Leo replied.

“Yeah, well then keep on with that.  I’m almost out of here anyway.”  Lester leaned in close to Leo’s ear.  “I’ll expect you to cash me out tomorrow and then I’m gone,” he whispered and then patted Leo’s arm and walked away.  

Leo had already been thinking much the same thing about getting out of town soon and was planning to approach Stanley later in the week to tell him that things were finished.  Lester’s demand caused him to push that timeline up even if that meant he would have to leave before Christmas.  He headed over immediately to the clock repair shop.  When he arrived Stanley put down what he had been working on and came right up to Leo with a smile on his face.

“See, I’ve been busy,” he said excitedly while gesturing at a box on the table, “it’s my most productive day ever.  Look at how many pieces I have.”

Leo gave them a cursory look before replying.  “That’s nice Stanley, good work.  But there is,” 

“Aren’t you gonna look at all of them?  It’s really good work.  I thought you would be pleased.”  Stanley had a slightly dejected look on his face as he spoke, then he reached into the box and pulled out a ring.  “What about this one?  It should get a nice price, huh?”

“Look, I’ve got something to tell you so just listen, ok?”  

Over the course of the next few minutes Leo explained things to Stanley, telling him that not only was the business over but he would also be leaving town.  He had braced himself for an unpleasant experience, which had been heightened by his partner’s eager demeanor about the new pieces, but he was surprised by Stanley’s reaction.

“So, that’s it?  It’s just over right now, done?” 

“Yes Stan, sorry about the short notice but that’s how these things work out.”

“Thank the saints,” Stanley replied, sitting down with a look of great relief on his face.

“You’re happy about it?” Leo asked.

“Oh yes, yes indeed.  It was killing me on the inside.  I was terrified of getting caught.  I don’t know what that would’ve done to Dad.”

“Well, then good.  You sure seemed to be an eager worker a few minutes ago so I was worried you wouldn’t take it well.  Now I feel better.”

“I just figured I owed you, you know?  I said I would do this thing with you and so I did, I kept working at it.  I didn’t want to let you down.”

“Well, you didn’t.”

“What about that other guy?” Stanley asked.

“Don’t worry about him, he’ll be gone too and won’t be bothering you.v Get this stuff melted down and I’ll come by tomorrow and pay you out.  You sure you’re not going to miss all the ladies at the speakeasy?”

“Good lord no, that was killing me too.  I figured I owed it to myself, to have a good time since I was doing crime, ya know?  But just recently I’ve really gotten tired of it.”

“Well then, I’ll see ya tomorrow,” Leo  replied and walked out of the shop.

That night, while counting up the money to distribute to his partners Leo realized that he was going to be a little bit short on one of the payments.  He had spent more than he should have recently, mostly on getting his car fixed up so that it would be ready to use in his departure from Bakersfield.  He knew that Lester kept his own accounting and would know if he was shorted, and that Stanley did not, but Leo had a sense of honor about these kinds of things.  He was going to have to tell one of them that they would need to wait for some of their money.  Knowing that Lester might be angry but would keep it between the two of them, and fearing the unknown about who Stanley might talk to if he got angry about it, Leo decided to short pay Lester.  The next day things in that regard went much better than expected.

1926 Ford Tudor Sedan

1926 Ford Tudor Sedan

Leo had met Lester at the park and explained the situation to him.  His partner’s only reply had been, “I won’t forget you owe me fifty bucks friend,” before getting up and strolling away holding the envelope of money Leo had given him.  The meeting with Stanley also went well, with the two of them parting as friends and Stanley stating that he intended to stay in the clock repair business now that he had a little extra money.  Leo cautioned him to be careful how he spent it and then they shook hands before Leo left the shop.   Just after he left, a thought came to him which caused him to turn back immediately.  He had forgotten about the check his sister would be sending, one that would be delivered to the clock shop and thus to Stanley.  He could not imagine what his now former partner might do with that mail, but he could imagine a few situations that might end up in exposure for him, his aliases or the scheme they had been running, especially with Stanley’s lack of criminal sophistication.  Rather reluctantly he told Stanley that he planned to be in Pomona for awhile and would send information back to him on where to send any mail that arrived.  Later that day Leo did a detailed cleaning of the place he was living at and the L&S shop before discreetly packing up his car and heading out of town.  He believed that only he and Stanley were aware of his plans to go to Pomona.  As it turned out, Robert Lester also knew and would be waiting for him.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 36)

western white pine

western white pine

They walked in silence for the entire two blocks, a few passersby looking at them with idle curiosity,  and entered the park from the north side.  It was a mostly open space with well-kept grass and an occasional bench for visitors to sit on.  At the western edge was a small group of fairly young Western White Pine trees and this is where Lester motioned Leo to go, something he complied with reluctantly.  He did stop next to one of the benches, peeking back over his shoulder only to see his former partner give a small shake of his head.  By this time Leo had determined he may have made an error in pursuing a confrontation with Lester, who seemed simply intent on fulfilling his apparent desire to get some payback.  He pushed the boughs of the young pines aside as they entered the copse, not bothering to hold them for Lester who remained close behind him.  Finally they were in the middle of the trees, well screened from view even if someone had passed very close to the two men.  Leo turned around.

“Listen, I know you think you have a beef with me Rob, but I’m telling you that I never did anything against you.”

Lester grunted in reply, pulling the gun, a Remington Model 51, fully into view and pointing it at Leo.

model 51

model 51

“Come on, don’t shoot, ok?  Listen for a minute,” Leo pleaded.

“That’d be about how long you’ve got rat, I’ll give you about a minute of mercy.  Then I’m going to shoot you.”

“I read your letter, the one you sent to Minnesota for me.  It wasn’t until just a little while ago really, when I ended up back there this spring, but I read it and I’m telling you that what you think about me just ain’t true.”

“Of course you’d be saying that now, now that I’ve got you at the point of this gun, but I know what happened.”

“You think I ratted on you?” Leo asked.

“I know you did,” Lester replied while looking Leo squarely in the eyes.

“I read it and headed out here directly.  I needed to set the record straight with you.  Why would I come looking for you like that if what you think I did is true?  Why would I see you and then chase you down on the street?”

Lester did not reply immediately, a slightly confused look on his face which he then shook off.  “I don’t know or give a damn why, but I’ve been waiting all this time to square up with you and it’s gonna happen right now.  Your minute’s up.”

“I’m no damn rat!” Leo shouted back, “and I won’t go down with you thinking I am.  I never told nothing on you, not in Hawaii, not in prison and not since.  I even wrote you a letter from McNeil telling you I never talked but I’m guessing you never got that, did you?”

“I didn’t.” Lester replied tersely, the gun still pointed at Leo.

“Well, I’m telling you I wrote it, hell I thought you were a free man at the time, they never even told me you got pinched on that scam.  I was rung up so fast in Hawaii and shipped off to the rock,  I never knew.  I swear though Rob, I never said a damn word about you or our business.  Now shoot me if you must but at least tell me you know I ain’t no rat.”

Lester continued to hold the gun on Leo but removed his finger from the trigger, tapping it instead on the slide of the gun as he continued to look at his former partner.  There was still steel in his eyes but it was softening a little, and then he slowly lowered the weapon.

“I’ve been angry at you for a long time Leo, a long damn time.  When they arrested me back then they told me you had given up the scheme, told it all.  They had details too, ones I thought would’a had to have come from you.  They knew so much I just plead guilty.  But I guess maybe they just did a good investigation.  I really held it against you though, figured you for a rat.”

“I’m telling you I’m no rat,” Leo replied sharply, “and you better tell me you know it.”

“You still ain’t in no position to be demanding things even if I do believe you,” Lester replied as he gave the lowered gun a small shake to illustrate he still had it ready for action.

“I think you see it now, the truth of it, and I need to hear you know I’m not a rat.”  Leo’s voice was earnest and strong, pleading and demanding at the same time.   “I know you’ve thought it for a long time but I won’t take that disrespect when it ain’t warranted.  Like I said, shoot me if that’s still what you’re after, but say it first.”

Lester looked back thoughtfully, seeing the anxious desire to be validated in Leo’s eyes, the absolute need to have his reputation cleared even if he died afterward.  He let it linger there for a few extra moments, just to make a point that he could not really explain, and then a slight smile crossed his face and he holstered the gun.

“Hell Leo, I know now that you ain’t no rat.  You’re square with me.  I hope that makes you feel better.”

“I does, it certainly does,” Leo replied as he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.  “What are you doing out here in Bakersfield anyway?”

“Escaping from Portland,” Lester replied with a wide grin before continuing, “I’m parched old friend, let’s go find one of those wonderful speakeasy’s they have around here and we’ll get caught up.”

They walked over to the National Bar, a soft drink stand run by a often arrested man named Albert Martin, and enjoyed several illegal libations over the course of the next two hours.  There was still a little lingering tension between them but the conversation went well up until Leo gave a very vague overview of the scheme he was running with the Clockmaker.  He had not intended to say anything at all about it but Lester had been pressing him hard and eventually it slipped out somewhere in-between the liquor and an old sense of camaraderie.   He left out the name of his partner and their store but did tell how they were making the fake pieces of jewelry.   Lester made his disapproval of that scheme apparent, telling Leo it was a sure way to get caught because someone would figure it out, probably sooner rather than later, and they would know exactly where they had gotten the fake item.  Once one person made a fuss, another would and soon the police would be down upon Leo and there would not be much of a defense to offer.  That comment sparked the nagging nervous feeling Leo already had considering what had happened at the store with the police and the other recent complications; however, he kept his cool and told Lester that the scheme was running fine and would continue to do so as long as no one ratted anyone out.  He said that just to make sure Lester got the picture about keeping his mouth closed, kind of a way to shut the barn door after leaking out information he never intended to disclose anyway.  Lester nodded in reply but kept pressing him, telling Leo to give up that business and get back into a scheme that the two of them could run together.  They argued back and forth for awhile and eventually Leo said that although he was going to keep the jewelry business he would do some side jobs with Lester.  That seemed to make the man happy and the two of them parted with a promise to meet back up in a few days.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 25)

Leo was angry when she left and that anger slowly faded into a bit of regret as the evening wore on.  He really did not have much of a plan in his head beyond what he had some up with originally and was not sure he knew the area well enough to succeed without some local help.   By the time it was ten o’clock at night he had pretty much convinced himself that he was going to have to apologize to Veronica and hope he could patch things up with Jerry Salazar, a thought that left him unhappy.  A hard knock on his door sounded at ten forty-five p.m. and Leo hollered out for whoever it was to go away.  He was more than a bit surprised to hear Veronica answer back, and he opened the door to see her eyes blazing with anger.  She stormed past him into the room, slamming her hat down on the side table by the door.

“That god-damn Jerry Salazar!  After all the time I spent smooching up to that man, all the time listening to his fantastic stories covered all the while in a cloud from his foul breath, damn!”  She was a bit out of breath and stopped yelling, standing still and staring out the window as Leo closed the door and came around to her front.

“What happened?  You sure are stirred up, he must have done something quite bad?” Leo inquired.

She took a deep breath and asked for a glass of whiskey, which Leo had to admit he had none of, so she settled for water before continuing.

“You know, that man, you men, always so superior and looking down on women.  It really gets me angry, you know?”   She seemed to be waiting for a response but Leo felt that it was better to avoid offering any opinion.  After a few seconds she continuing with her rant.

“I get there, right on time damn it, and you know what the first thing he says to me is?  Where’s that fella at?  Like you were the one who he had been waiting for, hell he didn’t even know you a few days ago!  Well, I told him you weren’t coming and he almost shut the door in my face, can you believe that?  I stopped him and got myself in, I was really pushing him you know, really telling him that it wasn’t you that he should be worried about and that it was me who had done all the work in this town already.  I kept at it but he wasn’t having any of it, he just kept saying that he wanted a man involved in the operation if he was going to be part of it.  I tell you what…”  Her voice trailed off as she stood there, obviously contemplating either a dreadful end to Jerry Salazar or the inequity of the Olympia criminal community.  Or maybe it was both.  Either way Leo stayed silent which proved to not be what Veronica wanted.

“Well, what about it all?  What about it Leo?  You can’t possibly think that is fair, or you better not!  What do you think about it?”

Leo answered honestly.  “Well, probably going in there and being a bearcat wasn’t the best approach.”  That brought a  sharp slap to his face from Veronica, who then sat down abruptly, crossed her legs and said, “Now sit down here Leo and let’s plan a way to do some business without that man!”

And so over the next three hours the two of them sat there while Veronica filled in Leo on the various schemes she had already run successfully in Olympia, the layout of the local criminal enterprises in town, the general way that the police operated and other details that she had picked up during her time in the area.  By the time it was two o’clock in the morning they had decided to make use of some connections that Veronica had in Seattle to move stolen cars.  Veronica would scout out potential vehicles, especially the more exotic and rare kinds and give Leo the locations.  He would then steal them and they would drive them up to Seattle where Veronica would have arranged for the vehicles to be purchased by her connections, who would then sell them to unsuspecting buyers.  Veronica knew several policemen in Olympia who were open to accepting money in return for providing information on any potential investigations that might be opened up in regard to the thefts.  They also would be able to warn Leo and herself when things were getting too hot for them in town, which would hopefully allow them to escape before being arrested.  Leo thought it was bad luck to anticipate that this might happen but Veronica told him that eventually even the worst police department was going to figure out who’s stealing the cars.  They just needed to be ready to get our of town when it was time.

Scott's Grocery Olympia Washington - photo courtesy olympiahistory.org

Scott’s Grocery Olympia Washington – photo courtesy olympiahistory.org

Before they could get started on that plan; however, Leo needed to move out of the Governor and they needed to get some cash for living expenses.  The move was made two days later after Veronica had arranged a room for Leo at the Angelus, and for some quick cash they decided to hold up Scott’s Grocery.  This was one of the busiest and most popular stores in Olympia and Veronica happened to know that the owner only went to the bank to deposit the receipts on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.  She had been casing the operation for awhile prior to Leo’s arrival and this seemed like a good use of her acquired knowledge.  If they went in on Sunday afternoon, there should be a good amount of cash available to be taken in a robbery.  The crime went off smoothly, both of them covering their faces and holding the owner’s daughter at gunpoint until he opened the safe to reveal two hundred and eighteen dollars.  That, combined with the eleven dollars and twenty-one cents they took from the register, gave the two criminals a very good stash of money to live on while they started up their car theft business.  Things were looking up for the two of them, at least until two days after the robbery when Jerry Salazar showed up at Leo’s door.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 19)

Governor Hotel, later renamed the Mitchell Hotel, Olympia WA

Governor Hotel, later renamed the Mitchell Hotel, Olympia WA

Exactly how Leo traveled during his return to Washington, or how long it actually took, is unknown but by January 9th of 1926 he is listed as a guest of the Governor Hotel on Capitol Way.   The hotel, built in 1890 and well situated in the heart of the city, was a place you would probably not expect to find a man with a price on his head.   It was a clean, respectable establishment, definitely one of the more well-known lodging locations in town and a place to get yourself noticed.  It was this, the opportunity to be among the local and visiting bigwigs, that likely drew Leo to the Governor.  Along with his long burning desire to be more important socially he also had the rebuke from Pendergast, and the accompanying failure to succeed in Kansas City, hanging over his ego.  He had really thought he was going to end up being someone in that town.  So, even though he could barely afford it, Leo checked himself into a very nice double suite and started to think about ways to make some money.  He also was thinking about something else.

His initial interest in coming back to Olympia centered on finding Grace Melcher, his lone visitor from his McNeil Island days.  Although he never did disclose what they had discussed during that visit, Leo made little secret of the fact that he had found her to be a very interesting woman.  As he had once told Chaz Mayfield, she was, “A woman you could do business with and not have to worry about her getting soft on ya.”   How Leo knew that is another fact which is not known as only the one visit from her is recorded and no other records exist of their having communicated.  One thing he did not know then or when he arrived back in Olympia in 1926 was that she was well known in the area for her passing attachments to criminals, her many and varied small-time schemes and for her chain smoking of cigars.  Her name also was not Grace Melcher.

veronica stillman 1926

veronica stillman 1926

Veronica Stillman, who eventually went by a variety of names including the one Leo knew her under, had been born in Tuckerton, New Jersey in 1901 to a father named James Williamson who worked as a fisherman, and a mother named Anna.  Her parents were not married when she was born nor would they ever be, and James was in and out of their lives throughout Veronica’s childhood.  Her mother, a slim and attractive blonde with pale skin and light green eyes, made money by robbing men that she lured to their small apartment with promises of sex.  She always targeted men who were not locals, pulling a knife on them once their clothes were off. She would then relieve them of whatever money they had and threaten to report them to the local sheriff for trying to do improper things to her poor little girl if they made any kind of a fuss.  That was just one example of the kind of cons and scams Anna was running and she was never shy about invoking Veronica when it suited her purposes.  Being involved, even indirectly, in her mother’s schemes from a early age led to Veronica growing into a cynical and rather cold young woman.  She also picked up her mother’s penchant for petty crimes and minor felonies along the way,  running her own operations on the side by the time she had turned fourteen.  At sixteen, in a reenactment of her own mother’s life, she ran off with a local fisherman also named James, and was soon living in Gloucester, Massachusetts as Veronica Gibbs.  That marriage did not last long and when she was eighteen she is listed as Betty Cooper on an arrest report in Chicago.  She becomes lost after that, next turning up as a possible accomplice to Roy Gardner during his McNeil Island escape, and then, as we know, she met Leo Humbert.  By the time he started looking for her in 1926, Veronica was a severe looking twenty-five year old woman with short, dark brown hair and hard brown eyes that looked at the world with a calculated lack of passion.

Capitol Way by Governor Hotel

Capitol Way by Governor Hotel

Leo only knew that he was trying to find Grace, who had told him she was from Olympia, and he was determined to do so.  The day after checking into the Governor Hotel he started asking around while also surveying opportunities to make some money.  He thought about going to the hardware store where he had worked during his short stint in Olympia after his release from prison but then remembered how much he had hated the job and the man for whom he worked.  There was a drugstore, Crombie’s, and Harris’ Dry Goods near the hotel and he inquired at both but was politely turned away.  He received the same response at all the other places he went, always going in with a story of his experience in whatever job it was, and always being told they were not interested in hiring him.  It probably would have been discouraging to most people but not to Leo, who was really using the job inquires to case each place for whatever criminal opportunity it might present to him.  He also was making contacts along the way and making note of the police activity in the area.  After two days of this, and still with no luck finding Grace, Leo sat in Sylvester Park contemplating his next move.   As he sat there on a unseasonably warm fifty degree day and scribbled notes on a small pad of paper, Veronica Stillman stepped out of her apartment building, which was directly around the corner from the Governor Hotel.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 18)

“Christ,” Leo replied while running his hand through his hair, “I have to blouse outta here if that’s the way it is.  But still, I want to be sure.  Can you take a message for me to Pendergast?”

“Still stupid huh?  Don’t you get it, you need to leave Lee!”

“Will you?”
“Damn, if it helps get you outta here, sure.  What’s the message?”

“Hang on,” Leo answered, rummaging around in his pants pocket for a moment before producing a neatly folded up piece of paper.  “Here, take it and get an answer quick, ok?  I can’t be around here much longer if I’ve been burned.”

Red had a look in his eye as he replied, sympathy mixed with anger.  “You’ve been burned Lee, you’re just too stupid to see it.  Go pack your bag.”

Red walked off, back out the door, and Leo returned upstairs, opening a suitcase but not putting anything into it.  He really wanted this to work out, for his risk to have been worth it, for his rank as a real criminal to be on the rise.  Forty minutes later he answered Red’s knock at his door.

“Well?” Leo asked with a look of hope.

“You really don’t get it do you, Lee?   I almost feel sorry for you, but just almost.  Someone as stupid as you probably deserves to be dead by now.”

“Damn you, what’s the answer?”

“It’s simple.”  Red held up his left hand as he spoke, like he was making a proclamation.  “Mr. Pendergast thanks you for your work but due to present circumstances cannot provide you with any immediate assistance.  He will in the future, if an opportunity presents itself, and you are welcome back in Kansas City anytime.”

“Bushwa!” Leo shouted back, sitting down on the arm of his Crocker lounge and burying his head in his hands.  “Damn, damn, damn!  I can’t believe they would burn me like this, after what I did.  That wasn’t no easy caper to pull off and then they give me the icy mitt?  I just can’t believe it.”

“Listen Lee, you gotta leave now.  I know this ain’t easy to hear, but it’s true just like I said it was and you’re a dead man in KC right now.  So, pack up your things and leave and do it right now.”

“How am I supposed to get out of here?  They’ve got the place surrounded, they must have by now, I’m trapped in this damn building and burned by everyone!”

Red sighed and replied.  “Stop the antics Lee, it’s not a good look for you.  I can get you outta here, just get your things packed like I told you to do already.”

“You really think you can get me out?  Safely?”

“Yes, yes I can and I will, now please.”  Red motioned toward the open suitcase and Leo finally got up and walked over to his dresser.

It only took him fifteen minutes to pack up his life in Kansas City and then he rang up the manager of the Savoy and turned over his key and final payment.  It was not a pleasant moment for Leo as he had hoped to make his mark in the city and had been planning on staying around for the indefinite future.  He was not happy at all with the way he was being treated by Pendergast, he still feared for his life even with Red’s assurance, and he was once again feeling like he had missed a chance to gain some kind of evaluated standing in the criminal world.  The only thing he felt good about was his own performance and behavior, except of course the scared and frightened emotions that embarrassed him so much when they came to the surface.  Maybe that was the thing holding him back, he just needed to get tougher and things would start to look up.

For now, he grabbed his suitcase and another smaller valise and followed Red down into the basement of the Savoy.  Once down the stairs Red walked fifteen feet and pulled back a large piece of plywood that was leaned up against the wall.  That revealed a door, and when they stepped through it was into a narrow tunnel which was dark and smelled of stagnant water.  Flicking on a flashlight, Red explained that this was an old access tunnel which the workers had used while constructing the Eighth Street trolley tunnel, and that it led away from the hotel and directly into the main tunnel itself one block away.  Leo was amazed but also a little put off by the claustrophobic and damp  feeling of the narrow passage, wincing each time he bumped into one of the walls.  Finally though, they approached a dark, iron door which Red opened with a key, and Leo emerged into the Eighth Street tunnel.

Eight Street tunnel

Eight Street tunnel

“You better hurry,” Red said, already turning back to return to the Savoy, “that trolley is going to come past here in about fifteen minutes.  Go that way.”  Pointing to Leo’s left, he waved and finished with, “And stay away for a good while.  They have a warrant out for you now on that Shannon theft, it’s under Lee O’Dare, which I know isn’t your real name.  So maybe you shouldn’t use that one anymore.  Good luck.”  He was gone after that, just a shadow being led down the passageway  by the flickering beam of the flashlight.  Leo made it, clearing the tunnel before the trolley came, and then he quickly eased out of town, a plan already forming in his head to return to Washington.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 17)

So that day passed and then the next two and Leo spent the time mostly just sitting around his room and reading.  At least he read when he could, as a majority of his waking moments were spent pondering the situation he was in and just how much danger there might be for him.  His thinking went in a circle, over and over again; Shannon’s mad and wants him dead, some thug is just waiting for him to step outside the Savoy to collect the money on his head by putting him down, Pendergast would not leave him in such danger, he was safe after all, Shannon’s mad…  On and on it went.

Walnut Street Kansas City Missouri

Walnut Street Kansas City Missouri

Finally, after breakfast on Tuesday, January 29th, Leo had convinced himself that all was indeed well, he was in fact protected and could carry on with his normal routine.  There was not a shred of evidence to support that, other than the fact that he was still alive, but he chose to believe it anyway.  Stepping out the front door of the Savoy into an usually warm winter morning, Leo took off at a leisurely walk.  He was feeling good and happy, mostly preoccupied with how he could approach Tom Pendergast to capitalize on his new association with the man, and he whistled a little bit as he walked.  His destination, a nondescript brown building on Walnut Street, was a poorly kept secret of the prohibition era, a place you could pick up a bottle or two of homemade liquor.  After stopping in, Leo took the longer way back to the Savoy, enjoying the weather and his sense of better things to come.

He even stopped and sat for awhile in Central Place, reliving in memory his time spent there after the car theft, embarrassed now about his shaking hands and worry.  Those were thoughts he preferred not to linger on, so he started walking again, eventually passing between Humboldt and Central Schools.

He probably never would have noticed the man if it were not for the fact that just as he was passing the schools he bumped into a woman walking the other way on the road and almost dropped his package of liquor.  Saving it required him to spin partially around and that is when he saw the man.  Tall, maybe six foot four, dressed in a black overcoat with the collar turned up, cigarette smoke drifting out from under the rim of a wide fedora.  It was almost too theatrical for Leo to believe, and he might have shrugged it off except for the flinch.  Just as he turned around he saw the man flinch, not in an exaggerated way, just a little bit, enough to tip Leo off anyway.  The man did not want to be seen back there, walking so casually along the road about one hundred feet behind Leo.  Right in that moment he realized that his calculations about his own safety, and Pendergast’s protection, had likely been very wrong indeed.

Speeding up his pace, Leo began to take the most haphazard route possible, cutting over at every block, still hoping that maybe it was not true; Eleventh to Oak, Tenth to McGee and then finally left onto Ninth.  From there it was a straight run to the Savoy seven blocks away.  Looking back, it was still true.  The man had followed him through all of those streets and was still the same distance behind him.  His fears confirmed and all hope gone, Leo ditched the liquor package on a door stoop and took off at a run for the Savoy, embarrassed but too afraid to care.  Three blocks later, another similarly dressed but much shorter man with a mustache stepped out from behind a vehicle, put one hand inside his coat and watched silently as Leo approached.  Glancing quickly back, Leo saw that the other man had maintained his same distance and the two thugs had him neatly sandwiched between them.  Leo had reached full panic mode just as a police car turned down Ninth from behind the smaller man.  It gunned its engine just a little bit, enough to get the man’s attention, and after looking back he removed his hand from inside the coat and got back into his own vehicle.  A quick look from Leo confirmed that the taller man had also stopped his pursuit, a welcome fact but he kept running anyway.  Passing the police vehicle with a small wave, Leo did not stop until he was safely behind his own door, collapsed onto hands and knees and breathing heavily.

It took him awhile to recover, and even longer to summon up the courage to leave his room, but Leo had to get a message to Pendergast.  Uncertain if the police vehicle was happy coincidence or a sign of protection, he needed to know as soon as possible.  Since he was absolutely certain that the men would be waiting outside for him if he left, the only way he could think of was to try to get a message to Pendergast through Red.  It took six hours of waiting, sitting nervously behind a large plant in the Savoy’s lobby, but eventually Red came strolling through the door and Leo bounded over, pulling him around the corner so they could not be seen from the road.

“They almost got me today, right out on the street!  I can’t believe it, right out on the street, in the open!”

Red pulled Leo’s hand, which was grabbing a fistful of his overcoat, away and shook his head.  “I told you Lee, ya were stupid to think that wasn’t going to happen.  I warned you.”

“I know it, damn it! Still though, you know, the police came at just the right moment, it saved me I’m telling you.  You think,”

“No,” Red interrupted, “that wasn’t nothin’ like what you’re thinking right now.  Nobody was trying to save you, it was just your own stupid man’s dumb luck.”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 16)

crocker company lounge chair courtesy wisc.edu

Leo passed the remainder of that Christmas Day sleeping and sitting around in his favorite chair, a lounge from Crocker Company that had come with the place.  It was not a piece of furniture that he would have chosen himself, but it was well made and comfortable.  In the evening he made himself a simple ham sandwich for dinner and then went to sleep for the night.  Rising at six a.m. the next morning, he shuffled down to the restaurant for breakfast.  He was sitting there, just about to get his first sip of coffee, when he noticed that the place had become eerily silent.  The other patrons were all staring past Leo’s table, some of their mouths agape and most of them with slightly worried expressions on their faces.  A ball of nausea formed in Leo’s stomach as he slowly turned his head, expecting to see Shannon’s henchmen behind him.

tom pendergast

Instead, standing just a few steps away, was Tom Pendergast.   He was an imposing figure, stoutly built and with a round face that exuded a quiet confidence along with a kind of aloof warmth.  His eyes appeared large and peered out from beneath thick eyelids, their icy depth a stark contrast to the rest of his soft face.  The moniker of ‘Murdering Teddy Bear’ had been used more than once behind Pendergast’s back and Leo had to admit that it fit the man well.  He stood there, towering over the seated Leo, not saying a word but instead quietly surveying the clientele.  After several more long moments, he took two steps forward and placed his hand on Leo’s shoulder.

“How’s your breakfast?” Pendergast asked, his voice soft but raspy.

Leo’s hands were shaking a little and he grabbed the cup, still held aloft and about a quarter of the way to his mouth, with both hands to steady it.

“Just fine, just, just starting,’ Leo stammered in reply.

“Good, good.”  Pendergast patted Leo again on the shoulder before sitting down across the table from him.  Leo was lost for what to say and a minute or more passed in silence as he nervously sipped coffee while Pendergast peered at him intently.  Eventually Leo composed himself enough to speak.

“Did you like what,”

“Did you sleep well son?” Pendergast interrupted.

“Well, sure, yes, I guess, I did, yes I slept fine.”

“Good.  You deserved to,” Pendergast replied and then he stood up and walked off, back toward the entrance.  Quickly standing up to follow, wanting to hear some praise for his work, Leo took only one step before the large hand of an equally large man stopped him.

“Good work,” the man said and then slapped an envelope into Leo’s hand before finishing with, “now sit down and enjoy your breakfast.”

Ten seconds later the man,  Pendergast and three others who had been arranged near the doorway were gone and the clatter of people eating slowly returned to the restaurant.  As he sank into his seat Leo could feel eyes glancing over at him inquisitively.   Slowly opening the envelope, he found one hundred and fifty dollars inside, which brought a smile to his face.  Obviously, Pendergast had been impressed enough to give him a fifty dollar bonus on the job.  That had to be a good sign.  Spirits buoyed by the encounter, Leo ate a large, leisurely breakfast before retiring back to his room.  Around noon, while he was dozing off in the lounge chair, a hard knock sounded at his door.  Opening it, Leo was greeted by the somber face of Red Godding.

“Lee, you’ve got trouble,” he said, stepping into the room and then closing the door.

“You mean about the Shannon caper, I suppose?”

“Damn right about that.”

“Ya wanna know something?  Tom Pendergast came by this morning and personally thanked me for doing it, came right to my table at breakfast.”

Red replied only with a skeptical look.

“Well, he came to my table anyway, said I deserved a good night’s sleep, that’s the same coming from him I suppose.  And they paid me fifty extra clams so I must have made an impression, huh?”

“Look, I dunno why he would’a come to see you personally, it’s not really his thing.  But maybe he did.  The caper was his idea after all so maybe he thought it would be a good idea to let you know he appreciated it.  But that don’t mean nothin’ now.  You got a mark on your head from Shannon and you better leave town right now if you plan on living much longer.”

Leo blinked a few times in rapid succession, absorbing the idea that someone had actually put a price on his head.  That was frightening but he was not worried.

“Well, Pendergast’s gonna protect me, that’s what I figure.  I mean, I just did him a big favor.  He wouldn’t let anything happen to me after that, so why should I be afraid.”

“Good lord you are a stupid man Lee, a stupid, stupid man.  You don’t mean a thing to that man or anyone in his gang.  Maybe the real reason he came by was just to look at you before you died.  He had to know about that price on your head because Shannon put that mark out Christmas Day.  And maybe that fifty was just a way to say, get the hell out of town boy.”

Now Leo was not feeling so confident.  “Seriously?  They are just going to hang me out like that after what I did?”

“Without even thinking about it for a second,” Red replied.

“Bushwa!”

“Think what you like Lee, but leave here and do it today.”

Leo leaned back in his chair, slowly stroking his chin.  He still did not completely believe that Pendergast would abandon him, especially after coming to see him personally at breakfast.

“I’ll think about it,” he replied.

Red snorted in disgust, got up and walked out the door.

…to be continued