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

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 15)

The night seemed to become even more frigid as he crouched among those trees, the cold washing quickly over his sweaty skin and forming a strange layer of frosty ice on his face and hands.  The shivers brought on by that quick freeze ricochet all over his body while he kept his eyes focused keenly out toward the road.  A car passed, and several minutes later another, and then fifteen minutes later they both came back, turning this time into the cemetery.  The vehicles patrolled the grounds and twice they stopped, men stepping out with flashlights and sweeping the beams over the dark recesses between the trees.  The searchers and their lights never came closer than fifty feet from Leo though, and his location and that of the Renault remained undiscovered.  After twenty-five minutes of driving around the cemetery the men parked both cars about one hundred feet away from the copse of trees and all got out to smoke cigarettes.  Complaining loudly about the cold, it also became evident that these men were in fact looking for whomever had stolen the Renault.  One large, bushy looking man brandished a shotgun as he explained what needed to be done to the culprit while the others worried about the consequences of returning to “the big boss” with empty hands.  Finally the men climbed back into their vehicles and headed off, splitting up as they exited the cemetery.

Leo had to admit that he was  very afraid at this point, the shotgun and leisurely description of what it was to be used for disquieting him and making his stomach uneasy.  Although he was already incredibly cold and certain he was going to end up with some pretty severe frostbite, Leo resolved to stay in the cemetery until it was time to stage the car on Christmas morning.  Hurrying back to the Renault with a faint hope in his head, he was rewarded when he discovered a blanket shoved under the passenger seat.  It was dark grey and made of heavy wool, large enough to cover him completely and keep him both hidden and warm.  Although he would have preferred the protection from the wind offered by the vehicle, Leo also did not want to be caught sleeping inside of it on the off-chance that these men came back and checked the cemetery again.  Settling down again into the trees, he wrapped himself up, tucked the edges of the blanket under his body and tried to think about being warm.

After about twenty minutes things got better, his body heat and breath trapped by the thick wool and creating a nice little pocket of comfort.  Eventually Leo drifted off a little bit although he was not warm enough to really fall asleep. He was in and out after that and constantly restless; warm and cold, worried and elated, tired and alert.  Five hours of this was all he could take and so, at five thirty a.m. on Christmas morning 1925, Leo stood up, collected his packages and walked back to the Renault.

It was not light yet although the eastern sky had just those first touches of the approaching sun in it, cold yellow hints of light flashing against the clouds.  He was not sure if the men had stopped looking, or if more had joined in as the night went on.  He did not know if the police were maybe involved by now, or if his bell ringer had squealed on him to someone in the Shannon gang.  What Leo did know was that if all of his risk, suffering and fright was going to be worth anything at all to him, he needed to finish the job.  Determined, he drove toward the river.

Luck was with him again as he encountered no one, not even a pedestrian on their way to an early holiday breakfast or a late returning night worker.  He drove all the way to Ninth Street and then turned left toward the railroad tracks.  He did see a few people then, all of them walking with their heads down against the crisp morning breeze.  No one seemed to be paying attention to him though, so Leo stopping hiding his face under a turned up coat lapel and focused instead on the end of his journey which was just six blocks ahead.

original union depot Kansas City

original Union Depot Kansas City

The old Union Train Depot had fallen into some disrepair since it was abandoned in 1914 in favor of the new Union Station on 25th and Grand.  That place had all of the attention these days, with its ninety-five foot ceilings and huge chandeliers.  The old depot though had historical significance to Kansas City and was especially important to the Rabbits.  Some of their businesses, both legal and illegal, were still run out of the broken down building and it was recognized as the gateway to the main Rabbit controlled areas down by the stock yards and freight houses.  It was for that reason it had been chosen by Leo as the place to leave Joe Shannon’s Renault.  Pulling up diagonally across from the Depot, so that the vehicle would block traffic on Lincoln, Bluff and Ninth Street all at the same time, he hopped out and quickly set up his props.

The sign he propped up against the windshield which faced directly into the traffic on Lincoln.  He then draped one of the dead rabbits over the front grill, it’s cold, furry legs reaching toward the silver Renault logo on the hood.  The other he laid on top of the fender of the driver’s side rear wheel, splaying its hind legs open and twisting the head so it seemed to be on backwards.  The sky was getting lighter now and a glance down Ninth confirmed that a few pedestrians were headed this way although it would be awhile before they arrived to view his work.  Taking a quick glance inside the vehicle to ensure he had left nothing behind, Leo allowed himself both a  smile and small shout of triumph before he strode quickly away down Lincoln.

Thirty minutes later he was sitting at the table of the Savoy’s restaurant and ordering Christmas breakfast.  As he ate that meal and then sat around reading the newspaper he did not quite comprehend the serious nature of his caper.  He saw it mostly as a prank meant to rub a little bit of dirt in the Rabbit’s eyes and embarrass their leader.  Pendergast knew in advance that it would be taken much more seriously than that by Shannon, which is exactly what happened.  As Leo relaxed and sipped coffee, an enraged Shannon, who had been forced to miss the annual Christmas breakfast he hosted for his constituents, was already well on his way to figuring out exactly who was responsible for insulting him.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 12)

Manny Barton was not exactly an appealing example of the human species.  At five foot four and two hundred eighty pounds, little of which was muscle, it was often difficult for people to imagine him stealthily creeping around businesses at night to break open safes.  He also wore clothes that were too big even on his large frame, had a mess of gnarled and habitually unwashed brown hair, and moved at what was described as the “breakneck pace of a lame snail,” by his brother.  Behind his back people called him slovenly although to his face they never used anything other than his name or its shortened form of Man.  He might not catch you quickly if you insulted him, but he would catch you, and then his large, fat hands would wrap around your neck and slowly crush your windpipe while he blew his garlic breath into your face.  That had happened to at least six people in the last few years, all of whom could still vouch for his manner of vengeance because Manny always stoped before he actually killed you.  He was strictly a thief and a robber after all, as his brother would tell everyone who asked about it.

Mickey Barton was a big man also, but in the impressive way, the opposite of his brother.  He weighed about two hundred and eighty also but was six foot six, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested.  He also was a murderer in addition to being a thief and robber, although Mickey did not have much patience for strangling people.  He just walked up and shot you if he thought you needed to be dead.  Both of them always dressed in black suits, Mickey’s well tailored and Manny’s oversized and hanging poorly over his various bulges.  Mickey answered the door to Leo’s knock.

“Got a few minutes to help me?” Leo asked, holding up the lock.

Mickey raised an eyebrow and replied in his usual clipped tone.  “Wh’t’s it for? Not the Shann’n job I hope?”

“It is,” Leo replied.  “I just need to understand how to get a lock like this open.”

By now Manny had walked up to the open door.  “Why?”

“Shut up Man, we don’t want to know.  We don’t want n’thing to do with that job.  It too dangerous.”

“I don’t want your help, well not directly anyway, just to show me how to open this lock.  That’s it.” Leo replied.

“What’s that lock got to do with it?” Manny asked, his small grey eyes peeking out of fat cheeks.

“Man, I told you,”

“It won’t hurt to hear what he’s up to brother, it don’t mean we’re gettin’ involved,” Manny interrupted.

Mickey scowled back at Manny and replied.  “It most certainly will mean that we are inv’lved.  Just knowing anything about that job is g’ing to be really bad for people’s health in a few days.”

“Come on in Lee, come on, I’ll talk to you about it.  Mickey can go hide for awhile so he isn’t privy to any of it.  Make himself feel better.”  Pulling on Leo’s hand to get him into the room, Manny waved his brother toward the bedroom door.  “Go hide Mick, go hide.”

Over the next two hours, interrupted only once by Mickey coming out to get a glass of milk, Manny taught Leo how to get the particular model of Sargent padlock open that Leo had bought with him.  The trick, as explained by Manny, was to be approach the picking of the lock very slowly and carefully, gently even.  Leo needed to “feel the delicate insides of the beast move” as Manny put it and to “understand that it is all just a matter of patience.”  The Barton’s had many different kinds of locks, all kept inside of a worn wooden chest, some of them cut open so Leo could examine exactly what he needed to do to get a lock to open up for him.  Once he had that down, Manny blindfolded him to simulate the darkness he would be working in, and eventually Leo could open the lock easily even with that handicap.  As he left, they shook hands with Manny cautioning him more loudly than necessary to “never mention that you were here to anyone,” a wry smile on his face as he closed the door.  As he walked away down the hallway he could already hear the brother’s starting to argue.

Leo sat around his place the rest of that day, going over as much of his plan as he could until he was sure that he knew every element of it and had planned for every possible contingency.  He drew a map of the route he planned to take with the car and then went out and walked that route, making sure that there was nothing going on in the streets that could cause an issue.  Once he was back at his place, Leo practiced the lock picking for another hour and then tried to figure out a way of getting the car out of its storage shed quietly.  He knew that starting it up was going to cause a problem as it would be nighttime and quiet, the men inside the Shannon house sure to hear the Renault engine firing up.  Letting it coast out of the shed in neutral was also out of the question as the roadway sloped down toward the Shannon property, meaning gravity would work against the weight of the car.  The vehicle was also much too heavy for one man to push along by himself.  So, with the certainty that he was going to have to start the car to get it out of the garage, Leo realized he would need to create some kind of a distraction.  He decided to take one more walk around the area and see what he could come up with as a plan.

Church Kansas City Missouri 1925i

Church Kansas City Missouri 1925

Joe Shannon lived on the southern edge of Kansas City, right off of Summit Street and near the Orphan’s House he had helped to build.  It was a quieter area of the town, removed from the bustle of downtown and also from the noise of the riverside docks and depots that were Shannon’s center of power.  He sometimes felt exposed out in the Summit Street area but his bodyguards made him feel safe enough and he greatly enjoyed the peace and quiet.  Leo could not come up with anything as he strolled along those tranquil streets, at least not until he walked past the Episcopal Church that was only blocks from the Shannon house.  That church had a bell tower and bell towers make noise.  And that solved Leo’s dilemma.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 11)

Chaz spat on the floor and muttered, “told you so,” while Mickey & Manny, the safe-cracking Barton twins, whistled and swore.  Leo just stared back at Red, who was still rubbing his hands together, which seemed to indicate that the surprises were not over.  Leo asked it again.

“And?”

“That’s not the end of it? How can it get worse?” Chaz asked.

“Well, it must be much worse because Red here sure ain’t done spilling it.  He’s sweating like a pig,” Leo responded while still staring at Godding.

“So, so, well, the rest of it,” Red stuttered a little which was unusual for him, “it, it, well you have to take it on Christmas Day and leave it on the corner of 9th & Jefferson.”  Red still was not done and Leo did not bother asking again.  He just waited and finally the last part of the job was revealed.

“It, it, needs to have a sign on it,  you know, making fun of the Rabbits.”  Little Red shrugged his big shoulders and then continued.  “They didn’t tell me what it was supposed to say, it just needs to be, well, you know, mocking I guess.”  Red stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned away with a final, “That’s all of it.”  He then slumped into a chair and pulled a flask from the inside of his coat, taking a long pull before closing his eyes and leaning back into the soft leather.

Chaz summed up what the rest of them were thinking.  “Leo, you would be an idiot to take this job.  There ain’t nothing good that can come from taking Joe Shannon’s car and then making fun of him right in the middle of his ward.  That corner is right by the stockyards and it’s Rabbit central.”

Mickey and Manny were nodding vigorously and talking to each other about how stupid it would be to get involved.  Leo seemed to have another opinion.

“One thing it would do for sure though is get me in good with Pendergast.  He’d owe me.”

“He’s already paying you and you don’t mean nothing to him.  Your just a small-time sucker getting hired out to take the fall,” Chaz replied, “stay away from it Leo.”

“Can you get me the money up front Red?”

Godding cracked one eye open from the chair.  “You really want this job?”

“I’ll do it,” Leo replied, “just get me that money.”

Red had a smile on his face now, his mission accomplished.  “I’ll go see about it right away.”

Two days later there was a knock at Leo’s apartment.  As he opened the door, Red handed him fifty dollars, stating that there was just no way that he could get any more of it before the job was done.  He also mentioned that there better not be any backing out of the job now or Mr. Pendergast would take such an insult very personally.  Leo nodded in reply and closed the door.  He went back to the small table that was tucked under the window that faced Ninth Street where he had been working on his plan.  There were only thirteen days to go until Christmas and Leo still had a few things that needed to be done.

One of these was to make sure he was familiar with the vehicle he was supposed to steal.  Although Leo was a proficient driver, he had never driven any vehicle made by Renault.  There were enough variations and idiosyncrasies among the wide variety of cars in the 1920’s that one could never be sure exactly how to operate a particular version or model.  As far as Leo could tell from asking around, there was exactly one Renault NN in Kansas City, namely the one he was supposed to steal. He doubted that he could manage to convince Joe Shannon to let him take it out for a drive so he had to find another one somewhere close.  Eventually he did, with several of them available in Independence, and he marked that item off his planning list on the eighteenth of December.  He did find out that the vehicle was more prone than some others to not starting right away, and often needing to be hand-cranked, all of which of course worried him.  Although he had not shown it to any of the Savoy Seven, he was indeed very nervous about this particular job.  He knew it was risky but he had a strong desire to get in good with the main Kansas City crime scene and felt that this was his ticket to accomplish that goal.

The last item that he needed to complete was to scout out the locations from which he might have to steal the Renault.  After a couple  days of observing Joe Shannon around town Leo realized how difficult this job might become.  Everywhere that the Rabbit’s leader went, he always had a group of three to four bodyguards with him and one of them was always left standing by the car.  This even happened when the group would eat, with the man left on guard having to dine from a plate delivered to the vehicle by the restaurant staff.  Then Leo hit upon the idea of taking the car from wherever it was parked at night, as he doubted it was guarded at those times.

He turned out to be correct about that; however, the location of the Renault’s night storage was less than ideal, as it was in a small building directly behind Shannon’s house.  That building, from what Leo observed over two nights of nocturnal spying, also had the large, swinging access door bolted and locked shut every night.  This was going to be a very difficult caper indeed, but one that he was going to have to pull off, both for his own safety and his future.  The main problems were how to get past the locked door, and then how to get the vehicle out of the building without alerting Shannon’s bodyguards, who all slept in the same house as their leader.

Sargent padlock

Sargent padlock

It was time to get a little bit of advice and for the first part he knew exactly where to go.  Manny and Mickey Barton, members of the Savoy Seven, some of the best known and most successful safe-crackers in Missouri, were also very skilled with any kind of locking device.  Leo strolled past Shannon’s house one day, noted the kind of lock used and then went and purchased one at the hardware store.  Twenty minutes later, and with only two days to go until Christmas,  he knocked on the door of the Barton’s second floor room at the Savoy.

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 10)

Joe Shannon

Joe Shannon

Joe Shannon was another political boss in Kansas City, although his influence was on the decline in 1925.   By that time Tom Pendergast had consolidated his power and held influence over several judges in the area and large portions of the city government.  Shannon’s faction, known as the Rabbits to Pendergast’s Goats, held little influence inside the city with the exception of several members of the police force and their original constituency along the Missouri and Kansas River.  Although at this time neither faction controlled the police completely,  there were a few members of it who owed much of their livelihood to the Rabbits and were prepared to make good on that allegiance.

Savoy Hotel Kansas City MO

Savoy Hotel Kansas City MO

Leo’s undoing in Kansas City began with a simple discussion over coffee one morning, just as so many of the days had started for the Savoy Seven, as Leo’s group of criminal buddies had taken to calling themselves.  Ben ‘Little Red’ Godding, a walking contradiction of a man at six foot three and with jet black hair, mentioned there was a car theft job he could not take due to having to head to Omaha to look after an ailing sister.  Everyone passed on picking this job up expect Leo, who took it but noticed that the others were giving him odd looks.

“What?” Leo asked, shrugging up his pointy shoulders and waving a hand at them.  “It’s a simple job and I could use the money.”

“I think Red’s playing you Lee, all of us probably,  and he oughta be ashamed on himself,” replied Bill Fallon who also cast a scornful look at Godding.

“I’m just offering it out there and he took it.  Not my fault,” Godding snapped back.

“What’s the big deal?” Leo asked.  “What’s going on?”

“You missed it last week but Red here made a step up in the world, its almost surprising that he’s even down here still talking to us polecats.”

“Shut up Bill.”

“You denying you got picked up by the Goats?”

“I, well no, I’m not, but that don’t have nothing to do with us here.”

“Sure it does, and besides, if you’re with the Goats now I’m sure it ain’t jake with them to go passing off your work to us cats.  So, that leads to the main question of why you’re down here putting it out?”

Red Godding shuffled his feet a few times, his cheeks blushing red while his brown eyes blinked much more rapidly than usual.  The group was silent, waiting, and eventually he rubbed a big, calloused hand across his face and sighed.

“Listen fellas, they just asked me to take the job and put it out for someone to do, someone from outside the Goats ya know?”

“Oh, so you sister isn’t sick then?  You sure tried to sell us that angle a second ago.  Looks like most of what you picked up from them Goats was how to lie to your friends.”

“No, she ain’t sick, and I’m sorry about all that.  I just, well, I don’t know how to do all this stuff now, stuff they want me to do.  It’s more complicated than I thought it would be.”

“So, why did you go to them Red?” Leo asked.

“I just thought it would be better, more money, more chances to make something of myself.  Instead,” and here paused to look up at the ceiling, “well, they just tell me to do stuff and get mad when I mess it up.”

“So, you came to us because we’re easy and you could get your mission done and not get smacked around by your new bosses ? Or did you think you would come down here and hand out some charity?” Bill snapped back.

“I figured that was the right thing to do after all, you know, because of our relationship.”

“We ain’t got no relationship now that you’re in the Goats, so spare us the pity.”  Bill lit up a cigar and walked away after that, muttering under his breath on the way out the door.  Red shrugged at the rest of the group.

“What’s the job?” Leo asked.

“Like I said, just stealing a car, that’s it.  And it pays really good.”

“Like how good?”

“A hundred.”

Leo and the remaining members of the Seven all blinked collectively at that answer, a large amount for a simple car theft.  Then Chaz Mayfield spoke up in his nasally, Iowa-bred voice.

“I’ll take that action.”

“I already said I would take it,” Leo replied, “so you’re out of the game.”

“Damn,” Chaz whispered back, “I bet it’s some wooden nickel job.”

Leo raised an eyebrow at Red while taking his glasses off to polish them.  Silence filled the room for several long moments and then Leo put his glasses back on and stared at Red.

“Well?”

Red finally spoke but seemed to know that what he was about to say was not going to make him any friends.

“Well, it’s a unique car, a Renault NN, that should make it interesting huh?”

1925 Renault CV NN

1925 Renault CV NN

Everyone seemed to understand that Red was stalling.

“Hey, ain’t that, oh damn, you can’t be serious,” Chaz’s voice tailed off and Red hung his head a little bit.

“And?” Leo asked, an irritated edge to his voice.

Red massaged his hands a few times and answered to the floor.

“It’s Joe Shannon’s car.”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 9)

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

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

Pacific House Hotel Kansas City MO

Pacific House Hotel Kansas City MO

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

Tom Pendergast courtesy vcu.edu

Tom Pendergast courtesy vcu.edu

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

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

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

…to be continued