A Burning Cold Morning (Part 51)

It took another eight days of waiting but, with Lester finally feeling better and having traveled to the Sleepy Hollow resort area to make the call, the police had the opportunity to put their plan into action.

“Barnett.”  The detective, tall and handsome with thick black hair and sharply cut features, answered the desk phone in his usual clipped manner.

“I’m calling about the investigation into Robert Lester,” Leo stated, “I need to know if he has been found.”

Detective Barnett, who was not assigned to the case but was well aware of the plan, waved at his colleague Dan Robbins.  

“Go ahead, what was that again?” he asked, stalling for a little time.

“You know what I asked,” Leo snapped back, “do you have Lester in custody?”

“Robbins here, this is Leo, isn’t it?” the other detective asked, picking up the second extension.

“Yes, of course, now answer me!”

“Ok, I had to see if it was you.  We try not to give this information out to everyone, you know? It’s been awhile since we heard from you Leo.  I had started to wonder if you still cared about this case.”

“Of course I do, the man tried to kill me!” Leo replied angrily.  “Now, tell me what is going on.”

  “Ok, settle down a bit.  We did finally apprehend him two days ago.”

“Two days? Why wasn’t I notified?” Leo responded angrily.

“Well, I’m sure we would have if we knew where you were.  I’ll come talk to you now though.  Where are you?”

Leo had realized his mistake as soon as he spoke.  “Never mind that,” he said, “so you got him then? That’s good.  Now shoot him and throw the body in a shallow grave.”

Robbins chuckled before replying, “You know that’s not how this goes Leo.  We need you to come in though and give us another statement.  It’ll help get this wrapped up quickly just like you want it.”

“I already gave you a statement, use that.  Are you sure you have him?” Leo asked warily.  “He’s in jail, right in Pomona?”

“Yes,” Robbins replied.

“Let me talk to him.  I want to talk to him.”

“Again, that’s not how this works.” 

“You need to take care of him, get him locked up for good.  He tried to murder me.”  Leo’s voice was rising as he spoke.  “Get him locked up for a good long time.”

“Yes, that’s what we are trying to do, “ Robbins replied.  “Now listen, because like I said, you can help us get this wrapped up.  We need you to come down here.  If you won’t come today then you need to be at the courthouse for sure on Monday, next Monday the first, at nine in the morning, ok?  He’ll be there for arraignment and we may need you to provide some testimony so he doesn’t end up back on the street.”

“Well, I mean, I don’t know, what if you’re just foolin’ me?  Is this some kind of a set up?  Why can’t you use the statement I already gave you?”

“Leo, we have him and if you want him in jail so damn bad you need to be there, ok?”

“Prove to me you have him.  Can I see the, damn, forget that.  How do I know you have him?”

“We’ve been working on this case Leo, for you, to get justice for you.  You’ve called before and we never said we had him, did we?  If we were trying to trick you we would have tried that already.  We just arrested him and now you need to come in and help us convict him.  You need to be there, you understand?”

“Well, ok,” Leo responded in a half-hearted way before slowly hanging up the phone.  

August first was just a few days away and Leo thought about what to do during his entire ride back to Pomona.  By that night he had managed to give himself quite a severe headache from the constant worrying and collapsed into bed hoping to put it out of his mind.  That did not happen and he was back up again at two a.m., pacing his room.  Leo was consumed by the conflict between making sure Lester received full punishment and his fear that the entire thing was a set up.  He wished he had better contacts in Pomona, ones he could check to see if there was a record of Lester’s arrest, but he did not and his need to lay low made any real inquires difficult anyway.  He spent the next two days that way and it was ten p.m. on Sunday when he found himself sitting in his easy chair, exhausted and staring up at the ceiling.  The streets were mostly quiet with the faint sound of a dog barking carrying into his room along with the hum of a radio playing in another part of the boarding house.  Leo was almost there, right on the edge of complete exhaustion, finally about to fall asleep, when a devastating fact occurred to him.  He realized that his call from the Kress building had likely been traced somehow, that the police knew he was nearby and had set up a trap for him.  They did not have Lester after all but were sure to get him if he showed up at the courthouse on Monday.

Energized completely now despite his lack of sleep Leo packed up a valise with his cash and the few items he had purchased since arriving in Pomona and waited impatiently for morning.  Once it arrived, he flagged down a passing oil truck and hitched a ride out of town.

San Bernardino Sun article on Humbert and Lester court appearance

San Bernardino Sun article on Humbert and Lester court appearance

Leo ended up being only partially correct.  The police did in fact have Lester, who had been arrested on July 27th in northern California and brought back to Pomona, and they did bring him to the courthouse on Monday, August 1, 1927.  His arrest had been a fortuitous addition to their plan as it initially was just to lie to Leo and see if they could get him to come in if he thought they had arrested the person who tried to kill him.  Lester had other issues that day in addition to the potential attempted murder charges involving Leo, as the Portland police also came down to serve a warrant on him.  There was also the plan to arrest Leo, both by the Pomona and Los Angeles police, who had sent officers to arrest him for the gas station robbery.  Ultimately though, Lester ended up back in jail and facing extradition to Oregon, while Leo escaped into the unknown thanks to his last minute realization.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 1)

humbert at time of death

Humbert at time of death

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

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

Leo Humbert picture

Leo Humbert

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

humbert and williams wanted poster

Humbert and Williams wanted poster

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

humbert at parole 1943

Humbert at parole 1943

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

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

10/22/67

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

…to be continued