A Burning Cold Morning (Part 61)

Leo’s exit from Louisville ended up being just in time to avoid capture.  Once the police realized they had missed catching up to Leo in Minneapolis they had gone back over their notes.  Giving more attention to some of the ideas Olivia had given them, they started to call around to the specific cities she had mentioned her brother having lived in at some point.  By the afternoon of the sixteenth they had the Louisville police, who had connected the MBCA info with their Robert O’Hara file, out chasing down known associates of Leo’s.  That eventually led to a knock on Lucy’s door and her admission that the man they were seeking had been there recently, although she did put up a good verbal battle with the police before admitting to it.  She also did not disclose that she had mailed the letter.  Initially excited by the near miss, the MBCA quickly realized that they now were going to be involved in a game of trying to trace their fugitive all over the United States.  By the evening of the seventeenth no further information had surfaced and it was beginning to be thought that Leo might have slipped away.

Doanldson's Glass Block restaurant

Doanldson’s Glass Block restaurant

That thought prevailed for much of the next morning and at lunchtime the small task force that was involved in the case sat down to lunch at the Donaldson’s restaurant.  The elegant and airy eatery, located in the department store’s large Glass Block building, was a strange place to hold a law enforcement meeting.  The Minneapolis police chief commented on that fact as they all sat down and it was quickly explained by the Stearns County Attorney, James Quigley, that his wife was related to the Donaldson’s and had arranged the luncheon.  Also present were  Stearns County Sheriff B.E. Schoemer,  an unknown FBI agent assigned to assist the investigation and several other officers who had been involved in the search up to that point.  The group had just finished their soup and were discussing the lack of new leads when a Minneapolis police officer appeared and walked quickly to the table.  After a whispered conversation with the man the MPD chief turned to the group.

“Well gentleman, I think we just got the break we need.  Our man has written a letter to the Marlborough requesting his shoes back!”

After a few moments of disbelief at such an odd mistake being made by an experienced criminal, the men all left the restaurant and hastened to the hotel to recover the letter from the manager.  Thirty minutes later attorney Quigley and Sheriff Schomer were on their way to Chicago, arriving there by nightfall.  Several hours later they had arranged a stakeout with the cooperation of the city police and had the hotel staff informed of what was happening.  The two Minnesota men remained on duty the entire night, sitting in an unmarked vehicle provided to them. 

1929 Checked taxi cab

1929 Checked taxi cab

There was of course no way of knowing just what Leo meant when he wrote he would be “arriving soon”, or even if the whole thing was some kind of a joke he was playing on the police.  It certainly made no sense to anyone in law enforcement that a criminal would be interested in getting back a pair of shoes, especially given the risk it involved.  Both men had started to think that was more and more of a possibility as the afternoon dragged on, with each of them swapping out attempts to take a nap in the uncomfortable vehicle seats.  At three p.m. Quigley walked over to a nearby diner and purchased a couple of sandwiches.  He was on his way back to the vehicle when he saw a Checker taxi cab pull up to the Drake.  Keeping his eye on it as he slid back into the stakeout vehicle, he watched the passenger emerge from the cab.  The man was the correct height and build but had a fedora pulled low over his face and kept his head down as he strode up to the hotel door.  Nudging the sheriff, Quigley pointed the man out and the two of them watched as he disappeared inside the building carrying a small brown valise and a briefcase.  At this point the rest of their plan played out well.

Leo would of course have to identify himself as Leo Humford, as that was the name he had used at the Marlborough and which they would have used to forward his forgotten belongings.   Once he did that, the Chicago police had arranged for the hotel to direct him to a room down the hall where he was told parcels were kept until picked up.  Although he headed that way a little reluctantly, he did walk to the room.  After stepping inside he was confronted by a police detective who held him while the hotel staff summoned the two Steans County officials from their vehicle.  

After being handed over to Sheriff Schomer Leo was led into a small room near the lobby of the hotel where he was briefly questioned.  That interview began with Quigley dramatically producing the brogues and placing them on the table in front of Leo.

“I believe you wanted these back?” he said. 

Leo scoffed before replying.  “I guess I did, I like nice clothes and shoes.  Is that a crime?”

“Hardly, but robbing banks is,” the sheriff replied.  

“I didn’t rob no bank,” Leo snapped back.

“You mind if I look through your bag?” the sheriff asked.

“You won’t find nothing in there, at least nothing you’re looking for anyway.  It’s just clothes and letters.  Oh, and a few pictures that might offend your lawful sensibilities. But go ahead, I don’t give a damn.”

The small bag did in fact include a nice suit and a few personal effects along with a large numbers of letters to and from various women and the risqué pictures Leo had mentioned.  As Schomer shuffled through the letters Leo spoke up.

“Whatever happens, don’t let them get out, ok?  You might ruin a lot of pretty ladies lives with what’s written in there.”  The sheriff raised an eyebrow at that but kept looking through the items.  

He did not find much else as, other than the content of the valise, Leo had four hundred dollars, a watch and some newspapers stuffed into his briefcase.  When the inspection of his belongings was done the sheriff informed him that he had been identified as the man who robbed the Meier Grove bank and that he would be seeking Leo’s extradition back to Minnesota. 

“Ya don’t need to bother with that, I’ll waive it,” Leo replied, “I didn’t do nothing and the sooner we get this over with the better.” 

One hour later the two men from Stearns County and their prisoner were on the train back to St. Cloud.  As they pulled out of Union Station attorney Quigley had a question for Leo.

“Whatever possessed you to write that letter anyway?  I mean, a pair of shoes and some clothes?  Surely they cannot be that important and you could easily get others.  Why risk being captured over that?”

It was then that Leo realized that Otto had stolen the eight hundred dollars.  

Brainerd Daily Dispatch 19 Sept 1929

Brainerd Daily Dispatch 19 Sept 1929

…to be continued

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