Tag Archives: Leo Humbert
A Burning Cold Morning (Part 65)
“Funny cat you are, Leo, very funny,” Williams replied.
“I’m not foolin’ you. We need to get some chewing gum before we go much further. We’ll be cutting through them metal bars and that gum is the way to make them much more quiet.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“We chew it up, ok, get it soft. Then, we put it on the saw blades and that squeaky whine you get when cutting through metal, well, it goes away. Without that gum those guards are going to hear us.”
“Bushwa!” Williams snapped back at Leo.
“You’re gonna have to trust me on this, ok? I’m telling you that’s what we need to do.”
Williams did not exactly believe Leo but he did agree to go along with the plan. That night the only action they took was to both go through the hole and scout out the particulars of the office and window they would be using to escape. The next day they both purchased several packs of gum from the small commissary the jail had available for prisoners and that night they got to work on the bars. Williams was surprised when Leo’s gum trick actually worked, making the saws silent except for a dull scraping sound which neither of them believed could be heard even directly below the second-story window. The process of replacing the gum was tedious at times but certainly well worth the effort.
Over the next seven nights the two men worked diligently on their project, taking turns cutting almost completely through each of the bars except for one that they intended to leave intact. They would use this bar as an anchor to which they planned to fasten some tied together blankets as an aid in climbing down the wall. On the morning of the sixth an inmate, newly incarcerated the day before, threatened to expose the plot but was quickly silenced after a short discussion with Big Black Terry. During the night of October tenth Leo and Williams completed all the preparatory work possible, leaving only the last minute effort of fully cutting through each of the bars and achieving their goal of escaping. They did not tell any of the inmates about their success and slept more than usual during the eleventh so they would be ready to go that night and be alert as possible. That evening, awake to get the meager dinner the jail provided, they sat together eating and talking in a corner.
“We gotta go tonight, we can’t risk no delay,” Williams whispered.
“Yeah, it’s tonight. We’ll be running free by the time the sun comes up,” Leo replied, a grin on this face as he though about freedom.
“I’ll start telling the others now, ok, so they’re ready to go. We waited long enough today.”
Leo just held up his hand in reply and stared across the cell area, not speaking or eating. That dragged on for several minutes after which Williams thought he knew what his partner was considering.
“You can’t go back on the deal, you can’t I’m tellin’ ya. That’s what you’re thinking, ain’t it? You’re thinkin’ a slipping out tonight and leaving these guys behind?”
Leo did not speak but turned to look at Williams. He blinked slowly several times, his piercing blue eyes seeming to look beyond his partner.
“You can’t do it, we made a promise, we gotta make good, ok?” Williams reiterated, speaking just loud enough to get curious looks from several of the prisoners. Finally Leo shook his head.
“Of course, of course, we’ll make good on it. You tell Terry and he’ll set it up with the others. Get a few blankets together while you’re at it.” Leo then went back to eating after which he laid down and closed his eyes.
Immediately after the eleven-thirty head count the two men stood up and made their way to the hole, where Terry had stationed himself earlier in the evening. Before stepping aside he leaned in and whispered to Leo.
“I’ll be waitin’ for your sign’l, understand? I’m right here, yo’ make sure to tell me when you’re through them bars. We’ll all be right behind ya.”
“We’ll let you know like we said we would. It’ll be a couple hours though, ok, there’s still work to do before we’re through.”
Terry patted both men on the cheek and then removed the cut-out for them, after which they crawled through, pushing the blankets ahead as they squeezed through for what they hoped was the final time. They began work immediately and it was just after two a.m. when they quietly removed the last bar and Williams tentatively stuck his head out the window to check the area immediately surrounding their point of escape. All was clear so the men made their blanket-rope, secured it and prepared to lower it out the window. Williams pulled on Leo’s sleeve at this point and nodded his head back in the direction of the cell.
“Yeah, you go ahead and tell him then. Make sure he knows to wait ten minutes so we can get clear down below,” Leo said.
One minute later the tattered edge of a blue prison blanket peeked out of the second story window and was slowly followed by four more blankets, all of which were carefully tied together. Leo’s leg then appeared and over the course of the next minute he quietly descended to the ground. Williams followed and, although he almost lost his grip twice, successfully joined his partner. The men exchanged smiles and an exuberant handshake before creeping off into the darkness. Twenty minutes later Leo had stolen a vehicle and the two fugitives were making their way out of town.
Back in the jail, things did not go according to plan. Big Black Terry had actually waited a full fifteen minutes before starting to go through the hole, only to discover that his large body would not fit. After several attempts he gave up, threw the cut-out across the cell area and sat down in front of the hole. One brave inmate approached him only to be met with Terry simple challenge.
“If’n I ain’t goin’ through, ain’t any one of you goin’ unless ya go through me first.”
No one cared to take him up on that offer and he stayed there until six-thirty a.m. when it was time for the morning head count. The prisoners did not try to hide anything at that point, with the first one to step up to the door simply stating, “You all got two boys running loose right now.”
Several minutes later the prison guards and deputies had verified that claim, viewed the escape path and had started to look for Leo and Williams.
…to be continued
A Burning Cold Corning (Part 64)
Later that day Leo had another visit from his lawyer and was informed again, and in much more detail, about how the information provided by Otto, the Marlborough’s janitor, had led directly to his arrest. Leo kept the fact that the man had also stolen the money hidden in the shoes to himself, and that, coupled with the details from his lawyer, drove a growing rage within Leo. Added to his already bottled up anger toward the bank teller for signing the affidavit and the Marlborough in general for cooperating with police, this all had him in quite a state of agitation when his lawyer departed. Once he had returned to the cell area he spent twenty minutes telling Williams about how he, “had been about to get a good start on things, get some real cash and a good reputation going in Minnesota,” only to be brought down by, “a dew drop janitor, sleazy banker and god damn hotel that can’t respect people’s privacy!” He also mentioned quite loudly that he was, “going to get even with all of them!” Williams pointed out that Leo probably should have handled several things differently, which almost led to a fist fight. In the end, both men walked away and were chatting quietly about the escape an hour later.
The first part of their plan was initiated by Williams the next morning, who told the guards he needed to call his lawyer. They pointed out that is was Saturday but he persisted, saying that he just happened to have a really hard working attorney who would be in the office on the weekend. After about an hour of badgering the guards relented and led Williams out to the phone in the hallway. He dialed a number and had a conversation which sounded like a simple discussion between a prisoner and his attorney. At least it seemed that way if you were not paying close attention, which the guards did not seem to be doing. The next day Williams had a visitor, a man named Clifford Washington, who was later a cooperating witness during the investigation. Their conversation was short and to the point with Williams uttering a simple request; “We need saw blades, and a lot of them.”
Exactly how it was done or who managed to get those blades to Williams is a mystery that is likely to remain unsolved. An examination of the jail records from September twenty-ninth to October second shows that three people signed in to see him over those days; his lawyer, a man named Jack Mills and a woman named Betty Taylor. It may or may not be a coincidence (given the commonplace nature of the last name) that Betty Taylor was a known alias of Alice Lanning, who was also known as Betty Markword and was the one-time wife of Leo’s former cellmate at McNeil Island. Regardless of how they were smuggled in, by the late afternoon of October 2, 1929 Leo and John Williams had a collection of saw blades and were ready to get started on the next part of the escape.
The word had quietly spread among the prisoners that Leo was serious about his plan and was going to act on it. Although he would have preferred to keep the whole thing a secret it was obvious that it would be impossible to do so, especially since they were going to need everyone’s cooperation to be successful. Leo played up the angle that once he had made his own escape, anyone who wanted to could follow him out as long as it was understood that they needed to go their own way once free from the jail. That opportunity likely kept anyone from telling the guards, although it also helped that another one of the prisoners, known as “Big Black” Terry had made it clear what would happen to anyone who did rat out the plan. He intended to be one of those following Leo and Williams out and, “any’ya that cause a problem’s gonna be seein’ me up close an’ personal.” Given his six foot four, two hundred and forty pound size and known violent disposition, that threat definitely meant something to the others.
That night, promptly at eleven-thirty p.m., the small window slid open in the door and a guard called out, “Line it up!” from the other side. As they did every night, the prisoners formed a straight line on their side of the door, then stepped up to the window one after the other, stating their name and having their presence verified by the deputy looking through the hole. Once that was over all the lights, except for two in the ceiling at either end of the cell, were turned off and the area officially entered “quiet time.” As had been observed by several prisoners previously, and by Leo himself when he could not sleep, the guards almost never looked through the door again until the morning wake-up call. After waiting thirty minutes to allow the guards to settle in for the night, Leo and Williams got to work.
Their mission on this first night was just to cut out the piece of the wall that would allow them to slip in and out of the office space Leo had observed. It took four hours of very slow sawing, working their way through the wood and plaster with great care, as they wanted to keep the piece as intact as possible. They had to take several breaks to rest hands that had gotten cramped both from the slow motion required to limit the noise and also the narrow grip needed to hold the saw blades. Eventually, tired but triumphant, they lifted the rectangular piece out of the wall and Leo slipped through the opening to ensure it was large enough.
That ended their work for the night and the next day, per a prior arrangement facilitated by Big Black, various prisoners took turns sitting on the floor in front of the cut-out. That piece, even though it had been carefully removed and then replaced, still had some flaws which could potentially be seen by a keen-eyed guard, especially if they made another trip inside of the cell. These prisoners were paid in cigarettes from Leo and Williams, who tried to catch cat naps throughout the day so they would be ready for more work the next night. Before they got started again though Leo pulled his partner aside.
“I forgot something, forgot to tell you something we needed to get. We’re gonna need some chewing gum.”
…to be continued
A Burning Cold Morning (Part 63)
Leo was happy to see Williams step through the door because it meant that his time emptying out the latrine buckets was over. Six days of that duty had been enough. Unknown to him at the time was the fact that this person was a criminal of a similar type to himself although Williams had a more extensive criminal record than Leo. They also were fated to be linked through a notorious incident in Minnesota criminal history. John F. Williams, aka Joseph Francis Hendricks, also presented a bit of a contradiction in terms of other people’s perception of him. He was variously described as, “troubled but pleasant,” “a very dangerous character,” and “young and not looking the desperate part of a criminal.” His most recent arrest, the one which brought him to the Stearns County Jail, had been in Anoka. That warrant had been for suspicion of robbing the Saint Michael’s State Bank and “planning other crimes,” charges for which he had entered a not guilty plea. When he first walked into the community cell, Leo had immediately caught Williams attention due to the commotion he continued to raise about the conditions of the jail. Once Leo finally stopped haranguing about this in the general direction of the closed metal door he wandered over to the window and stood there looking out. Several minutes later Williams observed that he was now doing a close inspection of the window and the wall surrounding it, which prompted him to go aver and ask what Leo was thinking of doing.
“What’s it to you?” Leo snapped back.
“Easy bud, just making conversation I suppose. John by the way,” Willams replied sticking out his hand.
Leo looked at it but did not offer to shake. Instead he turned his attention back to the window. “I was just hoping to find a way out of this place, that’s all.”
“You think this is it?” Willams asked.
“Hardly,” Leo replied, “I believe it is reinforced behind this wall and besides it’s too damn visible to the guards. They don’t look through that little peephole in the door too often but when they do, this is right in their view. Even if I wanted to risk it I would need a couple saws and I ain’t got no way to get them right now.”
“You not from around here?”
“No, not, well, not recently anyway. Not for a long time.”
Williams reached up and attempted to shake the bars. “That’s pretty thick and sturdy. You even think it’s possible to cut them?”
“Of course it is, well, at least I could. You don’t know it but I’m an engineer, these things are possible if you know what you’re doing. Still, it’s too visible like I said. Too bad though, I’d like to get outta here.” Leo turned and took a step before Williams grabbed his elbow.
“You’re probably right, it’s too visible. Now, you don’t know me either bud, but I’m in good around these parts. You keep thinking with that smart brain of yours and if you figure something out, you let me know, ok? I could get you some things you might need, you just gotta take me outta here with you. Deal?”
Leo looked at Williams for a few seconds and then replied. “I’ll think about it.”
Nothing much happened the next day and then, during the afternoon of the twenty-seventh, three guards stepped through the door. Leo was leaning up against a wall about halfway down the corridor and wondered exactly what was about to happen. Up to this point in his incarceration there had never been a guard inside of the temporary cell. He quickly looked to see if any of them were armed but they had taken the precaution of removing their firearms prior to entering. Leo figured there was also a few extra officers on the other side of that door ready to come in and assist if anything got out go hand. Most of the prisoners ignored what was going on although Leo, Williams and a few others kept on eye on them as they walked down the hallway and stopped next to a door. As two of the officers turned and faced toward the prisoners, the other one removed the padlock and opened the door.
This action took place almost directly across from where Leo was standing. The door was only open for a few seconds as the deputy stepped inside and then closed it, but in that brief glimpse he saw that the room inside had a window. It was barred also but sparked an idea in Leo’s mind which he started to mull over. Three minutes later the guard remerged with a file box and the door was again secured, the trio of officers then exiting the temporary cell area. About an hour later Williams wandered over and sat next to Leo, who had taken a seat on one of the wooden benches and been sitting there silently since the guards had left.
“You alright there?” he asked, to which Leo made no reply. “Hey bud, you ok?”
“Hmm, yes, yes,” was the only answer he received, Leo continuing to stare toward the secured office door which had so recently been opened.
“Well, you’re thinkin’ a somethin’ I’m sure of it. You gonna tell me about it?” Williams asked.
Leo stayed silent for another ten minutes or so but then spoke. “You really think you can get some tools in here for me?”
“What’s the plan? You tell me that first.”
Leo then explained his idea to Williams, which began with cutting a small, low hole in the corridor wall outside the office that had been opened by the guards. This opening needed to only be large enough for him to low crawl through at night, and the piece that was cut out of the wall would need to be carefully preserved. That piece would be used to hide the hole both as he worked within the office on his plan and of course during the daytime hours. That work inside the office would consist of cutting through the bars of the window, making it possible to escape from the jail. They would need some cooperation from the other prisoners but Leo was confident he could get them to assist.
“So, can you get me some tools, some saw blades?” he asked Williams again.
“Sure I can but like I said, you need to take me with you. And when we’re out, well, you gotta rob a bank with me, ok?”
Leo did not hesitate. “That’s a deal. And I know just the bank.”
…to be continued
A Burning Cold Morning (Part 62)
The Sterns County Jail at the time had quite a significant overcrowding problem, bad enough that it was a well-known issue around the state. That did not prevent Sheriff Schomer from taking Leo there and promptly getting him secured as an inmate. As he emerged from the area where he had been processed into the jail Leo was met with a surprise. Instead of being led down the grey corridor toward the entry to the proper jail, he was instead walked toward a hallway that turned to the right off the jail entry. Across the front of that corridor a temporary wall had been erected, one that had a black metal double-door set firmly in the center. That door was secured by a thick piece of chain that ran through the door handles and was attached by a padlock. In front of the door stood a deputy and a jail guard, both holding shotguns. The guard walking Leo grabbed his elbow to stop him about ten feet from the double door.
“Alright, now you’re going to be a resident of our special containment unit for right now, until a proper cell opens up, whenever the hell that might be. You’ll be in there with a few other fellas so you’d better behave yourself, ya hear me?”
Leo nodded his head in reply, wondering exactly what he was about to experience. He could already detect a very strong smell, one that was a mixture of body odor, urine and dirty canvas, and he could hear the distinct hum of voices from the other side of the wall. The guard took off Leo’s handcuffs and then the deputy unlocked the padlock and pulled the chain before opening the right side of the door and motioning him inside.
What greeted him on the other side was more than a “few other fellas”, as it was in fact the entire overflow from the county jail, all being held in the corridor of what looked to have previously been an office space. The walls were cement and painted a dull brown, the ceiling white with a crack running down the middle. Although it was bright at the entry, the lighting was uneven along the length of the hallway with some areas very dim especially near the far corners. The doors to the rooms that had opened up off the hallway were all solid wood and were secured by gate hasps and padlocks. There was a single window, about two feet by three feet, at the end of the corridor which had bars covering it. That wall was also, for some unknown reason, painted a stark white. When Leo later managed to look out that window he confirmed his belief that this cell was on the second floor of the jail building. Wooden benches lined the sides and there were four small tables and about ten chairs scattered around the open floor space. Some of the prisoners occupied these sitting locations although the majority of them were lounging about on the floor itself with ten of them fast asleep. There were no mattresses or cots, just a collection of pillows and blankets which were apparently community property. Leo would come to find out that it was best to retain those items when you did mange to get your hands on them, as there was no guarantee you would get either of them back if you lost possession. In a corner near the metal doors were three large buckets that the men used to relieve themselves and which were emptied twice a day by the designated “newest rat”, which as of that moment was Leo. He later also learned that the men were taken out of the community cell in pairs once per day to “tend to their business” and it was considered to be proper protocol to save your messier bodily functions until that time of the day. All in all, it was a very unpleasant situation and Leo was quite upset at being held in such a place, something that he let the guards know right away and continuously during his imprisonment.
Several days later he had the first opportunity to meet with a lawyer, at which point he found out that Otto’s betrayal of him extended far beyond the theft of the eight hundred dollars. He also was informed about the Marlborough’s cooperation with the investigation and that the bank teller in Meier Grove had been the one to positively identify him and swear out the affidavit which led to his arrest. All of this left Leo in a rage, one that he carried into the courtroom that day for his arraignment. When asked to enter a plea he instead launched into a bitter diatribe about the jail conditions, his refusal to be kept in such squalor and the fact that he vowed vengeance on everyone who had betrayed him or been involved in his, “faulty and manufactured arrest.” Although the judge let him go on for a few minutes, watching him with an amused, patient look on his face, eventually Leo started attacking the court’s credibility at which point a not guilty plea was entered by the judge and he was forcibly hauled out of the courtroom.
Over the next couple of days Leo did manage to calm down, just as he always did when incarcerated, and began to seriously consider the situation in which he now found himself. He was well aware that if convicted of armed bank robbery the prison sentence was going to be quite severe, a situation he wanted to avoid. Based on the evidence against him that he knew about he also felt that a conviction was likely. That left him with the determination to escape. At the time the Stearns County Jail was only seven years old, having been completed in 1922, and was lauded as being inescapable, a boast that was often repeated by prison guards and inmates alike. Leo took that into consideration as he wandered around the large improvised cell, testing the door hinges on the former offices, the window bars and anything else he saw as a potential avenue for escape. The other inmates all told him to forget about it, that they had already tried all of that, but Leo pointed out that he was a civil engineer who had went to Duke University, and as such had a far better chance of figuring out weak points. That was mostly met with shrugs and laughter, but he remained undeterred for several days, finally abandoning the idea on the twenty-forth. He would need to come up with some other plan for escape.
It came to him that night, as he lay on the cold tile floor of the hallway, absent a blanket that had been stolen from him earlier in the day, and comforted little by the thin pillow beneath his head. Staring up at the ceiling he decided that despite his own embarrassment over his diabetic condition, he needed to try to make use of it. The next morning he went to the double-door and started pounding on it. Finally the small slit, which had been cut into it as a window to allow the guards to occasionally observe the cell, opened and a grey eye stared back at Leo.
“What’d you want, boy?”
“I need to speak to the warden. Right now.”
Laughter from the other side. “This ain’t no prison dummy, it’s a jail. We ain’t got no warden. Go sit back down.” Leo blushed at his mistake, feeling even worse because he realized the other’s had heard the whole conversation and it would effect their perception of his criminal credibility. He almost gave up but then went back to pounding on the door. It took almost two hours but finally the guards were so tired of his hammering on the door that they hauled him out of the cell and into the jail administrators office. Once there, Leo outlined his medical issues and insisted that he needed to be placed in the infirmary. The administrator just stared back at him and laughed.
“Prisoner, that cell is just as damn crowded as the one you’re in, so no use in trying this trick. And don’t waste nobody’s time with this nonsense again.”
Three minutes later Leo was back in the community cell, and one hour after that John F. Williams was booked into the jail and joined the group.
…to be continued
A Burning Cold Morning (Part 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.
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.
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.
…to be continued
A Burning Cold Morning (Part 60)
That early morning conversation which Olivia had with law enforcement was a detailed one, in which she told them about Leo’s real name, his use of aliases including the ones she knew about and also a list of places that he had lived. She of course informed them about his recent incarceration in Kentucky as Robert O’Hara after which they contacted the prison for more information. Finally, as they were wrapping up the interview, Olivia gave them a description of the Essex along with a partial plate number. She stated that she believed Leo would have fled the state and be in hiding until he turned up somewhere else under another name. The detectives thanked her but had their own suspicions that Leo had not gone far and put the information out to other law enforcement agencies in the state. To obtain a recent photo quickly the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension convinced the prison in Eddyville to send an official to meet their officer in Rockford, Illinois, about halfway between the two cities. That allowed them to have a mug shot in hand by late afternoon, after which the bank teller quickly identified it as the man who had held him up. He swore out an affidavit to that effect and the MBCA thought they had a good start on chasing down their fugitive.
By the next morning this information had started to pay off as a Minneapolis police officer found the Essex, promptly alerted the MBCA and county sheriff, and an intensive manhunt began in the downtown area. As that search got within two blocks of the Marlborough Hotel Otto happened to be at another business nearby, which was owned by the same man, and where he picked up occasional extra work. It took him only a moment to determine what was going on and he hastily made an excuse that he had to leave for a few minutes. He walked quickly back to the Marlborough and found Leo sitting in the lobby reading a newspaper. Other than a cleaning woman the rest of the area was deserted, a quiet and calm Saturday morning with thin rays of light falling across the plants and art work on display. Otto had only managed to get about five words out when Leo held up his hand and quickly went to the front entry, stepping out slowly and looking up and down the street. He then repeated this at the back entry after which he walked briskly to his room, Otto following quietly behind him. At the door to the room Leo turned around and told him to stop and wait in the hall.
Once alone with the door closed behind him, Leo sank into a faded grey armchair that was next to a window overlooking Third Avenue. He had already seen that the police were very close and that his escape was going to have to be quick and done with a minimum of encumbrance. That meant he would have to leave behind most of this personal belongings including all of his new suits and hats. After a minute or two, he rose with a sigh and hastily packed up a small valise. He then took the remaining cash he had obtained from the robbery, around eight hundred dollars, and stuffed it into one of his clubhouse brogues. He figured that if he was captured it would not look good to have almost the same amount of cash on him as the amount taken from the bank. He then placed those shoes and some miscellaneous other clothing and personal items into a large black suitcase. Stepping out into the hallway he motioned to Otto who was leaning against the wall several doors down. When the young man approached, Leo handed him the suitcase and asked that he keep it safe, stating that it contained one of his best pairs of shoes and he would either send for it or retrieve it himself very soon. He then shook Otto’s hand, thanked him for the tip-off and walked away down the hallway. Several minutes later Leo had slipped past the police that were out and about on the streets and was on his way out of town.
He had of course failed to give Otto any money for providing him with the information about the police, something that did not sit well with the young janitor. It had only taken him about three minutes of contemplation before he opened the suitcase Leo had given him, determined to at least get a good pair of shoes out of the deal. Several moments after finding them he also had removed the eight hundred dollars and was much happier although he still held a grudge against Leo. About an hour later, when the police arrived at the hotel to continue their search, the staff could not positively identify the man in the photo as having stayed there. Otto took that opportunity to pay off his grudge, marching up to the officer in charge, stating it had definitely been Leo who had stayed there and directing them to the room. As it was being searched he decided that it would be a bad thing if he somehow was caught with Leo’s personal effects. Going back to the detective, he turned them over, stating that he had found the suitcase in the alley and the shoes in the hallway outside the door of Leo’s room. He then provided a very detailed description of the fugitive and mentioned the discussion they had about Louisville.
That was exactly where Leo had gone, making good time by hitching rides and arriving by mid-afternoon of Sunday, September 15th. He was angry when he arrived, about several things, and had stormed into Lucy’s house without even knocking on the door. Startled as she had been by his entrance, she quickly recovered and tried to calm him down and by nightfall they were enjoying each other’s company. The next morning, having collected the items and cash Lucy had been keeping for him, he penned a short note to the Marlborough:
Having recently left your establishment, I found that I have forgotten a pair of my best shoes along with several other personal items. Please inquire of your staff, especially the janitor named Otto, as I feel they are certain to have found these items. I expect my belongings to be forwarded immediately to The Drake in Chicago, where I will soon be arriving. Your prompt action is appreciated.
Giving it to Lucy with stern instructions that it must go out that same day via Special Delivery, he gave her a passionate farewell kiss and walked out of the house. The last she saw of him he was stepping quickly down the street swinging his brown valise as he went along.
…to be continued
A Burning Cold Morning (Part 59)
When Leo awoke the next day, September 3, 1929, he could not have known that he was just nine days away from initiating a series of events which would leave him as a minor criminal celebrity and grant him the place of notoriety for which he had been looking for such a long time. It began with him sitting on the low brick wall that ran behind the motel he was staying at, trying to put together a plan on what he was going to do next. Much of his prison time had been consumed with thinking about bank robbery and he knew that was the direction in which he wanted go in regard to the future. It was time for him to make a move into more serious crimes. He felt he had accumulated a good amount of information over the years and was ready to take action. The only limitation he put on himself was that he was not going to do anything illegal in New Munich, mostly out of a sense of responsibility toward Olivia, something he had not thought would really matter. It did though, now that he was back and had seen her again, he just felt a kind of family connection and knew that she was seen as a respectable part of the community. He did not want to ruin that.
He spent the remainder of the morning sitting in his room at the small table by the window, writing down some ideas on nearby towns to scout for potential targets. Around eleven-thirty he had gone into the bathroom and when he came back out was surprised to find Olivia standing in his room right next to the table at which he had been writing. His notebook was open and he hastened over to close it while attempting to not seem too concerned. He did not know it at the time but she had indeed looked over the page and had made a mental note of a few things that were written down. Olivia then invited him to lunch, which he declined, and she left after a few more minutes of conversation. Leo, resolved to get things into motion as quickly as possible, got into his Essex and drove out of town for the day.
The communities closest to New Munich included Greenwald, Melrose and Freeport, and Leo drove through all of them scouting out the banks. It was in Meire Grove though that he found a promising opportunity. The First State Bank of Meire Grove was a small brick building situated on a road near the edge of that town. This road branched off into two directions about three hundred feet from the building, giving Leo a choice on escape routes and also potentially adding to the difficulty for police in pursuing him. Pulling over under a tree near the bank, he got out his notebook and sketched a map of the area. Then he walked into the bank and pretended to be lost, asking a clerk for directions to Melrose. Chatting with that man for a few minutes, Leo took in the general layout of the bank and tried to assess the place for any potential pitfalls or problems. When he left, he felt fairly confident that he had found his target, and he spent the next eight days doing more scouting and planning. He was ready by the evening of September 11th and he went to bed that night with a strange nervousness in his system, one that made his stomach uneasy and caused him to have difficulty falling asleep.
The robbery itself seemed anti-climatic to Leo, especially when he had the opportunity later to look back on it. His plan had been to commit the hold-up by himself, partly because he did not want to split the money but more due to the fact that he really did not have any criminal connections in the area. He wanted to get this robbery done and over with so he had some cash and could maybe start putting together his own gang. That was how he pulled it off too, just Leo going into the bank and sticking a gun into the cashier’s face, despite the fact that some later newspaper reports would say several men were involved. After getting the money, which amounted to eight hundred sixty dollars, from the bank, he took off toward the Twin Cities and abandoned the Essex on a street near the Mississippi river in downtown Minneapolis. He then walked to the Marlborough Hotel and registered under the name Leo Humford, figuring that slight variation should be enough to conceal his true identity. It also was an alias he had not previously used, at least as far as can be determined from historical records. As he was walking out of the hotel lobby to go to his room, the hotel’s extroverted janitor Otto Knaack commented that Leo was a, “nifty dresser,” a comment which of course got Leo’s attention. He spoke to the man for several minutes after that as the floor was wet from just being mopped. That conversation quickly went from that brief compliment into a rambling discussion of Otto’s family, his recent stint in jail for punching a man he thought had insulted a hotel guest, and why he did not like Ford motor cars. During this conversation Leo even discussed his opinion of Louisville after Otto mentioned he had a sister living there and working as a seamstress. As he said good-night to Otto, he made the further mistake of thinking they shared some kind of criminal bond due to the jail time the janitor had mentioned. Leo told Otto that he would pay him generously for any info he could bring to him in regard to potential police activity around the hotel. It was more conversation than an on-the-run bank robber should have had and it would come back to haunt Leo.
Back in Meire Grove, law enforcement was at a dead end in regard to trying to to apprehend whomever had robbed the First State Bank. They had a description of the man, a few conflicting ones on the vehicle and that was about it. The information went out to all local police agencies and it was of course picked up on by reporters, with the story running on the front page of the next day’s newspaper. In New Munich Olivia read that article while drinking coffee after breakfast and recalled immediately that Meier Grove was one of the town names she had seen written in Leo’s notebook. She had not been quite sure at the time what it related to, and was still not certain, but after some soul-searching she made contact with the police. The information she gave them was unknown to a peacefully resting Leo who had just asked Otto to go out to a local diner and pick him up some lunch.
…to be continued
A Burning Cold Morning (Part 58)
Leo was held again in the Louisville city jail, much angrier this time but still taking the opportunity to write letters to various women. He knew that he needed to speak with Lucy in regard to the trunk and also tried to convince at three different women to come and visit him, all of whom refused to be seen in such a place. No attorney was dispatched to assist him this time and after a few attempts to reach out to contacts on the outside, all of which were rebuffed, he realized that he was going to face his current charges alone. Although he could have arranged for some of his hidden money to be used to hire a powerful lawyer, Leo had correctly deduced that no manner of defense was going to save him, and that the upcoming trial was going to be a mere formality. For that reason, he chose to conserve his funds, finally convincing Lucy to come to the jail so he could whisper some more specific instructions to her about what to do with his stash while he was away. On October 21st Leo’s trial began and he was convicted before the close of business the next day, represented by a public defender who barely raised an objection during the entire trial.
Two days later he was processed as a new inmate (#5958) to the Kentucky State Prison at Eddyville and began to serve his one year sentence. His time there is mostly undocumented, although several facts are known. Leo immediately got back into the routine of inflating his criminal background and accomplishments, weaving into his story the new information of his recent, “stint with the Schultz gang.” He made few friends but the ones he did associate with were all convicted bank robbers and Leo grilled them for information whenever he had the chance. He even began to plan a robbery with one of these inmates, although that person turned him into the warden, resulting in Leo spending two weeks in solitary confinement. He also wrote letters to several female acquaintances, again asking for and being rebuffed in regard to visiting him, and sent one letter to his sister Olivia. In addition to asking a few questions about how she was doing, Leo inquired as to whether she knew the location of Stanley Bittenhopper and if his former partner had done anything to betray him. Her return letter to him was recovered and reads as follows:
I am well, thank you for asking, and things are about as quiet and peaceful as you might imagine them to be in New Munich. Although it is good to hear that you are well, it is apparent that you are determined to continue to involve me in your shady business. I have already expressed my distaste for your name games and your current alias is no better than the previous. You will, however, see that I have (begrudgingly I assure you) addressed the envelope to you, Mr O’Hara!
Another item I must point out is that it cannot possibly have escaped your attention that, despite what I must assume was an attempt to conceal the fact, your last letter is clearly postmarked from a prison in Kentucky! What foul thing you done to be incarcerated in a place such as that, well, I refuse to think of it. Your associate Stanley has stayed here in town but away from me, thank heavens, and I have no information on what he may have or have not done in regard to his intentions toward you. He did approach me one day in town to hand me an envelope, saying I was to inform you that his debt has been paid. There, you see I have now become a go-between in your criminal mischief, a turn of events that distresses me greatly. I will have your little package for you, if you ever choose to retrieve it, as I feel honor-bound to deliver it to you.
Do not ask again about your check – I will not be replacing it as I can receive no information that satisfies me it cannot be cashed later.
Despite my displeasure brother, know that I wish you well – O
Leo appears to have had no disciplinary issues other than the one associated with his time in solitary and the only other incident of note was a brief stint in the medical ward for issues related to his diabetes. An appeal undertaken on his behalf (by a lawyer he hired with his own money once he figured no one was paying attention to him anymore) managed to get his sentence slightly reduced and Leo was released from Eddyville on August 16, 1929. During the out-processing that day his suit, which he had been wearing when arrested, could not be found, a discovery which set Leo off onto a three minute rant on police incompetence. He had to walk out of the prison that day wearing some over-sized prison issue work pants and a shabby shirt provided from the prison’s “missionary basket.” That fact did nothing to improve his mood and Lucy, who had picked him up, heard about it all the way back to her place.
As per what appeared to be his usual routine whenever he was released from custody, Leo quickly hit the road and disappeared for awhile. He had recovered most of his stashed money before he left, along with several good suits and a few other personal items.
It is not known when he decided on his ultimate destination but on September 1 he rolled into New Munich driving a brand new Essex sedan. He proceeded to check into a motel, doing so under the name of Hombert. Leo knew that the whole town would soon know he was back in the area and it would be very hard to explain the use of any of his aliases without arousing suspicion. It would probably also be convenient to use that name in that it was largely unknown to law enforcement. He used some of his money to buy new suits and two hats and the next day went to see Olivia. She turned over Stanley’s package, which included the money that had been stolen plus interest along with a short note of apology.
…to be continued
A Burning Cold Morning (Part 57)
Before that trip to prison, however, Leo spent most of the summer doing two things; fencing property for the Schultz gang and running his own separate operation against the city of Louisville. Due to the influence of the high profile criminals in town Leo understood that he probably should not be running any unsanctioned operations, especially ones that were directed at the city. Some of those gangsters, including Schultz, had arrangements with various local officials to look the other way in regard to their illegal activities. Those agreements came with the implicit understanding that these criminals would go easy on the city itself. Unfortunately for Leo, his usual sense of independence and desire to increase his own standing in the criminal world made it almost impossible to work solely under the direction of Dutch’s operatives. Instead, he applied for and was swiftly hired into a job at the Louisville city manager’s office (also under the name Robert O’Hara) as an engineer, his falsified degree from Duke apparently never being looked into very closely. Leo quickly learned the ropes of the operation and within weeks he was diverting newly purchased construction equipment to his own fencing operation and selling it to local contractors. Things rolled merrily along for him through June and July as Leo made the rounds at the Seelbach’s evening social hour, escorted a rotating cast of women around town and piled up a good amount of cash. Those funds he kept inside lock boxes in his room and at various other places around town.
Then on Monday August 13, 1928 he stepped out into a rather cold summer morning and was met on the steps of the hotel by a police officer and city detective. Leo was arrested for converting stolen property relating to the work he was doing for the Schultz gang and promptly brought to the city jail. He languished there for several days before an attorney, dispatched by Dutch, arrived and spoke to Leo. As it turned out, the detective who arrested him was new to the force and not quite familiar with all of the local arrangements in regard to the illegal enterprises being run in the city. It would have been simple enough to get the whole thing thrown out expect for the fact that there was also new pressure from the city council to clean up some aspects of the criminal element in the city. That basically meant that Leo was going to have to do some time although it would be a short sentence, just enough to mollify the council. The attorney encouraged him to, “think of it as a little vacation,” and informed him that all his legal bills were being taken care of by Schultz.
Leo, of course, did not view the situation as any kind of a vacation. He was focused on making money and improving his reputation and the sentence, one month in city jail, was going to hamper his efforts. After a day or two of sitting silently in his cell though, Leo’s mood improved and he spent the rest of his time writing letters to women, another to Olivia (that did not mention his location or current situation) and reading up on Duke University. One of those letters was written to Ginny Mayburn, an auburn-haired local socialite whom Leo spent more time with than any of his other paramours, and highlights his state of mind at the time.
As you’ve surely heard I have landed in the local slammer for a spell – can’t say I enjoy the place much! Looks like my lucky steak is over but I needed some more time in anyway – it helps make me stand up better with the fellas. I’m sure I’ll be right back to it next month.
Free up some time for me around the 20th – I should be out and your company will be just the thing to make me happy. I’ll be thinking about the night you wore the red satin as I while away my hours in here.
In what would perhaps be a further reflection that Leo’s luck had gotten thin, during the month that he was incarcerated in Louisville his scheme against the city was exposed. It only took a few days after he failed to appear for work at the city manager’s office before a new person was hired to replace him. That man discovered the irregularities (which Leo had not covered up very well anyway), reported them up the chain-of-command and eventually Dutch Shultz became aware of them. Needless to say, both he and the city officials were not happy that such an operation was being run, and things were put into action to deal with the situation.
It was yet another unusually cold summer day when Leo was released from the jail. As he was recovering his personal property he mentioned to the officer on duty how good it felt to be back in, “my proper shirt and suit,” after which he counted the money returned to him three times before signing for it. He scoffed at the comment made by the officer as he walked away, “see ya soon Bob,” although he would later regret not heeding those words.
Leo was determined to get back into the swing of things quickly, heading straight for the Seelbach after his release. He was met in the lobby by the hotel’s general manager, an aging man with slicked-back grey hair and a constant smile, who seemed to have been waiting for him. The man informed Leo that due to his extended absence and unpaid bill his belongings had been removed from the room he previously occupied, a statement Leo reacted to with indignation. The man proved unmoved by the protest and further informed him that he was no longer welcome, although the outstanding bill had been, “taken care of by an interested party.” After a few more minutes of ineffective protesting Leo stormed out of the Seelbach and walked to the house of a woman named Lucy seven blocks away.
She at least seemed happy to see him and Leo, spooked by what had happened at the hotel, laid low in her house for the next two days after sending her back to collect his belongings from the manager. He also contacted two other women, with whom he had secreted other items, and arranged for Lucy to retrieve them. Once all of it was back at her house Leo packed it into a large trunk, locking it and making her promise to always keep it safe. It was a calm couple of days, with Leo and her spending much time wrapped up in each others arms. Then, as evening fell on September 23rd, Leo felt safe enough to venture out on a walk after eating dinner. He made it two blocks before a police vehicle pulled up behind him and he was arrested again, this time for embezzlement and obtaining goods under false pretenses.
…to be continued