A Burning Cold Morning (Part 53)

Selma Alabama street scene around the time Leo lived there

Selma Alabama street scene around the time Leo lived there

The Selma, Alabama that Leo had arrived in was one with deep racial divisions and lingering scars from the Civil War battles that had been fought in and around the area.  It carried much of the tone and temperament of the entrenched white majority that had long lived in the area and had an “Old South” feel to it that Leo found foreign to his own experience.  He adapted fairly quickly though and was especially interested in the several banks which occupied a four block area in the downtown of the city.  The two men he had found, Jim Tunnney and Max Miller, who were also interested in the idea of robbing banks were locals and well known to the Selma police department.  Once Leo was sighted hanging out with them he started to gain some extra attention himself although that did little to dampen his enthusiasm for breaking the law.  He really saw himself as a big-time operator and was very interested in branching out into larger crimes.  One day, right after the turn of the new year, he met up with his partners at a local speakeasy.  One of the men had brought his girlfriend along, something Leo was not happy about initially although he changed his mind a little bit later when she starting flirting with him whenever her boyfriend was not paying attention.  After a few drinks all four of them walked out of the speakeasy and down to a local park where they planned to have their first serious discussion about the bank robbery plan.  A stiff breeze was blowing through the park when they arrived and they took some time to find a location that offered a little shelter.  

“You sure it’s ok to talk around the dame?” Leo asked as they all sat down behind a large decorative water fountain in the park.

“Sure, sure,” Jim answered, “she’s been in on a few things before.”  He spoke with a deep Southern drawl that Leo found difficult to understand some of the time.

“Few what?” Leo asked.

“Things,” Jim replied, “jobs, ya know?”  As he answered, the woman, who was his girlfriend and seated behind him, gave Leo a small wink for at least the sixth time that afternoon.

“Well, alright I suppose.  I’ll give you a quick idea of what I’m planning for this thing, just a little bit right now.  You’ll get more details when it’s closer to when we’re gonna do this job.  Until then I’ll be giving you some things to do, to get us ready.”

Max Miller, a man of medium height and dark brown hair cut in a crew-cut style, barked out a short laugh.  “You gonna plan it?  The whole thing, ya think?  Who made you my boss?  or his?”  He finished with a gesture toward Jim.

Leo’s face reddened as he replied.  “This is my thing, my plan.  I’ve had much more experience in this stuff than either of you, I’m sure.  If you’ve got something to say, to add to the plan, bring it up but it’ll be my decision.”  The woman gave him a quick, eager look that seemed to indicate she liked his style of leadership.

“I’m alright with it,” Jim said, “I don’t know much about banks anyhow, that’s for sure.”

“Yeah, but how do we know that he does?” Max replied.  “He’s a nobody around here, we all know it.  New to town and trying to make himself into a boss, how do we know he ain’t just telling tales?  We trust him too much and we could all end up in the clink.”

“Listen,” Leo snapped back, “I know what I’m doing!  I already told both of you that I ran with the Pendergast crew in Kansas City and I was boss of my own operation in Bakersfield.  Maybe you’ve heard of Bob Markword? He’s a friend of mine, a bank robber, ok?”  Leo was upset at having to explain himself and getting very worked up.  “And I’ll have you know I’m a civil engineer myself and spent time on construction jobs at banks.  I know them inside and out so you’ve got nothing to worry about.”  He stopped to take a breath and Max cut in on his rant.

“So, you’re a real civil engineer then?”

“I said I was!” Leo replied defensively.

“Where from?” Max asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Where is your degree from?”

“Wh, what, well,” Leo stammered, somehow unprepared for that question.  He paused a moment and his mind quickly came up with Duke University, a place he had read about in his books as having a respected engineering program.  He replied with that information but it was too late.  Both men had started to walk away and the woman was trailing behind them a little, laughing and pointing back at Leo.  She swayed her hips a final time before hastening to catch up with her boyfriend.  Leo was furious at all of them but also at himself for not having been more prepared and vowed never to be caught out like that again.  He got up and walked back to his room.

When he got there he immediately sat down and sketched out a basic history of his life, at least the one he planned to sell to others going forward.  He made sure to weave in the time and places that would allow for him to have received his degree from Duke and still have all his criminal endeavors, both real and imagined, in place.  Once he had finished with that task he decided to write a letter to his sister and tell her that he never received the check and see if she would send another.  He told her up front about the name he was living under as he felt it would be too risky to try to figure out how to get mail under his real name in Selma.  By the next day he had most of his composure back and was out on the streets, working for the gang while still plotting a bank robbery in his head.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 52)

His whereabouts from that day until September 10, 1927 are again unknown, although it would probably be safe to assume that he was traveling by car or train and keeping a very low profile.  Shortly after he disappeared from Pomona the LAPD apparently put together enough information on Leo to make an inquiry back to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.  They asked for any details that might be available although what response they received, if any, in also unknown.

Marianna FL courtesy mariannaonline

Marianna FL courtesy mariannaonline

What we do know is that on September 10th Leo pulled into a motel in Marianna, Florida and registered under the name of Robert O’Hara.  A surprisingly diligent clerk noted on the registration paper that he “appeared a bit nervous or drunk”, and had asked for a room with, “a clear view of the road.”  It is impossible to know if he was actively running from a crime he had recently committed during his flight from Pomona or if Leo had just picked up a healthy dose of paranoia.  He was given the key to Room #7 and proceeded to settle in to his new base of operations.  

Marianna is a town located in the panhandle area of Florida, a place that in its past had been the location of many plantations due to the fertile soil provided by the Chipola River.  When Leo arrived those days were long gone although farming still remained a major part of the area’s economy.  It was a quiet town, certainly much more tame than the places Leo usually chose to stay, and he may have been hoping to remain undetected in such a rural location.   If that was his intention, his actions while in Marianna would not serve him well.

Once he was settled in at the motel Leo, as usual, started to plot out a way to make money.  He was dreaming bigger than usual and took several days to survey the two banks in the town, taking detailed notes of everything that he observed.  He also found out that there was another bank under construction, one which was due to open in a few weeks, and that fact greatly intrigued Leo.   He had a notion that if he could get some experience and knowledge of what a bank looks like while it is under construction, he may be able to use that to plan out his own successful robberies.  The idea of being able to take a large amount of money on a few jobs and then spend months living good and spending big appealed to him.  It would be much better than trying to muddle along picking up small sums on a large number of jobs, constantly exposing himself to the danger of arrest.  If he realized, or thought at all, about the fact that robbing banks would command much more focused attention from law enforcement, is something we will never know.  What he did do though is attempt to get into the construction site.

To try to accomplish this he entered the site one day and struck up a conversation with the foreman.  He told the man, a stocky and well-tanned Italian-American, that he was a civil engineer and had been asked to look over the building for any potential construction violations.  That statement did not sit well with the foreman who told Leo to leave and come back with written permission to walk the site.  Two days later, Leo tried again and this time the police were called although Leo was gone when they arrived.  After that, getting desperate for money, he returned to some of his usual schemes, this time working with a car theft gang.  

1927 Florida license plate

1927 Florida license plate

 

1925 Chevy truck

1925 Chevy truck

This particular criminal operation ran two different crews, one that actually stole vehicles and another, the one that Leo ended up working with, that would steal vehicle tags.  This gang was well-known to local law enforcement and kept under close observation when possible.  It only took three months before Leo was seen lifting a tag from a 1925 Chevy truck and pursued by the police.  He did manage to escape although he left everything he owned behind at the motel and arrived five days later in Selma, Alabama.  

His journey of one hundred and seventy-five miles was exactly equal to how much money he had in his pocket and the fuel he could purchase with it.  Completely broke when he drove into town at six o’clock in the evening of December 10th, 1927, Leo’s vehicle ran out of gas on Selma Avenue and he pushed it to the side before abandoning it.  He was exhausted and hungry by this time, neither condition of which he had the means to correct properly, so he walked to the nearest open space he could find and fell asleep under a grove of sugar maple trees.  He awoke in the middle of the night, bothered by some ants that were crawling on his face and the growling of his stomach.  Unable to get comfortable again, Leo sat up until morning plotting what to do next.  

His immediate need was of course money, which he solved temporarily by pawning his gold watch. That allowed him get a meal at a diner and then to rent a room at a boarding house located right at the edge of Selma on Summerfield Road.  He registered as Lee O’Dare, perhaps forgetting about the warrant issued under that name for him in Kansas City, a fact which would almost cause him some trouble later.  Then he took up his usual routine of plotting schemes and seeking out the criminal element in the area around where he lived.  This time Leo accepted that he would need to start small again, and he took up an invitation to be part of a local gang that committed a wide variety of crimes in and around Selma.  He did feel slighted though, having to start all over again despite what he had accomplished in the past.  To try to make up for this, and establish himself properly, he bragged often about his, “time with Pendergast in Kansas City,” and having run his own gang in Bakersfield.  He also spent his spare time scouting local banks and eventually recruited two other men into his scheme to pull off a double robbery.  

…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 50)

Kress Building Pomona California

Kress Building Pomona California

Exactly why Leo thought it would be a good idea to return to Pomona is unknown, but it likely had something to do with his desire to keep track of the investigation into the shooting and Lester.  He realized that he was in danger by returning and vowed to keep a low profile, checking into a boarding house just down the street from the newly erected Kress Building under the name Lee O’Dare.  Knowing that he had enough money to support himself for awhile, he spent most of his time in his room, reading and day dreaming.  When he did venture out he used a variety of disguises and limited how much time he was actually on the street or in other public areas.  He made no friends and brushed off attempts by others to speak with him.  He was very aware of everything around him and would observe the streets outside for long minutes before leaving his room or a store he had reason to visit.  

Leo was actually in more danger than he knew even with his heightened sense of paranoia.  The Los Angeles police detective who had questioned Tom Brinnegan was energetic and resourceful, a veteran of twenty years on the force with a solid reputation for solving cases.  The information he had obtained from Brinnegan made him fairly sure that the Leo O’Malley who had been involved in the robbery was not local to Los Angeles and had likely used a false name.  Also, Leo had slipped up a few times, revealing some small details which would not have meant much except for the fact that Brinnegan proved to be an astute observer and recorder in his own right.  He was able to recount for the detective all of these small facts and that led the officer to start asking around at departments in surrounding communities.  Once he made it to Pomona it did not take long for him and the detectives there to link up the O’Malley and Humbert identities and to conclude that they were likely dealing with the same man.  The two departments agreed to work together in efforts to catch this criminal who had stained both of their communities and also to see what else they could learn about his past history.  All of this had happened in the ten days between the robbery and the day of Leo’s first phone call to the Pomona police department.

He had, of course, thought about it before calling.  He remembered telling the Pomona detective that he was planning to move to Los Angeles but wanted to be kept up to date on the Lester investigation.  He also realized that there was a possibility that his activity in Los Angeles might be linked to his past identity in Pomona, although he thought that was fairly unlikely.  He was confident that he had gone mostly unnoticed while in the bigger city and that Brinnegan knew nothing about him that could identify him.  Mostly though, Leo was driven at this time by his intense desire to see Lester punished for trying to kill him.  That action, that attempted murder, had been a step way beyond anything that Leo was used to or considered to be proper.  He and Lester may have been at odds but they were, after all, fellow members of the criminal world.  There had to be some justice for Leo after such an insult.

Granada Theatre Ontario CA

Granada Theatre Ontario CA

He was careful about it though, hiring a car to drive him to Ontario, California on June 25th and calling back to Pomona from a phone in the lobby of the Granada Theatre.  The conversation was short, with Leo asking for updates and the detective trying to get Leo to say where he was currently residing.  After five minutes Leo hung up in frustration after yelling into the phone, “You better find that murderer and get him locked up!  I’ll be calling you again!” 

That began a game of cat and mouse between Leo and the police department.  While continuing to live at the boarding house in Pomona, he would travel to other cities and call back to the department to insist on updates.   During this time Leo started to have problems sleeping, mostly due to a series of nightmares that replayed the shooting incident, often with the embellishment of his actual death or more prolonged suffering being included.  This lack of sleep eventually led to Leo becoming very ill with a range of symptoms including high fevers, nausea and loss of appetite.  He avoided any interaction with doctor’s as he feared this would lead to his identity being revealed and by July 20th he was weak and delirious along with desperate to get the nightmares out of his head.  Too ill to travel anywhere, Leo could not wait any longer for an update so he walked down to the Kress building, which housed a five-and-dime store, and called the Pomona police from their pay phone.  

1927 Public Pay Phone

1927 Public Pay Phone

That, of course, proved to be a mistake although Leo would not realize it for a couple weeks.  He knew at the time that making the call was not a wise decision but he was so desperate for information that he took the chance, limiting his time on the phone to two minutes.  Although he felt that this was too short of a time for the police to get any useful information on his location, it turned out that the Pomona police were a few steps ahead of him.  Based on some advice from the LA detective, they had alerted all of the city’s operators to take careful note of the origin of all calls requesting the detective section of the Pomona police department.  The operator that day dutifully noted the Kress building as the location where the call came from and the next day the detectives got that information from her.  Realizing that their suspect may well be right back in Pomona, they developed a plan to lure him into the station.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 49)

Tom did try to escape, making a break toward the same back office area where Leo had gone, but the officer was telling him to halt or be shot before he made it through the door.  He was taken into custody and, after several hours of unresponsive interrogation, finally told the police most of the truth including that Leo O’Malley had been his accomplice.  A detective took everything down before returning Brinnegan to his cell, stating that he should probably plan on being locked up, “for a good long while.”  

Leo, who had scouted out a secondary escape route to be taken on foot if things went badly, managed to use the alleyways of the area to elude capture.  It had helped that the officer who returned unexpectedly to the station had been alone, and that it took ten minutes for more police to respond to his call for assistance.  By that time Leo was almost a mile away at a city planning commission meeting, an event he had thought might be a good cover during any possible emergency escape from the robbery.  He had actually used the session as part of his planning, a fact he had not shared with Brinnegan, and slipped into the back row just as the chairman called the meeting to order.  He sat their dutifully for the next two hours of discussion, getting sleepy as the adrenaline eased out of his system, nodding off a few times before stepping out to use the restroom.  There, after closing himself into one of the stalls, he got to work.  Breaking the small clasp lock on the briefcase using a pliers he had brought with him, he transferred the money and his now unloaded gun to a black drawstring bag, and then wrapped the briefcase inside a burlap sack.  Stepping outside, he placed the the burlap package behind some large bushes next to the building, tossed his jacket into a trash can and then walked off down the road.  He had taken his glasses off to further alter his appearance, which made for a few challenges as he could not see well without them, but he managed to walk another two miles without incident.  Checking into a nondescript, but not too seedy, motel he drifted off to sleep with the black bag full of money under his pillow.   

The next morning he had some thinking to do.  He realized that he had been fortunate to escape capture the day before and that he was unlikely to get that lucky again.  He did feel a sense of accomplishment despite what had happened, as he felt his back-up planning had went well and he had anticipated possible problems.  The pliers, burlap sack, secondary escape route and hiding in plain view at a public meeting were all things he was sure he would not have thought of earlier in his criminal career.  He was becoming more accomplished and that made him feel good, plus he had all of the robbery money to himself.  Leo knew though that Brinnegan would give him up, in fact he probably already had, and that he needed to inconspicuously leave the area very quickly.  

Diner

Diner

Leo pondered all of this while sitting at a small diner that was associated with the motel, and he was interrupted by a small, thin man who was sitting at the table next to him.

“Hey friend, hey, hello, hello.”  

Leo shook his head, realizing that someone was talking to him.  He looked over and saw the man, dressed in a blue suit and white shirt, a red necktie hanging loosely around his neck.  

“What?” Leo replied.

“You, I was just trying to get your attention but you were way, way off in your dreams, I think?”  The man spoke in a rushed, clipped manner and his voice tended to squeak a little at the end of sentences.  It was fairly irritating.

“I’m thinking, not dreaming.  Leave me alone.” Leo turned his head away as he spoke.

“It’s ok, ok, no problem.  I just figured, you know, just wanted to make sure you were ok.  You were staring off into space for a long time, long time, maybe ten or fifteen minutes.”

“What’s that to you?” Leo snapped back.  “Leave me alone.”

The man inched his chair a foot closer to Leo, blocking the aisle way between the tables.  “Ok, ok, I just thought that maybe you were, you know, like me, out on the road too much and thinking of home.  I do that a lot, you know, a lot of thinking about home.  It’s hard to be out on the road so much isn’t it?
“Who said I’m out on the road?” Leo asked.

“Well, I guess, well I did, you know, because I thought you might be, I am.  I am on the road a lot.”  

Just then a waitress approached and the man had to slide the chair back toward his table.  Leo hoped that would be the end of it, but it was not.  As soon as she had sauntered past, poured coffee two tables away and then walked back, the man pulled his chair right up next to Leo.

“Like I was saying, I’m on the road all the time, all over the place.  Just leaving here today and gotta go to Pomona next, then San Bernadino, Palm Springs, it never ends you know.  But you know, you know, right?  You’re a salesman too, I bet.  What’s your product?”

Leo was very annoyed at this point but had heard one thing that caught his attention.  

“You say you’re going to Pomona?”

“Yes, yes, you going there too?  Maybe we can meet up after the day, you know, have a drink or dinner?  What’s your line, anyway?  Vacuums?”

“Actually, I’m needing to get to Pomona myself.”  Leo was thinking quickly as he spoke.   “My vehicle broke down here the other day, gonna take a few more to have it ready I guess.  You wouldn’t mind giving me a ride, would you?  I could pay for gas, I’ll even buy your breakfast.”

Pomona 1927

Pomona 1927

The man, who then introduced himself as Chuck Creely, eagerly accepted and then talked Leo’s ear off all the way to Pomona.  Leo never did mention what he might be selling or why he needed to get to Pomona, but Creely hardly seemed to care as it was clear he was just lonely and wanted to talk.   When Leo was dropped off, with a false promise to meet up for dinner at five o’clock, he almost felt bad for the man.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 48)

Westclox table clock / alarm

Westclox table clock / alarm

Wednesday June 15th, 1927 started out as a slightly overcast day, cool in the early morning hours with a slight breeze coming in from the west.  Leo was up early and out on the street, determined to ensure that everything went according to plan.  Brinnegan was asleep when he left and Leo took the precaution of setting the alarm on the tabletop clock for 11 a.m. and moving it across the room, away from his partner’s bed.  It was not that he really felt as though Tom was going to screw up and sleep too long but he had gone out after their discussion the previous evening and not come back until two a.m.  Leo just wanted to eliminate as many variables as possible and making sure Brinnegan was up got that one off of his mind.

He walked over to the Texaco, strolling past it a few times and then settling in to a spot he had been using for observation over the last week.  It was a dark little nook tucked in next to a partial alleyway that ran behind a warehouse just up the block from the station.  It was secluded, completely masked from view of even close passersby and offered a clear view of the gas and oil station.  At ten a.m. it became obvious that Leo’s alarm clock precaution had been unnecessary as Tom walked past the Texaco, their prearranged signal that he was setting things in motion.  Over the next four hours Leo watched, carefully matching up his observations with his notebook entries, everything falling right into place.  At two-fifteen in the afternoon, right on schedule, a police car pulled into the station and the officer got out to speak with the station owner.  As always, he drank a cup of coffee before returning to his patrol car and driving north on Avalon Boulevard.   As Leo had documented, that was the last routine police presence in the area until after six p.m., and five minutes later he saw Tom drive up and park two blocks away from the Texaco.  

1926 Ford Model T coupe

1926 Ford Model T coupe

The vehicle, a 1926 Ford Coupe, had been stolen earlier that day by Brinnegan as part of their plan, and was going to be their getaway vehicle.  Leo watched as his partner got out, lit a cigarette and leaned up against the side of the car, another prearranged signal that all was well.  The next thirty minutes went slowly, with Leo hyper vigilant for any possible issues and Tom scanning the street for any unexpected signs of police.  At five minutes to three Leo checked his gun to ensure it was loaded, stepped out into the street, tucked his small notebook into the back of his pants and walked toward the station.  As he did so Tom eased the vehicle out into the road and pulled in next to a pump just as Leo stepped onto the property.  No other vehicles were on the lot, the owner and one employee were inside the station and the road was mostly clear of traffic.  

Leo went into the small building just as the employee walked out to assist Tom at the gas pump.  He promptly pulled his gun out and leveled it at the owner, telling him to put his hands up.  He then glanced outside to verify that Brinnegan had the employee under control also, which he did.  Leo waited as his partner walked the man back into the station at which point he was told to lay down on the floor.   

“Keep your hands up.  We’re going to need the cash bag, now.” Leo demanded sharply. “Step away so I can get it.”

“We don’t have much cash.  I’ve already gone to the bank today.”  The owner’s voice was strained but under control. “I’ll open the register for you.”

“Bushwa!” Leo exclaimed back.  “This ain’t no quick hold-up job.  We’ve been watching you and I know you have that cash bag under the counter.”

“I don’t,” the owner began before Leo cut him off.

“In the briefcase, the brown one with the gold clasp on the front.  Get out from behind there now!”

The owner’s shoulders slumped as he realized that Leo did in fact seem to have good information.  “Ok, just don’t hurt Roger, ok, or me.  No need for any violence,” he replied in a low voice as he stepped to the right and shuffled away from the counter.

“Good, good,” Leo said, “you keep an eye on him,” he continued, motioning toward Brinnegan and then the owner.

“Sure, I got them both,” Tom replied.

Leo had just brought the briefcase up and placed it on the counter when the police car pulled into the station.  Tom noticed it first.

“Goddamn! It’s the cops Leo!”

“What?  Didn’t I tell you, no names!” Leo snapped back.

“Sorry, but look!” Tom exclaimed as they both watched the patrol car pull in on the other side of the same pump as the stolen coupe.  

“Stay calm, stay cool.”  Leo took hold of the briefcase and then pointed at the two captives.  “Kosh these two and then follow me.  There’s a back way out of this place right through there,” he stated as he waved toward a door behind the counter.  

Tom did as he was told, pistol whipping both of the men, but when he looked up Leo was already out of sight.  As it turned out, those extra thirty seconds made all the difference in the world.  The police officer, who had forgotten to fill up his vehicle earlier due to being distracted by a personal issue, stepped through the door right as Brinnegan finished and looked around for Leo.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 47)

Leo started by trying to find a willing accomplice which proved to be a little bit harder than he initially thought it would be.  It turned out that the group of hard-core criminals in the area had deep suspicions of outsiders and were wary to engage in work with them unless they came with a good recommendation from another criminal in the area.  Clark Mason proved to be of no use in that regard and actually told Leo to not even try to get back in with his operation if he decided to go through with the robbery.  “We’ll have nothin’ to do with you after that, nothing at all,” was the exact way he had put it to Leo.

He was determined to do it though and eventually, after another two days of working at it, Leo did find someone who seemed willing to join up in the scheme.  Tom Brinnegan was a short, stocky Irishman who had a face full of freckles and walked with a limp that he said came from a childhood incident with a horse.  They had crossed paths while Leo was visiting a speakeasy and, although Brinnegan had been just as wary of Leo as everyone else, he soon was convinced to overlook that initial caution.  Leo told him quite a story, full of enough truth that it could be verified if looked into, along with a new version of his gunshot wound in which Leo was hit in the course of a getaway during a bank robbery.  Tom shared his own story, much more simple than Leo’s, in which he stated he had done a few, “stick up jobs on people at night and robbed a small gift shop about a month ago.”  That did not exactly inspire much confidence in Leo, but he really wanted to get his plan into action and Brinnegan was the only willing participant he could find.  So the two of them entered into what Leo hoped would be a very temporary alliance to pull off the robbery and get him enough money to leave the area.  

Hamilton Texaco Station courtesy Water & Power Assc

Hamilton Texaco Station courtesy Water & Power Assc

The next time they met, when Leo had planned to take Tom and go look at some potential targets, the Irishman arrived with a place already picked out.  He told Leo that it was a place he knew from a time when he lived a little closer to the central part of Los Angeles, and that is did a good amount of business due to its location.  The station, Hamilton’s Texaco, was right outside of the main business section of the city and was surrounded by commercial enterprises that kept traffic flowing in and out of the area.  It was, however, quite a distance from where Leo was currently staying and he was reluctant to target a place so far away, especially as it would make the planning very difficult.  Brinnegan had an answer for that also, indicating that his brother owned a motel in the area and would let them stay there for cheap and not ask any questions.  Still uncertain, Leo agreed to go look at the place if Tom could figure out a way to get the two of them over to the area.

The next day, June 8th, the Irishman pulled up to the Waverley, picked Leo up and they drove to the station, pulling in to get some gas when they arrived.  As the attendant filled up their tank Leo wandered around the station’s lot and out onto the road, having to admit that he was impressed.  It was indeed a very commercial area with much traffic and he observed two cars turn into the Texaco just in the few minutes he stood there watching the road.  There were several employees on duty also, further backing up that the station stayed busy, and none of those people seemed especially concerned with security or the possibility of crime.  Once they were fueled up Tom drove around the area for another twenty minutes and then Leo agreed that the Texaco could make a good target.  Tom took him back to Van Nuys where he packed up, checked out and by three p.m. they had settled into the motel run by Brinnegan’s brother which was just 5 blocks from the gas and oil station.  

Over the next six days the two of them were very busy as Leo took over the planning of the operation.  Brinnegan had told him that his brother knew the sister of a man who worked at the station and Leo set him to tracking that man down to see if he could get any information that might be useful.  Leo took on the job of doing all of the scouting, spending twelve hours at a time out on the streets near the Texaco, carefully watching everything that happened.  He carried a small notebook with him and wrote down everything; the times when he saw police cars, the busiest and slowest periods at the station, when deliveries usually arrived and he also tried to figure out when the owner went to the bank.  That last item was difficult to determine exactly from a distance, especially as the man came and went from the business often during the day.  Leo hoped that Tom might be able to come up with that information but he was disappointed in that regard.  In fact, Tom returned every night with nothing to share other than that he had not been able to figure out a way to meet the man from the station in a way that would not seem suspicious.  Leo pressed him to try harder and specifically mentioned that they needed the bank information.  By the late afternoon of June 14th Leo had a good plan in place that was just missing that one vital piece of information.

“You need to talk to that guy, one way or another, I don’t care anymore if it looks suspicious.  I need to know about when they take the money to the bank!” Leo exclaimed to Tom after another report of failure from his partner.  “We’re going to look like idiots if we rob the place ten minutes after most of the cash is taken to the bank!”

“I just can’t figure out what to do.  I mean, I tried, but he won’t talk much.  I did what you asked and tried harder, I caught him at Lefty’s, he was pretty spliff’ed too but he still wouldn’t talk,”  Tom replied defensively.

“Damn it!  This is the only thing you had to do.  It’s important.”

“I know, but I tried.  I mean we could wait, you know, I could keep working on it.”

“No, no, no!” Leo snapped back.  “We need to get this done.  We’ll just have to make due with my notes.  I think I have a pretty good idea when would be best, but that information would have helped make me certain.   Still, look at this and see what you think.”

Leo put down a hand-drawn map of the area along with notes on the police patrol pattern, the slowest traffic times, a side drawing of how they would get in and out,  and two periods during each day when he thought the owner might be going to the bank.  They talked back and forth, with Tom mostly worried about the police and getting caught.  Leo allayed those fears by telling him that the patrol pattern seemed pretty regular and they would stick to that since, “police can’t help themselves you know, they just drive around in the same circles everyday.”   That seemed to convince Brinnegan and they agreed to do the robbery at three p.m. the following day.

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 46)

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

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

Cloud 9 Motel sign

Cloud 9 Motel sign

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

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

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

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

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 45)

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

twenty dollar bill as issued until 1929

twenty dollar bill as issued until 1929

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have such little faith in me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

van nuys blvd 1926 courtesy ciclavalley.org

van nuys blvd 1926 courtesy ciclavalley.org

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

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 44)

He definitely was much worse than when Stanley had left him in the bed.  The blood had leaked onto the sheets and although Leo opened his left eye when Stanley touched him, he managed only a groan in reply to the question of if he was feeling any better.  Realizing that they had absolutely nothing in the room that was going to be useful in trying to save Leo, Stanley left again and picked up a collection of medical supplies.  Twenty minutes later he was back in the room.  It took another twenty for him to get Leo bandaged up enough to stop the bleeding after which he collapsed into an arm chair, exhausted by the entire ordeal.  He napped for the remainder of the day, getting up hourly to check on Leo and change his bandages when necessary.  At one point, around seven-thirty p.m., his patient was alert enough to be asked just what exactly had happened, and Leo had responded by pointing to the envelope from his sister which still lay on the floor.  After a few more questions, which elicited short, pained answers from Leo, Stanley managed to understand some of what had happened.  By ten o’clock that night, with Leo more responsive and having regained some color in his face, Stanley was feeling pretty good about himself, thinking that he had actually been involved in saving a man’s life.  He drifted off to sleep in the armchair after eating some soup for dinner.

When he awoke at three a.m., neck sore and right arm asleep from the awkward position he had been in, Stanley stumbled over to the bathroom to get a drink of water.  Putting the glass to his lips, he began  drinking while turning around to check on Leo.  As he drained the glass Stanley realized that he had not seen his patient breath once in the entire time since he had gotten up.  Rushing over to the bed, he was relieved to find that although Leo’s respiration was extremely shallow and slow, he was in fact still alive.  Efforts to rouse the injured man failed though and in a panic, not wanting anyone to die on his watch regardless of the consequences, Stanley called the front desk and told them to send an ambulance.  When it arrived the attendants were accompanied by a police officer.

Stanley really did try to bluff the officer but he quickly lost track of the story he was trying to tell and finally broke down and told the truth.  That of course prompted the call for more police and soon a detective showed up just as Leo was being moved out of the room.  Just a few minutes later a reporter arrived and listened in as the detective interviewed Stanley.  They both then escorted him to a vehicle which took them all to the hospital where they were told that Leo was in surgery.  It was ten-thirty the next morning, December 26th, before anyone was allowed in to speak with him.  The detective and reporter both entered Leo’s room at the same time leaving Stanley sipping cold coffee in the waiting area.

Leo told some of the truth during that interview, including clarifying that although the hotel and Stanley all thought the man who shot him was Lorane North, the man’s real name was Robert Lester.  He dodged most of the questions about himself and filled in a few of the details about the supposed “Christmas check” that Stanley had told them was the source of the incident.   After that they left, the detective leaving an officer at the door and the reporter running off to file a story for the next edition of the paper.  When Stanley asked to speak with Leo the young officer on duty would not allow it but several hours later, when he was relieved by a grey-haired and bored looked corporal, he was allowed into the room.   Leo smiled slightly at him as he approached the bed.

excerpt from san bernadino paper on humbert shooting 27 dec 1926

excerpt from san bernadino paper on humbert shooting 27 dec 1926

“You better now?”  Stanley asked.  

“Yeah, yeah.  Much.  Just gotta figure out a way outta this place.”

Stanley looked down at the floor.  “I’m really sorry about getting you here, calling the cops and all.  I mean, I’m sure it’s gonna be trouble for you.  But I thought you were about to die.”

Leo waved a hand weakly in his direction.  “It’s ok.  I could’a done without you telling them what you did but it’s ok.  I probably would’a died back there, so it’s better that I ended up here.”

“I, I just didn’t know what to say.  The cops scare me, honest, they really do.  I just…’” his voice trailed off as he continued to look at the floor.  

“Really, it’s ok.  I’ll fix it.  Now come here, closer,”  Leo replied softly, his voice starting to lessen in strength.  

When Stanley bent down so he could hear, Leo reached an arm up and grabbed him by the back of the head.  His touch was cold and clammy, causing Stanley to wince involuntarily.   He looked up and Leo’s piercing blue eyes were staring at him.

‘You gotta get out of town Stan, you gotta leave.”  His voice was very low, just a faint whisper.

“Why?  What do you mean?  I’ll stay here and make sure they take good care of you.”

“No.  It’s time to get your facts straight.  You know we were breaking the law back in Bakersfield and being tangled up in this thing here ain’t going to make things easy.  They’re gonna get you too.  I might’a got you involved in some stuff you weren’t ready for, so consider this me making up for it.   There’s some money back at the room, it’s sewn into the lining of my valise.  Get back there before they think to collect it up and leave, go far away, and hide.”

Stanley had started to sweat profusely while Leo spoke, suddenly facing up to some of the facts that he had known internally for quite awhile.  He took a handkerchief from his pocket to dry off his face and neck.  

“I can’t, I mean, oh no,”  Stanley replied, wiping his face again.  “I cannot just leave, what about Dad, my stuff back there?”

Leo’s grip on his head had loosened due to the sweat but returned in full force.  “No.  You gotta go now.  Get the money and go.  Try Minneapolis, they’ll never think of looking for you there.”  Leo released his hold after that and closed his eyes, seemingly falling back asleep.  Stanley stood there, hat and wet handkerchief in hand,  wondering if he really had the nerve to follow through on Leo’s advice.  

…to be continued