A Burning Cold Morning (Part 30)

Leo flipped it around and saw the name R. Lester in the top left-hand corner, although no address was included underneath.  He thanked her for keeping it, tucked it into the pocket of his suit coat, and then spent the remainder of the day with his family, eating a delicious roast dinner and even helping with the dishes.  He was very interested in the contents of that letter, but also did not want to have to share it around if asked to, or answer any questions about it at all.  Olivia commented to him on his reluctance to open it, wondering in a quiet aside to him if this was more of his secrets, but he kept his cool and refrained from replying or opening the letter.  As he said good night to his mother that evening he felt strongly that he might never see her again and he hugged her closely,  longer than he might have otherwise.  He felt he had made amends and that this was his goodbye to her.  

Later, he slipped his finger under the edge of the envelope and pulled out two sheets of paper.  The letter was dated June 17, 1925.

Leo –

I had figured to forget you and be the better for it but sitting around that prison just made me think about you all the more.  I noticed that you never had the courage to contact me, not that this is surprising given what you obviously are.  I decided to not let you go without calling you out for that, calling you exactly what you are, and that’s a rat!  You sold me out in Hawaii and that put me away for four years that could’ve been many more if not for getting out on good behavior.  You should’ve kept your mouth shut because now I got you on my list and I’ll be taking care of you the first chance I get.  I didn’t learn much in prison but one thing I did learn is that rats need to be taken care of.  I’ll be in Bakersfield if you have the nerve to face me like a man.  Otherwise, look for me to be finding you anytime, 

RFL 

Leo slammed his fist hard into the wall and crumpled up the letter.  He had never said a word to anyone about Lester and he surely was not a rat.  He had stayed silent about everything and was not even sure what had ever happened to his partner after his own arrest in Hawaii.  Leo had actually hoped more than once that Lester had in fact gotten away clean from that scheme.  He had even told Lester in that letter he wrote from McNeil that he had kept the code of silence.  Leo was furious, and became even more so as he thought about it, thought about Lester telling others about what a rat he was, how he had betrayed his partner in crime.  That could threaten to undo all of the progress Leo had made in making sure he was seen as a stand-up member of the criminal community.  After about fifteen minutes of  fuming away about it Leo did manage to realize that it was possible Lester had never received his letter, although that did not make things any better.  He still had to straighten matters out and make sure his reputation was repaired.  He had to get to Bakersfield right away and get to work on finding the man, which he knew would be a challenge as he had no address and doubted Lester would be very conspicuous.  He could find him though, he had to.

The next morning Leo called Olivia and told her that he was leaving immediately to take care of some business that had come up.  She was not sympathetic and scolded him for running away so soon.  She did agree to sell what little of value there was among his items in the trunk and to forward the money to him, and Leo told her he would send back an address as quickly as he could.  He then left on April 9th, his route and actions again unknown, and something must have happened along the way because he does not arrive in Bakersfield until May 3rd.  On that morning he checked into the just completed El Tejon hotel under the name Lee O’Dare, sending a brief note back to Olivia with the address that same day.

el tejon courtesy kern county library

El Tejon Hotel courtesy kern county library

For the next month of so he did what he had learned to do in any new town, which was to start to make inroads into the criminal community.  He felt that he had a little more credibility now, more time and experience under his belt, and that brought him a little more confidence as he started to make connections.  Leo passed on a few early opportunities, considering them to be beneath his level of skill, and spent most of his time looking in phone books and other public documents for Robert Lester.  He also made very discreet inquires, not wanting to give his former partner any warning that he was in town and looking for him, as he preferred the coming confrontation to be a surprise.  He figured that would give him the upper hand.  Although none of these early efforts led to Lester, Leo did meet one interesting character who would play a large part in future events.  That man was known simply as the Clockmaker. 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 29)

“Yeah, sure, sure.  So what’s the answer?  Did Mom say she would let me come up to the house?”

“Hardly Leo, she won’t hear of it right now.  She’s still hurt you took off like that and a lot more hurt over all these years of silence and worry  you put her through.  Father you could talk to, but not at the house, he won’t cross Mom on that, so you’d have to catch him out in the fields someday.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll think about that I guess.” 

They sat in silence for a few minutes after that, placing an order and then starting to eat their sandwiches after they came to the table.  Eventually Olivia spoke again.

“Don’t worry about it though, she’ll let you come over eventually.  She’s got that letter.”

Leo’s eyes narrowed a little.  “What letter?”

“You know, that explains something else too.  We just thought it was a misspelling on that envelope, it said Leo Humbert you know, like someone who didn’t know you too well wrote it.  But I guess that was the name you were using, huh?”

Leo nodded silently and looked back at her.  She tapped her fingers agains the table a few times and then continued. 

“Anyway, it came in the mail a while back.  It was in bad shape when it arrived actually, looked like it had been awhile in the mail before it managed to reach us.  She’s been waiting to give it to you and she won’t fail at that.  Besides, your stuff is still there too.”

“My stuff?  You can’t mean all that rubbish I left behind in the house when I moved out?”

“That’s exactly what I mean brother.  All your useless stuff that you just left there for us to clean up and be a reminder of you leaving, that you weren’t around anymore.   Rather inconsiderate I always thought.  I told father to get rid of it straight away but Mom wouldn’t have it.  So it’s all there in some trunk we had, packed away for your inconsiderate self to pick up someday.”

“Harsh words Ollie, I never asked anyone to keep it.”

“You should have taken it or gotten rid of it yourself, not expected us to.”

“Fine then.  Who’s the letter from?  Do you know?”

“Oh yes, thats another thing I spend my time on, keeping track of your trash and your letters.”

Leo thought it best to stop talking then as his sister was winding herself up into another lecture mode, sure to continue on with her discussion of his name change, inconsiderate behavior and other faults.   As they both finished eating Olivia blew out a deep breath.

“Some Lester person, I can’t remember if that’s his first or last name.”

“Huh?”

“The letter silly, it’s from someone named Lester.”

Leo immediately knew it had to be from Robert, his old partner in crime from the Kilauea Mercantile Company scam in Hawaii.  Although he could not recall ever doing so, he must have told him at some point that he was from New Munich, and apparently Robert had used that information to send him a letter.  Maybe it was in response to the one he wrote from McNeil, or maybe it had been written for some other reason.  Either way, he knew that he had to get it from his mother as he felt it was likely to include information that he did not want his mother or the police to read. 

“She didn’t open it, did she?”

“Of course not Leo, opening other people’s mail is not something us Hombert’s do.”  She said that louder than necessary and then walked out of the diner, leaving Leo with the bill and a slightly red face.

It took another twelve days but then Leo’s mother agreed to allow him into the house and he went there, dressed in his best suit and carrying flowers.  He had never really felt bad about the way he left, and had also not thought much about his family since then, but hearing his mother was hurt by it did give him some remorse and he hoped to make things right.  She was aloof when he first entered, remaining in her seat as he handed her the flowers and only nodding in reply to his, “It’s so good to see you Mom.”  That did not last long though, and after a very profuse apology from Leo and an awkward attempt by him at a hug, she finally stood up, grabbed him and pulled her long absent son in for a heart-felt embrace. Olivia had not mentioned the name change to their mother, and she did not bring up the supposed misspelling of his last name as she handed him the piece of mail she pulled from a drawer in her desk. 

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 28)

ford ad 1926 sedan

Ford ad 1926 sedan

The two of them did manage to make it out of town safely, ditching the inspection car and running into a small wooded area where Leo had indeed stashed a getaway vehicle.  It was carefully hidden, parked in a small depression at the center of the woods and covered by a large, dark canvas that had branches and bushes arranged on top.  The car was as nondescript as it could be for the day, a black 1925 Ford Model T two door sedan, and they both climbed in quickly and started off south away from Olympia.  At Veronica’s request Leo took a turn and headed for Tenino, where she said she would catch a train to “somewhere far away from here.”   Before actually getting to the station Leo pulled off behind a tree and demanded that Veronica get the money belt out right then and there so they could split their money up properly and fairly.  After a few minutes spent lamenting the fact that Leo apparently did not trust her enough to count it out herself she complied and five minutes later they were back on their way to the depot.  As she got out of the car she asked Leo a question.

“How did you really know to hide those getaway cars?  Did someone tip you off?”

“No, nothing like that.  It was just good planning.”  He smiled back as he replied, obviously pleased with himself.

“You handled it pretty well Leo, you really did.  Stayed cool and got us out.  It’s more that I would have credited you with being capable of, you know.  You’ve always been a nervous fellow.”

“Well, I had to get better at this criminal stuff sooner or later I guess.  Especially as it seems the only life I’m going to be living.”

“Well, good luck to you.  Maybe we’ll cross paths again, we already have twice.”  She gave him a friendly smile, one of the more pleasant ones she had ever given anyone, and it made Leo just a little bit nervous.  “Where you off to Leo?”

He shook his head and replied.  “Don’t worry about that, and I won’t worry about where you’re going either.  Good luck to you Veronica.”

With that, he reached over and closed the door, taking a moment to wave at her before putting the car in gear and driving away.  He had no idea what he was going to do next, but he did know he needed to get very far away from Olympia as quickly as possible.  He drove to the point of exhaustion, finally pulling off the road outside Grant’s Pass in Oregon and falling asleep in the back of the car.  

The next day he felt comfortable enough to take some time to assess his options.   He had almost decided to head to California, somewhere in the northern part of the state, when the idea struck him to head back to Minnesota.  He was not quite sure why that suddenly sounded like a good idea, but he could not get it out of his head and eventually decided to heed the call and head back to his state of birth.  

Leo left Olympia in early March of 1926 and nothing is known about his route of travel, adventures or misadventures along the way back to Minnesota.  He also never mentioned when exactly he decided to return to New Munich, as his original plan was only to go back to Minnesota.  We do know that by March 27th of 1926 he was back near his family as an argument he had with his sister Olivia was overhead by some locals.  She was the only one from his family who would speak to him at this point and she had agreed to meet him for lunch at the local diner.  The argument started before the order was even taken.

“You know I did try to find you a few times.  I called around to your old friends, even that man you worked for is Sauk Center.  And the Army, I tried there too as you told me several times you were thinking about that as a way out of here.  I never found you though, but still, I didn’t forget.”

“It would have been hard to find me Ollie.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I changed my name when I left here.”

“You did what Leo?  How could you think of such a thing?”  Olivia had slapped her hand down on the table as she spoke and several of the patrons turned their heads to look at the two of them, although she did not seem to notice.  “What’s so bad about us that you can’t keep your real name?  How could you disrespect mother and father like that?”  She kept at him for several more sentences until Leo held up his hand to stop her.

“Listen, it wasn’t like that.  I just, well,” he paused and shrugged, “I just wanted a new start, that’s all.”

“Whatever would you need that for?”

“Nothing, no reason,” Leo replied, waving his hand, “can we talk about something else?”

“I won’t accept it Leo, I just won’t, that’s all.  You’ll be a Hombert to us forever so don’t try any other name out around here.  Don’t you dare, ok?”

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 4)

There is not any conclusive evidence as to when Leo first started to experiment with changing his name.  He would use several aliases throughout his criminal career and it is likely that he began the practice before he left New Munich for the first time.  There are a few records, old and difficult to accurately assess, that seem to indicate that he used the name Lee O’Dare (a play on his first name) at some point in the mid-1910’s while he was still in school.  These references are on documents from the Sauk Center and Meier Grove areas where he may have been picking up work in the summer.  It would appear from the records available in New Munich that he was still going officially by Hombert when he graduated from Saint Boniface Catholic School in 1918.  After that the trail of the name Hombert stays in New Munich with his family while that of Leo starts to go in a different direction.  Soon after his graduation, Leo enlisted in the United States Army under the name Humbert and served in the Quartermaster Corps until 1920.  During that service he ended up in Hawaii and it is there that he began to commit more serious crimes and where he also met a man with whom he would cross paths again in later years.  That man, Robert F. Lester, would in fact try to kill Leo in the late 1920’s, although they started out as true brothers-in-crime.

The Valley of the Giants poster

The Valley of the Giants poster

It was the beginning of 1920, January 12th, when Leo first met Robert in the mess hall of the Army fort where they were both stationed.  The fort was a large one and the mess hall was always busy, with seating hard to come by during the peak breakfast and dinner hours.  You pretty much had to grab an open space wherever you could find one and on this day Robert did just that, grabbing a open spot next to Leo just after a sergeant stood up to leave.  After a few minutes of silent eating, Robert asked Leo if he was going to attend the movie that night in the airplane hanger.  He was met with silence, which did not discourage him as he was one of those overly-talkative kinds of people who seem impervious to social signals telling them to leave people alone.  Robert launched into a monologue on his opinion about the movie, The Valley of the Giants, which he had seen four times already and which he thought was a terrible film.  He did seem to think that Grace Darmond was quite excellent as Shirley Summer but the rest of the cast “stunk it up.”  Leo did not reply to any of it although a few others at the table jumped into the conversation, most of them agreeing about the general quality of the movie and wondering why the Army insisted on showing it to them every few months.  Somewhere during that discussion Leo slipped away, his tray neatly returned to the kitchen wash line before Robert noticed the vacant seat across the table, one that was then immediately filled by another man.  Ten days later he passed Leo in the courtyard outside the supply office and tried to speak with him again.

“Hey there, you remember me?”

Leo looked over his way, seeing a tall, olive skinned man with jet-black hair and a wide, open face approaching.  The man walked with a small limp and had arms that swung too much as he walked.  Leo shook his head and kept walking.

“Hey there, quiet man, I’m talking to you!” the tall man called out, “you there, stop for a minute.”  By then the man was walking abreast of Leo and pulling at his sleeve.

“What do you want?”

“I’m just trying to talk to you for a minute.  Don’t you remember me?  From the other day in the mess hall?  We were talking about movies and I,”

“Yes, I certainly do,” Leo interrupted, “and I’m hoping to not get another dose of it right now.”

“How about you there, you’re not a very nice egg are you?”

“I’m plenty nice but not to every random person I meet.”

“It don’t hurt you none to talk to people, does it?”  The tall man patted his pockets quickly then continued.  “Butt me, will ya? I’m out.”

Reluctantly Leo reached into his pocket and pulled out his cigarettes, offering one to the man with a look of displeasure.

“See there, you’re not so bad after all.  Robert Lester by the way.”  He stuck out his hand, which Leo took without offering his name in reply.  He started to step away but the man grabbed his arm.

“No rush, what could it be?  Nothing around this place these days needs that much of a hurry attached to it.  Why don’t you smoke with me?”

“Why would I?”

“Well, it’s the friendly thing to do and I might have something interesting to say.”

“Judging from the last time I would doubt that,” Leo replied, although he did have a slight smile on his face now, which Robert picked up on.

“See there, you’re better already.  Now, let’s talk about making a few clams together.”

It was there, in the courtyard of an Army fort, that Robert Lester outlined in a low voice to Leo Humbert a scheme that would ultimately land them both in prison, although it would also make them a good amount of money for a short amount of time.  Robert was a truck driver in the motor pool, a man who drove large delivery vehicles all over the island on a daily basis.  Leo was a part of the quartermaster’s department, and had access to quite a large amount of inventory.  Those items were desired by various groups and organizations out in town and also at ports around the islands, and people were ready to pay for them.  Robert knew those people and could facilitate the deals.  All he needed was a partner on the inside of the quartermaster department.  Leo, who had been glancing around nervously as Robert spoke, shook his head slowly when he finished.

“I can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too dangerous.  Besides, you don’t strike me as the safest person to do business with anyway.  You talk too much and too openly.  I mean, look at where we are right now.”

“No one can hear us, there isn’t anyone else here.  Trust me, I know my onions on this, we can make good money.”

“Why ask me anyway?  I could just as easily turn you in.”

“I doubt it.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re already selling supplies yourself, you’re just not very good at it.”

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 2)

I am sure that convicts, even dying ones, tell lies all the time.  I do not think that sets them too far apart from the rest of humanity.  Truthfulness may not be our strongest virtue.  Researching things as frequently and as in detail as I often do has also made it obvious that there are all kinds of false leads, apocryphal stories, urban legends and misreported facts about every imaginable historical event.  So, some random journal entry about a generally insignificant criminal’s death is not exactly a eureka moment.  I have always given a little extra weight to “dying utterances” though and it did seem likely from the info in the journal that Leo probably knew his time was up when he pulled that guard in close for those last words.  It struck me as interesting and worth a second look so I dove in and, well, that was a long time ago.  The story that unfolded from my research is truly an interesting one, a hidden tale of Minneapolis and the surrounding area that includes all of the usual trigger words; criminals, murder, deceit, gangsters and explosions.  It also includes things that will give you more hope, things such as bravery, courage, forgiveness and redemption.  And I definitely found out that Leo Humbert was not as insignificant as he seemed to be at first.  For now, let’s step back into time a ways and onto the baseball field in New Munich, Minnesota on July 6th, 1910.

new munich mn 2017

new munich mn 2017

 

It was, and still is, a very small town, although between 1900 and 1910 it had gone through one of its two large population booms.  A forty percent increase had left New Munich with one hundred and ninety residents by 1910 and that growth would continue for another decade, ending in 1920 when the population was three hundred and twenty five.  Since that time, things have pretty much stayed the same.  The Hombert’s (for that was Leo’s last name at birth) had been in the area for awhile by the time this growth started, having moved to the area in 1891 after getting married in Ohio.  The patriarch, Benjamin Hombert, a man with sloping shoulders, blue eyes and thick brown hair, was a farmer and occasionally picked up extra work as a day laborer.  He and his wife Lizzie produced a large family of four girls and four boys, of whom Leo was the third youngest of all, and the most junior boy.

part of 1910 census hombert family only

part of 1910 census hombert family only

As a child Leo was wiry and “all angles and edges” as his mother wrote in her diary several times, and he had the sharp features which he would carry with him through most of his life.  They all helped their father on the farm and the family was generally known as honest and hard-working.  The Hombert’s took good care of their children and seven of them became solid parts of the Stearns County community.  Leo, however, would do little to ever repay or appreciate the nurturing and safety they provided.

Ben Hombert’s  great passion, other than his family, was baseball and he played on the local team, a collection of energetic and scrappy men, all much younger than him.  The team was known for getting into fights on the field, although Leo’s father never participated and was know as “Softy” because of it.  He played mostly in the outfield and could still catch up to a fly ball pretty well although his arm was “not the force it used to be,” as he would say.  Ben encouraged his children to come and watch his games and practices, hoping to give them insight into his own love of baseball.  He had not been greatly successful in this though, and although his daughter Olivia though it was a grand game, Ben had hoped one of his son’s might pick up the sport and play alongside him.  Leo seemed to be his last chance for this and he often would take the boy, protesting or not, along with him.  It probably was not the best way to encourage a youngster to like something, and young Leo would usually misbehave in some way as his father was on the field.  This usually amounted to pranks or general mischief but this particular day would mark what could later be identified as the beginning of a long criminal career for Leo Hombert.

It was a Wednesday, their usual practice day, and the team was trying to get in a practice session before the rain, which was threatening in the eastern sky, started to fall in earnest.  A game was coming up against a good Saint Cloud club and every man on the team wanted to beat them.  Light, intermittent showers had been falling throughout the day but there was a break in the weather around two p.m.  Although on many occasions only a few of the players made it, this session was fully attended as the local newspaper was sending a photographer to take the team’s picture.

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

new munich baseball team 1910 courtesy lakesnwoods

Whether they would admit it or not, all of the men were looking forward to cutting that page out of the edition in which it appeared, or buying a few extra copies to keep around and show off.  There were not many opportunities for celebrity in New Munich.

The team manager was Charlie Amsden, a man born in Sauk Centre who had moved over to New Munich to work in a bank owned by his brother Michael, who was also the owner of the local baseball club.  While Michael was tall and imposing, Charlie had been crippled by an accident in his early teens and years of limited mobility had left him frail and thin.  He often looked like he was wearing clothing that was several sizes too big, usually because he just could not find items to fit his very thin frame.  The move to New Munich though had seemed to energize him and his brother had purchased a top of the line wheelchair for Charlie.  After that he was often seen zipping down the aptly named Main Street of the town and the residents liked his quick smile and dry sense of humor, especially when he applied it to himself.  He also had taken on the task of managing his brother’s baseball club and found great enjoyment in the camaraderie of the team.  As they were all assembled that day, circled around their proud owner in front of the chicken wire outfield fence of the field, Leo began his life of crime with a crippled man as his victim.

…to be continued