A Burning Cold Morning (Part 72)

“You’re new.” Leo commented when the man stopped just a few feet away from the table where they were playing cards.

“I am, just yest’day in fact, over from Ramsey jail.  On a robbery charge.”

“You must’a been found guilty then,” one of the other card players commented back.

“Yes, yes indeed.  It was just a little thing really, easy job, shoulda been a clean getaway.”

All three of them men playing cards chuckled.  

“Ain’t they all,” Leo commented before motioning to the man to sit next to him.  

After another hand of the card game was played Leo took up the conversation again.

“Leo,” he said, pointing at himself, “and that bald-headed fella is Larry and then Mike.” 

“James Fillmore, but call me Jimmy.”

“Where you come from originally?” Mike asked.

“Ohio born but mostly Illinois.  Spent my young’r days in Chicago,” Jimmy replied.  

“How’d you get pinched on your last job?” Leo asked.

“Hell, it was that damn explosion that did us in.  Christ, what a mess that was, almost blew up the whole damn place.”

Browning King and Company Building courtesy cassgilbertsociety.org

Browning King and Company Building courtesy cassgilbertsociety.org

Jimmy went on to relay a story of the safe-cracking crew he had been working with and their attempt to break into the vault that was within the Browning, King and Company store in Saint Paul.  He had done two previous jobs with the same crew except that this time they brought along a new member, a fellow that they called the Clockmaker.  After a question from Larry about what they needed a clock repair man for on a robbery job, Jimmy informed them that this man actually was an explosive expert who apparently fixed clocks as a hobby.  

“At least they all thought he was an expert.” Jimmy said.  “That lasted right up until he set that charge off, supp’sed to just be enough to open that big ol’ safe.  Instead, blew up everything in sight and almost killed every damn one of us.  We ran like hell out of that place but people were alr’dy in the street and the police not far behind.”

“Funny, I knew a clockmaker once,” Leo commented, “he was an odd fellow, getting a little crazy I think when I last knew of him.” 

“This fella seemed a bit off for sure, mumbled to himself a lot.  Never found out too much about him ‘cept that he was from California.  Well, that and the thing about the clocks.”

Leo cocked his head to the side when he heard that piece of information.  “California?  Not Bakersfield I hope?”

“Yeah, I think it was there. Somethin’ like that anyway, I don’t know much about places in California.”

Leo then asked for a description of this man, which turned out to not sound exactly like the man he had been a partner with a decade prior.  He asked some more questions and over the course of about five more minutes it became apparent to him that this Clockmaker was in fact, through some kind of ridiculous coincidence, Stanley Bittenhopper.

They continued on playing cards after that but Leo was not focusing on the game.  Once the yard time was done and he was back in cell, he laid back and considered this new piece of information.  Then he applied it to his current obsession and soon came to what he knew was going to be the final plan, the one he would use to get some satisfaction.  He would use his old friend Stanley’s newly acquired bomb making skills to get his revenge on Otto and the Marlborough.  All he needed now was for his parole to be granted and then he would put his plan into action. 

Good news in that regard arrived on November 26th and on December 2nd of 1937 Leo walked out of Stillwater Prison on parole.  The revenge plan was definitely a priority but he stopped first to visit Jenny Tillman, a tall blonde woman to whom he had been writing while incarcerated. They spent three days together at a small cabin she had arranged at Leo’s insistence prior to his release.  Borrowing some money from her, he then traveled to Minneapolis where he spent a day spying around the Marlborough to verify that Otto was still employed by the hotel. 

Cherokee Heights Grocery

Cherokee Heights Grocery

After that, funded now by a quick hold-up job he pulled in Saint Anthony, he took a room above the Cherokee Heights Grocery in West Saint Paul and started trying to reach Stanley by phone.  It took four days of calling around before his old partner finally answered.

“Hello.”

“Hey Stanley, guess who?” Leo said, his tone friendly but condescending.

“Who is this?”  The man answered quietly.

“Don’t you remember my voice, old pal?” 

“I don’t know who you are.  I’m hangin’ up.”  

“Whoa! Hold up now, it’s Leo, it’s me Stan.  Remember?”

A silence followed, about ten seconds of nothing, then Stanley replied.

“Leo huh? Yeah, I remember.  What you been up to?”

Leo started to answer but Stanley cut him off.

“Good lord man, it’s been ages, ya know?  It was such a damn long time ago, what a time we had back then!  Those were the best times.”   His voice was exuberant and filled with happiness. 

Leo was taken aback by the sudden change in Leo’s tone and manner.

“Yeah, we had fun, made some money,” he replied.

Stanley ranted on for about three more minutes before falling into a sudden silence again.

“You there Stan?” Leo asked.  “Stan? Hello?”

It took another minute but finally a reply was heard.  “I’m here.  What do you want, anyway?”  The voice was soft again, with a timid, hesitant tone.  

…to be continued

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 71)

Stillwater State Prison

Stillwater State Prison

As Leo settled into his life at Stillwater Prison he turned to his usual practice of playing up his criminal credentials, all of his exaggerations now augmented with some of the recent real-life escapades with which he had been involved.  He was a bit of a minor celebrity due to the double robbery of the bank in Meier Grove and he took every opportunity he could get to tell the story of his act of revenge.  Occasionally the details of his tale would be contradicted by Williams, who seemed more content with the actual version, but Leo’s personality was much louder than that of his partner.  As such, he managed to become known as a player of some importance within the society of prisoners while Williams faded into relative obscurity.  In his free time Leo continued to read civil engineering books, play cards and write letters to various women, some of whom he had known on the outside and some who were lonely heart types that wrote to prisoners at the prison.  

He did have several issues with his diabetes during his incarceration, although he usually self-reported when he was feeling ill and refused to be seen for any kind of regular treatment.  For this reason, although the individual incidents were recorded by the medical staff, no formal entry was made in his prison record to indicate he was a diabetic.  Leo was generally well behaved and there are no indications that he was ever disciplined for violating major prison rules or causing any issues.  In fact, the major entry in his file involves him protecting another inmate during an exercise yard fight.  During that incident Leo shielded the man, who already had a broken arm suffered during a previous assault, from a group of four prisoners who were intent on either killing the man or causing some further severe injuries.  It is noted in the file that Leo’s action, “likely saved Foster from death.” 

One issue that Leo spent a lot of time thinking about, especially in the early morning hours and before going to sleep at night, was Otto Knaack and the Marlborough Hotel.  He had certainly stewed, ranted and raved about it before but during his time in prison in the 1930’s this became a full blown obsession. Leo became even more steadfast in his belief that Otto’s actions and the hotel’s cooperation with the authorities had robbed him of his prime years as a criminal, interfering in the growth and improvement of his skills and reputation.  He believed that without their interference he would have gotten away with the initial robbery in Meier Grove and gone on to further success, happiness and most importantly, noteriety.  Leo wrote many letters, full of threats and promises of revenge, only to tear them up once he had completed them.  He did want to do something to make the hotel and the janitor pay though, and this time he wanted to make sure that it worked out the way he intended.  

L Humbert

L Humbert

As the years went on, Leo’s features changed of course and he went from looking like a rather severe-minded accountant to the appearance of a middle-aged salesman.  His hairline receded a little bit more, although it still stayed a dark chestnut color and his eyes remained alert and intense.  Some of his fellow inmates would say that when he had his glasses on he looked like FDR from the side, but Leo always scoffed at that. He would tell them that his nose was much too sharp and he was not, after all, a Democrat anyway.  

Time moved on and as October of 1937 approached Leo was informed that he was going to be up before the parole board the next time that it was in session.  This caught him by surprise, as he did not believe he was eligible until 1939 but was told that the warden had actually recommended him for early consideration.  Apparently this was due to his good behavior, as no one including Leo could come up with any other reason why the warden would have taken this action.  He had done nothing to especially ingratiate himself with the man during his time at Stillwater.  

Leo prepared himself well though and when he went before the board he made a very positive impression.   He talked about “going straight”, finding a job in the civil engineering field that he had educated himself in, and played up his protection of Jack Foster during the prison yard fight.  The board president asked him a few questions about how he planned to stay away from crime and seemed satisfied with the answers.  After he was dismissed from the hearing Leo went back to his cell feeling like things had gone well.  He received confirmation of that over the next several days and became convinced that he would be paroled when the board announced their decision in late November.  That belief got him more focused than ever on plotting out specific ways to enact revenge on Otto and the Marlborough.

Leo went through a long list of possibilities in regard to accomplishing this goal, a few of which he planned out in much greater detail than others.  He wanted to stay clear of a murder charge but stilll included a plan to run down Otto with a delivery truck and another one which involved poisoning the janitor and starting a fire in the hotel’s main administration office.  In all his plans though he was very focused on Otto and the hotel itself and abandoned ideas that would involve too much risk of hurting other guests and residents of the building.  On the afternoon of November 15th Leo was playing cards with two other inmates during their time in the exercise yard when a third man approached the group.  He was a tall, thin black man with closely cropped hair, walking with a slight limp and whistling softly.  Leo did not recognize him and one of the men he was playing with commented that this inmate had just arrived yesterday.  

…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.  

KSP Eddyville

KSP Eddyville

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:

Brother – 

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. 

1929 Essex sedan

1929 Essex sedan

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