I think if the train had been late, things might have been different. Perhaps the three men waiting would have attracted attention, or grown bored or been out of position. But the overnight Missouri Pacific train from Fort Smith, Arkansas was unfortunately right on schedule, pulling into Kansas City’s Union Station at 7:15 A.M. on Saturday, June 17th., 1933. And because it was punctual, the train efficiently, smoothly delivered an FBI agent, three local cops and one gangster on time to their destination. And then there was the joker in the deck, which turned the aces into eights.
It all started 24 hours before with the capture of Frank “Jellybean” Nash, ““the most successful bank robber in U.S. history,” a 20 year career thief who worked with the Barker gang, the Dillinger mob amongst others, and of whom it was hard, “…to find anyone who didn't have something nice to say (about him)…”, according to Clyde Callahan, co-author of the book “Heritage of an Outlaw”. Even the cops liked Frank. While serving a 25 year term in Leavenworth, Frank walked right out the front gate, carrying a copy of Shakespeare under his arm. No one even thought to stop him. Frank was so well connected and so often employed as a bank robber that in the summer of 1933 he could afford to take his wife and daughter to Hot Springs, Arkansas for a vacation. And it was there, on July 16th, that two FBI agents, Joe Lackey and Frank Smith, and an Oklahoma police chief, Otto Reid, took Frank into custody at gunpoint in a Hot Springs cigar store.Dick Galatas ran gambling in Hot Springs, and he took the arrest of an underworld tourist in his territory, personally. The local cops, paid more by Galatas than by the taxpayers, threw up roadblocks on the highway back to Little Rock calling Frank a kidnap victim. So the FBI took their prisoner the other way, on the long drive west and then north to Fort Smith. There they intended to catch the 8:30 P.M. overnight train to Kansas City. They wired ahead to Special Agent in Charge of the F.B.I..’s KC office, R.E. Vetterli, to meet them at Union Station in the morning. But that train was late in arriving at Fort Smith, and a stringer for the Associated Press spotted the three men and their shackled prisoner in the waiting room. Shortly there after the story broke on the wires: “Frank Nash…was recaptured today at Hot Springs, by three Department of Justice agents…They revealed the identity of the prisoner for the first time here...” Galatas had already asked for help from Johnny Lazia (coatless), who ran the gambling and vice for the Pendegrast machine, which controlled Missouri politics and Kansas City. As a newspaper editor at the time described the level of mob activity, “If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris. Go to Kansas City.”
And the man Lazia assigned to this problem was an old buddy of Frank Nash’s, an ex-South Dakota Sheriff turned bank robber, Vernon Miller (above).
Working out of Mulloy’s Tavern and the Monroe Hotel, next door to Pengergast’s office at 1908 Main Street (above), Miller called in two more gunmen to assist him, their identities disputed to this day. And it occurs to me that now might be a good time to address the question of just why crime in America in 1933 was centrally organized but law enforcement was not. When J. Edgar Hoover took over the Bureau of Investigation in 1924 he commanded just 400 agents. He spent the next forty years battling small “r” republicans, who were suspicious of a big federal police agency. Hoover eventually overcame their resistance, sheepherding the growth of the F.B.I in both numbers and budgets. And yet, until 1963, Hoover denied the existence of a centralized crime organization in America, commonly called the mafia, even after the Appalachian Conference of November of 1957, where more than 60 criminal bosses from the U.S., Canada and Italy were detained by local cops in upstate New York. Hoover said, “The F.B.I has much more important functions to accomplish than arresting gamblers all over the country.” Hoover said, “Obviously we have neither the manpower nor the time to waste on such speculative measures.” Author Jeffreys-Jones has compared Hoover’s denial to Holocaust-denial. But whatever his reasoning, there is no justification for the law abiding men and women who paid with their lives for his denial. That July morning the three agents, Frank Smith, Joe Lackey and Oklahoma Chief Otto Reid, left the train heavily armed. According to research done by Pulitzer winner Bob Unger – “The Union Station Massacre: The Original Sin of the FBI” - agent Lackey inadvertently grabbed a pump action Winchester Model 1897 shot gun, which belonged to Chief Reid, who grabbed Lackey’s twelve gauge, also by mistake.
On the platform they were met by Agent in Charge Vetterli(above) and agent Ray Caffrey(below)......and two K.C. detectives, Bill Grooms and Frank Hermanson (below). As the seven men moved through station, the third largest in the country, they formed a V, with prisoner Frank Nash sheltered in the center.A two door Model T Ford were parked in front of the station. Nash was placed in the front bench seat, while Lackey, Smith and Reed sat in the back. As Agent Caffey was about to enter in the driver’s side door, Joe Lackey noticed three men appear from behind a green Plymouth parked next to their Ford. At least two carried machine guns. And, according to Bob Unger, Lackey now found himself holding the wild cardThe Winchester 1897 was a WWI army surplus shotgun and lacked a safety feature most modern shotguns have – a trigger disconnect. In the slam mode this “trench sweeper” would automatically fire if the trigger is compressed and the action is pumped, forcing a round into the chamber. Unfamiliar with this feature, without even waiting to get his weapon up, Lackey pumped a first round into the chamber; as he did so the weapon went off and blasted load of shot a foot away, into the back of Frank Nash’s head (below), and a stray pellet also went “…right into the side of the head of agent Caffrey”Panicked at the unexpected explosion, Lackey pumped the action on the shotgun a second time, and again the weapon immediately discharged. In an interview Bill Unger described what happened next. “Hermanson is in a direct line between Lackey and the machine gun wielders. Joe Lackey gets off a second shot, which takes of the left side of Frank Hermansons’ head…. So here we are in the first two seconds of shooting, and already Frank Nash – the top of his head is gone and he is dead, and Ray Caffrey is dying of a fatal wound….And Hermanson is dead. So far no one has fired a shot except Joe Lackey…At this point everyone begins to shoot, and there’s massive firings by machine guns, and so forth, and by the time all of this is over, Bill Grooms, the other Kansas City policeman, is also dead. And Reed in back seat….when they finally get to him, he has a fatal wound…”The entire shootout took less than 30 seconds. When one of the gunmen finally reached the target car he glanced inside and shouted, “They’re all dead. Let’s get out of here.”They weren’t all dead. Agent Lackey was wounded three times and barely survived. Agent Smith, having ducked as the shooting started, was uninjured. And that quickly the Kansas City Massacre was over. Of the men who could be proven to have been responsible for the shootout, Vern Miller was found murdered and mutilated, outside of Detroit, Michigan 5 months and two weeks later. And one week short of the first anniversary of the massacre John Lazia was gunned down out side of his hotel. Ballistics tests run years later indicated the gun which fired the bullets which cut down Lazia, had also been used in the massacre. As he lay dying in a Kansas Hospital, John Lazia asked the doctor, “Doc, what I can't understand is why anybody would do this to me? Why to me, to Johnny Lazia, who has been the friend of everybody?”It was a question that Frank "Jellybean" Nash would probably have asked, if he’d had the time.
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