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Wednesday, July 28, 2010
WILD CARD IN KANSAS CITY
I think if the train had been late, things might have been different. Perhaps the three waiting men 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 final destination. For the waiting men it looked like they had drawn four aces. And then there was the joker in the deck, which turned the aces into eights.
It all started 24 hours before with the re-capture of Frank “Jellybean” Nash, “the most successful bank robber in U.S. history.” Frank's 20 year career as a thief had allowed him to work with the Barker gang and the Dillinger mob, amongst others. But longevity was just half the story. He worked with so many gangs because Frank was a nice guy. As one author pointed out, it was hard to find anyone who didn't have something nice to say about Frank. Even the cops liked him. They liked and trusted Frank so much that while he was serving a 25 year term in Leavenworth, the likeable thief was able to walk right out the front gate, carrying a copy of Shakespeare. No one even thought to stop him. Once he was out, 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 named Otto Reid, took Frank into custody at gunpoint in a Hot Springs cigar store. Dick Galatas, who ran the gambling in Hot Springs, took the arrest of an underworld tourist in his territory, personally.
The local cops, paid more by Galatas than by the taxpayers, labeled Frank a kidnap victim and threw up roadblocks on the highway back to Little Rock. 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 Kansas City office, R.E. Vetterli, to meet them at Union Station in the morning. But the train was late in arriving at Fort Smith, and by sheer chance a stringer for the Associated Press spotted the three men and their shackled prisoner in the waiting room. The reporter asked questions, and thinking they were now safe, the cops gladly talked. Shortly thereafter 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...”. And with that the cops were back in the trap they had just escaped.
Galatas had already asked for help from Johnny Lazia (above, coatless), who ran the gambling and vice for the Pendegrast machine, which controlled Missouri politics and Kansas City. Under Pendegast, KC was a wide open town. 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.”
Eager to do a favor for his friend Dick Galatas, Lazia assigned Frank's rescue of one of Frank's old buddies, an ex-South Dakota Sheriff turned bank robber, named Vernon Miller (above).
Working out of Mulloy’s Tavern and the Monroe Hotel, next door to Pengergast’s office at 1908 Main Street (above) in Kansas City, Miller called in two gunmen to assist him. Their identities have remained a mystery to this day. But 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. They were lawyers and bureaocrats, not cops. Hoover spent the next forty years building the FBI in 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.”
But whatever his reasoning, there is no justification for the police and innocent civilians who paid with their lives for Hoover's denial.
That July morning in Kansas City's Union Station, the three agents, Frank Smith, Joe Lackey and Oklahoma Chief Otto Reid, left the train heavily armed. Still within minutes of reaching the station, all three men, and thier prisoner would be dead, and the rescue mission would prove to be a disaster, all because of a wild card, neither the cops nor the mobsters had anticipated.
According to research done by Pulitzer winner Bob Unger – “The Union Station Massacre: The Original Sin of the FBI” - agent Lackey inadvertently grabbed the wrong gun - he grabbed a pump action Winchester Model 1897 shot gun, which belonged to Chief Reid, who grabbed Lackey’s twelve gauge, also by mistake. And that simple mixup in weapons, would prove to be the death of six men. It is the only logical explination for what happened.
On the platform the three agents and their prisoner were met by Agent in Charge Vetterl i(above), and agent Ray Caffrey(below) from the Kansas City office.
Also meeting the train were two K.C. police detectives, Bill Grooms and Frank Hermanson (below).
As the seven men moved through the third largest train station in the country, they formed a V, with prisoner Frank Nash sheltered in the center.
An unmarked police two-door Ford sedan was waiting in the crowed parking lot in front of the station. Nash was hustled into the front bench seat, while Lackey, Smith and Reed squeezed ino the back seat. As Agent Caffey was about to enter the driver’s side door, Joe Lackey noticed three men appear from behind a green Plymouth parked next to their Ford. He saw that at least two of them carried machine guns. And, according to Bob Unger, Lackey now found himself holding the wild card.
The Winchester 1897 was a WWI army surplus shotgun origionally intended for use as a "trench sweeper." As such it lacked a safety feature most modern shotguns have – a trigger disconnect. The “trench sweeper” would automatically fire if the trigger was compressed and the action was pumped, forcing a new round into the chamber. Unfamiliar with this feature, and without even waiting to get his weapon up, Lackey pumped a first round into the chamber, As he did so the weapon went off. It blasted load of shot directly into the back of Frank Nash's head, barely a foot away. A stray pellet from the same blast 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 probably happened next. “(As) Joe Lackey gets off a second shot, (it)...takes off 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 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 mob gunmen finally reached the unmarked police 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, Vernon Miller, the organizer of the "rescue" mission, 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 the man who had hired Vernon, Johnny Lazia, was gunned down out side of his hotel. Ballistics tests run years later proved that the gun which cut down Johnny Lazia, had also been used in the massacre.
As he lay dying in a Kansas Hospital, Johnny Lazia asked his 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 as well, if he’d had the time.