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Sunday, April 05, 2015

WILD CARD IN KANSAS CITY

I think if the train had been late, things might have turned out differently. Perhaps the 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 Union Station on Track Twelve, at 7:15 A.M. on Saturday 17 June, 1933. And because it was punctual, the train efficiently and smoothly delivered three FBI agents, three local cops and one gangster right on time to their destination. And then there was the wild card in the deck, which turned all 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”.
Frank was a 20 year career thief who worked with the Barker gang and the Dillinger mob among others, and of whom it was difficult   “…to find anyone who didn't have something nice to say…”, according to Clyde Callahan, co-author of the book “Heritage of an Outlaw”. Even the cops liked "Jellybean"  
While serving a 25 year term in Leavenworth (above),  in October of 1930,  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 often employed as a bank robber after his escape, and so well paid that,  in the summer of 1933,  he could afford to take his wife and daughter on a vacation, to the resort town of Hot Springs (above), southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas.  And it was there, on 16 July, that two FBI agents,  Joe Lackey and Frank Smith, along with an Oklahoma police chief, Otto Reid,  captured "Jellybean"  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,  who were paid more by Galatas than by the taxpayers,  threw up roadblocks on the highway back to Little Rock  calling Frank a kidnap victim.  But anticipating this,  the FBI took their prisoner northwest,  on the long drive to Fort Smith.  There they planned on catching  the 8:30 P.M. overnight train to Kansas City. They even wired ahead to Special Agent in Charge of the F.B.I..’s Kansas City office, Reed E. Vetterli,  to meet them at Union Station in the morning. 
But the  train was late in arriving at the Fort Smith station (above),  and a stringer for the Associated Press spotted the three men and their shackled prisoner in the waiting room. Before midnight the story broke over the wires, in time to be printed in the early addition of the Kansas City morning newspapers : “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,  in Hot Springs, had already asked for the help of Johnny Lazia (above, coat less), who ran gambling and vice for the Pendegrast machine, which controlled Kansas City.  A newspaper editor at the time described the level of mob activity in that town, “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 named Vernon Miller (above).
Miller called in at least two more gunmen to assist him,  their identities disputed to this day. The FBI claims it was Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Richetti,  who just happened to be passing through Kansas City that morning. But there were numerous other gangsters who would have willingly stepped up to help "Jellybean" escape.  And now might be a good time to address the question of why crime in America in 1933 was so well organized but law enforcement was not.
When J. Edgar Hoover (above) 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, growing the F.B.I in both numbers and budgets. And yet, until 1963, Hoover still denied the existence of any centralized crime organization in America. But it was there. During the 1920's it was a called the syndicate or the mob,  but after the Great Depression it became the mafia, and was dominated by Italian Americans thanks to their overseas contacts.  Even after the Appalachian Conference of November 1957,  where more than 60 criminal bosses from the U.S., Canada and Italy were detained by local cops in upstate New York,  Hoover still insisted, “The F.B.I has much more important functions to accomplish than arresting gamblers all over the country.”  Whatever his reasoning,  too many people paid with their lives for his denial.
That morning of 17 June the two agents,  Frank Smith and  Joe Lackey and Oklahoma police Chief Otto Reid, left the train heavily armed. According to research done by Pulitzer Prize 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 Reed Vetterli (above)...
and agent Ray Caffrey (above),  ...
along with two K.C. police detectives, William "Red" Grooms (above)...
 and Frank Hermanson (above).
 As the seven men moved through the cavernous station they formed a "V", with their handcuffed prisoner, "Jellybean" Nash,  protected in the center.   A four door Chevrolet was parked in front of the station, head in, and K.C. policemen Grooms and Hermanson screened the car from the front. Nash was first placed in the front bench seat, behind the steering wheel. Agents Lackey and Smith and Chief 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 in the space in front of them  At least two carried machine guns. One of the gunmen called out, "Hands up! Up, up, up!"  Instead, the F.B.I. says, the gunmen opened fire. In that first burst of machine gun fire, KC police detectives Bill Grooms and Frank Hermansom were killed, and Agent-in-Charge R.E. Vetterli was wounded in the shoulder, crawling toward cover.
But according to Bob Unger's research,  it was right at the beginning that Joe Lackey (above) found himself holding the wild card.
The Winchester 1897 was a WWI army surplus shotgun and lacked a safety feature most shotguns have – a trigger disconnect, or a safety.  In the slam mode this “trench sweeper” would automatically fire if the trigger was compressed at the same time the action was pumped, forcing a 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 and blasted a load of ball bearings into the back of Frank Nash’s head (below), just 12 inches away.  A stray pellet also went “…right into the side of the head of agent Caffrey” who just getting into the car.
As proof Unger offers an image of the Chevrolet's windshield,  taken shortly after the shooting stopped and the wounded had been removed (above) .  Shattered glass is scattered over the car's hood, indicating the shot gun pellets came from inside the car, where the FBI agents sat,  and not from outside,  where the attacking mobsters were. Also, witness Harry Orr, just feet away in his cab, testified, "I saw one man with a shotgun, and he was trying to fire it." And this was just before the shooting started. 
Panicked at the unexpected explosion, Lackey pumped the action on the shotgun a second time, and again the weapon immediately discharged.  Bill Unger described what he thinks 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 by the time all of this is over, Bill Grooms, the other Kansas City policeman, is also dead. (above, lying between the cars). And Reed in back seat….when they finally get to him, he has a fatal wound…”.    When one of the gunmen finally got close to the Chevy,  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 behind an adjacent car when the shooting started, was uninjured. Agent-in-Charge Reed Vetterli had made it inside the train station, bleeding from a wound in his shoulder.   The entire shootout took less than 60 seconds. 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 (above) was found mutilated and murdered 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 in Kansas City. Rumor at the time said the syndicate running organized crime in America had issued orders that Nash was not to be helped because of the publicity surrounding him. And ballistics tests run decades later indicated the gun that fired the bullets which cut down Lazia, had also been used in the massacre. As he lay dying in a hospital, John 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,  if it hadn't been for that wild card.

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