Infamous bank robbers the topic of Brown Bag presentation
Most Kansans are more than aware of the "Clutter Case" — the infamous murders that happened in 1959 in our own backyard in Holcomb, where two ex-convicts on parole killed a husband, a wife and two of their children "In Cold Blood."
It inspired author Truman Capote to write a book that became the greatest crime seller at the time, three film adaptations from the book and even a television miniseries in 1966.
But, what arguably falls by the wayside in Kansas history, is a band of methodical bank robbers who were planning to rob one of the most known banks in the region. Not "Ma Barker," who was said to be the orchestrator of several murders and bank robberies by her four sons; not Bonnie and Clyde or John Dillinger, who from September 1933 until July 1934, terrorized the Midwest along with his violent gang.
It was two brothers from Garden City, Jake and Ralph Fleagle, who met two men in California, George Abshier and Howard Royston, who combined to form the "Fleagle Gang," which robbed the First National Bank in Lamar, Colo., in 1928.
In the opening series of the Brown Bag special on Feb. 4, hosted by the Finney County Historical Museum, Johnetta Hebrlee, education and retail coordinator at the museum, unveiled how a single fingerprint led to the conviction of the notorious gang and its place in history.
"I think it shocked the community in one way because that wasn't who little southwest Kansas was," said Hebrlee, who researched an immense amount of information to find out more about the gang. "On the other hand, people knew something was going on because of the cars, dresses they bought for their mom, and a house that they bought in cash."
According to the Fleagle Gang presentation, the Fleagles successfully robbed the McPherson Bank in 1922, the Ottawa Bank in 1923, the Marysville Bank in 1926, Kinsley and Larned banks in 1927, and a bank in Haynes, Ore., in 1922.
Hebrlee said Jake and Ralph were telling everyone they were stockbrokers to keep away any suspicion of why they were purchasing the finer things. Shortly after, the Fleagles, along with Abshier and Royston, planned to rob the Lamar bank.
"Their first step was to locate a hideout and explore the area," Hebrlee said. The gang found a farm a few miles south of Marienthal near Leoti that became known as the "horseless ranch."
In the story told by Hebrlee, at 1:10 p.m. on May 23, 1928, the gang entered the bank with each of them carrying a pistol. They ordered the bank employees and two customers to put their hands up. A.N. Parrish, president of the bank at the time, reached for a gun from the drawer in his desk. Parrish fired a shot at Royston that hit him in the jaw. Royston and the rest of the gang fired back and fatally shot Parrish, Hebrlee said. The former president's son, Jon Parrish, was also shot and killed trying to reach for a gun.
The gang stole $218,000 in cash and liberty bonds.
"This was a big heist. They knocked off smaller banks for $2,000 or so, but this got the attention of the big boys. But what I think is so amazing in all of this is the small town (Roland) Twig Terwilliger, a Garden City police officer who trained himself to be this fingerprint expert, kicks butt," Hebrlee said.
After the robbery, Hebrlee said, the gang managed to grab two bank employees, Everett Kessinger and E.A. Lundgren, as hostages and ran for their car, a 1928 blue Buick Master Six four-door sedan. A pursuit followed by law enforcement in which the bandits fired 25 shots at police vehicles with high-powered rifles, according to archive reports.
Lundgren was released during the Fleagle Gang's getaway from police, but Kessinger, along with Dr. William W. Wineinger, were found dead. As Hebrlee rehashed the events, she said Wineinger's wife reported that a man had came to the door asking her husband to help a boy whose foot was caught in a tractor — but it was Ralph Fleagle tricking the doctor to tend to Royston's wound.
Police later found a body that was identified as Wineinger, in a car that was found in a canyon. Terwilliger, along with Chief of Police at the time, Lee Richardson, found one unidentifiable print of a right index finger located at the top of the right rear window.
Kessinger's body was found three weeks later in an isolated, abandoned shack just south of Liberal.
Putting a finger on crime
Hebrlee explained how fingerprints grew from crime scenes that led to more suspects and generated more evidence in courts than all other forensic laboratory techniques combined. As of February 2014, the Unique Identification Authority of India operates the world's largest fingerprint system, with more than 200 million fingerprint, face and iris biometric records.
In her presentation on the gang, she began with a timeline of fingerprinting analysis beginning in ancient Babylon, where fingerprints were used on clay tablets for business transactions, hence the term "set in stone," Hebrlee said.
After the English first began using fingerprints in July 1858, Sir William James Herschel used fingerprints on native contracts. Later, Juan Vucetich made the first criminal fingerprint identification in 1892 when he was able to identify Francis Rojas, a woman who murdered her two sons and cut her own throat in an attempt to place blame on another.
"Fingerprinting has come a long way in crime scenes. The distinctive ridges that were found in our fingers helped solve many, many cases, like the Fleagle Gang," Hebrlee said.
According to archives of the Lamar bank robbery, the Fleagle Gang all split in different ways for quite some time, but later reassembled on the Pacific Coast to pull off more robberies. Jake Fleagle was arrested and fingerprinted on March 29, 1929, in Stockton, Calif., along with his accomplice and wife, Beatrice Holden, on suspicion of robbery. They were all bailed out by Ralph Fleagle using Liberty Bonds from the Lamar bank robbery.
Even a year after the robbery, Hebrlee said, Terwilliger never gave up on the fingerprint that was left on the car window. She said the officer continued to send photographs of the fingerprint and a mugshot of Jake Fleagle throughout the region.
On July 19, 1929, a letter from the FBI was received by Richardson informing him that the man who had left the fingerprint on the rear window of the vehicle found in the canyon had been identified as Jake Fleagle, according to archive news clippings. A few days later, Chief Richardson intercepted a letter from Ralph Fleagle to his parents that revealed he was in Kankakee, Ill. He was later arrested, but he wouldn't give up Jake. Ralph confessed to the crime under the condition that he would not receive the death penalty. The authorities agreed, and Ralph implicated his brother Jake, along with Royston and Abshier.
On Sept. 12, 1929, Ralph Fleagle, Abshier and Royston pleaded guilty to murder, bank robbery and kidnapping. The three were tried in Lamar, and the prosecuting attorney did not ask for the death penalty, but the jury decided they must hang.
Jake Fleagle eluded police for another year, but Hebrlee laughed and said his common-law wife, Beatrice Holden, had to have been "a woman scorned" because she helped the police find Jake Fleagle by running a "nice job" ad in the paper that explained how to set up Fleagle.
According to archive reports, law enforcement and postal agents boarded the Missouri-Pacific train where he was set up to come. As the train pulled up to Branson, Mo., an officer entered the car and immediately recognized Jake Fleagle. A shootout ensued, and Jake died the following morning in Springfield, Mo., after emergency surgery on his gunshot wounds.
"Because of an officer who trained himself in fingerprinting analysis and choosing not to give up on the bank robbers that stirred up a small town, the Fleagle Gang was solved," Hebrlee said.
The Brown Bag series features different presentations at noon each Tuesday through March 4. Participants are encouraged to bring a sack lunch. The museum provides desserts and beverages. The next presentation is "The Airbase" on Tuesday, followed by an encore presentation of The Fleagle Gang March 4. The latter is being held again due to bad weather on its original date.