The Fleagle Gang:
Violence on the Plains
If you find yourself driving through Lamar on Main Street (aka Highway 287), you'll pass a rather non-descript building on the northwest corner of Main and Olive Street. Today, the sign in the window says “Boot Repair,” but, in 1928, the building housed the First National Bank, the site of one of the most consequential bank robberies in the state. The robbery itself impacted the small Western town for a long, long time. But the method used to catch the robbers changed the course of criminal investigations forever.
When dawn broke on the morning of Wednesday, May 23rd in 1928, residents of Prowers County in southeastern Colorado woke up expecting it to be just another day, although, they had to admit that just another day was not such a good thing lately.
Things were not going well in southeastern Colorado. People were really struggling. The boom of the war years a decade before had given farmers and merchants a taste of what it meant to be prosperous as the demand for their crops was great and prices were high.
But, once the war ended and the recession hit in 1919, things started going south and had only picked up steam. The money farmers got for their crops didn't even cover what it cost to grow them, and, with forage becoming less and less available and cattle prices dropping, ranchers were having to cull their herds.
Troubles were also brewing in other parts of the state. Prohibition, which was passed with the intent of solving the problems of poverty and an increase in crime, had actually had the opposite effect. The bootlegging industry in Colorado had exploded almost overnight, and Pueblo—just 125 miles to the west—was one of the two major cities supplying illegal booze all over the state. Before long, even out on the plains, people were hearing about gangsters and gang-land style murders like they had in Chicago, and the newspapers were full of stories about murders and hijackings and kidnappings as gangs in Pueblo fought gangs in Denver over control of the illegal alcohol trade.
No one in this part of the state had ever heard of things like that happening in Colorado before, let alone in the same town where people took the train to go shopping for a day or shipped their 5 gallon containers of cream every week to shop owners who then sold the cream to their customers.
No, times were certainly tough for those who lived in a town like Lamar, but, aside from rowdy cowboys every now and then or the occasional domestic situation that got out of control, people could take great comfort in knowing that they lived in a safe place where everybody knew everybody else and that such violence was far, far away.
Unfortunately, as they rose from their beds on that May morning in 1928, little did those people know that everything would look very different by the time the sun set that night.
In 1886, Jake Fleagle and his wife, Annie, left Iowa with their two young sons, Ralph and Fred, and moved to Finney County, Kansas where they homesteaded land northwest of Garden City, which was little more than a wide Main Street with a few businesses. In 1888, Annie gave birth to her third son, Walter. In 1890, her fourth and final son, Jake, was born.
The four Fleagle boys had their own quirks and personalities, as often happens in families. For the most part, Fred and Walter were recalled as hard-working and conscientious. But Ralph and Jake were cut from a different cloth.
Neither man was interested in a life that involved constant work, killing rattlesnakes and hoping for rain. As such, they both took off in 1910 and headed west and ended up in San Francisco, working as streetcar men during the strike. Ralph decided to head east and continued doing street car work. Jake chose to stay in California and drifted up and down the Sacramento Valley following the crap games that were associated with the fruit harvest. During this time, he also reportedly became a card shark. Jake then headed to Saint Louis, working as a train butcher.
Ralph and Jake had significant differences from each other. Ralph, the older of the two, was tall and somewhat thin and largely considered to be the smarter one. He was also known as a “tightwad” who was never loose with his money and would frequently “stash away” any money he made. In contrast, Jake was small, far more impulsive and active. He also was known as a philanderer who liked to gamble and spend money. Of the two, it was a good bet that Jake would be the first to get in trouble with the law.
And that's exactly what happened.
After being arrested, fingerprinted, charged and convicted of second degree robbery in Oklahoma, Jake was sentenced to a year and a day at the prison in McAlester. When he got out, Ralph was waiting for him.
Not too much time had passed when Ralph and Jake launched their criminal careers. Under the guise of “wandering around”, they started robbing places. While in prison, Jake had met a number of professional criminals and crooks, and he used them to make new, experienced acquaintances.
But he and Ralph envisioned a different kind of crime organization.
To commit a crime such as robbing a bank, a small group of people—a gang—is needed to carry it off. And the criminal life is one that includes a very limited, specific group of people who have a tendency to stick together. If the police pick up one person in a known gang suspected of committing a crime, they can be relatively sure who else was involved.
Ralph and Jake had a different set up. If they needed more than just the two of them to pull off a caper, they'd bring in someone, “do the job”, pay them off (usually in a substantially smaller percentage than their take) and then split up. No guarantee they'd ever work together again. No guarantee they'd ever even meet again. By robbing places this way, there was no “Fleagle Gang” per se, which kept them well off the radar of the law.
The brothers made a habit of “working” the entirety of the Sacramento Valley during the fruit harvest. Jake knew from experience that there were a lot of crap games during the fruit harvest, and they were games where a great deal of money was wagered.
As had become their style, the brothers would appear guns drawn, scoop up as much as $10,000, pay off the accomplices they'd hired at maybe $1,000 each, pick up new accomplices, raid another game, pay them off and so on. When they had collected $40,000 or $50,000, they'd head back to Kansas.
But Ralph and Jake Fleagle didn't stop at card games. They also robbed banks. A lot of banks. And in a lot of states.
It's difficult to determine exactly how many banks they robbed and where, but historians and criminal researchers estimate that the “Fleagle gang” were responsible for roughly 60% of the robberies committed in California as well as numerous robberies in Colorado, Oregon and their “home state” of Kansas.
Officials estimate that, in the years leading up to the crime committed in Lamar, the Fleagle gang stole a total of around $1 million. In today's currency, that equals about $14,500,000.
In the early 1920s, Ralph and Jake began to make regular return trips to the family homestead in northwest Finney County. Each time they showed up, they had substantial amounts of cash. Some of the cash was deposited in different banks, sometimes under assumed names. And the cash was also used to build the family a new house, buy the family a new tractor and a new car.
People in the region could not help but notice the Fleagle's new house and cars, which made no sense given that nothing being done on the farm justified such prosperity. When questioned about the change, Annie Fleagle, mother to the brothers, told people that her sons had made money in the cattle business and investments in the stock market. She said that because, reportedly, that is what her sons had told her.
There is evidence to suggest that, whether Annie knew or not, Old Jake and the other brothers knew full well where the money was coming from.
In May of 1927, Fred Fleagle leased a “horse” ranch south of Marienthal, Kansas in remote country that could only be reached by a road that wound its way through several steep ravines. The ranch had a large granary, which the men rigged with a door that could be raised and lowered using a pulley system, a perfect set up for moving cars in and out. Again, they explained the move by telling people that they were raising and selling horses, but the lack of livestock on the property led to the ranch having a new name: the Horseless Horse Ranch.
This place became the equivalent of a Fleagle hide out where they could plan their next job without the risk of being overheard and could stash their extensive number of weapons without having to explain why they had so many guns and what they planned to do with them.
It's been speculated that this is where the crime that took place on May 23rd was planned; however, a number of historians and researchers think that Ralph began thinking about and planning the job as early as 1920.
When Ralph and Jake decided to rob the First National Bank in Lamar, they knew they were going to need two other men. They brought in George Abshier, a convicted bootlegger from Grand Junction, and Howard “Heavy” Royston, a name that referenced his size of 6'4" and his weight of 250 pounds. Interestingly enough, Royston had served in World War I and received 3 medals for bravery.
Nonetheless, nothing would be done until everyone knew the plan down to the last detail. Also, Ralph and Jake were also highly superstitious. If either one of them saw a black cat, the job was postponed for the day.
A fifth man, Corazon Garguillio who was an escapee from San Quentin, had already “cased” the bank and told the Fleagles what he had seen. He was supposed to be involved in the robbery, as well, but, after growing tired of the delay, he backed out of being a part. Not too much later, Garguillio was “gunned down” and killed by the men with the Bureau of Investigation as part of a different caper.
On May 23rd, with everyone knowing what they were to do and no black cats in sight, Ralph and Jake decided that day was the day.
The men left the ranch in Marienthal at three o'clock in the morning, and with maps of Prowers County plus license plates from Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and California, they took off for Lamar. Each man was heavily armed.
At ten minutes after one o'clock in the afternoon, Amos “Newt” Parrish, the 77 year old president of the First National Bank, was speaking to his son, “Jaddo Parrish”, when four men stormed into the First National Bank. They were dressed in overalls and carried guns. Ralph and Jake each carried a grain sack.
Edward Lundgren, a bank teller with one arm, recalled hearing someone yell, “You sons-of-bitches, get them all up!” Another yelled, “Hands up!”
Newt Parrish immediately went into his office and grabbed a Colt .45 from his desk.
The gun, which he called “Ol' Betsy”, had special—maybe even symbolic—significance to him. Years before, the gun had been a gift from Frank James—Jesse James' brother—when Parrish, on two different occasions, had allowed the lone traveler to stay at his ranch in the Wet Mountains and refused to accept any pay for his effort. Even though the gun had not been fired in years, even though Parrish had even been warned by a good friend to not be heroic if anyone ever tried to rob the bank, Parrish pulled out the gun at fired at the closest robber. The bullet hit Royston in the jaw, breaking it in three places and shattering a number of teeth. Royston, screaming in pain, managed to get off a shot but missed. Parrish pulled the trigger again, but the gun misfired. Royston shot a second time and hit Parrish, killing him instantly.
Parrish's son, Jaddo, instantly sprang into action, and there are different accounts of what happened. Some witnesses say Jaddo ran to his father's side; others say he was running to a closet where more guns were stored. Whatever the reason for him moving, he only made it a few steps before Jake shot him in the back. The bullet lodged in his heart, killing him instantly, as well.
Those who were present agree that, at that point, all hell had broken loose. In the space of literally less than a minute, multiple shots had been fired; one bank robber had been injured and two beloved men lay dead on the floor.
Meanwhile, for perhaps the first time ever, the Fleagle plan had fallen apart. They had originally intended to take the bank president's son hostage, figuring that his presence would discourage his father getting the police on their trail. But with both father and son now dead, they were forced to take different hostages. After stuffing the grain sacks with cash, bonds and commercial money, the men grabbed Lundgren, the one armed bank teller, and another employee named Everett Kesinger, forcing both of them out the back door and into the car they had waiting at the curb. The robbers had “walked” away with $10,664 in cash, $12,400 in liberty bonds and almost $200,000 in commercial paper.
With Ralph at the wheel of the 1927 blue Buick Master Six getaway car, the gang sped across the Arkansas Valley Bridge and headed west on Highway 50.
Prowers County Sheriff Lloyd Alderman had already been alerted to “a problem at the bank” and drove up on the bank just as the gang rounded the corner and was out of sight. A witness from inside the bank came running outside and jumped in the car with Alderman. Although the gang clearly had a head start, Alderman and the witness began their pursuit.
West of Lamar, the gang turned north on County Road 8 and had driven about two miles and just crossed Sand Creek when they realized the sheriff was gaining ground. Ralph skidded to a stop and shoved Lundgren from the car, saying, “We don't need no cripple with us.” Then, using Kesinger as a human shield, two of the robbers got out of the car, pulled out their long rifles and took aim.
Alderman stopped his car roughly 280 yards away. Armed with only his pistol and seeing the robbers with their long rifles, he knew what was about to happen next. He told the witness to “go for the gutter” and both men jumped from the car as the robbers opened fire. Nine bullet holes were found in Alderman's Studebaker; two had hit spark plugs, rendering the car undrivable. Alderman had no choice but to watch the car drive away.
With Kesinger forced to stand on the running boards as a shield and Royston on the floor of the car, wounded and groaning in pain, Ralph headed for the ranch at Marienthal. Royston was in bad shape, and once at the ranch, the decision was made to get a doctor.
Ralph and Jake drove 40 miles away to Dighton where they convinced Dr. William Wineinger that he was needed to help a young boy whose foot was crushed in an accident. Wineinger was reluctant but ultimately agreed to follow them to where the boy was supposedly waiting. As one account goes, Jake rode with Wineinger. On the way, he wanted to roll down the window but it stuck. Wineinger told him to pull the window toward him, which he did, until he pushed it all the way down.
Once he got to the ranch, Wineinger, who knew nothing of the robbery, still surmised the situation. There was nothing he could do for Royston except to give him morphine for the pain, which he did. Knowing they could not release him given what he knew, the doctor was driven to a remote location near Scott City, blindfolded and executed with a shot to the back of the head. Then both the doctor and his car were pushed into a ravine.
Kesinger was next. Despite telling the robbers that he had a wife and small child and begging for his life, Kesinger was also blindfolded, driven to an abandoned shack near Liberal and executed in the same manner.
The gang then divided the loot and went their separate ways. Abshier went to Grand Junction. Royston went to San Andreas, California and Ralph went to San Francisco.
A massive manhunt took place—the largest manhunt in Colorado history involving a posse on the ground and planes in the sky. The people of Lamar were in anguish over the death of the Parrish men, but that turned to regional outrage when Wineinger's body was spotted by a pilot flying overhead. However, in a twist of ironic justice, it was Jake's fingerprint—discovered by a meticulous policeman when he rolled up the passenger window of the car—that would bring about his demise.
Nonetheless, for 13 months, the police had no leads. And then, due to the persistence and extraordinary memory of a fingerprint specialist with the Bureau of Investigation, the fingerprint was identified as belonging to Jake Fleagle. And that was the domino that started everything to unravel.
Lawmen staked out the Fleagle farm and arrested Old Jake, Walter and Fred for being part of the robbery. They then found a letter from Ralph, stating he would be getting mail in Kankakee, Illinois. Police staked out the post office and, several weeks later, arrested Ralph who was flown back to Colorado for questioning. Ralph agreed to confess and tell him all he knew in exchange for releasing his father and brothers and a guarantee that he wouldn't get the death penalty. He then told the police where to find Royston and Abshier, both of whom were arrested within just a matter of days. But he wouldn't give up his brother, Jake.
The 3 men were put on trial and found guilty. Despite the deal made with Ralph, he was executed in July of 1930; Royston and Abshier were executed a week later. But Jake was still on the run.
Three months later, agents with the U.S. Postal Service used handwriting analysis to track him to Branson, Missouri. On October 14, 1930, 23 law officers descended on the train station in Branson where there was a good chance Jake would show up.
When officers moved in for the arrest, Jake drew his gun, but the officers fired first, fatally shooting him in the stomach. Jake Fleagle died the next day. His last hours were spent calling for his mother.
Within the next few years, gangsters such as Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger would achieve enormous notoriety that still remains today. But the case of the Fleagle gang and the bank robbery in Lamar would change the face of crime investigation forever due to the identification of a single fingerprint that lead to the arrest, conviction, execution and killing of all four men.
For the definitive book on the Fleagles and robbery, read “The Fleagle Gang: Betrayed by a Fingerprint” by Norman Betz. Available on Amazon.com.