The Federal Bureau of Investigation evolved from a small, forgotten division of the U.S. Justice Department into a highly regarded national law enforcement agency thanks in large part to the incredibly violent Depression-era robbers who took advantage of the rigid jurisdictional barriers that limited cooperation between various law enforcement agencies.
Outlaws like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, the Barkers, Bonnie and Clyde and Machine Gun Kelly stirred the imaginations of Americans everywhere, who romanticized their acts of lawlessness.
Whether it was frustration at the dismal economic conditions or just the idea of the “freedom” that being an outlaw on the run implies, the desperados of that era attained mythic folk-hero status that has not been seen since.
In reality, while Dillinger and the so-called A-list bandits might have pulled off their jobs with panache, most of the outlaws that created the environment which allowed the FBI to flourish were simply run-of-the-mill violent armed robbers and remorseless killers.
There was a reason that local law enforcement and the citizens demanded a strong reaction to the wave of violence that spread across the nation like the dust blowing through a dry Kansas wheatfield.
When outlaws like the Fleagle Gang came to town and spread death and mayhem with nary a second thought, the people quickly saw the difference between a dashing bandit from central casting and a real, honest-to-goodness desperate killer.
On May 23, 1928, Ralph Fleagle, his brother Jake, George J. Abshier, a.k.a. Bill Messick, and Howard “Heavy” Royston, came in to Lamar, Colorado, with a plan to rob the First National Bank.
They had hooked up at a ranch near Marienthal, Kansas shortly before the robbery, but Jake Fleagle had been planning on robbing the Lamar bank for some time. Like many professional robbers of that time, the Fleagles, together with Abshier, had carefully scouted the bank on several occasions before the day came to actually hold it up.
For an in-depth look at this case and the role the nascent FBI played in running down the Fleagle Gang, check out The Fleagle Gang By N.T. Betz.
The gang had maps of the roads of Prowers County, Colorado, and had all been inside the bank building and knew its layout. Abshier said they had weighed the “possibilities” and decided that it was a job for no less than four men, so they recruited Heavy Royston.
When they left Kansas on May 23 at about 3 a.m., the men had license plates from Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and California to throw any witnesses off their track and each man came heavily armed.
The drive took about six hours, but the plan required them to wait until the afternoon to commit the robbery. Finally, at about 1 p.m., it was time to move.
E.A. Lundgren, a one-armed teller at the bank was waiting on a customer when he saw the men come into the bank and heard one shout, “You sons-a-bitches get them all up!” and another yell, “Hands up!”
In the noise and confusion of the moment, someone fired a shot, and then by all accounts, all hell broke loose.
The bank cashier, known to history only as “Garrett” and “Miss Potter,” another bank employee, said later that two of the gunmen struggled with customers and most of the gang members were shouting to their victims to either lie down or put their hands up. Abshier, who later confessed to his role in the robbery and its aftermath, recalled that “I grabs hold of the man standing alongside of me, shoved him to the floor; told him to get down. I wanted them out of the way of the bullets.”
During the struggle, the bank president, A.N. Parrish, shot Heavy Royston in the face and was subsequently shot and killed himself. Jaddo Parrish, the son of the president, was also a bank employee and was killed in the fusillade.
The bandits loaded their booty — $10,664 in cash, $12,400 in Liberty Bonds, and almost $200,000 in commercial paper — into pillow cases and grabbed two hostages. The original plan had called for the gang to take Jaddo Parrish as hostage, because they felt that his father would not pursue them and risk his son’s life, but when Jaddo was killed, the gunmen opted to take others.
The gang, along with hostages Edward A. Lundgren and a teller named Everett Kessinger, headed out to the car and roared out of town. After fending off the sheriff in a running gun battle by disabling his car, the gang made good its escape.
They drove a short while and released Lundgren. Kessinger pleaded that he had a wife and new baby, and asked to be let go, but the bandits refused, forcing Kessinger to ride on the footboard of their car as a human shield.
The gang arrived back in Kansas by nightfall, and because they no longer needed a hostage, the Fleagle brothers took Kessinger to a nearby shack and shot him several times, killing him.
Royston, who had been shot by the dead bank president, needed medical attention, so the gang tricked a local doctor into coming out from his Dighton, Kansas home at night by telling him that a young boy’s foot had been crushed by a tractor.
When Dr. W.W. Weinenger arrived at the ranch, he discovered the ruse but obviously treated Royston’s wounds. After he finished, the gang bound him up and blindfolded him, took him out of the ranch and shot him in the back of the head with a shotgun.
The gang divided the loot and separated, each man going to a different area of the country. However, Abshier and Ralph Fleagle were known in Lamar and police were able to quickly track them down by a latent fingerprint left on Weinenger’s car. Ralph was arrested first and confessed, providing authorities with information about the rest of the gang. A nationwide manhunt for Jake resulted in his death in a shootout, but Royston was captured at his home in California.
They were tried first in Colorado and all of them were sentenced to hang.
Their appeals went for naught and the men were executed over a two-week period in mid-July 1930.
The Fleagle Gang appropriately remains a forgotten footnote in the annals of American crime, but even today treasure hunters scour the west looking for the caches of loot buried by skinflint Ralph Fleagle. Credible rumors still abound about unrecovered loot buried in in California, Kansas and possibly Missouri.