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Cookson Hills

Cookson Hills
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The Cookson Hills of east-central Oklahoma are the southernmost extension of the Boston Mountains, part of the southern extension of the Ozark Plateau and lie generally between Stilwell, Sallisaw, and Tahlequah. With an average yearly precipitation of 43.36 inches, scrubby oak trees, and small patches of walnut and hickory trees are the dominant vegetation. The entire region is covered by thick timber. The region is mountainous with numerous peaks of 1,500 feet or above. It is drained by tributaries of the Arkansas River. Economic activity in the Cookson Hills has revolved around limited agriculture. Cattle ranching is prevalent but is limited by sparse availability of grasses. Farming has never been successful in the area, although some subsistence farming historically occurred.

In the early evening hours of February 3, 1934, Creek County Sheriff Willis Strange received a phone tip informing him of the presence of several suspicious characters hiding out in small two-room shack on the outskirts of Sapulpa, Oklahoma. The residence, located off Route 66 near the old Liberty Glass Company belonged to Lee Davis, an elderly truck farmer. The call was the beginning of a bloody and violent weekend that would be long remembered by citizens and lawmen in Oklahoma.

The Sheriff, who suspected the persons in question might be the individuals responsible for a recent spat of area filling station robberies, gathered a posse and rushed to the scene. Soon after officers surrounded the residence, a fierce gunfight broke out between officers and several outlaws hiding inside. Two lawmen, Sapulpa Chief of Police Tom Brumley and Patrolman C. F. Lloyd were killed in the clash. Also killed was twenty-two year old Aussie (real name Aulcie) Elliott, a violent hoodlum with a long criminal record who had once been a member of "Pretty Boy" Floyd's gang, and a jewel thief named Delbert Carolan of Stigler, Oklahoma. A third suspect, Eldon Wilson of Tulsa, Elliott's long-time crime partner was severely wounded. The owner of the residence, Lee Davis, was arrested and transported to the Tulsa County jail.

Wilson, riddled with at least a dozen bullets was rushed to the Creek County jail for medical care A crowd of over 500 citizens assembled at the jail that evening. When the throng began to get unruly, Sheriff Strange put out an SOS to Oklahoma Governor William Murray requesting help. Over 100 National Guardsmen showed up in short order, establishing a protective perimeter around the jail.

An uneasy night was passed at the Creek County facility where the huge mob had congregated hurling threats at the prisoner. An urgent call came into the police station around 2 a.m. reporting the sighting of Ford Bradshaw north of Sapulpa at an isolated farmhouse. Bradshaw had barley escaped capture in nearby Tulsa several days previous and was still thought to be in the area. Over a dozen officers armed with machine guns and tear gas launched a raid on the residence. No gangsters were found. The information provided police turned out to be bogus, a case of an overactive imagination. Obviously, the city was on edge. About 8 a.m. Eldon Wilson, who had clung to life for nearly fifteen hours, died. The mass of angry citizens soon dispersed and the National Guardsmen were returned to Tulsa.

Forty miles away in the small town of Chelsea, Oklahoma, Rogers County Deputy Sheriff Albert Powell and Town Constable Bud Roberts were touring the town on a peaceful Sunday morning when they spotted two men standing behind the Britt hardware store. Thinking they were a couple of farm boys hung over from a night on the town, the officers turned their cruiser around and drove up to the pair. Constable Roberts later stated, "The strangers began walking towards us, stopping about five feet from the car. Suddenly the men pulled out pistols and began firing point blank at me and Powell."

Powell, who had his gun in his lap returned fire, but was struck in the neck, and died instantly. According to Roberts, Powell fell onto him causing him to roll out on the pavement on the passenger side of the car. The mortally wounded Deputy's foot slipped off the clutch and the car rolled forward a few hundred feet, stopping when it hit a light pole. Roberts claimed he then pulled his gun and traded shots with the gunmen while he was fleeing towards a nearby drugstore to call for reinforcements. He also stated he didn't know which of the gunmen killed his partner. According to Paul Merritt, an elderly Chelsea native who witnessed the shootout when he was ten years old, "The officers pulled up to the hardware store where the men stood and both parties began firing at about the same time. Then Powell's car rolled down the street a block coming to an abrupt stop."

Deputies soon arrived from nearby Claremore. Lawmen encircled the hardware store and nearby lumberyard, carefully approaching the buildings. Powell's body was found nearby still laying in the front seat of his car. About 150 feet from Powell the officers spied another man who was shot in the chest, obviously dead. The man was identified by police and people in the assembling crowd as Eddie "Newt" Clanton "a local boy gone bad."

Examining Clanton's body up close, Rogers County Sheriff Faulkner claimed a small-caliber weapon had been used to shoot him. Officers Powell and Roberts carried large-caliber weapons. He observed powder burns on Clanton's shirt, indicating a contact wound.

The double killing in Chelsea was surrounded in mystery. The coroner stated a .32 caliber slug killed Clanton. Both lawmen carried .45 calibers that day. He also noted the powder burns on Clanton's shirt, indicating he was shot at very close range. Sherrif Faulkner concluded the second suspect with Clanton at the scene of the shooting shot his companion to steal his money. Clanton's brother, who lived four miles north of Chelsea, had since come forward claiming Newt had in his possession some $2,700 when he was seen with two unnamed companions the day before.

If the second man did kill Clanton, and that's a big if, maybe a clue lies in Clanton's past behavior. Clanton had little taste for gunplay and had stopped Wilber Underhill from killing two different times. Perhaps he tried to stop his companion from shooting the fleeing Constable Bud Roberts, and the two gunmen struggled, creating an accident. Remember, Chelsea was Clanton's hometown, and not a large community. He probably knew both officers. This seems a more likely scenario than Sheriff Faulkner's theory. The outlaw's car was found wrecked three blocks away, loaded down with guns and ammunition. The officers surmised they were burglarizing the hardware store for more firearms.

Later that day Roy Dye, a local farm boy, called home telling a tale of terror to his family. Dye, who was taking a leisurely drive with young Lorene Rush, said that shortly after the shooting a man flagged down his car on the edge of town. The hijacker stuck a gun in his face and told him to drive north of town to the home of Clanton's brother, located in nearby Catale. When they arrived at the home the desperado stepped out of the car, took the keys, strode up to the house, and informed Clanton where he could find his brother's body. When the man returned to the stolen car, he flopped down in the passenger seat and informed Dye to drive the girl to her house. After releasing the woman with the admonition to keep her mouth shut or he'd come back and silence her permanently, the kidnapper had Dye drive him to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he released the boy and handed him a five-dollar bill for his trouble. Dye initially identified his kidnapper as Ford Bradshaw. The boy's car was recovered a week later in downtown Vian being driven by Charlie Cotner's wife. His two sisters were passengers in the rig. All were arrested and later released by authorities.

Lawmen believed that Dye was correct in his identification. They suspected both Bradshaw and Charlie Cotner were present at the Chelsea shootout when their partner was killed. The pair recently had been spotted in nearby Tulsa, and at the Clanton farm the day before the shootout. It was believed Cotner was either standing in the darkened door of the hardware store, or sitting in the getaway car a half a block away at the time of the shooting. Officers assumed the pair separated after they wrecked the car while trying to flee the scene of the crime. The identification of the suspects cast suspicion on the police theory implying Clanton's partner cold bloodedly murdered him for the money he was carrying. Say what you may about Bradshaw's violent ways, but according to numerous sources he was as close as a brother to Clanton. It seems unlikely that he murdered his nephew-in-law and longtime partner. As to the second suspect, Cotner was known as a thief, not a killer. Soon after the shootout, a rumor surfaced implying the lawmen had stolen the $2,700 and made up the story of Clanton's death being caused by a smaller caliber bullet.

His father, who managed a cafe in nearby Vinita, claimed the body of twenty-six year-old Edward "Newt" Clanton, sometimes known as "Little Joe." He was buried in Chelsea's Snyder Cemetery. Sheriff Cannon of Muskogee expressed satisfaction with Clanton's demise, saying he had carried in his cruiser for nearly two years a pair of warrants for suspicion of murder in the Sharp case which he intended to serve on Clanton and Bradshaw whenever they were captured. With the death of Clanton, only one of the main suspects in the Sharp murder remained at large.

A few days after the Powell murder, the US Attorney's office_ met in secret to consider filing Federal-kidnapping charges against Bradshaw. This would have been only the second time in Oklahoma history that federal authorities had used the so-called "Lindbergh Law," which provided for the death penalty. The Rogers County District Attorney stated he would seek at the next meeting of the Grand Jury murder charges against Bradshaw, and a charge of accessory to murder against Cotner for the death of Deputy Powell. Although authorities at first thought Clanton killed Deputy Powell, the general opinion of many of the investigators after reviewing the evidence, considered Ford Bradshaw the prime suspect in his murder.

The following day Deputy Albert Pike Powell, who was survived by a wife and seven children, was given the heroes funeral he deserved. He had been a resident of Chelsea for some thirty-five years and had also been the fire chief of the small town. The Deputy had been a wellloved and respected member of the community. He was interred at the Chelsea Cemetery. Powell was the second Rogers County deputy to die at the hands of the Cookson Hills Gang, the first being Deputy Hurt Flippen in the 1932 Cherokee County shootout with "Kye" Carlile and Troy Love. Federal Officials quickly launched an investigation to ascertain if the shootouts in Chelsea and Sapulpa had any connection. It was suspected by authorities at the time that if there was a link between the two outlaw groups it was through Aussie Elliott, one of those killed in the Sapulpa raid. He was noted by lawmen as a known associate and pal of several members of the Cookson Hills bunch. But it was never proven there was anything connecting the actions of the two groups on that deadly weekend. Bradshaw and Cotner now joined ranks with the likes of Charlie Floyd and Clyde Barrow as two of the most wanted men in the Midwest.

O. P Ray, head of Oklahoma's Department of Criminal Investigation decided along with Major Wint Smith, commander of the Kansas Highway Patrol he'd had enough of the Cookson Hills and its bandits. Lawmen had been thwarted by the residents of the Hills who were continually uncooperative and had actively hid out outlaws for several years during the height of the current Midwest crime wave. Kansas authorities bemoaned the fact their state was undergoing an epidemic of bank robberies, perpetrated by outlaws who committed a crime in the state then fleeing back to their hideouts in the Cooksons where the locals harbored them. After an intensive investigation, Kansas lawmen realized the Hills had become a recruiting depot for young men hired by the Bradshaws and others to drive get-away cars and act as lookouts in hold ups in their state. As the depression deepened, bank robbery had become a cottage industry in the Cooksons. There certainly were no jobs or business opportunities lying around. To be offered a couple of hundred dollars for a quick trip to Kansas would have been a great temptation to a young man, especially when $200 amounted to a king's ransom in those days. Officers, with the encouragement of Governors Murray of Oklahoma, and Landon of Kansas, began formulating a plan to raid the hills in a big way.

In February 1934, law enforcement officers from both states, with the assistance of a contingent of US Department of Justice officers led by senior agent Frank Smith, began an assault on the Hills and their criminal element. Over 400 lawmen from nearly every county in Oklahoma, supplemented by a large contingent from Kansas, assembled at points around the Cooksons on the evening of February 16. O. P. Ray the head of Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation was disgusted when he heard from his sources that word had leaked out of the huge raid. He requested local newspapers to run stories of how the event had been cancelled, which they did the next day.

On the cold drizzling morning of February 17 officers struck, setting up roadblocks at every settlement and crossroads in the hill country. Their stated prey was Charlie Floyd who hadn't been seen in the area for several months and Ford Bradshaw, along with his sidekick Charlie Cotner. Authorities had also gotten word that the Barrow Gang from Texas might also be in the hills. Clyde Barrow, along with his girlfriend, Bonnie Parker, and several others were a pack of kill-crazy Texas hoodlums who had terrorized the Midwest for over a year. The deadly and elusive Barrow was wanted for numerous murders and small-time robberies, including the death of an Oklahoma officer near Stringtown. The gang had been known to drift into the hills to hide now and then.

The next day, over 300 Oklahoma national guardsmen from Muskogee, Wagoner, Tahlequah, Tulsa, and elsewhere were called out to assist the lawmen. Several times officers manning roadblocks shot out tires of fleeing hoodlums. The only casualty reported was Coalgate Chief of Police Bill Jones who was wounded in both legs by several shotgun pellets when a fellow officer accidentally discharged his weapon. Eighteen people were arrested that weekend, including Luther Jolliff, the missing witness in the Sharp murder case. Also detained were Bradshaw's brother Kerman of rural Bunch, his sister Rema, niece Ruth Clanton, and seventeen-year-old nephew Duester Huggins. They were all hauled into Muskogee for questioning. But the big boys like Floyd and Bradshaw were not seen, although Oklahoma County Sheriff Stanley Rogers was quoted as saying that the posse had only missed Bradshaw by a "hairs breath" in his opinion. The raid, one of the largest in US history, may have had a psychological effect on the residents but it achieved little.

The week after the raid there was a flurry of letters printed in several local newspapers protesting the push into the hills. Most of the residents of the Cooksons were of the opinion that the sweep was a publicity stunt. George Stratton, the owner of the store in the village of Cookson, decried that the officers didn't accomplish a thing; he called it a waste of time and taxpayers' money. A Reverend Thelmer of Muskogee wrote that the cost of the operation could of fed every starving child in the Hills for a month. He claimed that poverty, not criminals, was the root problem in the district. A county commissioner stated that money was needed for roads, not raids. He claimed that a good road through the hills would end the isolated existence of the residents, and bring in tourists and sportsmen, instead of outlaws.

R.D. Morgan. The Bad Boys of the Cookson Hills. New Forums Press. 2002.

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