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The Kansas City Massacre

A mass murder committed in front of Union Railway Station, Kansas City, Missouri, shocked the American public into a new consciousness of the serious crime problems in the Nation. The killings which took the lives of four peace officers and their prisoner, are now known as Union Station Massascre or the The Kansas City Massacre.

Frank "Jelly" Nash's criminal record reached back to 1913, when he was sentenced to life at the State Penitentiary, McAlester, Oklahoma, for murder. He was later pardoned. In 1920, he was given a 25-year sentence at the same penitentiary for burglary with explosives, and later pardoned. On March 3, 1924, Nash began a 25-year sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth for assaulting a mail custodian. He escaped on October 19, 1930.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched an intensive search for Nash which extended over the entire United States and parts of Canada. Evidence gathered by the FBI indicated that Nash had assisted in the escape of seven prisoners from the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth on December 11, 1931. The investigation also disclosed Nash's close association with Francis L. Keating, Thomas Holden and several other well-known gunmen who had participated in a number of bank robberies throughout the Midwest. Keating and Holden were apprehended by FBI Agents on July 7, 1932, at Kansas City, Missouri. Information gained by the FBI as a result of the apprehension of these two indicated that Nash was receiving protection from his underworld contacts in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Based on such information, two FBI Agents, Frank Smith and F. Joseph Lackey, and McAlester, Oklahoma, Police Chief Otto Reed located and apprehended Nash on June 16, 1933, in a store in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The law officers drove Nash to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where at 8:30 that night, they boarded a Missouri Pacific train bound for Kansas City, Missouri. It was due to arrive there at 7:15 a.m. on June 17. Before leaving, the lawmen made arrangements for R. E. Vetterli, Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the FBI's Kansas City Office to meet them at the train station.

Meanwhile, a number of outlaw friends of Nash had heard of his capture in Hot Springs. They learned the time of the scheduled arrival of Nash and his captors in Kansas City and made plans to free him. The scheme was conceived and engineered by Richard Tallman Galatas, Herbert Farmer, "Doc" Louis Stacci, and Frank B. Mulloy. Vernon Miller was designated to free Nash, and while at Mulloy's tavern in Kansas City, he made a number of phone calls for assistance in the scheme. At about this time, two gunmen, "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Richetti, arrived in Kansas City, and they agreed to aid in the mission.

On their way to Kansas City, Floyd and Richetti had been detained at Bolivar, Missouri, early on the morning of the 16th, when the car in which they were riding became disabled. While the two were waiting in a local garage for the necessary repairs to the car, Sheriff Jack Killingsworth entered the building. Richetti, who immediately recognized the Sheriff, seized a machine gun and held the Sheriff and the garage attendants against the wall. Floyd drew two .45 caliber automatic pistols and ordered all parties to remain motionless. Floyd and Richetti then transferred their arsenal into another automobile and ordered the Sheriff to enter that vehicle. The two, along with their prisoner, then drove to Deepwater, Missouri, abandoned that automobile and commandeered another.

After releasing the Sheriff, they arrived in Kansas City about 10:00 p.m. on June 16. There Floyd and Richetti abandoned that automobile and stole another car to which they transferred their baggage and firearms. Finally, that same night, they met Miller and went with him to his home. There Miller told them of his plan to free Frank Nash.

As the temperature rose steadily on the sunny Saturday morning of June 17, 1933, Miller, Floyd and Richetti drove to the Union Railway Station in a Chevrolet sedan. There they took up their positions to await the arrival of Nash and his captors. Upon the arrival of the train in Kansas City, Agent Lackey went to the loading platform, leaving Smith, Reed and Nash in a stateroom of the train. On the platform, he was met by SAC Vetterli, who was accompanied by FBI Agent Raymond J. Caffrey and Detectives William. J. Grooms and Frank Hermanson of the Kansas City Police Department. These men surveyed the area surrounding the platform and saw nothing that aroused their suspicion. SAC Vetterli advised Agent Lackey that he and Caffrey had brought two cars to Union Station and that the cars were parked immediately outside. Agent Lackey then returned to the train and accompanied by Chief Reed, SAC Vetterli, Agents Caffrey and Smith, and Detectives Hermanson and Grooms - proceeded from the train through the lobby of Union Station. At the time, both Agent Lackey and Chief Reed were armed with shotguns. Other officers carried pistols. Frank Nash walked through Union Station with the above-mentioned seven officers.

Upon leaving Union Station, the lawmen, with their captive, paused briefly; and, again seeing nothing that aroused their suspicion, they proceeded to Caffrey's Chevrolet. Frank Nash was handcuffed throughout the trip from the train to the Chevrolet, which was parked directly in front of the east entrance of Union Station. Agent Caffrey unlocked the right door of the Chevrolet. When the door was opened, Nash started to get into the backseat; however, Agent Lackey told Nash to get into the front of the car. Lackey then climbed into the back of the car directly behind the driver's seat. Agent Smith sat beside him in the center of the back; and Chief Reed sat beside Smith in the right rear seat.

At this point, Agent Caffrey walked around the car to get into the driver's seat through the left door. SAC Vetterli stood with Officers Hermanson and Grooms at the right side near the front of the car. A green Plymouth was parked about six feet away on the right side of Agent Caffrey's car. Looking in the direction of this Plymouth, Agent Lackey saw two men run from behind a car. He noticed that both men were armed. At least one of them had a machine gun.

Before Agent Lackey had a chance to warn his fellow officers, one of the gunmen shouted, ""Up! Up! Up!" At this instant, Agent Smith - who was in the middle of the back seat - also saw a man with a machine gun to the right of the Plymouth. SAC Vetterli, who was standing at the right front of the Chevrolet turned just in time to hear a voice command, "Let 'em have it!" In the next minute or so, three officers, a federal agent and Nash himself were dead, and at least one or two other gunmen - including Verne Miller, a onetime sheriff turned fulltime outlaw - had escaped. The three survivors - Agents Smith and Lackey and SAC Vetterli - were uncertain if three or four gunmen staged the assault. From their account, it was apparent that the two Kansas City Police Detectives were killed immediately, followed seconds later by Frank Nash and Chief Reed and then by Agent Caffrey, who was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead on arrival.

This is the official story. Recently uncovered in bits and pieces from thousands of pages of FBI documents by other researchers, but most thoroughly by Robert Unger in his recent book Union Station Massacre, is evidence that the FBI account is based more on speculation, perhaps even perjury (survivors could not initially identify Floyd or Richetti), to give the Bureau the excuse it needed to go after Floyd, the first bandit to make national news, killing him in what some accounts describe as a summary execution on Hoover's orders.

Despite an intensive investigation and books recounting the battle in great and often conflicting detail, little more is known with any certainty about the Kansas City Massacre, which became the crime that launched J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. The Bureau (then the Division of Investigation) laboriously and selectively constructed its own account, which has been largely accepted as gospel. The gist of it is that when, word of Nash's arrest reached his friend Miller, and their political sponsor John Lazia declined to put his own hoods at risk in a rescue attempt.

Vernon C. Miller, age 37, who had led the killings at Kansas City's Union Station on June 17, grew up in South Dakota. He had enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War I and received extensive training as a machine gunner. Following his release from the Army, he appeared at Huron, South Dakota, where he told stories of his heroism in the war. He also demonstrated to city officials that he was a crack shot, following which he was elected to the position of policeman in 1920. Two years later, he was elected Sheriff and was renominated for the position. Before the election, however, he disappeared and entered a life of crime.

Miller's criminal record indicated that he had been arrested on April 4, 1923, and received at the South Dakota Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to serve a sentence of two to ten years and to pay a $5,200 fine for embezzling public funds. In October, 1925, he was indicted in Federal Court, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for violating the National Prohibition Act; the case was nolle prossed in January, 1931. Miller then moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, and Chicago where he began his association with underworld gangs. Miller was reported to have been a hired gunman for Louis Buchalter early in his crime career.

Following the Kansas City Massacre, Miller, accompanied by a girlfriend, Vivian Mathias, traveled to Chicago and reportedly arrived there on or about June 19, 1933. For a few days, he hid out with a member of the Barker-Karpis gang. From there Miller reportedly went to New York. On October 31, 1933, FBI investigation disclosed that Miller was back in Chicago at the apartment of Vivian Mathias. The next day, he escaped a trap set for him there by the FBI. However, Mathias was taken into custody and later pleaded guilty to charges of harboring and concealing Miller.

On November 29, 1933, during the FBI's search for Miller, his mutilated body was found in a ditch on the outskirts of Detroit, Michigan. He had been beaten and strangled. Information received by the FBI indicated that Miller had been involved in an altercation with a henchman of Longie Zwillman, head of New Jersey's underworld mob, in Newark; during the argument, Miller had shot the henchman. Another of Zwillman's associates reportedly retaliated by killing Miller.

Floyd and Richetti; soon named as suspects in the Massacre, had gone into deep hiding around Buffalo, New York, and managed to elude both federal and state authorities for about a year and a half. Economic necessity eventually forced them to seek "work," possibly with Dillinger in what would prove to be his gang's last bank holdup at South Bend, Indiana, before he himself was betrayed and killed by federal agents on July 22, 1934.

Three months later Richetti and Floyd were spotted by Ohio authorities; who captured Richetti after a gunfight and then called in agents from Chicago. They stumbled onto a desperate Floyd literally by accident, after he had eaten a meal for which a farm family tried to refuse payment. Spotted hiding behind a corn crib, Floyd was wounded in the arm by a policeman's rifle fire as he fled across a field. A few minutes later, after admitting only his identity to Melvin Purvis, he was killed by another federal agent's .45 bullets fired into him as he lay on the ground.

Purvis left and called Hoover, rather than an ambulance, to report Floyd's death. Police ended up loading his body into the back seat of a car. Examined at a mortuary, Floyd's shoulders bore no scars from wounds he reportedly had received in the Kansas City shooting. Worse for the FBI, the captured Nash as well as two officers evidently had been killed by a federal agent sitting behind Nash in the back seat of one of the two cars, and not by the attackers. The agent fumbled, trying desperately to work the action of an unfamiliar 16-gauge shotgun loaded with steel ball bearings, instead of the customary lead buckshot.

Underworld rumors nevertheless said one of the attackers was Floyd, who agreed to join Miller only because Richetti was too hungover from a night of drinking, and because they believed they could rescue Nash without a shot, not reckoning on the panicky G-man with the quirky Model 1897 shotgun, who may have set off the battle inadvertently and done most of the killing himself with shots fired from inside the car.

Two other underworld stories circulated; but without much foundation. One was that Miller did not lead the mission to free Nash but to silence him; the other was that Miller, angry that Nash made no effort to escape, shot him, too. Those stories were circulated second- and third-hand by puzzled underworld characters unaware that Nash may have been dead or dying from steel ball hearings in the back of his head, which are not discussed in the FBI accounts.

The Massacre survivors and several witnesses who originally could not identify the attackers became more certain with time, and Adam Richetti was executed in the gas chamber of the Missouri State Penitentiary of Jefferson City, Missouri in 1938 insisting to the end he was innocent. Legally that may have been true, but through no fault of his own.

William J. Helmer with Rick Mattix. Public Enemies: America's Criminal Past, 1919-1940. Facts on File. September 1998.


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