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Friday, Dec. 26, 2014

The 'Three Stooges' of bankrobbing

Thursday, October 5, 2006

By Patrick Brophy

Nevada Daily Mail

Passing through the drowsy hamlet of Dederick today, it's hard to believe it was the scene of one of the most bizarre criminal melodramas in Vernon County history.

Tragic as it was, at least for the major players, The Gang That Could Do Nothing Right, it comes across rather as slapstick comedy, almost too broad to be believable.

And the stark event seems to have faded from memory, even around Dederick itself.

"One man dead," a newspaper summed up, "another in the hospital at Nevada, seriously and possibly fatally wounded, and still another in the county jail with two buckshot wounds in his leg, is the net results of a bold attempt, by three bandits from Pittsburg, Kan., to rob the Bank of Dederick, about 2 o'clock last Thursday morning." The date was Jan. 24, 1929. The great Wall Street crash, which would wipe out a lot of little banks in places like Dederick, was nine months in the future.

The true heroes of the epic were Dederick residents Walter Tough and Constable Vickers, the township lawman, whose first name never appears in the news stories.

The bumbling malefactors, first off, clearly had forgotten that nothing happens in a small town that isn't soon known. Around 2 a.m., Tough and Vickers "could see two men working inside the vault of the bank." Wisely they first phoned Sheriff Estil Butner in Nevada, and then settled down to watch, well positioned and armed with shotguns.

Shortly a third man, seemingly an outside lookout, "appeared at the front door of the bank and called to his comrades to come on out, that an automobile was coming. The two men on the inside came out immediately and joined their companion, and all three started to run." Tough and Vickers then did what men today certainly would hesitate to do. They "started firing, discharging eight shots. The night was foggy and the bandits disappeared," seemingly getting away unhurt. One dropped a revolver and a flashlight.

The arriving car contained the sheriff, his deputy, Nevada's chief of police, and a second policeman. Minutes later another car arrived with two more Nevada lawmen. A fruitless search began which lasted all night and all through the following day.

The search was being abandoned when Constable Vickers and Ed Shumaker of Dederick stumbled on the body of one of the bandits, lying in the weeds some 50 yards southwest of the Dederick schoolhouse. A bullet hole through his head, plus a .45 caliber Colt pistol clutched in his right hand, suggested he'd committed suicide. Identified as 38-year-old Chesley Allen, son of respectable parents, with a wife and 13-year-old son of his own, he was presumed to have taken his own life "because of the disgrace that would come to them."

Shortly before Allen's body was found, another of the robbers was discovered wandering aimlessly about near the schoolhouse. Identified as Robert Clark, he was found to be seriously wounded, and was taken to the Amerman Hospital, then Nevada's only hospital, on West Cherry at Ash street. He'd been struck in the left temple by a buckshot, which had passed clear through his head, coming out near the right temple. His sight was impaired, and next day Dr. J.T. Hornback described him as "hovering between life and death." A 26-year-old single man, he denied any part in the robbery, but refused to make a statement.

The third man, identified as Bern Ward, also 26 and a family man, was tracked to his home some six miles north of Pittsburg, Kan., and arrested there on Friday, "being found hiding under a porch." He required immediate medical attention, having two buckshot in his leg. His escape from the scene added "another sensational chapter" to the would be robbery. Unlike Clark, he talked freely, making a full confession, and waiving extradition.

When Vickers and Tough started firing, he said, so thick was the fusillade "he thought at least 50 men were firing at him." He ran north, then doubled back to highway 54. About 5 a.m. Friday he showed up at the home of Elvis McCrory, three miles west of El Dorado Springs, and spun a tale about his car breaking down on the highway. McCrory telephoned True's garage in El Dorado Springs. Fred Jones, the night man at the garage, agreed to bring out a spare wheel for a Ford, as requested. When he reached McCrory's, Ward, who seemed to have an injured leg, leveled his revolver and ordered Jones to drive him to Pittsburg.

"It is agreed on all sides that the attempted robbery was a very crude job, one that would not be expected of three men who have the reputation of being hardened and experienced criminals." Pittsburg lawmen confirmed that all three were wanted for committing other crimes. One had done time in the Kansas penitentiary and another in the state reformatory.

Dederick was targeted, Ward said, because it was a small place with little traffic, yet close to U.S. 54, affording a good avenue of escape.

The threesome, he said, had driven to Dederick by way of El Dorado Springs, and left the car facing west on highway 54. It was spotted there as early as 9 p.m., the would be robbers having arrived early "in order to secure a complete knowledge of the surroundings." When Sheriff Butner arrived he noticed the suspicious car and removed its ignition key.

The bumbling bandits first broke into Mr. Tough's store and took a small amount of cash, a flashlight, and a pair of shoes. They then forced the bank's front door and broke into the vault, but apparently made no effort to open the safe, confining their efforts to ransacking the vault and breaking or prying open the safe deposit boxes, strewing the paper contents on the floor.

A small bag of money taken from the vault was found the next day near a fence where the robbers had dropped it in their flight. It contained all of $7.60.

Praise for Tough and Vickers was lavish. They stood to share in a reward of $1,000 each for the capture of any bank robber, offered by the Missouri Bankers Association.

Tough's weapon was a double-barreled shotgun, Vickers' a repeating shotgun. Both were loaded with buckshot, 16 pellets to the shell, "so it can readily be understood how they did such deadly execution and made the bandits think a whole squad of men were shooting at them."

O tempera! O mores! Today Tough and Vickers would be in jail, subject to sundry criminal charges and civil suits in the millions, universally reviled as out-of-control vigilantes. Clark and Ward would be negotiating book contracts.