In the Rearview: The Life and Times of OKC’s Most Notorious Bootlegger — Conclusion

Posted by on Sep 21, 2017 in Mod Blog |

by Lynne Rostochil.  Photos from the Oklahoma History Center unless otherwise stated.

This week, we wrap up the story of bootlegger, Lindsey Chambless and his cohorts in crime.  To read previous installments, go to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

“On a Job”

On the balmy evening of Thursday, July 5, 1956, Lindsey, Mary Lou, and the kids were entertaining fellow bootlegger, Seth Stone and his wife at their home across the street from the lot where Putnam City High School was about to be constructed.  I imagine that Lindsey and his family were enjoying a lazy summer week of attending fireworks demonstrations, eating fried chicken, drinking cold lemonade (likely spiked in Lindsey and Mary Lou’s case), and having watermelon seed spitting contests in their backyard.  It was summer, after all.

As the group sat down for dinner just before 7:00, the phone rang … and not the liquor store phone that Mary Lou got busted for taking orders on several months before.  Lindsey went into the living room to take the call.  When he hung up, the 40-year-old rum runner excused himself, saying that he had to go “on a job.”  Then, he grabbed his rifle and revolver and, as he was heading out the door, told Mary Lou, “If you don’t hear from me by noon on Friday, have Dave Tant (his attorney) start looking for me.  I’ll be in jail somewhere or in trouble.”

The rest of the group finished their meal, then Stone and his wife left.  Interestingly, Stone and Lindsey and recently stopped working with large wholesalers, led by big time bootlegger, Grady King, and planned to start their own rum running syndicate, which apparently wasn’t going over well with local underworld bosses.  Meet Grady King:

In fact, just a couple of weeks before on June 24th, Stone was sitting in his living room when a car drove up and shot at him through the living room window.  He fared much better than Lindsey had when he was shot; however, because the bullet barely missed Stone and the would-be assassin scrambled back to the waiting car and quickly took off.

Stone and his wife came from the Lawton area, where the bootlegger once claimed to a local reporter, “It is much more wide open than in Oklahoma City.  The girls here, well they just … uh, you know, it is wide open.  Of course, it’s an Army post town and all that.  But it looks to me like an Army post town would be more strict than other towns for this type of activity.”  His wife also lamented about the poor quality of spirits – presumably brought in by other bootleggers and not themselves – when she said, “Tell me one place you can get a fifth of Ancient Age whiskey (a high quality brand).  (The whiskey sold in Lawton) isn’t even fit to make a cocktail out of.”  Maybe that’s why the couple moved to Oklahoma City and hooked up with Lindsey – to get better quality booze and move up to the big leagues.

Lindsey Doesn’t Come Home

As the night faded into morning, Mary Lou began to worry about Lindsey.  He always called when he was out on a job, even if it lasted for days.  She should have heard from him by now.  With the kids in bed, the house clean, the dinner dishes put away, and the TV networks signed off for the night, there wasn’t much for her to do but smoke, pace, and imagine the worst.

Thursday became Friday and Friday turned into Saturday, and she still hadn’t heard from Lindsey.  The young wife’s trepidation turned into near panic, and Mary Lou knew that it was time to do the unthinkable … call the police.

Sheriff Bob Turner and Deputy “Boots” Capshaw arrived, interviewed Mary Lou, and began an investigation immediately.

(Sheriff Bob Turner after a raid in 1955.)

(“Boots” Capshaw – right – after a 1957 raid.)

Within hours, they found Lindsey’s car abandoned in the parking lot at the Municipal (now Will Rogers) Airport.  There was no evidence of a struggle; the bootlegger’s shotgun was missing but his hat and pistol remained in the car.  The pistol made police suspect the worst.  One vice squad officer who had many dealings with Lindsey over the years said, “I don’t believe Chambless would have got in another car of his own accord without his pistol….  He never trusted anybody that far, not even his good friends.”

Lindsey’s old pal in the Cuban robbery, Gene Paul Norris, was brought in for questioning but denied all involvement in the bootlegger’s disappearance.  Before he was released, however, the killer told authorities, “Don’t bother looking for Chambless.”

Immediately, informants came forward saying that Lindsey had been murdered, but as days turned into weeks and months with no sign of the missing man, others speculated that he had run off to avoid the five-year sentence looming over his head.  Capshaw told reporters, “I’m not going to speculate on whether he’s dead or alive.  I just want to know if he’s standing or lying down.”  Mary Lou’s gut told her that Lindsey was surely “lying down” somewhere.

A few months later, police uncovered a crazy gangster plot indicating that Mary Lou’s instincts might be right.   Apparently, a group of Dallas mobsters that included Lindsey’s old pal from the Cuban holdup, Gene Paul Norris, met with a few big time Oklahoma County bootleggers during OU/Texas weekend in Dallas.  Led by “the mastermind of the Oklahoma bootlegging syndicate,” Grady King, the Oklahoma gang supposedly offered to pay their Dallas friends $15,000 to kill five bootleggers in the Sooner State.  These guys are some of the players in the conspiracy — that’s Grady King signing the paper:

One of the intended victims was Seth Stone, who had fled back to Lawton after Lindsey’s disappearance because he knew he had a price on his head and the next shooter might not miss him.

By eliminating these five competitors, the two gangland groups led by Grady and Norris reasoned that the bootlegging wars could end and they would take over the entire Oklahoma operation for themselves.  However, their plan derailed when one of their hired guns turned out to be good friends with one of the intended marks and told him all about the nefarious murder plan.  In a plot twist straight out of a Hitchcock thriller, the intended victim and his supposed assassin then schemed to double cross their bosses.  The assassin would go back to Norris with some of the victim’s possessions as proof that he killed his target, get paid for the assassination, and the two friends would split the proceeds.

With all of the plotting, planning, and scheming going on, it’s no big surprise that someone blabbed to the wrong person and the police found out about this latest and most daring episode of the bootlegging wars.  Since the plan took place so soon after Lindsey’s disappearance, authorities suspected that he may have been the first hit in this crazy plot for control and one detective told reporters, “We intend to break the back of that outfit before anything else happens.”  As for the double crossers, it was never a good idea to go against Norris, and, not surprisingly, one of them soon ended up in a ditch.

Although Grady King and his associates were arrested…

… they were soon released for lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, with no one to support her and the kids, Mary Lou lost their house out in the country and moved to Cisco, Texas, to be near her mother and Lindsey’s former flame, Stella.  Looking for a fresh start in life after her divorce from Lindsey, Stella had moved to the small town in 1949 and was working as a waitress in a popular café.  There, she met a local mechanic and World War II vet named Robert Massey, who was a widower 10 years her senior.  The two married in 1953 and, grateful for the quiet of her new life, Stella quickly settled into small-town life and became a regular fixture at the local Methodist Church.

Mary Lou still had to face charges of running a liquor store out of her Oklahoma City, home, though.  After a short trial in the spring of 1957, the young mother was found guilty and given probation.  As for Lindsey, he was still nowhere to be found, although rumors swirled that he was in Mexico, San Antonio, Lawton, Wichita Falls, back in Oklahoma City, or buried somewhere in the Arbuckles.

The wild rumors were put to rest, however, on that rainy November night over a year after Lindsey’s abrupt disappearance when Sheriff Turner, Deputy Capshaw, and FBI agent, D.A. “Jelly” Bryce found the rum runner’s decomposed body in the shallow grave on the Rowland farm not far from where they had found Lindsey’s car at the airport 17 months before.  The cat-and-mouse game that they and the “Flying Bootlegger” had been playing for decades was finally over.

Norris Seeks Revenge

When police examined the remains of Lindsey Chambless, they found that he had been shot twice (once in the head and once in the hip) and had received a “crushing blow to the head,” according to the Oklahoman and Lindsey’s death certificate:

(ancestry.com)

Lindsey’s wife, Mary Lou, and his sister were among the handful of mourners at the bootlegger’s graveside as he was laid to rest less than 10 miles from where his car was found at the airport the year before.  There is no marker on his grave.

(findagrave.com)

While police highly suspected that Gene Paul Norris either hired someone to take out Lindsey or, since he was known as “the Smiling Killer” and had been seen in Oklahoma City at the time of Lindsey’s disappearance, pulled the trigger himself, they had no evidence.  Either way, karma finally caught up with the charming but cold-blooded gangster, who law enforcement in Texas and Oklahoma called the “most dangerous man in the Southwest” and would kill anyone, man or woman, for a price … or just for revenge.

That was the case in April of 1957, nearly a year after Lindsey’s disappearance, when Norris followed through on a long-simmering plan to seek revenge against the man who, he believed, landed his beloved big brother, Pete, in prison 20 years before.  Pete “Big Boy” Norris was 10 years older than Gene Paul and, as with many sibling relationships, the younger brother adored his older sibling and followed him everywhere.

In 1937, Pete labored as an oil field worker and rum runner in Stafford, Texas (which has now been pretty much gobbled up by Houston) when he killed fellow bootlegger, R.E. Rutledge after a dispute.  Gambler Johnnie Brannan was a witness to the events and testified against Pete in court.  The elder Norris was convicted and sentenced to a long stretch in nearby Ferguson Prison.  In 1942, Gene Paul concocted a successful plan to break out his big brother, and the siblings went on the lam for several months, robbing stores and banks to get enough money to live on.  The escape and robberies landed Pete at the top of the Oklahoma and Texas authorities’ list as Public Enemy #1.

In late February 1943, a tip led a 75-man posse to a remote farm in Texas where the two brothers were holed up.  The brothers surrendered without incident, and Gene Paul got eight years for planning the breakout and the robberies (he was paroled after two years).  Pete was sent back to prison, escaped again in 1944, then was caught a few days later in Detroit. The big league trouble maker then received a 700-year sentence, which all but ensured he would spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Gene Paul long fostered a great hatred for the man he blamed for Pete’s initial incarceration, Houston gangster Johnnie Brannan, and resolved to take revenge.  According to an account by Texas Ranger, Johnny Klevenhagen:

Houston police received a call from a known associate of Brannan.  He said that he had been trying for hours to telephone Brannan, all to no avail.  A patrol car was dispatched to Brannan’s home.  The officers knocked on the door, but received no reply.  They tried the front door and found it unlocked.  When they entered the house, they were greeted with a gruesome sight.  Both Brannan and his semi-invalid wife were dead, and the heads of both victims had been beaten to a bloody pulp.  In fact, Brannan had been hit so hard that one of his eyeballs had been literally knocked from his head.  The crime-scene investigation revealed that, after the killers had massacred their victims, they had gone into the bathroom and washed blood off themselves.  Then they had calmly gone into the kitchen and drunk coffee.

At first, no one suspected the gangster of the brutal double homicide, but when police picked up Norris’s bodyguard, William Carl Humphrey on a public intoxication charge a few days later in Temple, Texas, they noticed he was wearing a gold ring in the shape of a horseshoe, which was just like one Brannan wore and that was missing from the murder scene.  However, Humphrey had bailed out and skipped town before homicide detectives to get to him and question him about the slayings.

The Brutal End of Norris and Humphrey

The two criminals laid low for a few weeks until they popped back up near their old stomping ground: Fort Worth.  Fort Worth Police Chief Hightower got word that the criminals were planning to hold up the Fort Worth National Bank branch on the Carswell Air Force Base in this, the most daring crime of their already-impressive careers.  On April 29th, Norris and Humphrey, who were both just 35 years old, were driving along Meandering Road near the base in Norris’s souped up and shiny new ’57 Chevy heading to heist the $225,000 payroll at the branch (which would be worth $1.8 million in 2017).  They were spotted by police, who were told to keep an eye out for the duo.  A thrilling pursuit began.

I’ve combined two accounts from the Texas Rangers website about what happened next:

Heading toward the area, the Rangers soon spotted the pair, and the race was on. Humphrey was driving the outlaw car. Jay in pursuit, Ranger Jim Ray was in a second car right behind his captain. Hitting speeds of 115 mph, the chase continued. For the next several minutes, a running gunfight covered an area over much of the western area of Fort Worth. 

Finally, Humphrey made a fatal mistake: he turned onto a country road that was covered with caliche (crushed rock). It had rained shortly before, and the road surface was very slick. When Humphrey turned onto the road, he fishtailed several times before straightening out.  (Texas Ranger) Jay did two complete spins himself, but ended up heading in the right direction.

The race continued along the road that ran beside the swollen Walnut Creek. All the while, Norris and Klevenhagen were hanging out their respective car windows, firing away at one another. Just outside the tiny community of Springtown, the chase came to an end.  

Charging into a curve too fast, the bandits’ ’57 Chevy slid off the road and slammed into a tree. 

(Police inspecting Norris’s car after the incident.)

Jay tried to stop behind the killers’ car, but instead slid right up beside it. He said later that this really worried him. He was concerned that Norris would be able to level his deadly shotgun—Norris’ weapon of choice—at the Rangers. He need not have worried. Though shaken, Norris and Humphrey stumbled out of their car and started running up a nearby hill.  Jay rolled out of his Dodge and gave chase. In a desperate effort to escape, Humphrey and Norris jumped into the flooded Walnut Creek and made for the far shore. Humphrey headed north and made it to a small island in the creek. He died on that island in a hail of Jay’s gunfire. Meanwhile, Norris was trying to go straight across the creek. He made it to the water’s edge.  Norris surely knew what was about to happen, but he also knew that all he had waiting for him if he surrendered was the electric chair.  He started shooting and, in turn, he took a full twenty eight rounds.  Banks started at Norris’s ankles and worked his way to the top of his head.  (Norris was shot 16 times while Humphrey was shot 23 times.)

As Jay said, the most heartless of killers, Gene Paul Norris, “died screaming like a baby.”

(okhistory.org)

You can read more of Norris’s murderous exploits here and here,

Gene Paul Norris was buried in the family plot near his family’s farm in Healdton:

(findagrave.com)

Where Was Lindsey Murdered?

With the death of Norris, the investigation into Lindsey’s murder was shut down and the case was closed, but there has been speculation ever since Lindsey’s bones were discovered in the shallow grave about how and when he actually ended up there.  Here’s one account from a blogger at oklahomahistory.net that fits in with several other accounts I’ve read.  The author accidentally got Gene Paul Norris’s name mixed up with another of Lindsey’s cohorts, George Fuqua, but the store is intriguing and has a ring of truth to it since Norris’s family had a farm in the Healdton area.  I’ve changed the references from Fuqua to Norris to avoid confusion (the name is not in italics and isn’t part of the actual quote):

Chambless’ remains were officially found near the South Canadian river, south of Wheatland and a bit west of Will Rogers Field (OKC), but he had actually been killed and first buried on a farm near Healdton. The killer was one Gene Paul Norris, who himself was later executed by Dallas police while en route to hold up the Carswell AFB finance office. Unknown to Norris, the FBI had an informant who witnessed the murder but could never testify to it because she was Norris‘s wife. She said that Chambless was forced to dig his own grave, then shot.  After Norris’s death, the FBI dug up the remains and moved them to the spot where they were officially found, then waited for a rainstorm to cover their tracks and settle the ground over the new grave before “receiving a tip” and uncovering the bones.  … Norris’s parents were decent folk who in no way shared any responsibility for their son’s criminal activities, but the killing took place on their farm. That’s why the FBI covered up the original burial and the transfer. 

Lindsey and Gene Paul Norris were gone, but the debate whether or not to end prohibition in Oklahoma was heating up once again.

Oklahomans Will Vote Dry as Long as They Can Stagger to the Polls

… or so said Will Rogers, and he was right for a long time.  Although illegal, it was easy for Oklahomans to obtain liquor (beer was legal), and because it was bootlegged, they didn’t have to pay taxes on it.  Another benefit was that bootleggers would discreetly deliver their product to customers.  And, with just less than 10% of illegal alcohol being confiscated, bootleggers made a ton of money with relatively little risk of being caught by authorities and supplies were ample.

All of that changed with the election of Tulsa County attorney, 33-year-old J. Howard Edmondson, who took office in 1959.

To force the repeal of prohibition, Edmondson began strictly enforcing the ban on alcohol and, as a result according to okhistory.org, “Oklahoma came closer to being truly ‘dry’ than ever before.”  A petition was circulated calling for the issue to come before voters yet again…

While, as usual, religious groups, concerned mothers’ groups, and others fought hard to retain prohibition:

(Leaders of the Mothers Against Prohibition group.)

Election day came.

While some people gathered at the State Capitol to eagerly watch the vote…

… others against repeal gathered in churches to pray for continued prohibition:

The votes were gathered and tallied, and by the evening it was announced that the “wets” had won the day.  Tulsa World reporter, Gene Curtis, wrote that “more than 700,000 voters cast ballots, and the state’s growing urban centers flexed their political muscle. Tulsa County provided the largest margin for the wets’ victory — 86,600 to 23,700. Oklahoma County voters approved repeal by a vote of 81,000 to 48,000.”

At long last, prohibition was over … but not everyone was happy about it.

Curtis reported that “a Dallas bootlegger told a Tulsa World reporter: ‘Just like that. It happens just like that. After building up my business for years, those damn Oklahomans go to the polls and vote to make me a bankrupt.  I tell you, it just ain’t right,’ he added.”

Meanwhile, liquor store owners happily began stocking all kinds of spirits:

Aftermath

After Lindsey was officially declared dead, his young widow, Mary Lou stayed in Cisco, Texas, near her mother and Lindsey’s previous wife, Stella.  She remarried around 1958 and had a daughter with her second husband.  She spent the rest of her life in the area and died in 1993.  Stella, who had to be the unluckiest women in the world when it came to finding love in all of the wrong places, died in 1964.

The beautiful Western Hills Motel in Fort Worth where the Cubans were robbed burned to the ground in 1969, and a collection of ugly, nondescript buildings occupy the lot today.

As for the Cubans, their efforts to reinstall deposed President Carlos Prio Socarras ultimately failed, and the former leader died in exile in Miami in 1977. The man who overthrew him, Fulgencio Batista was himself overthrown when Communist-backed Fidel Castro seized the country on New Year’s Day, 1959.  Sadly, Socarras later and very aptly stated, “They say that I was a terrible president of Cuba. That may be true. But I was the best president Cuba ever had.”

Another of Lindsey’s many underworld associates, longtime Dixie Mafia hood George Fuqua, met a bloody end.  Fuqua was one of the guys who helped Lindsey run other bootleggers off the road and stole their stock, remember?  Anyway, in 1968, the 45-year-old gangster and his 28-year-old girlfriend, Doris Sorrells Grooms, were found murdered, their bodies tossed into a ditch along what is now Spring Creek Parkway in Plano, Texas.  Both had been shot in the head several times.  Interestingly, there’s a connection between George Fuqua, the man who supposedly killed him (but was never arrested for the murder), George McGann, and the Kennedy assassination.  Read all about it here.

Here’s Fuqua’s death certificate:

(ancestry.com)

And here’s a photo of his beautiful but unfortunate companion, Doris, in earlier days:

(ancestry.com)

While many of the gangsters in this story ended life in a very dramatic and bad way, a few like rum running kingpin Grady King, survived into old age.  King, who, along with Norris, may have been the one to fix the hit on Lindsey, diversified his interests while still a bootlegger.  He invested in oil companies in the region and was able to easily make the transition to a legitimate businessman after the end of prohibition.  He died in Edmond in 2009.

Another of the bad guys in this story lived a long life.  Although he received a 700-year sentence that was meant to keep him behind bars for life, Gene Paul Norris’s elder brother, Pete, was released on parole in 1960. During his long years in prison, Pete took advantage of every educational opportunity he could and studied agriculture, law, psychology, and painting.  He told one reporter that education changed him and said, “If I hadn’t changed, I’d be a stark, raving maniac.”  He married, tended to the family farm in Healdton (where Lindsey was supposedly murdered and initially buried), died there in 1974, and is buried in a nearby cemetery.

And that’s it for the meandering saga of Lindsey Chambless.  Believe it or not, during my research journey into his crazy life, I met a lot of characters that I didn’t introduce here.  So, you may be seeing more stories of Oklahoma during prohibition in the future — yay!

Finally, I found a few resources that I thought I’d share with you in case you want to do further reading:

The bars and clubs along Jacksboro Highway in Fort Worth were big-time havens for members of the Dixie Mafia, and you can read more about the illustrious history of the highway here.

Go here to read the full Tulsa World article about the end of prohibition that I quoted above.

Read more about the history of prohibition here and here.

The book, Oklahoma Tough: My Father, King of the Tulsa Bootleggers is a fascinating account of the life of one Tulsa bootlegger.

Here’s a brief history of Cuba in the 1950s.