In the Rearview: The Life and Times of OKC’s Most Notorious Bootlegger — Part 4

Posted by on Sep 12, 2017 in Mod Blog |

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

 

The life and times of bootlegger, Lindsey Chambless get much crazier in this, the fourth installment of the series.  To read previous installments, go to Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3.)

 

The Flame of Gunfire

On October 25, 1952, just a few weeks after his return from testifying in Fort Worth about the Cuban incident at the Western Hill Motel, Lindsey, Mary Lou, and their two sons were enjoying a rare Friday night together in their tidy Village home.

The young boys had been sick and slept all day and when they awoke late in the evening, their parents agreed to let them stay up to watch the late show on the family’s new television set.  Shortly before midnight, Mary Lou was in the kitchen, the boys were on the floor glued to the TV, and Lindsey sat on the couch in front of the picture window taking in the domestic bliss when, suddenly, a single shotgun blast shattered the suburban quiet.

Sitting just 12 feet from the picture window, Lindsey was struck in the chest just above the heart, his right leg, and his groin with .00 gauge buckshot from a double-barreled shotgun, but it could have been much worse.  Just ask the TV, which received the brunt of the blast and likely saved the bootlegger’s life.  Here’s what a new TV from 1952 looked like:

(vintageadbrowser.com)

After the ambush, the injured bootlegger stumbled into the kitchen to get to Mary Lou and collapsed on the floor.  The kids weren’t injured, but Mary Lou later lamented the loss of their new gadget, “Well, I guess it didn’t hurt him (Lindsey) too bad. But it certainly ruined our new television set.  And we hadn’t even made a payment on it yet, either.”

As she spoke those shockingly callous words, Lindsey was recovering at Mercy Hospital at NW 13th and Walker after undergoing surgery to remove the buckshot in his chest.  Here’s what Mercy Hospital looked like around the time of Lindsey’s stay:

By Saturday afternoon, an armed guard stood outside Lindsey’s hospital room door, but that didn’t stop the victim from chatting with eager reporters.  When they asked the bedridden man if he was surprised by the previous evening’s events, Lindsey replied, “If I had been expecting them to get me, I never would have sat in front of a picture window with the lights turned on…. It caught me by complete surprise.  The first time I knew something was up was when I noticed the orange flash from a gun outside the window.  Then I was hit.”

Although Mary Lou believed that the assassination attempt was made by a rival bootlegger who recently got into a fight with her husband at a local nightclub over her affections, both the police and he quickly dismissed that notion. Lindsey told reporters, “She was just popping off.  She don’t know anything about this Fort Worth deal at all.”

It definitely looked to everyone besides Mary Lou that the true culprit was a professional hitman associated with someone involved in the Cuban robbery a few weeks before.  Lindsey summed up the situation when he claimed, “an international gang is trying to get me.”  With several of the bandits from the Fort Worth heist still on the run, it certainly seemed like a probability.

Rounding Up the Robbers

While Lindsey was recovering from the shooting, the police were still working on the case against a group of suspects in the Fort Worth robbery.  One of them was a notorious gangster named Gene Paul Norris.

(Oklahoma Today)

The 31-year-old Oklahoma native was known throughout the Sooner State and Texas as a real bad guy who may have been responsible for murdering upwards of 50 men.  In fact, the short and thin man with searing brown eyes and wispy caramel-colored hair was so prolific at killing that one Texas Ranger, Ed Gooding, claimed that there were old water wells all over the state that Norris had stuffed bodies into.

Decades later in a Texas Monthly article, writer Gary Cartwright recounted a meeting he had with Norris, who was known as “the Smiling Killer” for his charming ways.  He recalled:

The first killer I ever interviewed was Gene Paul Norris, a notorious badass in Fort Worth in the mid-fifties. He had been hauled in on some vague charge and had requested to talk to a reporter, any reporter. I was a cub on the police beat for the Star-Telegram, raw as a lamb chop, but I was the only guy available in the pressroom. Norris was a high-profile player in what was known as the Dixie Mafia, and every newshound in town would have given his trench coat for an interview. Envisioning a page-one byline, I grabbed a fistful of notepaper and rushed to the holding cell. Norris was seated in a chair, the only piece of furniture in the room, and he smiled and offered me his seat.

In his mid-thirties, Norris was an angular, rawboned man, taller than his mug shots suggested, more cordial than I had expected, and far less menacing. His cat-gray eyes had a soothing effect, and he talked with such apparent sincerity that I ran out of paper before I could ask a question. Later, when I reviewed my notes, I realized that the only straight thing he’d told me was a telephone number to call, with the message that he was back in jail. An older and more experienced newsman eventually informed me that I had fallen for a scam Norris regularly pulled on young reporters. It was his way to get word to his lawyer. (In those days, the Fort Worth police weren’t big on civil rights).

Norris was known far and wide as a gangster, so authorities weren’t too surprised when the Cubans identified him as the man they were playing cards with at the Western Hills Motel.

(Ridgelea Historical Society)

Police arrested the career criminal, who quickly bonded out, but they still couldn’t find the money.  Leaked underworld gossip was that the loot was buried somewhere, but police weren’t so sure.  They were looking for one more suspect, a man who posed as a candy maker but who had a long criminal record dating to 1930.

Forty-year-old Floyd Allen Hill had been in trouble with the law most of his life.

Much of his adulthood had been spent in various penal institutions – Oklahoma State Prison (twice), Alcatraz (twice), and Leavenworth.  It seemed that every time he was released from jail, a new robbery crime wave hit whatever town he decided to call home.  Like Norris, the burly, 6’ 2” Hill was known as a smooth talker who could charm the ladies, but he also had a horrible temper.  According to a newspaper report from 1953, “one of the grim mysteries about Hill involves his ex-wife.  The woman vanished in August 1952, reportedly after sadistic treatment at his hands.”

Hill was definitely not a good guy.

Just a few weeks after Lindsey was shot, Hill was captured just outside of tiny Azle, Texas on November 3rd.  A tipster, who was later identified as Hill’s latest wife, Juanita, told police that they could find the robber’s share of the money buried in a clearing in some woods just off of a country lane.  While one cop shadowed Hill in nearby Ft. Worth, a group of lawmen drove to the site and started digging.  Soon, they uncovered a gallon milk thermos and an olive jar filled with money.  Not only was $128,000 of the Cubans’ cash recovered, but also another $4,250 in government bonds that had been stolen from a wealthy rancher in Kilgore the previous August.

The police removed the evidence, filled in the hole, and staked out spots surrounding the clearing in anticipation of Hill’s arrival, which Juanita had told officers would be later that same evening.  Just like she said, a car pulled up to the scene at around 3:00 a.m., and a large man exited the car with a garden hoe in his hand.  As he was walking toward the spot where the loot had been buried, cops pounced and arrested the thief without incident.

Hill was taken to the Tarrant County Jail and booked as the suspected trigger man in the robbery at the Western Hills Motel.  Now, the police believed they had all of the robbers identified and charged, even though half of the money was still missing.

Another Jail Break, the 10 Most Wanted, and a Trial

Floyd Allen Hill languished just a few weeks in jail when he and several of his fellow inmates hatched a plan to escape.  In unison, the prisoners attacked their guards on the morning of February 18, 1953 and fought their way out of the obviously poorly secured jail.  A couple of prisoners made off in stolen cars, while others just ran for it.  Officers shot and captured some of the escapees, but 10, including Hill, got away.

Just over a month later, all of the convicts had been recaptured, but Hill was still on the loose.  The FBI added the career criminal to their 10 Most Wanted List on March 30, citing that “his ruthlessness and brutal exploits incite fear and terror in the underworld itself….  (He is) surly, violent, and goaded by a ‘persecution complex.’”

While Hill was on the lam somewhere in Texas or near his home in Duncan, police believed, Gene Paul Norris was the first of the suspected robbers to go on trial.  Even though the Cubans positively identified the gangster as the man who played cards with them that night in the cabana then assisted in holding them up, the notorious gangster produced a witness who testified that Norris was with him in Oklahoma City and couldn’t have been in Fort Worth.  Shockingly, the jury sided with Norris and exonerated him of the crime on April 10, 1953.

Meanwhile, Hill’s time as a free man was about to end.  Just nine days after Norris’s verdict, police on a stakeout of Hill’s known associates produced results.  They found him at a friend’s house outside of Dallas.  According to a later report, “he (Hill) was taken completely by surprise on a planned raid by FBI agents, sheriff’s officers, Dallas city police, and Texas Rangers.”  He didn’t resist arrest and was placed under close guard until he could be tried for the robbery.  Ultimately, Hill pled guilty to the robbery and the Tarrant County Jail breakout and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Lindsey was never tried in the case, and the fourth suspect, Sam Brown Cresap, was acquitted for lack of evidence.

I don’t know if the rest of the Cubans’ money was ever recovered.

Lindsey Gets Into Trouble Again

You would think that, after being involved with such violent criminals and nearly being shot to death, Lindsey would have wised up and decided that maybe the criminal life wasn’t for him, but, as you may have guessed, that didn’t happen.  As soon as he was well, the scrappy bootlegger was back in business, but maybe a little more savvy than before because he, Mary Lou, and their kids (now including a baby daughter) were on the move around the Metro and never stayed in one place very long.  He also kept his name out of the papers … at least for a little while.

On October 19, 1954, a local liquor runner named Albion H. Potts, Jr., reported to the Highway Patrol that, on his return from a liquor run in Texas, bandits in a souped up Lincoln chased him at 100 miles per hour then shot out the back tire of his car as he turned onto a farm road near Lawton.  Here’s a photo of Mr. Potts:

And here’s a 1953 Lincoln Cosmopolitan:

(Custom_Cab on Flickr)

The highwaymen continued shooting as Potts stopped on the side road, escaped the car, and hid in front of it to avoid the gunfire.   With nowhere to go, the bootlegger meekly surrendered to the bandits, who forced him to help transfer 50 cases of liquor valued at $5,000 from his car to theirs.  Then, they scurried back to the Lincoln and took off, leaving a bewildered Potts to fend for himself.

The following week in a similar incident, police found a wrecked car three miles west of Mt. Scott in the Wichita Wildlife Refuge.  According to the Oklahoman:

Trooper John Duke and an ambulance were dispatched to the scene after an unidentified motorist reported the accident.  When Duke arrived he found a wrecked 1952 or 1953 model Pontiac with a Missouri tag which contained about 10 cases of liquor.  The car was so badly wrecked officers couldn’t be certain of the model. 

Evidence at the scene indicated the car had been travelling at a high rate of speed and overturned on a curve.  There were also indications someone had been injured.  But a check of all hospitals and clinics in that area failed to locate the injured man.

Troopers, who say rum runners are usually careful drivers, especially when they are hauling liquor, think the car was being chased by a liquor bandit and was wrecked.

Rumors soon began swirling in underworld circles that Lindsey, another bootlegger named George Fuqua, and two others were the culprits in these Comanche County robberies.  Meet George Fuqua:

According to the Thisandthat blog at okhistory.org, “Fuqua was reputed to use a red hand spotlight to impersonate a patrol car, to stop his victims. Around Christmas of 1954, someone impersonating a trooper attempted to stop a northbound vehicle between Gainesville and Thackerville, but the driver did not stop and was run off the road into a tree with fatal results. Turned out he was the owner of a truck line, speeding north to the scene of an accident involving one of his trucks. It was widely speculated that Fuqua was involved in this but it was never proven.”

Police believed the rumors, and Lindsey, Fuqua, and their pals were charged in connection with the Potts case.  During a preliminary hearing, Lindsey claimed that he was in his Oklahoma City home at NW 50th and Meridian (then a rural area of quiet farm houses, now part of Dolese Park) playing canasta with his family, including his ex-wife and now mother-in-law, Stella.  He was released on a $15,000 bond.  As for George Fuqua, he was laying low in Texas and fighting extradition to Lawton to stand trial.

Why would Lindsey resort to stealing from fellow rum runners?

According to the Oklahoman, “the situation was created when a few bootleggers with criminal records were ‘too hot’ to conduct retail business in ‘dry’ Oklahoma.  They banded together and began stealing liquor from runners working for other bootleggers, then selling their contraband to still other rum dealers.  The runners started fighting back and the war was on.”  Police also got really worried when the bootleggers began terrorizing innocent highway drivers on the road between Dallas and Oklahoma City.  Several ordinary citizens were targeted by these nefarious bandits as possible rum runners, chased, pulled over, and beaten up.  One terrified innocent was even killed when he crashed his car into a tree during a high-speed chase with a marauding bootlegger.

After several delays, Lindsey finally went on trial for the Potts robbery in October, 1955.  The career criminal vehemently denied being a part of the robbery, saying, “I’ve been guilty of a lot of things, but I’m not guilty of this.”  At one point during the trial, reporters found a visibly shaken Lindsey out in the corridor weeping because he was worried about what all of this was doing to his young wife and three children.

Back in court, Mary Lou and Stella backed up his alibi that he was in Oklahoma City the day of the robbery, but the 12 jurors didn’t buy it and returned with a guilty verdict a mere 30 minutes after they began deliberations.  Lindsey quickly appealed and remained out on bond, but the law wasn’t finished with him yet.

In early 1956, the police busted Lindsey again, this time for running a retail liquor store without a federal stamp out of his home.  Mary Lou also was charged for taking customer orders over the phone.  Court documents stated that Lindsey, Mary Lou, and another bootlegger in their gang earned $12,315.05 in just a two week period in December 1955 when they were being monitored by police.  Police stated that the group delivered “five cases to a large architectural firm, two cases to a public utility firm,” and several cases to other reputable companies around town.  (Wonder which firm was the boozy recipient, don’t you?)

Once again, Lindsey posted bail and yet another trial was scheduled for the troubled bootlegger.

 

Next week, the Lindsey’s brutal end, the death of Prohibition, and more sordid stories.  Read the final installment here.