Two notorious bandits who robbed the Big Rapids, Michigan Savings Bank, Hoffman and Penning, were captured by police in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the result of a clue broadcast August 12, 1936. Claude Beaver, Oklahoma fugitive described on May 20th, 1936, was captured on May 21. Luke Trammel and Forest Gibson, described on July 1, 1936, were captured three days later. Ray Rusch and Alvin Mott, described on February 24, 1937, were killed by police less than forty-hours later. In the early part of January 1939, Gang Busters broadcast a clue on Raymond Duvall. Within two weeks the Louisiana State Police surrounded and captured Duvall.
A clever gentleman named Carl Strain was, for a considerable time, America’s most elusive fugitive from justice. He had a long criminal record and had worked under forty or fifty aliases. He moved in select company, was not affiliated with a gang and covered his tracks beautifully. His record included a three-year sentence in Alcatraz. The Federal Bureau of Investigation called him a confidence man and wanted him on charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping, theft and impersonation. With the help of a Gang Busters clue, he was found and apprehended.
Stranger than fiction was the identification of a fugitive stranger being watched by Jackson, Mississippi police because he was a “suspicious character.” The alert policemen took advantage of the fugitive’s absence from his apartment to install themselves as comfortably as they could within the confines of his closet. While they waited, they heard words from a room further down the hall. It was a radio, and the program it was broadcasting was Gang Busters. For almost thirty minutes, the two detectives, waiting for their man to return, enjoyed the thrilling program. At the end, the clues were broadcast. One set of those clues accurately described in detail the very man in whose room they were hiding. He was characterized, also accurately, as a most dangerous criminal. Minutes later when he came to his room, William Leshe, wanted for three robberies, walked into the open arms of the law.
In 1933, Percy “Angel Face” Geary and his gang abducted John O’Connell, son of New York’s most powerful upstate political family. Next, they staged the largest cash robbery in history when they lifted $427,900 out of an armored truck in front of the Rudel Ice Company in Brooklyn, New York. Geary and his men were eventually apprehended and sentenced to Onodaga Penitentiary in New York State. In 1937, Geary was one of three men who escaped from Onodaga. Both of his pals were quickly recaptured. But Geary, ring-leader, strategist, and desperado remained at large.
Early on the afternoon of November 17, 1937, young Caspar Murra, Syracuse parking-lot attendant, warmed himself in his little shack during a slack period. Through the door he watched the approach of a tall, shabbily dressed man. Murra was accustomed to tramps who came to warm themselves at his stove and invited the stranger in. Apparently exhausted, the tramp sat down in a corner and presently dozed. Murra went home for supper following the evening rush, leaving the tramp asleep. After dinner, he turned on his radio and heard station WFBL broadcasting Gang Busters. A part of what he heard was this:
“Special flash! All citizens are asked to cooperate with the police in the apprehension of one of the most dangerous criminals at large today. Percy Geary, 29, 5 feet 9 ˝ inches tall, 134 pounds, chestnut hair, gray eyes. His two companions, Harold Crowley and John Oley, who escaped with him from Onodaga Penitentiary where they were serving terms for kidnapping, were captured today. But Geary escaped by jumping out of a window. He may be badly hurt, but should be approached with caution, as this man is desperate.”
Murra recalled the man in his shack, recalled that he walked with a slight limp, that he fit the description given. But when he reached the parking-lot shack, the tramp had gone. Mid-morning of the next day, Murra was startled to see yesterday’s visitor returning, this time limping more than before. Once again, the man seated himself in a corner and warmed his hands before the stove. When a parking-lot customer arrived to leave his car, Murra whispered to him to call the police. When the cops came, the leader of one of the most vicious gangs to operate in the eastern United States surrendered like a lamb. He was transported to Alcatraz.
In early July 1949, Gang Busters presented a clue about an alleged murderer, Frank Casas Valadez, alias “215,” a suspect wanted by law enforcement. In November, Valadez was apprehended and information spread throughout newspapers across the country relating to his capture.
The purpose and scope of the Gang Busters clues were pretty well summed up in the following letter from the State Attorney, Miami, Florida:
“The task of identifying the body of a man which had drifted up on one of our beaches appeared hopeless. The man had taken every precaution before committing suicide to avoid being traced. At our request Gang Busters broadcast his description; within thirty minutes a call from Chicago positively identified the body. Your program is a very strong factor in the apprehension of criminals as well as in the prevention of crime. You are deserving of the cooperation and thanks of all law enforcement authorities as well as the American people.”
There was one occasion when the announcer read a description of the week’s wanted criminals. The announcer declared: “Wanted, Harry “The Hook” Jones . . . Height, two feet, six inches . . .” After he got the words out of his mouth, the announcer was stricken with a laughing fit over the image of a desperate criminal two and one half feet tall, and he had to be hauled to the sidelines.
“In the old days a criminal could rob a bank or commit a murder and dodge capture fairly well by crossing the state line,” wrote Phillips Lord. “This was as true of big crimes as it was of small. Say he robbed a bank in Michigan and made his getaway. He probably wouldn’t go to Chicago to hide, because Chicago, as a large city, would have an efficient police force outnumbering that in the smaller town. He would choose a medium-sized city in Illinois – or in Ohio. But even if he chose Chicago, he would have a good chance of getting away with it. There would be a description of him on file at police headquarters, but unless he happened to have a record in Chicago, none of the Chicago officers would know much about him. They were glad to cooperate, but they simply didn’t have the mediums of information we have today. In the smaller city the chances were greater still in the criminal’s favor.”
“You can figure out just how good his chances were arithmetically,” continued Lord. “If he were in a town with twenty policemen on its force, he had twenty men looking for him. If he were in a large city with 5,000 policemen, he had 5,000 looking for him – even though they were busy with other things. But consider what happens today with our coast-to-coast radio broadcasts, our newspaper syndicates, teletype machines and a centralized bureau of investigation at Washington. The newspapers carried lurid stories about Alvin Karpis to every corner of the country. Twenty or thirty million people had read about him and seen his picture. Twice on our Gang Busters program we broadcast descriptions of him – descriptions which reached four or five million people. He was captured on a Friday, May 1. We had broadcast one description of him the Wednesday evening before.”
“Further, not only did every police station in every city and town have his photo tacked up on a bulletin board, but Federal investigators scattered through every state in the union were looking for him,” continued Lord. “And, unlike the local police, the federal men don’t have to spend part of their time handing out traffic tags and hunting for the boys who robbed Mrs. Guffey’s hen roost. They were thinking Karpis, Karpis, Karpis. How would you feel if you knew twenty million people were looking for you, that any one of them might recognize you at any instant? That’s why he had his face lifted and his fingertips mutilated. Sheer terror.”
One of Phillips Lord’s favorite police reports was when they offered the following clue:
“Wanted by Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Police: Michael Urbansky, 22, 5 feet 9 inches, 163 pounds, chestnut hair, medium dark complexion. An escaped prisoner; also wanted concerning highway robbery.” Five days later a man walked into Philadelphia police headquarters and said, “I’m Mike Urbansky. When I heard my description given over Gang Busters, I knew my chances of remaining at large were pretty slim.”
On a similar occasion, one convict so aptly put it when he surrendered in this manner to a Claude, Texas Sheriff: “When I heard my name broadcast on Gang Busters, I knew the entire country would be looking for me, and that I was doomed to capture.”
On May 6, 1936, the following description of a Negro voodoo doctor wanted in Alabama was broadcast: “Wanted for murder. Walter Davis. Six feet three inches tall, 215 pounds, Negro, one front tooth missing, brown scar on back of head, pimply face, very dark complexion. This man shot and killed a policeman last Thursday.”
The next morning – not two or three days later, but the very next morning – there was a telegram on Lord’s desk from a police chief in Rhode Island, saying that he had picked up a man who answered to the description and was holding him for finger-print identification. The prisoner in question was detained as a result of the Gang Busters clue and the dangerous maniac was positively identified.
“Far more important and infinitely more gratifying was our experience in connection with the capture of Thomas H. Robinson, Jr., the last of the major kidnappers to be captured – the same who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the kidnapping of Mrs. Alice Spee Stoll,” Phillips Lord recalled. As far back as January 22, on the second broadcast of the Gang Busters series, the following official description was sent over the air:
“Wanted. Thomas H. Robinson, Jr. for the Stoll kidnapping, October 1934. Robinson is 29 years old. 6 feet tall, very slender build, weight 149 pounds. Black hair, gray eyes, very fair complexion. Known to have taken many parts in high school plays and now may be impersonating a woman working as a clerk, in an office. Had probably dyed hair black but will be dressed as a woman. He is well mannered, speaks very little, has a somewhat deep voice, hard to disguise it as a woman’s.”
In Pasadena, California, Lynn Allen, a drug store lunch counter manager, listened to the program and was particularly impressed by the vivid description of Robinson, and by the radio dramatization of his crime that followed. Apparently a month before, a “woman” ordered breakfast at Allen’s counter. “Her” deep voice and over-sized wrists struck him as being out of line and the radio description flashed through his mind. Allen notified police, who matched his observations with official photos. The capture of Robinson resulted. “It was indeed gratifying to know that our program so impressed this observant citizen that, two months later, he was able to recall the description during Robinson’s first visit to his store,” concluded Lord. “The more people you have on the lookout for a criminal, the more tips come in. It used to be that, if you saw a suspicious character, about all you could do was report him to your local police. That only put him on the watch in your own locality. Now the tips can be routed through Washington. From there, carefully sifted, they go out to G-Men over the country.”
Within fifteen minutes after a clue had been broadcast on January 20, 1938, the telephone jingled in the office of the San Antonio police. It was a listener advising that a Negro residing at a certain address in San Antonio fitted the description of one George Perry. Perry had just been described by the clue broadcast. Immediately the local police had something to work with and in a short time the wanted criminal was captured. He was turned over to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, from which he had escaped almost a year previous. Within a few weeks after this sensational capture, Mrs. Frances Haskell Edmonson, the only woman Texas ranger, made a trip to New York. While she was there she honored Phillips H. Lord by making him a special deputy sheriff of Bexar, Texas. Mrs. Edmonson, in representing her home was conferred upon Lord in recognition of Gang Busters’ work in crime detection and prevention.
On the evening of December 7, 1938, Gang Busters broadcast a clue describing Negro Earl Carl Harris, who murdered three women with a shotgun in Montgomery City, Missouri. He murdered another woman in Moberly, Missouri; and murdered another woman in Highland, Michigan, by beating her with a chair, cutting her throat and inflicting wounds. Harris made his living washing cars and working in filling stations and garages. A few days later, the following letter arrived in Lord’s office from Captain Charles E. Cook of the Detective Division of the Highland Park Police:
I am pleased to inform you that through your cooperative broadcast of last Wednesday, we have in custody Earl Carl Harris. This arrest was based on information that a man who had listened to your broadcast was able to inform the police of Chathan, Ontario, Canada, where Earl Carl Harris was working. Saturday morning, December 10, 1938, two officers of the Chatham police made the arrest and Earl Carl Harris has made a full confession of all the murders that he has been accused of.
Martin Grams, Jr. is the author and co-author of a dozen books about old-time radio and old-time television including GANG BUSTERS: The Crime Fighters of American Broadcasting (2004), from which most of this material originated. This article is also a reprint from the June 2004 REPS Convention Program Guide and reprinted with permission.