Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Customs Stories II: Roaring Twenties (Part II)

We return to the story of Les Eddington and his colleagues, pursuing bank robbers from Canada into the United States...

They turned south on the road where we had noted the two men walking; by this time the two were about a mile south of us. When the Buick caught up to the two it didn't stop, but the to jumped onto the running board of the car, one on each side. As we had lost some distance while turning around we came along at a fast speed. As we shot over the top of this hill, there they were stopped and piling out of the Buick. They spread out, two men in each ditch, with the big man with the machine gun standing directly behind their car, in the middle of the road.

The first thought that crossed my mind was to ram the big guy with the machine gun and mash him between our car and the Buick, however, I though of Bill's brand new car and started to ride the brakes. By this time Bill had started shooting and I could see glass flying from the windshield as the bullets came through. By the time the Paige screeched to a halt we were about a car's length behind the Buick. About that time a chunk came flying out of the Paige's steering wheel and I felt the burning of a bullet in my stomach. We each had our doors open in order to get out however the bullets were flying so fast as all five were shooting at us we settled back into the car - I laid my head over Bill's lap and Bill leaned over my way trying to keep his head down.

After the shooting stopped we put up our hands however Bill wouldnt let go of his .45. They were bellowing at him to drop it but he wouldn't do it. I said, "Bill, throw it down, we're all through!" but still he wouldn't drop the gun. Finally two men came to Bill's side (two others came to my side) and one of them reached up and took the gun from Bill's hand. One of the men collared me and yanked me out from under the steering wheel, while the other took a pass at my head with his pistol but I ducked and he missed me. They dragged Bill out of the car, made us lie down in front of the Paige, face down while the young man in the rear of the car, who had laid down on the floor while the shooting was taking place, crawled out and started walking away. I don't think he liked the company we kept! They yelled for him to come back but he wouldn't have anything of it. Bill and I also told him to come back but no deal. Finally one of the men collared him and brought him back to the car, making him lie down a little to the rear of us.

They took everything from our car with the exception of Renton's coat and Sam Browne belt. THey used the belt to beat Bill over the head with, but they didn't beat on me - I think they were angry with Bill for shooting at them. I had on uniform breeches, shirt and puttees, with my badge on my belt. They wanted to know who we were and thy we were following them. We told them who we were and I told them I thought that we were chasing a load of liquor. They started draining our gas tank, using a dish-like pan that would hold about a gallon. Each trip from car to car they would step over our friend and on one trip the man stepped on his neck. While this was going on they were trying to decide what to do with us. One of them wanted to shoot us on the spot - I was in hopes that he would be overruled! One of them got down and took a good look at my badge - I felt quite sure that if they had any intentions of shooting they would have done it before this.

While they were discussing whether or not to shoot us I stole a look at Bill and asked him if he had been hit, as his face was covered with blood. He said he didn't think so, then I told him that I was shot in the stomach. About this time the big man with the machine gun who was giving all the orders bellowed for us to shut up and keep our faces down. After finally draining all the gas from the Paige they lifted the hood, tore off the ignition wires and took them with them. The big man said they would leave a man with us and that they would return after they gassed up. After they had driven off down the road a block or so, we sat up - I think our friend was the first to speak. He looked at Bill and then me, then at the retreating Buick and said, "Well, I'll be damned!"

There we sat, completely out of business. I opened my shirt and reached in and pulled out a .38 special slug and showed it to Bill and the kid. It had come through the metal cowling, hit the steering wheel, and took a piece out of it, then into my stomach. It had cut through my clothing but did not penetrate my stomach. I looked Bill's face over and found it to be full of glass splinters, oozing blood from each place where glass had entered his ace. I don't understand how he escaped more serious injury as there were three .45 holes in the radiator, another five in the windshield and cowl and I think more that went over the car.

Bill and I walked south to the nearest farmhouse, which was about a mile distance. We found no one was at home, the house was unlocked so we entered the house. We would ring the phone but no one could hear us, so Bill walked across a field to another farmhouse. I kept fooling with the phone and finally discovered a knife switch which when I opened it I could get the phone to ring - when it did Bill answered on the phone at the other farm! Bill finally managed to call the sheriff at Lakota, Grand Forks, and other county seat towns. he also called our district director at Grand Forks and asked him to notify the Grand Forks Police Department in case the bandits should try to cross the river there.

I called the sheriff at Langdon to come and tow our car back to Langdon. Returning to the Paige we picked up the can that had been used to transer the gas from our car to the Buick; we had left the kid there with instructions to not let anyone touch it while we were away. I picked it up and wrapped it in paper and placed it in the rear seat of the car. I figured at least we could have the fingerprints of the man that transfered the gas as he had worked bare handed. This was probably the container they carried in the car to hold the nails they had thrown out earlier.

In looking over the disabled Paige I picked up Renton's coat from the backseat. In the pocket I found two clips of shells for his rifle, clips that I had watched him loading earlier in the day - he evidenty loaded these clips and put them into his coat pocket but none in the rifle. That was the reason we couldn't make it work.

We found out later the bandits drove to a farmhouse, filled up with gasoline, giving the boy at the farm a $10 bill, telling him to "keep the change" - this at a point about five miles from where we were shot up. In a short time the Langdon sheriff arrived, accompanied by George Nelson, Bill Renton, and Jim McLaughling, the Langdon Chevrolet dealer, who towed the car back to town. En route to Langdon we met a car load of detectives from the Winnipeg Police Department, who continued the search for the bandits. Sherriff Tollefson, Constable Renton, Henneberry, and myself then drove to Brocket, where we had something to eat. Upon return to Langdon we found a large number of people in the McLaughlin Garage looking over Bill's car. When I looked for the container that was used to drain the gasoline from our car I found it on the floor - it has been handled by numerous people - there was our only clue gone up in smoke. We made the mistake of not keeping this container with us. The Paige was left at the garage where mechanics put on new wiring and plugged up the bullet holes in the radiator so that it could be run until such time as a new one could be purchased.

Henneberry, Renton, Nelson, and myself were then taken to Mowbray where we had abandoned our patrol car and the Provincial police car. We found that the Mowbray elevator man had fixed the tires on both cars for us, but it took about two hours of searching before we found the spare tire for Bill's car as it had rolled a couple of hundred feet into a wheat feild.


While it appeared the bandits may have made good on their escape, law enforcement officers in both Minnesota, Manitoba and North Dakota tried to cover all possible ecape routes. Closely watched were the bridges between North Dakota and Minnesota, especially the Oslo and Grand Forks bridges. There was speculation that perhaps the bandits had headed west on Highway 2 towards Minot, (and that they might even be based out of the Magic Ciy, although there was no proof of that). Officers heavily worked the Oslo-Warren, Minn. area but to little avail. There were reported sightings a far east as Litchfield, Minn., while some believed the gang may have been holed up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul vicinity. Officers Eddington and Henneberry traveled to Winnipeg to look over the local mug books but the only photos that looked anything like the gunmen they had encountered included a man from California (who was found to still be in a California prison) and Chicago mobster "Bugs" Moran.


The search for the Winnipeg bank robbers returned to the Grand Forks area when Devils Lake Police Officer Ray Puschinsky received a tip that a gang of men were hiding on the Bill McMahon farm near Orr. Advising Grand Forks County a raid was organized that took place before daylight at the McMahon farm. Officers Art Solberg, Joe Bliven, H.L. Norley, Albert and E.E. Peterson of the Grand Forks Police Department, Ed Hough, Joseph Z. Benson and Knut Sorbo of the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office, Nelson County Sheriff T.E. LaTourette, Nelson County Deputy W.K. Fjeld and Nelson County States Attorney I. Swinlund took part in the pre-dawn raid on the isolated farmstead. Arrested that morning were Jim Thompson, Wiliam Souele and Thor Sevalson. Of the three, none proved utlimately to be involved in the bank theft, yet the actions of Thompson served to draw a great deal of attention to himself. He was found hiding in the hayloft of the barn and was the only one of the three to resist arrest or attempted to escape. It was determined later that Thompson was wanted on a federal liquor violation charge.

Eddington and Henneberry were summoned to Grand Forks to look over the three and to report to District Director O.B. Holton. As Eddinton tells it, "We started out with the Piage, however (we) had to carry a can of water as the radiator was leaking badly." Ater viewing the men arrested earlier in the day in the Orr raid, they were unable to identify any of the trio. The bullet riddled Paige was drawing so much attention that Grand Forks police officers had to move the car from 4th Street to Alpha Avenue, to prevent the street from being locked by curious onlookers. The Grand Forks Herald arrived to take several photos of the car for their next edition before the two patrol officers could get on with their part in the search.


Accompanied by two Winnipeg city police detectives, plus bank messenger Nicholson, Henneberry and Eddington took the Great Northern to Minneapolis where they were joined by two Minneapolis detectives to review their mug files in an effort to identify the bandits. Each time a photo of a known bank robber was shown to Nicholson he would squeal "That's the bloody so and so" but no one was ever positively identified. A check with Illinois officials indicated the license plates on the Buick were registered to a Model T Ford belonging to Bernard H. Dree of Highland, Ill. Mr. Drees was a medical doctor and the plates had been stolen from the mails before he received them for his car.


While the trail had cooled off considerably in North Dakota and Minnesota, authorities in Montana and Manitoba kept things jumping. A report ws received by Canadian law enforcement officials that a blue car had been seen about 1:30pm north of Mowbray, containing three men. Intent on getting their men, the Canadians had a full contingent ready to roll on a moment's notice, including holding a special train at Winnipeg to transport men in addition to retaining an airplane for air searches. Further reports on the movements of the blue car continued to come into the Winnipg command headquarters - it was reported at Somerset at 3pm then 20 minutes later was seen moving through Altamont. Immediately all the local communities were notified. J.H. Holley of the Holley Airways took to the air, taking with him Winnipeg police sergeant J. Painter. In addition, squads of motocycle and patrol officers took to the highways - all armed with machine guns! But the blue car with the three men was never encountered.

At the same time Sheriff Fleming of Chinook, Mont., was sure he had the bandits in his territory. A bullet riddled, badly burned automobile was found nearby (which turned out to be an Auburn Eight) but was reported to Sheriff Fleming that the men from the Buick had inquired the road to Butte while a further report had placed the men at Gregson Springs, about 16 miles from Butte. To add further flame to the fire, a Minnesota man reported that his license plates had been stolen while his car was parked. It seemed everyone had a report to make concerning the whereabouts of the Winnipeg bank bandits. There is little doubt that Montana authorities woul have loved to have captured the andits, to uphold their tradition of capturing "international" outloaws. Only the previous year Butte police had captured Mr. and Mrs. George MacDonald. (Wanted for the murder of Quebec taxi driver Adelard Bouchard, the MacDonalds were returned to Canada, where George was hung in January 1928, while his wife was sentenced to life in prison.)

By this time, however, it was believed by most Winnipeg and North Dakota authorities that the robbers were safely hidden away in the Twin Cities or Chicago. The Bankers Association of Canada posted a $5,000 reward but it was never claimed. Henneberry's car was taken to a body shop in Grand Forks where a new radiator was installed, the windshield was replaced, bullet holes soldered up and the body repainted. Ironically the immigration service refused to pay the repair bill for the car on the grounds that the government furnished a car for patrol purposes and that the officers "had no business chasing bank robbers!" Despite protests that the robbers had illegally crossed the border meant nothing. (The bill was ultimately paid for by the Winnipeg City Police who were "...thankful for our cooperation in connection with our efforts even though we failed while trying to make an arrest," according to Eddington's written account.)

Ultimately Bill Henneberry quit the Immigration service after having words with the district director in regard to the service's failure to pay for the damages to his car. He was later brought up on charges, but as the name on the papers was not made out in his correct spelling he failed to answer to them. He was found guilty by failure to reply to the charges and dismissed - but was hired the next day by the Collector of Customs at Pembina, where he would remain for the rest of his career.

Lester Eddington, whose government career had begun as a customs patrol officer in 1925, moved to immigration in 1927 (when it went under civil service), then returned to customs patrol in 1929 and remained with the organization until it was disbanded in 1946. He was appointed customs inspector at Noyes, Minn. in 1497, then special agent for U.S. Customs at Pembina in 1952. He retired from duty May 31, 1956 after 31 years service to the United States.

As for the bank bandits, they were never positively identified or caught; the $25,000 was never recovered. If one of the bandits had, indeed, been Chicago mobster "Bugs" Moran, his lucky start would look at him one more time at least - narrowly escaping death when seven of his henchmen were gunned down by elements of the Al Capone gang in a Chicago garage on February 14, 1929 - the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre.
Author's Notes: After completing his book, Lester Eddington penned a dedication at the bottom of the last page to some of the people he had worked with during his three decades of service. It reads, "My greatest admiration of names mentioned in this narrative goes to the late Collector of Customs Judson LaMoure, Pembina and the late Deputy Collector of Customs Dave Elves, Sarles, ND, and last but not least the late Art Gould, Winnipeg, Manitoba - the greatest liquor runner that ever crossed the international border in this district."

Additional Notes: There is some confusion as to the correct spelling of Constable William G. Renton's last name. Some sources give the spelling as that used here, Renton, while other sources give it as Wrenton. My apologies to the late Mr. Renton if it is incorrect in this text.

(Article's author: Jim Benjaminson)

Les Eddington later in his career with confiscated (smuggled) grain