When the victim’s fingerprints count the most

Most commonly, it’s the perpetrator’s fingerprints that land him or her in jail. But in the kidnapping of Charles Urschel, it was the victim’s fingerprints that lead to the capture of a notorious Prohibition era gangster.


The crime

Charles F. Urschel, oil millionaire and philanthropist, and his wife Berenice were entertaining their friends, the Jarretts, at the Urschels’ Oklahoma City home with a game of bridge on July 22, 1933, when two bandits armed with machine guns interrupted. Both Urschel and Jarrett were taken when neither would admit their identity, and despite warnings from the gunmen, Berenice immediately rang the police and FBI.


Once the gunmen decided who was who, Jarrett was robbed and released. Four days later, Berenice received a ransom note, in her husband’s handwriting, demanding $200,000 for his safe return. Raising the money wasn’t an issue for one of the wealthiest couples in the region, and the marked bills were delivered by another family friend, E. E. Kirkpatrick, in Kansas City. Unfortunately, Kirkpatrick was only able to describe his contact as a tall man “in a natty summer suit with a turned-down Panama hat,” leaving the FBI with no more clues than when they started the interstate investigation.


But the next day Urschel returned home. And that clever, observant man had a detailed story to tell.


The victim

Urschel, it seems, had an encyclopedic memory and he’d made note of every incident that occurred during his captivity:

  • When stopping to fuel their large car, which Urschel guessed to be either a Cadillac or Buick, the kidnappers asked the station attendant about the local weather. She replied the crops were “all burned up.”
  • The farmhouse where he was finally held, at the end of the two-day trip, was home to cows, pigs, and chickens. The water was drawn from a well northwest of the house, with a creaking windlass and had a strong mineral flavor.
  • Urschel was able to loosen his blindfold enough to glimpse his watch. Twice a day an aircraft passed overhead, at 9:45 AM and 5:45 PM. But on Sunday, there was a torrential rainstorm and the morning plane didn’t show.

But Urschel managed his crowning achievement when forced to write the ransom note. Deliberately, he left his fingerprints on every surface within reach.


The investigation

The tragic Lindbergh kidnapping had occurred just over a year ago and the FBI still smarted from their failures to recover that victim alive and to capture or even discover Bruno Hauptmann’s confederates. Seeing an opportunity to bolster his agency’s waning reputation, J. Edgar Hoover took a personal interest in the Urschel case and assigned Gus Jones, one of his top agents, to the investigation.


Jones concentrated on the trip’s duration, which suggested a hideout no more than six hundred miles from Oklahoma City. He contacted every airline that flew in the catchment area, asking for details of every schedule interrupted by a thunderstorm on Sunday, as well as all the meteorological stations, seeking an area where an ugly draught had been relieved.


The first clue was provided by American Airways, which flew from Fort Worth, Texas, to Amarillo at 9:15 each morning, with the return trip departing at 3:30 in the afternoon. But on Sunday, July 30, the morning flight was delayed and then forced far north of Paradise, Texas because of a drenching rainstorm that reduced visibility below the airline’s accepted levels. This was confirmed by the U.S. Weather Bureau in Dallas, which also stated that the little farming town of Paradise had seen its driest growing season in years before that storm.


FBI agents descended upon the town, checking each neighboring farm for the details noted by Urschel during his ordeal. But only when they reached the ranch owned by Mr. and Mrs. R. G. Shannon did all the pieces fall into place, and only then did they remember that the Shannons’ daughter, Kathryn Thorne Kelly, was married to the gangster known as Machine Gun Kelly.


Jones sent for Urschel, who recognized the chair where he had been handcuffed, the cup he drank from, the creaking windlass, the barnyard sounds, and the taste of that lousy water. The investigation turned into a court case with the fingerprint evidence: Urschel’s prints covered nearly every surface around the chair. Mrs. Shannon hadn’t cleaned.


The criminal

George Kelly never fired his machine gun while committing a crime. It had been purchased by his wife, Kathryn, who’d done her best to transform her bumbling spouse into a criminal legend. Sentenced to life imprisonment for her efforts, he died of a heart attack in Leavenworth on his 59th birthday in 1954. Four years later, Kathryn was released from her own life sentence, which she served in Cincinnati, through her mother’s tirelessness.


Machine Gun Kelly, known as “Pop Gun” in Leavenworth, never lived up to his wife’s mythomaniacal standards. It’s ironical, and somehow fitting, that this henpecked husband should select such an observant and intelligent victim as Charles Urschel for his single attempt at the ultimate Prohibition crime of kidnapping.

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