Back to Notorious Chicago
From Chicago Tribune January 22, 1939
By Guy Murchie
FORWARD Hijacking is highway robbery. In 1932 hijackers were in their heyday. The prohibition era had been their golden age. After repeal they became so bold that the insurance companies refused to insure any merchandise against robbery while it was being trucked through Cook county. To deliver Chicago from the ravages of this scourge an able police officer, Lieut. James B. Kerr, was appointed head of the police cartage detail with a squad of four men to help him. Kerr set to work with such ardor and success that within a year Mayor Kelly increased his force to six men, and three years later, in 1936,it was increased to eighteen men and six automobiles. In 1933 there were eighty-four hijackings in Chicago. In 1938 not a single hijacking was reported in the city.
How the hijackers were wiped out is a fast-moving record of brilliant detective work solving the most baffling crimes.
They Were a Cruel and Crafty Breed Until-
OUT OF NOWHERE a black sedan swooped abreast the big truck. There were three men in the sedan. Two of them were holding guns. They aimed at the truck driver. “Pullover!” one of the men shouted. Ralph Johnson, the truck driver, pulled over.
The black sedan’s occupants kept thetruck covered as it came to a stop beside the highway. The three men quickly hustled Ralph and Hank Garmicky, his helper, into the rear seat of their car, tying their hands and forcing them to lie on the floor under a blanket.
“We won’t hurt you if you shut up and do as you’re told,” was the advice given the victims. As they were driven away, accompanied by two of the men, they could hear the snorts of their truck starting up with the third man at its controls.
The men who held up Ralph and his helper were hijackers. Their object was the theft of the $10,000 load of tires which Ralph carried in the spacious compartment behind the driver’s seat.
Ralph was no novice driver. He was horny-handed and burly, and he knew the highways of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa as he had known his mother’s back yard when he was a kid.
He was near Wheaton, Ill., roaring westward along route 30 toward Iowa, when the hijackers appeared. After two of the three hijackers drove off with Ralph and Hank on the floor of their car they kept on going for what seemed to Ralph about ten minutes. Then they made a sharp turn into some sort of driveway and came to a stop. Here one of the men blindfolded Ralph and Hank and sat in the car guarding them, while the other man went away.
Soon the captives could hear the sound of a heavy truck, which they guessed was their own. It stopped near by, and for several hours they could hear the intermittent thuds of heavy objects being dropped and moved over a wooden floor. At the end of about five hours the hijackers drove off with them again and after ten or fifteen minutes of going told them to get out of the car.
“You’re free now,” said one of the robbers. “You’ll find your truck down the road there.” And the hijackers’ sedan quickly sped away, leaving the truck drivers five hours behind schedule and with an empty truck and a $10,000 loss to worry about.
That is the story substantially as Lieut. James B. Kerr of the Chicago police force heard it from Ralph Johnson over the telephone half an hour later-at 6 a. m, Kerr was head of the police cartage detail, whose special job was to fight hijacking in and around Chicago. A slim man with his head thin of hair and with large, keen eyes, he had the quick manner of one whose trained body is perfectly controled by an alert, intelligent mind.
Instantly Kerr and his men swung into action. First they got hold of Johnson and Garmicky and questioned them thoroughly.
“How far would you say the hijackers drove you from the scene of the crime?”
“Exactly what did you hear during the five hours you were kept in the car?”
“Did the hijackers talk with a foreign accent?”
“Was the place they took you to in a town, or did it sound like a farm in the country?”
After an hour of clever interrogation Lieutenant Kerr felt pretty certain of the following facts:
1. That the t1res had been unloaded somewhere within five miles of the known spot where the holdup occurred.
2. That they had been unloaded at a farm where a turkey gobbler was kept (the v1ctim clearly remembered the call of the gobbler. ”
3. That the hijackers were of Italian blood.
Accordingly he and his men made a methodical aeareh of the countryside wIthin a five-mlle radius of the spot, carefully looking over each farm for signs of tire or turkey gobblers. After a whole day of search they had found nothing – but they had covered only about half of the eighty square mlles they had allotted themselves.
Diagram of Hijacking described here.
It was not until nearly sundown of the second day that they drove Into a farm and were greeted by a heartening “gobba·gobba·gobble” of a telly old turkey which fluttered out to meet them.
With light hearts, but cautiously, they beean a search of the premises, which five minutes later was rewarded by discovery of the entire load of tires in one of the sheds back of the barn. Questioning the owner of the farm brought the reluctant information that that shed had been rented to a man named Diamini, who had paid for it in advance and had stored merchandise there from time to
time. moving it generally at night.
A lone vigil yielded no reappearance of Diamini or his henchmen at the farm—but eight and a half months later, through the farm owner’s, description and other clews obtalned from subsequent hijackings, the whole hijack gang was arrested, five of them, and successfully convicted and sent to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth for “interfering with interstate shipments.” Eighteen hijackings in all were cleared up by the confessions of the five gangsters.
The Melrose Park gang was another mob of hijackers that gave Lieutenant Kerr and his assistants many a headache for many a year. Specializing in holding up butter and egg trucks, this gang seized vast quantities of theae commodities. An average butter truck holds about 300 tubs weighing 64 pounds each and of a total value of from $2,500 to $5,000, depending on the price of butter at the time.
On the night that this gang made its fatal slip a cold wind was blowing,. It was January, and there was snow on the ground. After bolding, up a westbound butter truck in much the aame manner as Ralph Johnson was deprived of his load of tires the robbers took the lone chauffeur back to their hideout, the rear of an abandoned building in Melrose Park. It was about midnight.
While the rest of the gang was busy unloading the truck near by. one member was detailed to guard the driver as he lay blindfolded and tied face down on a cot. It was in a cold room in an unheated wing of the building that they kept him for hour after hour through the cold night.
As 3 o’clock came and went he was shivering terribly and growing steadily more numb with cold. Even the guard sitting beside the cot in his overcoat and with a shotgun across his knees, was shivering. In fact, the guard got so miserable after a whlle that he left his prisoner tied to the cot and went out. locking the door, to sit beside the stove 1n another part of the building.
This act was to cause the hijackers a lifetime of regret. No sooner was the shivering, tormented victim left alone than he began to work his hands loose. Aided by desperation, numbness in his twisted wrists, and the stretchiness of the rope, his hands were free in less than ten minutes. From here it was only a matter of five minutes before his blindfold was off, his legs free, and the rest of his throngs out of the way. Unable to open the door, the frantic man raised a window, leaped to the back yard, and dashed. to the street.
About ftfteen minutes later he was telling, his story to two policemen in a squad car who had followed hlm when they spied him running down the street hatless and acting suspiciously. An hour later Kerr was on the case.
The gangsters, of course, fled as soon as they dllcovered their victim had escaped, and there was no one at the hideout when the police got there. Kerr assigned his men to keep watch at the place, however, “for several weeks if necessary”—and in and in that very simple way, as the hijacker. came back one by one to see if the trouble had “blown over,” all of them were nabbed.
Through their confessions fifteen other hijackings were cleared up and a prosperous Randolph street butter and egg merchant was revealed as the main “fence” who had been disposing of the large amounts of butter. By clever handling of the case Kerr got the fence to identify the hijackers as well as to confess his own crime—a highly important part of police work—and the whole bunch of them was sent to the federal penitentiary.
Another case, which occurred in March, 1935, illustrates further how attention to details and perseverance will solve the most baffling of crime, and will in addition build up a chain of clear evidence to win convictions in the courtroom.
At 6:30 in the evening a big truck with a mixed load and a crew of two was rolling along route 66 near La Grange, ILL. The driver suddenly became aware of a sedan driving beside him in an irritating sort of way. Then he noticed a nickel-plated revolver pointed at him out of the sedan’s open side window. He obeyed the command to stop and parked the truck beside the road. Three men got out of the sedan, making them curl up on the floor in the usual hijack manner. Then they drove, as the truckmen recalled it, for about two hours. The victims were kept from seeing anything, of course, but they knew they were in towns or a city much of the time, because the car had to stop for traffic lights and they could hear other traffic and feel car tracks.
Finally, just after leaving some car tracks, they drove into a building. Blindfolded, the captives were led over to some wooden steps and seated there. There were about ten or twelve steps as they remembered it. After a wait of about fifteen minutes they could hear the truck pull into the building. They heard the holdup men trying to open the truck, and then they were asked for the keys. They told the men where the keys were, and then could hear the truck being opened and the boxes and cases being unloaded.
One of the hijackers gave them a bottle of whiskey, the brand of which they recognized from the feel and shape of the bottle. During the five hours or more the victims were kept in the building while their truck was being unloaded one if them had a chance to pull out his pocket knife and scratch a few marks on the wooden stairs he was sitting on.
When they were driven away again at last they counted five right-hand turns during the five minutes’ trip, and then they were let out at 18th and Burlington streets, Chicago.
“You’ll find your truck a couple of blocks away, down there,” said one of the hijackers, driving off.
About an hour after the two truck drivers recovered their truck at Canalport avenue, finding part of the load still in it, Lieutenant Kerr was busy on the case with his men. First of all he questioned the drivers. They told the story as it has been presented here, but by persistent questioning as to just what they heard while they were kept in the building during the unloading Kerr unearthed that additional information that the truck had some difficulty getting into the building; that the drivers had heard the sound of breaking boards, as if the truck had fallen through some wooden platform, which had to be repaired by the gangsters before they could get the truck into the place.
With this to go on, Kerr took the two truck drivers and began a systematic search of the area within five minutes’ drive of 18th and Burlington streets, looking especially along streets with car lines and keeping a sharp eye out for a garage with a patched-up ramp or entrance.
After a few hours’ hunt, while cruising along Cottage Grive, they found a garage with some new planking in the roadway. They examined the place from the outside, and it seemed likely that it was what they were looking for, so they broke their way in through a window, and there there they were glad to find the scratch marks on the stairs and the empty whiskey bottle as described by the victims. They also found the stolen load of goods.
An hour later, while two of Kerr’s men were waiting in the place hidden behind piles of merchandise, the hijackers returned. The policemen waited until the criminals had unlocked the door and entered before stepping forth with the command, “Hold up your hands!” There were three hijackers. Two of them immediately submitted, but the one nearest the door tried to get away until Patrolman Oakey fired a blast from his shotgun past his ear. From then on the police had no difficulty in clearing up the case and in getting convictions.
As you have probably noticed, in all of these hijackings attention to small clews has been perhaps the largest factor in clearing up each mystery, and Lieutenant Kerr and the men of his cartage detail made themselves worthy rivals of Sherlock Holmes as masters of the art of discovering and interpreting clews. No detail of sound, sight, feel, taste, or smell could be too slight for them to consider.
Chicago Tribune January 29, 1939
Hunting the Hijackers!
How Chicago Cleared Its Highways
In the first installment of this story of hijacking tho technique of this now outmoded caim. was told. and something o0 the methods the Chicago police cartage detail under Lieut. lames 3. Kerr, has used in killing it.
In today’s installment the hijackers themselves are introduced, and the story continues revealing the secret organization of their gangs and more of the canny tactics of the detectives in dealing with these predators of the road.
By Guy Murchie
FOUR YOUNG men are seated at a table In the back room of a rooming house on Chicago’s west side. Before them is spread a map of the city and northern Illinois, with red pencil lines showing the main truck routes and red circles indicating the areas near police headquarters or where highway patrolmen are known to be most numerous.
These supercilious looking youths, nervously twitching their cigaret ends, are hijackers planning their next “heist.” Although there are very few of them left, they are the nearest thing to modern successors of the notorious highwaymen of old. Their game Is the robbing of trucks on the highway, generally by holding up and kidnapping the driver until they have had time to store the load in some secluded hideout shack.
But just who are these hijackers? What sort of men are they, and how do they work?
Most of them are in their early twenties. They operate in small gangs or “mobs” of four, five, or six men. The smallest hijack gang encountered by the Chicago police had three men. It would be very difficult for two men to conduct a hijacking, for If one man drove the truck and another the hijack car containing the captive truck drivers there would be no one left to guard the drivers, and the unloading of the truck would take a dangerously long time.
As for spotting their victims, hijackers usually seem to leave that to chance. They may wait by the highway until a good prospect comes along, or they may cruise about until they see what they are looking for—usually a particular type of load, depending upon the kinds of fence they are in touch with. Undoubtedly they sometimes have advance information that a particular load is going to be on the road, but the cartage detail has only once found proof that any office help or driver ever “put the finger on” a truck load or got a cut in the “swag.”
Kidnaping the truck drivers is virtually essential to the success of hijacking a whole load, because it takes several hours to unload the truck, and if the drivers were free to notify the police before it was unloaded it would be comparatively easy for the police to spot such a noisy and bulky operation. Usually it is not necessary to hold the drivers more than a few hours, however, and, as no ransom is asked for them, the hijackers are not kidnapers in the usual sense. The longest any driver was kept prisoner, according to the cartage detail records, was twenty-six hours, and in only one case was a driver seriously molested. That was in 1935, a driver’s head and feet were burned because he was reluctant to give the hijackers the information they wanted.
The cartage detail, at present under the command of. Sergt. Michael Phelan, has so thoroughly eliminated known gangs of hijackers that its work is almost wholly prevention rather than cure. The detail s patrol cars cruise around the dock and warehouse sections of the city where trucks are loaded and try to spot any hijack scouts before they have had time to execute their schemes.
Education is an important part of the police work in this connection, and Kerr and his successors have persistently urged all trucking companies and their drivers to report cases of suspicious loiterers or of cars driving about the loading zones for no plausible reason, and several times license numbers taken down and descriptions made by alert trucking men have resulted in arrests and convictions.
Kerr’s teaching of drivers to be observant when kidnaped has led to numerous arrests, especially his instructions concerning the identification of cars used by the hijackers. Among Kerr’s suggestions to truck drivers driven away in hijackers’ sedans are the secret burning of holes in the upholstery If they are given cigarets, and the stuffing of bread crusts under the seat if they are given food. Such tricks can be very helpful later when the police need positive identification of a car.
No detail Is too small to be overlooked by the experienced cartage detail detective, for it is the minor oversight that is the surest weak spot in any apparently perfect crime. One hijacking case was cleared up, for example, by noticing that the red whisky truck that had been robbed was returned with a slight streak of greenish paint on one side, as if it had rubbed up against something green during its absence. By searching diligently for a warehouse with a green wall they eventually solved the crime.
Another case, in which the driver was imprisoned In a small apartment for a whole night, was cleared up by the fact that the driver mentioned having been led to the kitchen sink while blindfolded. He had described the sink as being unusually low. Kerr sent his men looking for low sinks in the suspected neighborhood.
Highjacking scenes staged by members of the Chicago Police Department, Cartage Detail, cooperating with Park District police. The tractor is a International Harvester Model D-40 owned and operated by the Decatur Cartage Company; Decatur Cartage in addition to supplying the equipment also supplied the driver and an assistant.
International Harvester Company, Trail, November, 1939
Taking detailed notes, photographs, making drawings and diagrams, and obtaining signed confessions are others of the important methods used by Lieutenant Kerr and taught by him to his assistants. Without such painstaking attention to detail the police department never could have won its enviable record of 100 per cent convictions of all hijackers caught and its total elimination of the hijacking menace from the city of Chicago.
Another kind of truck plundering sometimes called hijacking is the pilfering from trucks by thieves who climb aboard without the drivers’ knowledge and steal goods while the truck is moving, tossing them overboard to be picked up by a confederate in a car following. Although each loss from this type of crime is less than from the hijacking of a whole load, this crime has been so much easier and more frequent that the total loss from it is about the same. One big trucking company, for example, reports that in 1937 four or five of its trucks leaving Chicago were pilfered every night, amounting on the average to about one out of every ten trucks dispatched. If you consider that there are three million or more trucks in operation throughout the United States there is room for a lot of pilfering. A typical case will show how the thing is done.
About a year ago a big truck load of radios left Chicago at 9 o clock one evening bound south-ward toward Indiana and the routes to the east. As it rumbled down Wentworth avenue past 43d street four colored boys, who had been waiting at the corner, swung aboard and quickly slit the tarpaulin covering with a knife, then disappeared through it onto the hulk of the cargo beneath.
Once safely hidden inside the big truck’s tarpaulin, the four could explore the cargo and prepare it for removal at their leisure. This they did. Finding a quantity of burlap sacks, they wrapped up a number of the radios in them, four to a sack, padding them so that they could be let down to the ground with a minimum of injury. Then they waited for an opportunity to escape with the swag, the most Important and most difficult part of their undertaking. Mile after mile the great truck roared along through South Chicago, the Calumet district, and into Hammond, Ind. At last. in Hammond, there appeared a lull In the stream of passing trafic, and two of the youths, who knew each other only as Robert and Li’l Brother, 18 and 17 years old respectively, leaned out of the truck and gently tossed several sacks of radios into bushes along the highway. Then they swung to the pavement to recover the loot as the two remaining youths prepared to do the same.
At this point the smoothness of the job being done by these young but deft criminals was suddenly ruffled. Swift justice rode the highway in the form of a squad car which appeared at the crucial moment and caught the crouching Robert and Li’l Brother at the end of a spotlight beam.
“What are you doing there, YOU?” rang out the terrible voice of the law.
“Nothin’, suh. We’s jus’ walkin’, suh.”
“Are those bundles off that truck?”
“Er-yassuh, yassuh. We didn’ d-”
“How many more of you are still on the truck?’
“Two, suh. Please, we-”
“Come on over here and get into this car!”
Swiftly the squad car sped after the great truck, whose driver still drove innocently toward his far destination, unaware of the drama taking place behind his head.
“What’s their names?” asked the policemen of the two quivering prisoners.
“One’s ‘Dolphus and the other one is Do Tell.”
“What’s their right names, their real names?”
“We don’ know. Tha’s all we calls ’em-‘Dolphus and Do Tell.
By the time the police had overtaken the truck ‘Dolphus and Do Tell were not on it. They had seen the fate descending upon their comrades and had escaped across the murky lots and fields. However, the Chicago police were notified of their “names” and of the addresses of the prisoners already arrested, and after a few days’ detective work Adolph ‘Dolphus” Jones and John “Do Tell” Lamar, 19 and 18, were also picked up, to be later convicted of larceny of a truck.
That is the way truck pilferers do their work. In the vicinity of Chicago, say police, they work in gangs of two to six or eight and actually know each other only by such nicknames as Big Teeth, Cue Ball, etc.
Cases of pilferers following a truck for more than a hundred miles before seeing their oppor- tunity to board it are known to police.
That brings us to the way the pilfering menace has been cleared up in the Chicago region so successfully that from more than a thousand pilferings of one company’s trucks last year there has been only one case of pilfering reported In the last two months. It was done by educating truck drivers to watch their own trucks and each other’s trucks, by asking gas station attendants and lunchroom men to look for slashed tarpaulins on passing trucks and for suspicious cars following trucks.
In rural areas it was accomplished by a very effective system of traps in which every truck or car leaving a designated area was stopped and searched. In the last year or two virtually every hijacker or truck thief left in the vicinity of Chicago has been either sent to the penitentiary or driven away to easier pastures in some other part of the nation.