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Ray Caffrey and the Kansas City Massacre

Monday, June 27, 2011

(Photo)
The years of the 1920s have been called "The Lawless Years," coinciding with the years of Prohibition, when gangs operated on a national scale, but the forces that attempted to control these crimes were largely local in their authority. At that time, the FBI organization was just the Bureau of Investigation. Officers were not well trained; they carried arms only in very restricted circumstances, and information was not shared between local police forces and the Bureau.

The Kansas City Massacre was a very dark chapter in the history of law enforcement generally, and for the FBI in particular. At the time it was the deadliest attack on the law that the nation had ever seen. One of the leading figures in the Kansas City Massacre Drama was a Nebraskan, in fact, FBI Agent, Raymond Caffrey was born in McCook, Nebraska in 1902. He received his schooling in Nebraska and graduated from the Creighton University Law School. Upon his being accepted into the Nebraska Bar he joined the FBI as a Special Agent.

Caffrey was stationed in Kansas City in June 1933, when he and his chief agent got a call from two FBI Agents in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The two officers and a Police Chief from McAlester, Oklahoma, had apprehended, and captured the notorious gangster, Frank "Jelly" Nash, who had escaped from the federal prison at Leavenworth. The officers were planning on driving him back to Kansas City. However, the police force in Hot Springs was so corrupt at the time that the agents feared roadblocks and had altered their plans. They were taking their prisoner on the train, and would arrive in Kansas City at 7 a.m. the next morning, June 17.

Agent Caffrey, another FBI Agent, and two Kansas City detectives met the train at Union Station, and with the two FBI agents and the Oklahoma Police Chief, seven well-armed lawmen in all, surrounded their prisoner, Nash, and ushered him through the station to waiting cars for the drive 34 miles from Kansas City to Leavenworth. They had reason to be wary.

After Nash was arrested in Hot Springs, his wife had made a frantic call to his friend in crime, Verne Miller, begging him to rescue "Jelly" before he could be imprisoned again at Leavenworth, where she knew there would be no escape a second time.

Ever obliging, Miller, with two other henchmen, "Pretty Boy" Floyd and Adam Riscetti, planned an ambush on the lawmen, with the goal of rescuing their friend from the hands of the law. (Note; Only Miller was positively identified as one of the trio. Floyd and Riscetti are generally considered to be the other two gunmen.) They were lurking in the railroad station parking lot, near the FBI cars, armed with pistols and machine guns. At seven in the morning Union Station and the parking lot buzzed with passengers coming and going on the rail journeys. The FBI men made a cursory inspection of the parking lot. Finding nothing unusual, they formed a phalanx around their prisoner, and crossed to their cars

The lawmen had just loaded Nash into the waiting patrol car and started to get in themselves. As Agent Caffrey slipped into the driver's seat, they heard the order, "Hold it!"

A split second later one of the officers went for his pistol, and, as an onlooker later recalled, "All hell broke loose." Machine gun and pistol fire sprayed the patrol car. It is doubtful that some of the officers ever fired a shot. The action lasted but a few seconds, but in that time bodies were scattered over the parking lot. FBI Agent Raymond Caffrey, from McCook, was dead, shot in the head. Two Kansas City Detectives and the McAlester Police Chief were dead. The three other FBI agents were wounded, but recovered. And the object of the rescue attempt, Frank Nash -- he was shot dead as well.

The three gunmen who had made the attack on the FBI men made a clean getaway. Pretty Boy Floyd was shot, but was able to make his way to the getaway car. Miller and Riscetti escaped without a scratch.

One year later, Pretty Boy Floyd was apprehended in Ohio in 1934, and killed when he resisted arrest. Riscetti was captured in Ohio. He went to trial and eventually was executed for his part in the Kansas City Massacre.

FBI Agent Caffrey's body was returned to Omaha and lay in an open casket in his parent's home for a day. He was buried a hero in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha. He is an honored member of the FBI Hall of Honor, "An FBI Agent Killed as the result of Adversarial Action." He left a wife and a 5-year old son, Raymond Jr. He was 31 years old.

(Note: Vernon C. "Verne" Miller, the instigator of the botched rescue of Frank "Jelly" Nash, was from the rural Huron S.D. area. A veteran of World War I in France, where he was decorated for bravery, he returned to Huron after the war and landed a job with the Huron Police.

After two years he quit the police department and ran for the office of sheriff of Beadle County and was elected, after receiving a glowing endorsement from the Huron Plainsman newspaper (One banner headline promoting Miller's candidacy read, "Lawbreakers had better watch out, if they want to keep their health!")

Before, during, and after Miller's tenure as Sheriff, my grandfather, Emmett Ackerman was the county treasurer of Beadle County, with offices in the same building as the Sheriff. While they were never friends, Grandfather got to know young Miller quite well. He remembered him as a friendly fellow, quite cocky, and prone to talk a lot about his exploits in the war, which most folks at the courthouse thought he embellished a bit in the telling. Still, he and most of the people at the courthouse were shocked when Miller ran off with $4,000 of the county's funds. Evidently, just being the sheriff of Beadle County was too tame for Verne Miller's appetites.

When he was captured and tried for the embezzlement crime, Miller was sent to the South Dakota penitentiary, where he became the governor's personal chauffeur. He was paroled in 1924, after serving one year, freed to enter the lucrative bootlegging trade, a growing illegal business for the underworld, brought on by the advent of Prohibition in the nation.

Over the remainder of the decade of the 20s Miller managed to avoid capture by the law, while plying his trade as a free-lance mobster. He never was a member of any one gang, but had friends in many gangs, and did dirty work in several areas of crime -- bootlegging, extortion, prostitution, bank robbery, and even murder. During this time he was suffering from drug abuse and syphilis, which made his behavior increasingly unstable and violent.

After the Kansas City shoot-out Verne Miller fled to the East Coast and joined Longy Zwillman's gang in New Jersey -- till he was forced to leave after killing one of Zillman's henchmen. He took refuge with a girl-friend in Chicago, where he survived an FBI shoot-out and escaped, only to be found a month later in a roadside ditch outside Detroit. He had been beaten and strangled to death---a mob slaying. It was assumed that his killing came as punishment for killing Zwillman's henchman, or for botching the rescue of Frank Nash in the Kansas City Massacre. He was 37 years old. Such was his reward for his life of crime.)

As bad as the Kansas City Massacre was, there was some good that came from it. FBI Chief, J. Edgar Hoover and others were able to lobby Congress for a stronger organization, a force that would become a national police force. Within a year of the tragedy Congress responded by giving the FBI new tools with which to fight crime, including authority to carry guns and make arrests, which has become key to the FBI's mission to protect the nation.

Source: The Kansas City Massacre, Gangsters vs the law


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By