1934 chase gets a break from slick roads and alert telephone operator
Montgomery County Sheriff Frank Schlanker was on duty at 2 a.m. Monday, February 19, 1934. Groggy and half asleep, he perked up as the man on the other end of the phone reported a robbery at the post office eleven miles east in Bellflower, where Henry Schowengerdt was Postmaster. Jotting down the details, another report filtered in, then another, this time George Strack’s store and Noak Leeks’ garage were robbed.
Thirty-nine-year-old Sheriff Schlanker could hear the rumble of a fast-moving automobile after the last report of just then through the chilly streets of Montgomery City. “Sounds like it’s headed toward Highway 40,” he told himself, looking out the window. Picking up the phone he called ahead to his counterpart in Warren County, forty-nine-year-old Sheriff Arthur Poeppelmeyer.
The two Sheriffs met up and joined each other in Sheriff Schlanker’s patrol vehicle. Scanning the horizon across the broad windshield, the two found nothing but quiet roads.
The two suspects, Carl Page, twenty-seven, and Larry O’Neil, twenty-one, didn’t make off with much loot. Out of work and aimless, the two drove through the night. About an inch of snow had fallen a day or two before, and strong winds carried the silty white powder across the highway in spots.
Encountering a slick spot, the St. Louis-bound robbers skidded, lost control, and entered a fishtail spin. O’Neil was likely the driver, and engaging the intense skid, hit the brakes only to spin the automobile around 180 degrees. Cold, sitting backward, and in a hurry, the two sat in a ditch on the south side of U.S. 40 near Wright City.
Shaken but unhurt, Page and O’Neil pushed out of the car to inspect the damage. The sun had begun to crest over the lightly snow-covered fields as both Sheriffs ambled past the stuck vehicle at Wright City.
Nearly in unison, both Sheriffs identified the two men standing around the ditched car as their suspects, matching the description of young men. Sheriff Schlanker drove on a ways to find a place to turn around, likely assuming the two suspects were stranded and not going anywhere. By the time they returned, the suspects had abandoned the car. Police found a bag with 50 cartons of cigarettes and a pistol they would later identify stolen from the Bellflower post office. They also found a chisel, several new shirts, and several gloves.
Patrolling all night, the two Sheriffs stopped in for breakfast at Big Boy’s Restaurant, reasoning a lead would come up eventually. Amid sips of coffee, telephone operator Addie Huelsman, called the restaurant asking to speak to the officers immediately. “The train’s due at Wright City,” she said. “The robbers might try to escape on it.”
Recognizing that two stranded passengers were unlikely to leave the county on foot, Sheriff Poeppelmeyer urged Mrs. Huelsman to send help. Joined at the restaurant by local mechanic and reserve deputy Harry McGee of Warrenton, the posse arrived at the Wright City Depot around 7 a.m.
Walking into the small depot, the Sheriffs spotted both men. Wasting no time, O’Neil and Page fled out the back leading the three on a short chase into the surrounding fields. Aiming to slow him down, McGee fired four shots at Page, who fled along a dirt road. Missing his target, McGee ran after Page and caught up to him about half a mile down the road.
With O’Neil still on the loose, more men joined in the hunt. Warrenton patrolmen Hagan and Pate, assisted by the Wright City Marshal Henry Ordelheide, and Edgar Hunt, the night man at Big Boy’s, fanned out into the countryside.
Ordelheide and Hunt patiently tracked O’Neil on foot for twelve or fifteen miles over four hours from the Depot to Miller’s Filling Station on the east side of town and further northeast, where they believed he left the highway to cut through a series of farms.
O’Neill, unable to make haste through the fields and likely worried farmers might catch him traipsing through their property, reunited with the highway, possibly in an attempt to hitchhike away from the area. Officers spotted O’Neill near a bridge across Big Creek, ironically on Judge Charles Myer’s farm, now in Lincoln County about six miles from Wright City around 11 a.m.
Both suspects were brought to Warrenton for questioning and a search, where O’Neil was found carrying $8.68 in a blue handkerchief, a new watch, and two new fountain pens. Perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from Page, who refused to talk and only confessed to being from Kansas City, O’Neil claimed both were hitchhikers and that he was out of work after the close of a construction job near St. Genevieve.
Sheriffs Schlanker, Poeppelmeyer, and Patrolman Pate loaded the two suspects in a car and drove them to Montgomery City where they were held for federal authorities owing to their post office robbery. Page and O’Neill confessed to the robberies there, including another post office at Hawk Point and several stores in St. Charles, Montgomery, and Warren counties. With their confession of robbing a post office, federal agents charged the two with a robbery of a federal building in Federal court with a minimum ten-year sentence.