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Pulitzer prize winning journalist & author of
The Union Station Massacre: The Original Sin of the FBI

Interview 4/10/03 by Brian Bull

(Unger's book challenges the official version of events surrounding June 17th, 193)

First off, Bob, let's have some background.  What kind of atmosphere was there in Kansas City leading up to the Massacre?

Well, Kansas City was known among the gangster world of the time as an open city, meaning that they could pretty much come in here and use it for R & R as long as they behaved  - "R and R" meaning rest and recreation -- as long as they behaved themselves --  without fear of being hassled by the local police, or being arrested.  And the reason is because Kansas City was pretty much standing on - four pillars.  One pillar was the Pendergast political machine which was very much tied to the police department through patronage jobs and so forth. Which of course, the police department would be the 2nd pillar, the third pillar was what would become the Mafia, the Italian mob, lead by Johnny Lazia.and they all helped each other in the obvious ways common to big cities that were corrupt.  Lazia's people could do their illegal activities better with police department cooperation, of course.  

On the other hand, Lazia could turn out the vote on election day for the Pendergast people, and the Pendergast people could see to it the mob didn't get into the wrong parts of town and interfere with businessmen who wanted a nice comfortable life on Country Club Boulevard, Brush Creek, those kind of places.  So it was kind of your typical, wide-open city where crime was kept to a reasonable limit, and as long as it was kept to this reasonable limit, acceptable society didn't mind, and certainly the politicians didn't mind, and the crooks of course didn't mind, and everyone loved each other and lived together in mutual corruption.  The only people who suffered of course, were regular folks on the street.  And of course, this was augmented by lots of gambling, lots of prostitution, and things like that that were products of the Pendergast machine, often owned by the Pendergast people, or the mob, or both, you couldn't tell who was who. 

And it was a perfect atmosphere for quiet crime, quiet corruption.  That's why the Union Station Massacre set off such tremors in Kansas City.  Because crime was supposed to be quiet in Kansas City, it wasn't supposed to happen in broad daylight.

How does Verne Miller fit into this picture?  How did he come to be the only principal player in this event and in Kansas City of all places?

Well, Verne' all does tie together, Verne's the only one who makes a lot of sense in this, he's the only one that you can make a solid case for being a participant.  Verne at this time had made a bit of a name for himself around the country.  He was a bank robber, thug, killer-for-hire, but by all accounts he was also kind of a ladies man.  Also a very slick character.  The ladies seemed to have liked him, particularly a woman named Vi Mathis.Hoover insisted on calling her Mathias.. so who knows..

Hoover cared least of all about names, and certainly not about names of women.  Well anyway, Vi Mathis was his common law wife, if you can call it that, and she had daughter who Verne apparently cared for and was nice to.   But they'd set up housekeeping on Edgevale Street on the southtern side of Kansas City.  Which was a nice, quiet neighborhood there.  They were living under the names of Vincent C. Moore and I guess she went by Vi.   And her daughter was going to school, all things were in good shape. They happened to be friends - mostly the women were close friends- Frances Nash and Vi Mathias...France Nash being the wife of Frank Nash.  And because the women were close, Frank and Verne had done some deals together, maybe done some banks together. 

So they were friends before Frank was nabbed by the FBI in Hot Springs, Arkansas.   And it would have been was logical for Frances - who was a hysteric person to begin with.for her to turn to Verne Miller, and that's what she did.  She asked Miller, can you please get my Jelly-that was his nickname, Frank "Jelly" Nash..she asked, "Can you save my Jelly?".  And Verne said, "Yes I can".  And that's where the Union Station Massacre began.

There wasn't much precedent for Verne Miller being a rescuer of sorts, was there?  This was kind of an unusual event for a mobster?

Oh, I don't think so.  (laughs)  That's interesting you say that. Because a lot of people, when you get into who else was there..they can't cast Pretty Boy Floyd as in the role -- someone didn't know Verne Miller, didn't know Frank Nash, didn't know anybody, saying, "sure, I'll help you at Union Station".  You're exactly right, these people were not in the business of being a rescuer..or a knight in shining armor.  Verne Miller wasn't either.  And certainly Pretty Boy Floyd would not be interested I anything like that.  He was a thief, not a good Samaritan.  But Verne Miller on other hand..had a different stake.  Mostly because of Vi, and her strong feelings for Frances, the fact that the women were friends.  And also Verne's own friendship with Frank Nash.  Because of that he did have a personal stake.  So even though he was not as rescuer or hero as he claimed in World War I - and records would disprove that--  but I think he did so for a combination of reasons, because of his friendship of Nash.  And their friendship with Frances.

Now before all this, Frank Nash had come into custody under the FBI.  Am I to understand that the agents who took Nash away from the haven in Hot  Springs were operating with little jurisdiction?

Well, they had none at all. (laughs)  They simply .the FBI worried less about the technicalities of the law back then as they do now, and I think we can see that they have lot of problems and have for a good number of years. But in any case, at that time, the FBI had very few powers.  We don't realize that prior to this case,  ---and that's why the Union Massacre case was so pivotal.  Prior to this, the FBI could not legally carry guns, they could not cross state lines in the pursuit of a felon, they couldn't make arrests, they didn't have authority for that type of thing.   And it was not a crime to otherwise shoot, attack, or kill federal agents. It was not a federal crime to rob banks.  All of those things became the underpinnings of what they are today, they didn't have in 1933 when went down to essentially kidnap Nash off the streets of Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Now in the wake of the Kansas City Massacre, they would get those powers, but on the day they brought out Jelly Nash they had none of them.  So their judicial legitimacy in Hot Springs was practically zero.   The closest they could come was that they brought along a sheriff from neighboring Oklahoma to make the arrest, he didn't have any jurisdiction either.  He was a county sheriff from one state away.  It was essentially an illegal kidnapping of bad guy.

So we're at the Union Station, and Nash is being taken by lawmen towards a car that will return him to Leavenworth.  There's several differing accounts as to what happens here. Can you start with the "official" version offered by the FBI?

What the FBI says happened is very can go to their FBI website, and in their famous cases file, you can find their account of Kansas City Massacre which has not changed one iota since 1933 and `34.  They still maintain that what's in there is what happened back then, even though the evidence has changed dramatically in recent years..but their official version of case is unarmed or lightly armed lawmen came out of Union Station with the prisoner, Frank the reason they came out of Union Station, was to bring him back to Leavenworth penitentiary where he'd escaped from.  They would've had to change trains, and wait two hours so they decided not do that, they'd get into the agents' cars in Kansas City and drive to Leavenworth.   So they were in essence, bringing him out of the station -- this is the FBI official version -- agents accompanied by couple of local Kansas City police were set upon by machine-gun wielding thugs who first told them to raise their hands and then without any warning whatsoever opened fire, killing people willy-nilly around there including the prisoner, Frank Nash who they'd come to rescue.  By the time the smoke settled.according to the FBI, and this part is accurate.Frank Nash the prisoner, was dead, and FBI agent named Ray Caffrey was dead, two and Frank Hermanson and Bill Grooms two local Kansas City police department cops were dead, and Otto Reed, the sheriff from Oklahoma was dead.  The gunmen sneaked off into the night and got away clean.  And it was later announced by Hoover that the gunmen were indeed Verne Miller from South Dakota and Pretty Boy Floyd, the notorious bank-robber from Oakland hills, and Adam Richetti -- whose only claim to fame was the fact that he was Pretty Boy Floyd's sidekick.  And that's the official version.

And what have you found in your research that contradicts this scenario?

What I found in my book..and I want to point out that the source for that book is the original FBI file, when I asked for original file, thinking maybe I'd get 4-5 file folders.turned out to be 89 volumes if I piled them on top of each other, it literally tilts my study room, it's about ten feet high.  Very straightforward.agents did something officers don't do these days.  Every law officer will tell you "I won't write it down unless I'm absolutely certain correct.  And I write it assuming everyone in the world going to read it", because these days everyone will read it.  In those days, assumption different, thought "No one will ever read this.  J. Edgar Hoover wanted to know what was going on, so lawmen wrote clear, straightforward accounts, often in the third person, even if it was about themselves, pre-TV, accounts in narrative fashion with all of the descriptions..straightforward and honestly, with tears flowing down their cheeks, something you won't see these days.  But those 89 volumes reveal different situation.

What they show, first off, is that when the agents left train they were not lightly armed at all.  Everyone was armed with something.  With the exception of Reed Vetterli who was the agent in charge of Kansas City at the time.  He did not have weapons, he was supervising what was going on.  But anyway, as they got off the train, Joe Lackey an FBI agent, whose idea of himself is enormous, though his achievements were less.  But Joe Lackey grabbed a shotgun that belonged to Otto Reed, who was a police chief from Maccalister, Oklahoma.  So Lackey picked up Otto Reed's shotgun, and Reed didn't say anything about it.  Because policeman know you don't stand around in a critical situation, saying "you got my gun, no you've got mine".  You just go, so they went. 

They went through Union Station in a "V" formation with Frank Nash at the lead, standing behind him were Lackey and Smith, the Federal Bureau people, and then Frank Grooms and Bill Hermanson who were also armed.  So they had at least four revolvers and two shotguns as went up and out of building.  According to files, what happened next sometimes is clearly delineated, and you have to figure out what's really someone once said about FBI files, they often are a clue rather than a road map.

So they went out to the car, they began to load up into the car, which was an old model T, -- you might remember model Ts---, when you start into the front seat, mean rear seat, you push the front seat forward.  It was a really broad seat, you had to push it quite a ways forward.  Well, Frank Nash started into the back seat, they said, "No, we want you in front seat".  This is critical.  So it's Joe Lackey first, Frank Nash second, and Otto Reed third.  Lackey on the left, Frank Smith in middle, Otto Reed on the right seat.  And then they pushed seat back upright, Frank Nash already in car, he had slid over steering wheel, only way you could get Frank was in essence behind the steering wheel.  And Ray Caffrey who owned car, around front of car to go to left door to go into car.  He had just gotten around to the right in front of automobile.  When bad guys, we'll call them - said, "Get your hands up", and everybody froze and began to comply, put their arms up. 

At that moment, Lackey began fumbling with the shotgun, he was trying to pull it up to get a shot, he really wanted to be hero.  And somehow, that shotgun discharged.  And took off the top of the head of Nash in front of him.  And since it was loaded with buckshot - and we know what the buckshot load was, from the unexpended shells in Otto Reed's pocket.duplicates of shells Reed put into gun..Well, the buckshot, marbles about the size of the tip of the end of your little finger, at least one of those went out front window, and one of them went right into the side of head of the agent, Caffrey. 

So here we are in the first two seconds of shooting, and already Frank Nash - the top of his head is gone and he is dead, and Ray Caffrey is dying of a fatal wound.  And Joe Lackey is fumbling with the shotgun for another shot, everyone ducking at this point, Hermanson is in a direct line between Lackey and the machine gun wielders. Joe Lackey gets off a second shot, which takes of the left side of Frank Hermansons' head.  We know this because you can trace a line, there are pictures of the car parked next door, you can see where buckshot took pieces off of the window frame. and draw a straight line from Joe Lackey to that shot, and  through Hermanson's head.  

Here we are in the second and third seconds of shooting.  And Hermanson is dead.  So far no one has fired a shot except Joe Lackey, FBI agent, in the back set, his passenger dead, a fellow agent is dying, and a policeman is dead.  At this point everyone begins to shoot, and there's  massive firings by machine guns, and so forth, and by the time all of this is over, Bill Grooms, the other Kansas City policeman, is also dead.  And Reed in back seat..when they finally get to him, he has a fatal wound in his chest that is a .45 caliber wound that would've killed him.   But he also has a mysterious .38 round in his head which was also fatal. But the only people with .38s were the good guys.  So when it's all said and done, of the five people dead, three were definitely killed by the good guys, one definitely killed by the bad guys, and one has a fatal wound that could've come from either side. Depending on which got there first. That's substantially different from the FBI version.

And meanwhile, the only viable witnesses to what exactly happened are either dead or fleeing the scene.

Yeah.  That's one of those things, we like to pretend on TV shows, that eye-witnesses give best testimony.  But many times eyewitnesses have no idea of what they just saw.  And you have a lot of people there that morning, a lot of them saw a lot of different things.  But very few of them were able to give convincing testimony.  And that's because they did the smart thing.  Any sensible person when they hear the shooting just hit the ground, hid behind tires, prayed to God it's all over soon..  The only person who gave testimony later that was acceptable by the FBI.  And she went to court with it, was a woman named..but she was the..(pause).Lottie West.  Most people took cover, as sensible person would, and kept their heads down in a firefight escalating with machine guns. 

One exception was a woman named Lottie West, who by her own definition was a police wannabe, and was in fact carrying on an affair with a policemen who was on the beat there at Union Station..she claimed that she stepped out the door of the Union Station and watched the entire firefight.  And that's counterintuitive.  Many people who were there were hunkering behind cabs and said they didn't see her there.  So it's questionable that she was there at all.  Nonetheless, she'd testify in court that it was Pretty Boy Floyd, and he'd come to her desk that morning,.  And she identified Richetti as one of the shooters outside, and a whole raft of information that is .frankly not believable, not verified by anyone else, and the way she described her own conduct that morning was incredibly asinine.  No one stands in the middle of a doorway in the line of fire and watches a firefight.  Especially when you consider that the very doorway that she was standing in has a chunk knocked out of the marble, because it's the one that Reed Vetterli ran toward - when he was trying to get out of this, him the agent in charge.  And a gunman traced his movements with machine gun and took chunk out of marble, about five feet way from Lottie West's head.  Where she said she stood and watched the firefight.  I sort of doubt that.

Nonetheless, when she went to court at Richetti's trial, months and months later, she identified Pretty Boy Floyd as having sat at her table.  Records show that FBI knew that the person who really sat at the table that morning was a janitor.  He worked there at Union Station, she was wrong but they let her testify as to what they knew was false. 

What would've been the motivation of the FBI - or Hoover - to let this kind of testimony be used as evidence in this case?

Well, at first he had no motivation and then he had enormous motivation.  This was just one of those things that seems small at time, but then builds up into something much bigger.  What happened here was that in the first hours after shooting, it looked like a relatively small cover up for agents here.  I'm not even sure if Hoover was involved at the ground floor.  Relatively small cover up for the agents in Kansas City, to look away that their guy did most of the killing, and most of the killing was by friendly fire.  And to blame it on the bad guys.  That's not a huge step.  But after - in the first 48 hours, it became obvious that this would become a huge story around the country.  Everyone had become pretty used to gangs of roving bandits, and so forth, running around the Midwest and it was almost cute..People gave them homey names like "Ma Barker and the Boys", Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde.they were almost sort of pets in a way.  They were harmless.  Rumor went around that Pretty Boy Floyd burned mortgages when he robbed banks.  Well, no evidence that he really did that ever. 

This was different.  Suddenly everyone reacted to the Kansas City Massacre.  You had agents of the US government, bleeding to death in the streets.  You had mayhem right in the middle of a major American city.  Suddenly it was not cute, not a neat sort of thing.  It was awful.  And J. Edgar Hoover stood up in the early hours, because he had a gift for public relations, and said, "This is outrageous.  Give me the tools, And I'll clean up this mess.  Give me the tools, And I'll clean up this mess"  Well, within a year, we gave him the tools.  All of those things that the FBI couldn't do on the morning of the massacre, like carry guns legally, make arrests, all those kinds of things, chase people over state lines, all of those things -- one year to day, had come into law, and had provided the underpinnings of the modern-day FBI.

This Hoover -- like all policemen-- hoped for an immediate solution to this crime.  He brought in all of his best men from across the country into this case.  Well, they couldn't come up with quick solution.  People whom they thought did it originally, like Harvey Bailey, Wilbur Underhill, Ray Brady, didn't pan out.  They didn't do it.  So this case dragged on and dragged on.  What was Hoover going to do?  How could he go back and tell people, "You gave me tools, I still couldn't do it. He was a failure."  He dared not tell the people that.  There had to be a solution, there had to be a closing of this case.  So that was the pressure that was building hour by hour, day by day, as the manhunt for Verne Miller, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Adam Richetti became more intense.  Hoover had to have a solution.  He couldn't go back to the people and say, "I know I promised, you gave me the tools...I still can't solve it".  It was outside his character and it was outside his plan for the future.

Meanwhile, Verne Miller had some problems of his own, because the outcry of the Kansas City Massacre brought heat down on the gangsters which in turn made things hard for him.

That's fascinating stuff.  Because among other things, the macro sense.remember, this was during a period of time that would go on for thirty more years, forty years almost..this was during the time that J. Edgar Hoover was saying there is "no mafia, no cosa nostra.they're all independent crooks".  However, in the files we find clear references time after time to a network of Italian gangs.  and the fact that Hoover put out the word through the network of Italian gangs throughout cities that this .that they should not harbor Verne Miller, nor Pretty Boy Floyd, that the pressure was on and the heat was on.  So the very organization that Hoover said didn't exist, was exploited to nth degree.  So among the people he put the pressure on were the Purple Gang in Detroit. It was very notoriously vicious.  And ultimately it's believed by most people, that they're the ones who ultimately killed Verne Miller.  But Verne gives Hoover a heck of a run in between, but I think the Purple Gang took care of Verne, to take the pressure off themselves.  They might have had any kind of deal with Hoover, sub was pretty clearly if you cooperated, nice things happened, if you didn't, bad things happened.   The FBI's power was growing exponentially during these two years.

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