While doing research for anything which might pertain to my line of the Wilkey family in the Hopkins County, Kentucky Museum for my annual reunion newsletter I ran across an article written by Ann Brown, a Madisonville Messenger reporter about an attempted bank robbery which Sheriff Floyd Wilkey foiled. Donald C. Wilkey
Call it Deception
By Don Wilkey
|Chapter One||Strange Behavior of Individuals Involved|
|Chapter Two||Judge Gordon's Strange Request|
|Chapter Three||The Year of 1938|
|Chapter Four||The Plan|
|Chapter Five||Why a Hopkins County Bank?|
|Chapter Six||Haily Makes His Move|
|Chapter Seven||Sheriff Floyd Wilkey|
|Chapter Eight||The Sheriff Sets His Trap|
|Chapter Nine||The Robbery|
On May 31, 1938 a bank robbery attempt was made on the Planters Bank in Mortons Gap, Kentucky which left one bank robber, Jessie Robards of Dawson Springs, Kentucky, dead and two men, Charlie Rogers and Thomas Hailey, in custody.
A hearing was held on the following Thursday after the attempted robbery and a trial was held in September which put Thomas O. Hailey and Charlie Rogers behind bars.
After reading the article "Ex-Con Killed in Mortons Gap as Holdup Try is Foiled" written by Ann Brown, a Madisonville Messenger reporter, for the Hopkins County Historical Society, I found myself asking questions about the behavior of the criminals. Some of the things which they did seem to have been done with little, if any, rationality and imposed several questions.
1. What was the real reason a retired county judge wanted the story of the robbery researched and written fifty years later?
2. Why did Hailey and Robards select Charlie Rogers to assist them in the holdup?
3. Why did the robbers select only banks in Madisonville, Kentucky for possible robbery only to discard then later?
4. Why didn't they consider a bank in another large city for robbing?
5. Why were all the banks considered for robbing in Hopkins County?
6. Why did one of the the thieves tell another of his intent to kill another thief after the robbery? This is an action which could have turned both thieves against the intended killer after the robbery.
7. Why did Sheriff Floyd Wilkey surround himself with Highway Patrolmen and scatter his own force?
8. Why did the Sheriff call in the Highway Patrol ( Now the Kentucky State Police )?
9. Did Sheriff Wilkey distrust his own deputies?
10. There was less than 24 hours between the time the a bank was selected for robbing and the attempt was made. Why such a short time?
11. Why was Hailey the driver of the car?
12. Why did Hailey let his crew out on a corner then circle the block?
13. Why did Hailey park in an alley 150 feet behind the bank?
14. Why was Hailey watching the back of the bank so intently the Sheriff and five officers were able to approach unnoticed from the rear?
Not withstanding the robbery took place in 1938 retired judge Gordon wrote a letter in 1990 to Ann Brown, a Madisonville Messenger reporter, with a strange request. He wanted to write the story of the Mortons Gap , Kentucky , attempted bank robbery for the Hopkins County Historical Society Museum and would Ann please send him newspaper clippings about the robbery. He was about to undergo a very serious operation and if he became unable to write the story himself would Ann research and write the story for him. It was Judge Gordon's dying request, he did not survive the operation.
It would seem if Judge Gordon was to undergo such a serious operation his thoughts would be anywhere other than with a bank robbery which happened over fifty years before and of which he had nothing to do as an official.
Ann sent Judge Gordon the newpaper clippings he requested.
Later he was to write Ann again and remind her to write the story in case his recovery took a long time. Ann received his letter after the Judge had died.
I do not know if the Judge has time to write the story before his operation. He did have the newspaper clippings. If he did in fact have the time to write the article then it would indicate Judge knew something about the case which had not been uncovered and he was going to prove that which he already knew or suspected.
Asking Ann Brown to research the information was perhaps his was of telling her that something was wrong. "Find it." Judge Gordon would not openly admit he knew anymore than was in the newspapers unless he had the proof in his hands.
Ann Brown did not read between the lines. Judge Gordon requested the newspaper clippings and he had those. He then requested Ann Brown to research the story. Ann went to the newspaper clippings, I think Judge Gordon wanted her to go to the court house records. This is the only thing the Judge would take for proof, never newspaper clippings alone.
I wish Judge Gordon had written the article as I feel he knew something which he would have revealed. I do not believe this was just a case of small time crooks robbing a bank. Somebody else had their hand on the frying pan and something was in the pan other than a bank robbery. I looked for clues in Ann's article over and over again. I could find nothing until I looked into certain activities which were taking place before the robbery and on things which Ann Brown never touched.
The Year of 1938
Floyd Wilkey was Sheriff of Hopkins County, Kentucky in the year 1938. Before Floyd took office gambling was rampant in Hopkins County. The Wilkeys have long been known for their honestly and Floyd was no exception, he couldn't be bought off. And just for arguments sake let's say Floyd was probing a little too deeply into the gambling business and the backers of the gambling knew they were on the point of being uncovered. Some of these people may have been the upstanding citizens of the County.
I can remember seeing the gambling items Sheriff Floyd Wilkey confiscated on his gambling raids when my Father, Clyde Wilkey, took me with him to visit his brother in his office. Floyd was really getting into the gamblers pockets. Within a certain time frame Clyde visited Floyd in his office very frequently and took me with him on most of these visits. They may have discussed things about this robbery on, before, or after the fact. at the age of five I wouldn't know. In spite of my tender age these visits were somehow firmly planted in my memory.
During the year of 1938 Jesse Robards, an ex-con and a bank robber, from Dawson Springs had ran up several large gambling debts and refused to pay. Most of the time just walking out when he lost. The people behind the gambling places feared Robards and his very revengeful brothers.
Taking the viewpoint these gambling spots were "backed" by officials or some of the more powerful upstanding citizens who, for obvious reasons, wanted to remain in the background plus their fear of Robards and his brothers, we now have a motive for murder.
The gamblers had to devise a way to get rid of the Sheriff and get Robards for his gambling debts.
Outright murder of the Sheriff would certainly cause a public outcry and a state investigation. An investigation would not be in the gamblers best interest.
Taking some kind of action against Robards would cause a war between the Robards family and the gamblers.
It is very obvious what ever action is taken against the Sheriff and Robards the gamblers must appear as innocent as new born lambs.
The gamblers weighed the weakness and strength of the Sheriff and Jesse Robards. The facts are It is the Sheriff's job to enforce the law and Jesse Robards' line was bank robbery. With these two facts in mind a plan was slowly formulated. This plan and the way the gamblers attempted to carry the plan out may be the secret Judge Gordon carried to his grave.
The gamblers needed a man, someone who had no known connection with them, someone they could control. Someone who would be benefited by the death of either the Sheriff or Robards.
One of the bank robbers was Thomas Hailey, an ex-cop. Could he be connected to the gamblers?
How indeed! You bet there was a connection.....
There is one way in which a cop could be connected to the gambling business. Thomas O. Hailey was a former Madisonville patrolman and perhaps he had been taking bribes from gamblers or had been paid for information of intended raids. It is also a fact that Hailey owed a large gambling debt. Perhaps the gamblers told him they were about to be uncovered and if they went under his dishonesty would also be discovered in the investigation and very possibly a long jail term. They then told Hailey of a plan to correct "things", and to pay off the gambling debt, he reluctantly went along.
I say "reluctantly" because the plan carried many risks not only from the Law but also from Jesse Robards. Should Jesse discover Hailey had a connection with the gamblers Hailey would be in more danger than from the Law.
Now we have a reasonable connection between one of the bank robbers and the gamblers. A dishonest cop who had taken bribes and was trying to keep the fact from being discovered. To say nothing of paying off the gambling debt.
Hailey put the first part on the gambler's plan into action by forming a gang to rob a bank.
It was absolutely necessary for Jesse Robards to be in the "gang". To get Robards in the gang the "bait" had to be appealing. Robards had been caught robbing a small bank and Hailey knew it would be very doubtful if Robards would consider a small bank as the risk would not be worth the "take". Hailey therefore picked the largest bank in Madisonville, The Farmers Bank.
Perhaps Hailey met Robards in some "speak easy" and after a few drinks suggested robbing a bank. Regardless of how it happened Robards went along.
From this moment on Hailey had to operate with extreme caution and play tthe part of a bank robber to the limit. In order to make Robards think this was a "spur of the moment" plan Hailey told Robards one more person was needed. Hailey may have asked Robards if he had anyone in mind. But Hailey already knew who he wanted. The next day they both asked a fellow by the name of Charlie Rogers to throw in with them.
The three began watching the bank they intended to rob. Hailey decided it was too risky, or he pointed out the risks knowing someone else would suggest another bank. The Farmers Bank was discarded and Hailey suggested other banks in Madisonville only to later reject them.
Why should we find this selecting and discarding of banks so strange?
Because Hailey was an ex-Madisonville Patrolman. He should have some knowledge of every bank in Madisonville and discarded a bank before it was "cased" for robbery.
Hailey did not intend to rob any bank in Madisonville in the first place and the sudden changes in banks indicated he was working with a plan. There had been a great deal of selecting, planning, and discarding of banks for a good reason.
Robards and Rogers had become "primed and pumped up" for easy money. They were now eager to rob a bank, any bank, and probably voiced their disgust with the delays.
This eagerness to rob a bank was what Hailey was waiting for and it was at this moment he suggested two other banks, Mortons Gap and Slaughters. Mortons Gap was selected for robbery the next day. Hailey did not give his men time to "case" the bank.
While nearby counties offered bigger banks just as unprotected they picked Mortons Gap. I found it strange both banks were in Hopkins County and never a bank mentioned outside the county.
Why a Hopkins County Bank
Why were all the banks being considered for robbery in Hopkins County and why did Hailey want to rob a bank which was in a small town?
If they robbed a Madisonville bank it would involve the city police and not necessarily the Sheriff.
But if the bank were in a small town the Sheriff of the county and perhaps the State Highway Patrol would certainly be involved. Does this point to a plan with the target not only Robards but also the Sheriff. No! Not at this time as it must be pointed out the Sheriff and the State Highway Patrol would be responding to a call for help after the robbery.
If Hailey was executing a plan to get rid of Robards and the Sheriff he had to make a move which would cause the Sheriff to set a trap for the bank robbers and at the same time keep the State Highway Patrol out of the picture.
Does Hailey make such a move?
Yes he does!
Hailey Makes His Move
Hailey actually made his move to assure the Sheriff would be on the scene three weeks before the selection of the Mortons Gap Bank for robbery.
Hailey told Robards that after the robbery he was going to do away with Rogers so there would be a two way split.
While it might not seem so on the surface this was a "key" clue to the whole scheme. If Hailey really had doing away with Rogers in mind it would be very foolish for him to tell this to Robards before the robbery. Robards would then think that Hailey might also do away with him. A one-way split is better than a two or three-way split.
After the robbery Hailey's life would really be in jeopardy when both Robards and Rogers turned against him. But Hailey was carrying out a plan and he really didn't believe Rogers or Robards would be around after the robbery as they both would be killed in the bank. Otherwise Hailey would have waited until after the robbery to inform Robards he was going to do away with Rogers.
Robards did exactly what Hailey wanted. Robards told Rogers of Hailey's plan to kill him ( Rogers ) after the robbery. This really puts Rogers in one very bad spot. If he tries to back out he is sure both Hailey and Robards would kill him. If he goes along he's dead.
Now why did Hailey want Rogers as an accomplice in the bank robbery anyway?
Being a crook would be the foremost reason it would seem. But such was not the case. You see Charlie Rogers, unknowingly, had a role to play and Charlie was the only one who could play that role.
Charlie Rogers was a friend of Frank Wilkey. Sheriff Floyd Wilkey was Frank's nephew. The gamblers may have known this.
Hailey also knew that when Rogers was put in a bad spot he, like anyone else with their back to a wall, would seek the advice of a friend.
Rogers did exactly what Hailey expected him to do after Robards told Rogers of Hailey's plan to kill Rogers. Rogers went straight to his friend, Frank Wilkey, and was then sent to Sheriff Floyd Wilkey for help. This assured the Sheriff would be at the bank when it was robbed.
The gamblers knew Frank Wilkey would suggest turning the matter over to Sheriff Floyd Wilkey never once thinking of the State Highway Patrol.
It would seem the logical thing for Hailey to become the informer himself as he could then rest easy knowing the plan was on course. Also by informing Haileys part in the robbery might be excused by the Law. If Rogers or Robards tried to tell of Hailey's big role in the scheme it would probably have been dismissed or passed off as revenge.
But if we give this a little thought we can find a very good reason why Hailey didn't play the informer role no matter how much advantage there would have been for him. There was an even bigger disadvantage.
If Hailey had informed and Robards discovered the fact the plan would have failed beyond repair and Hailey would still own the gambling debt and might be uncovered with the rest of the gamblers. Then he would sooner or later have to face Robards and/or his brothers.
But if Charlie Rogers was discovered informing by Robards the plan could have been salvaged by replacing Charlie who has already carried out Hailey's plan. Then change the date of the robbery for Robard's benefit. The problem then would be letting the Sheriff know of the date change.
Sheriff Floyd Wilkey
When Charlie Rogers informed Sheriff Wilkey there was going to be a bank robbery Rogers was told by the Sheriff to "play along" and keep him informed. Rogers and the Sheriff met several times.
Everything the Sheriff does from the time Charlie Rogers informed until the time of the robbery clearly indicates he knew something was wrong and he might be walking into a trap. I have no idea what made Sheriff Wilkey suspicious but something did.
The Sheriff may have known of Hailey's one time connection with the Madisonville Police Department and perhaps his connection with the gamblers. Was it the very mention of Hailey's name by Rogers which made Floyd suspicious?
The question which weighed heavily on Floyd's mind was, "if this is a trap to get rid of me how are they going to do it?"
People suddenly thrown in such a position form a distrust of every one. If this is true Floyd must have felt very lonely at that time. This may have been the time my father and I were frequently visiting Floyd.
The Sheriff had to examine all the possible ways in which a trap could be set for him. If the robbery was going to be a cover-up to get at him and make it appear as if it happened during a bank robbery, thus leaving the true instigators in the clear, the act would have to occur during the robbery, not before nor after.
Floyd had a startliing thought which would send chills up and down any police officers spine.
There was one sure way. A deputy who had "thrown in" with the gamblers. Floyd was thinking that in the armed confrontation at the bank one of his deputies might accidentally hit him with a bullet and the fact might never be known or passed off as an accident.
The Sheriff's actions clearly indicates this did cross his mind.
A deputy who had thrown in with the gamblers is something we don't like to mention. It is here that I should clarify that there is no evidence whatsoever that any deputy had thrown in with the gamblers. In a life threatening sutuation all factors must be considered.
But if such was the case Hailey may have known when Rogers informed. It is doubtful if the Sheriff told any of his deputies of his informant. The more people who knew of Charlie informing the larger the possibility of a leak back to Robards. The mere fact that Charlie Rogers was in the Sheriff's office would be proof enough that he had informed. Unfortunately I do not know the number of deputies within the Sheriff's office. My guess would be five.
Sheriff Wilkey did the last thing Hailey thought he would do. The Sheriff called in the State Highway Patrol. It is also very doubtful anyone knew of the plans the Sheriff had made to capture the bank robbers. Even in the naming of his pets Floyd would do the unexpected. He had a cat which he named "Dog". He also had a dog he named "Cat".
Why did Hailey ( and perhaps the gamblers ) think the Sheriff would handle the robbery with his officers?
There were two good reasons. Because the Mortons Gap Bank had a hidden room facing the bank vault which had port holes for guns. The Sheriff, thinking he had surprise on his side and not expecting a trap, would know he could easily capture the bank robbers with two men.
Unlike other police departments the sheriff is an elected official. He would want his office to capture the glory of halting a bank robbery. It would surely get him re-elected.
The Sheriff Sets His Trap
Late in the evening of May 30, 1938, Sheriff Floyd Wilkey told three of his deputies to meet him at the Court House as 2:00 AM without giving a reason. If a deputy had thrown in with the gamblers he did not let them know the full scope of his plans. As far as any deputy knew only the Sheriff and three deputies were going to do "something".
About 2:10 AM the Sheriff and his three deputies were standing on the South side of the Court House under a street light. From time to time Floyd would take out his pocket watch and look up the street.
"Hey! What are we waiting around for? Let's go.", one deputy may have said.
Floyd just smiled and said, "In a minute."
At exactly 2:20 AM three State Highway Patrol cars rounded the corner by the Court House and stopped in the middle of the street next to Floyd and his deputies. Floyd walked out to the leading Patrol car and after a moment came back with one State Highway Patrolman.
Floyd and his three deputies and one Highway Patrolman formed a huddle under the street light and Floyd gave them his instructions. Three deputies and one Highway Patrolman loaded into the Sheriff's car. The Sheriff got into the leading Highway Patrol car and then motioned for the cars to start. The convoy then started for Mortons Gap, Kentucky.
It was now too late for anyone to get the word out the State Highway Patrol had been called in to help.
The law officers pulled into Mortons Gap as quietly as possible and crossed over the railroad tracks and turned right and stopped in front of the bank. One deputy and a Highway Patrolman dismounted from the leading car and went into the Bank.
Two Highway Patrolmen took their stations watching the front of the Bank from the ground across the street near the railroad tracks. The ground sloped upward giving the officers an excellent view of the entire street and either side of the Bank.
As soon as the men were stationed all five cars drove to an alley in the back of the Bank where the Sheriff and one deputy with four Highway Patrolmen took stations in a two story building on the second floor. The police cars were then hidden somewhere in Mortons Gap. From the windows on the second floor it was possible to see not only the alley behind the Bank but also much of the street in front of the Bank.
Floyd had scattered his force so no two of his deputies were together. The Sheriff had also protected himself making it impossible for anyone to pull any surprises on him. The building they were in belonged to Claude Wilkey, Floyd's first cousin.
The Law Officers then prepared for a long wait.
Another clue! Thinking the Sheriff was going to be in the Bank and knowing what was to take place........
Guess who remained in the get-away car as driver?
If you guessed Hailey you are exactly right. It is amazing Robards and Rogers did not get suspicious of Hailey just before the robbery.
The Planters Bank had not been open more than ten minutes when Hailey drove into Mortons Gap off US 41 and over the railroad tracks. To get to the Bank Hailey would have to take a right at the next corner. But this would have placed the passenger door away from the Bank
Hailey pulled up to the curb on the corner and stopped. Robards and Rogers got out. The Bank was not far.
Hailey may have told his crew, "You go on to the Bank and I'll circle the block and stop in front of the Bank so you won't have to run around the car to get in.
Rogers knew something was going happen during the robbery but could do nothing without letting the others know he had informed. But Hailey knew he had informed. Rogers had no choice but to enter the Bank.
Rumor has it that both Robards and Rogers tried to get Hailey to go into the Bank with them. This he refused to do.
Rogers and Robards paused on the outside of the Bank out of sight of the Bank window and the employees inside. Not quite trusting Hailey they waited until Hailey came around the corner at the far end of the street and they quietly entered the Bank.
Hailey then proves there was a plan to eliminate Robards and the Sheriff. Hailey does exactly as he said he would and circled the block, well, almost.
Hailey circled the block alright but both Rogers and Robards did not see him drive right by the Bank without stopping. Hailey then takes a right where he had let his companions out. Half way down the street he turns into the alley behind the Bank and turns his motor off.
Hailey has deserted his companions.
Hailey thought the Sheriff and his deputies were in the Bank, he did not know that the Sheriff and five Law Officers were in another building watching every move he made.
John T. Davis, Mayor of Mortons Gap and Vice President of the Bank, and C. R. Pendley, cashier, were in the enclosure in front of the Bank vault attending to routine matters. Robards entered the Bank so softly neither banker knew of his presence until he had passed around a railing and was standing at Davis' back with a pistol.
Thinking there was to be gun play Charlie Rogers stayed near the front door.
Suddenly the stillness of the Bank was interrupted.
"Hold up your hands or I'll kill you!", Robards said.
David, who had not been informed of the plot ( Pendley had ) was taken by surprise and took a step backward without raising his hands.
Robards cocked his pistol! Suddenly two shots rang out.
Overlooking much of the interior of the Bank from gun port holes in a wall Officers Fraelich and Ashby, guns sighted on Robards' head, had seen Robards cock his pistol and both officers fired simultaneously.
Robards was dead before he hit the floor.
Hailey, waiting outside behind the Bank in his car with a gun between his legs, heard the shots and was so engrossed with the events in the Bank that Floyd and five Officers were able to surprise him by coming up from behind.
Was Hailey in fact waiting for his companions to come out of the back door of the Bank?
That is very doubtful.
It would make little sense to park 150 feet behind the Bank when he could have parked near the front door of the Bank which was less than 20 feet from the street. Or does it.
Hailey parking 150 feet behind the Bank was the most mystifying segment of his actions.
While this was an alley it did have two business places on the alley, a cafe and a grocery store.
In reality was Hailey separating himself from the actions of the of his companions and establishing an alibi? Hailey had parked near a cafe and acted as if he was waiting for his hitchhiking companions to complete their business. He later offered this as an alibi.
Remember Hailey knew there was a trap. He also knew someone might be watching. He had dropped his companions off on a street corner near the Bank and continued on down the street as if he were headed for the cafe to wait for his companions to complete their banking business. Hailey circled the block to make his companions think he was going to wait until they came out of the Bank. Once in the Bank his companions would be too busy to note if he was actually parked outside.
If Hailey had gotten out of his car and entered the cafe he might have gotten by with this alibi but it is doubtful as the Sheriff already knew he was involved.
The gun proves Hailey had something else in mind. The main road into Mortons Gap from Madisonville was off US 41. Hailey knew the Officers would hide their cars somewhere in the streets behind the Bank. Did Hailey expected the Sheriff to take his prisoners out the back door of the Bank to their cars. Was he waiting for this to happen and do a drive by Chicago type killing of the Sheriff? From where he was parked the Sheriff had to either take a "short cut" to the cars with their prisoners or leave by the front door. Also the Sheriff might send for the cars. There were no radios in police cars in those days. In any case Hailey stood a good chance of a Chicago Hit.
Did Hailey think the Sheriff would be killed attempting to stop the robbery?
There is one other explanation of Hailey's parking in the alley and perhaps the most reasonable. Did Hailey's inquisitive nature get the best of him and when there was no one in sight, and thinking Law Officers were in the Bank, he couldn't resist the temptation to watch the proceedings from his car.