Now listen my friends and I'll tell you A story of bandits so bold Way out in Lamar Colorado They robbed the town's bank of its gold.- "Fate of the Fleagle Gang," a ballad by Frank Luther
The only evidence was a single fingerprint on the window of a dead doctor's car.
A search party had found the Dighton doctor's body at the bottom of a Scott County canyon underneath his old Hudson, bound and gagged, shot in the back of the head. No other evidence remained except the fingerprint.
It was 1928 - before crime scene investigators, before the Federal Bureau of Investigation had a detailed database of fingerprints. Yet that single fingerprint eventually brought down a notorious Kansas gang.
This is a story of bank robbers, of a legend of buried loot and a Lamar, Colo., bank robbery that turned sour, resulting in the murder of four people and leading to the gang's demise.
It has been 80 years since three men were hanged and one fatally shot for the events that unfolded in Colorado and western Kansas in 1928 - a group of infamous Finney County bandits known as the Fleagle Gang.
It's a tale that Goodland Star-News Editor Tom Betz grew up hearing. His family owned the Lamar newspaper from 1920 to 1989, and his grandfather, Fred Betz Sr., originally reported the story.
"It's always interested me," said Betz, who wrote the book "The Fleagle Gang: Betrayed by a Fingerprint," published in 2005 after years of research and interviews.
In the late 1800s, the Fleagle family moved from Iowa to a farm near Garden City. Jake Sr. and Annie raised four boys, including Jake and Ralph, who eventually became early 20th-century outlaws.
Neighbors began to notice Ralph and Jake were coming and going on the farm and that the family was prospering. Their parents had a new house and an increasing number of cattle stock. They told their parents they were making money off the stock market, said Charlie Norton, a Leoti artist who knew a Fleagle relative who lived in the area.
Jake, the gang's leader, led the group up and down the Sacramento Valley, usually raiding big money crap games and high-stakes gambling houses. They would return to Garden City when the heat was on in California, according to the Garden City Police Department website.
With suspicions high, as well as to plan their outings more privately, the brothers rented the "Horseless Horse Ranch" near the Scott County town of Marienthal, Norton said. It was there in 1928 that they outlined robbing the First National Bank of Lamar.
On May 23, Jake, Ralph, and George Abshier from Colorado and Howard Royston from California entered the bank, filling their sacks with more than $200,000. Much of that was non-negotiable bonds, but the gang still cleared $20,000 to $40,000 in cash, Betz said.
During the robbery, however, Bank President A.N. Parrish fired at Royston, hitting him in the jaw. Royston and Jake Fleagle fired back. Amid the fire, Parrish's son, John, ran into a closet for a gun but was fatally wounded.
The gang fled with bank employees Everett Kessinger and Ed Lungren as hostages, the sheriff close behind them. The sheriff's car was partially disabled after one of the bandits fired at his vehicle, allowing the gang to speed away.
With a gun to his head, the gang roused Dighton's Dr. W.W. Wineinger around midnight. They took him to the Marienthal ranch, where Wineinger took a look at Royston before gang members shot him.
Three weeks after the robbery, searchers found bank teller Kessinger in an isolated area near Liberal, shot to death the same way as Wineinger.
It would be the first time the gang had fired guns, or even killed anyone, in all their robberies, Betz said.
According to the police department, Jake was a philanderer and a drinker but still managed to accumulate a sizable bank account. Ralph, however, was tight with his money and reportedly secretly buried it in places all over California, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas.
A single fingerprint
The downfall was the fingerprint.
Roland Terwilliger, of the Garden City Police Department, was an amateur fingerprint collector. He, along with Garden City Police Chief Lee Richardson, searched the car but only found the one fingerprint on the top right rear of the window.
It was a long shot, Betz said. Back then, there was not a large database of fingerprints.
According to the Garden City Telegram, more than a year after the Lamar incident, a letter from the FBI informed Richardson that the man who had made the fingerprint was Jake Fleagle. Along with the letter was a mug shot.
Betz said it was just a short time later that Ralph was caught in Kankakee, Ill. Hoping he wouldn't receive the death penalty, Ralph implicated Jake, Abshier and Royston. With Jake still at large, the three pleaded guilty on Sept. 12, 1929, to bank robbery, kidnapping and murder.
All three were executed in July 1930 - Ralph on July 10 and Abshier and Royston on July 19.
Jake, however, eluded the law until October 1930, Betz said. His common-law wife tipped off officers, who caught him on a train at Branson, Mo., where he resisted arrest and was shot. He was taken to a hospital in Springfield, where he died two days later. On his deathbed, he confessed to the crimes.
Betz said the Fleagle case is credited as the first one in which the FBI was able to identify and help convict a criminal with a single fingerprint. Moreover, according to the Telegram, there were few centralized criminal records. In 1924, the FBI only had 810,000 fingerprint cards in its files.
A few remnants of the past still grace Garden City.
Take a trip through Valley View Cemetery, where gravestones mark the final resting place of Jake and Ralph Fleagle's bodies, along with their parents and siblings. It's the same cemetery where the Herb Clutter family was buried in 1959.
Meanwhile, packed away at the Finney County Museum is the glass window from the doctor's Hudson, the fingerprint still there, according to the Finney County Museum in 2010. The assistant director, Laurie Oshel, also said at the time that the museum had a car owned by the Fleagles, but needed funding to restore it.
Norton once had a couple of the Fleagle guns but got rid of them, he said.
As for tales of hundreds of thousands of dollars in buried loot, Betz said he has no way of confirming the stories, which include caches found in Nebraska, Kansas and California. He said one Fleagle relative told him of getting calls from Jake Sr. giving him coded instructions of where he had moved the money.
"Old man Jake would tell people he had money buried in jars," Betz said. "People spent all kinds of time at the old Fleagle house area searching."
Norton, who knew a son-in-law and daughter of Walter Fleagle, Jake and Ralph's brother, said he once asked the son-in-law about buried money around the Finney County ranch.
The man told Norton he already had helped Walter find what money was still there - about $35,000 - which they deposited at the bank.
Meanwhile, the man once revealed to Norton that the home he lived in, ready-built in the 1970s, was purchased from the cashing in of gold certificates from the Lamar heist.
The information is alleged, Norton says, but added that if there is any truth, it's sad.
"It's blood money," he said.
Editor's Note: This story originally published in 2010.