Archived Story

Infamous massacre guns a hit

Published 10:55pm Thursday, February 10, 2011

Their “babysitter,” Lt. Michael W. Kline, quartermaster of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office, calls them “the Holy Grail” — the two most notorious firearms after Lee Harvey’s rifle which assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas and the derringer with which John Wilkes Booth killed President Abraham Lincoln.

Lt. Mike Kline at Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday with the $1 million tommy gun Berrien County authorities recovered in Stevensville in December 1929. It was used in the St. Valentine’s Day gangland massacre which killed seven in Chicago on Feb. 14, 1929, and remains unsolved 82 years later.
Lt. Mike Kline at Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday with the $1 million tommy gun Berrien County authorities recovered in Stevensville in December 1929. It was used in the St. Valentine’s Day gangland massacre which killed seven in Chicago on Feb. 14, 1929, and remains unsolved 82 years later.

Kline estimates the value of the two 1921 Thompson submachine guns he brought to Dowagiac Thursday at $1 million each. New, they cost $180, or “half a car,” when a Ford Model A sold for $400.

Rotarians lined up for photographs with the weapons used in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre which slayed seven men in Chicago on Feb. 14, 1929, and remains unsolved 82 years later.

The tommy guns were recovered that December at hitman Fred Burke’s house in Stevensville following the fatal shooting of a St. Joseph police officer.

The house is still there on Red Arrow Highway.

“Gangsters and bootleggers used to hang out this way,” Kline said.

Their mansions along the river, such as where Muhammad Ali later lived in Berrien Springs, came equipped with secret sliding doors, hollow marble stairs lined with velvet, like violin cases for their Thompsons and a cross configuration in one upper window for a “gun port” from which to shoot.

Al Capone “spent a lot of time in St. Joe. He and his guys would drive in in their big cars and rent the top two floors of the Whitcomb Hotel or the Vincent Hotel in downtown Benton Harbor. They’d play cards, they’d take boat rides on Lake Michigan, go out to Sister Lakes, hang out around Paw Paw Lake. They used to frequent the area because they didn’t have to worry about anyone sniping them and we were all glad to see them because they liked to spread the money around. He felt safe. This was his playground. A lot of things haven’t changed. There are still a lot of Illinois people coming over to play. They got so comfortable they started buying property and building estates.”

Capone’s bodyguard built a place on the river across from Berrien Hills Country Club. At 10 or 11, his mom worked for Ball Band Rubber’s president as a secretary. When her boss was a kid, he caddied at the country club and recalled big-tipping golfers arriving by boat after emerging at the river from a hole in the ground.

“It gets better,” he said. “I hire into the sheriff’s department and work there 11 or 12 years and take a job transfer to babysit these two things and run into Chuck. My niece, a bulldog historian who’s writing a book, collaborated with the History Channel, Discovery Channel and next week we’ll be working with National Geographic.”

In high school, Kline, who lives in the former home of a doctor related to the case, dated a blonde who lived in a gangster’s stone home.

In the basement, pressing a button swiveled a bookcase and steps down to a brick wall sealing off the tunnel that those earlier golfers trod.

Kline’s “famous. He’s been on 26 TV shows, including ‘History’s Mysteries,’ ” former Dowagiac Rotarian Eric Richardson introduced Kline, who has been with Berrien County for 22 years and walks listeners into “The Twilight Zone” when he talks about the “destiny” which seemed to draw him to the case going back to boyhood.

For 82 years, the evidence vanished until two weeks ago it surfaced with a private collector in Milwaukee.

“Now,” Kline said, “we’re getting together with National Geographic. We’re going over to the Northern Illinois Crime Lab and see if what he’s got is for real. If it is, that will be a pretty significant find.”

In 2002, Kline moved laterally in the sheriff’s office to become quartermaster. “Part of that job entails the armory and everything in there. I was put in charge of ordering guns, bullets, badges, paper clips, pencils and toner cartridges — you name it. Anything we used as a department, I was responsible for. I’d heard a little bit about these items,” which also relate to the “godfather” of CSI and the first crime lab established at Northwestern University by ballistics pioneer Calvin Goddard.

“I’m not a gun nut by any shape or form,” Kline said at Elks Lodge 889. “I don’t collect guns. I grew up in a household where both my mom and dad were World War II veterans and my dad didn’t encourage me to have any kind of firearm. I was lucky to get a BB gun when I was 14. Just the same, they instilled in me great pride in their military service and history in general.”

Then in 2003, an Oak Park, Ill., police retiree contacted him at the sheriff’s office and introduced himself as a Thompson submachine gun collector and history buff on Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

“Chuck came over and I learned more in two hours than I would have in 20 years on my own,” Kline said. “He’s a walking, talking Encyclopedia Britannica of Thompson and these (six) placards” which form a mobile museum walk for when he travels, such as when he addressed 80,000 at the National Rifle Association’s three-day convention in Louisville.

“This is a third of what I could put on display,” he said. “It paints a picture more in detail. I could talk two hours. I do 50 or 60 presentations a year. Last weekend I did a two-day show in Novi for 3,000 people at the Michigan antique arms collectors. All I am is a sponge. I sponged off of Chuck, who got me in touch with American Thompson Association collectors and documenters of these firearms. They hold an annual convention in Ohio.”

Kline, assuring Cass District Library Director Jennifer Ray that the tommy guns trained on her were unloaded, said, “We used to take these guns out once a year and display them at the Youth Fair (in Berrien Springs) for a week and lock them up unless a film crew wanted them. Under my possession they hadn’t traveled, but I asked Sheriff (Paul) Bailey (to take them to Ohio). I had to do a lot of convincing because these are priceless pieces of history.

To travel through Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, I had to learn what each state’s gun laws are and what I could do as a police officer.

“Chuck had a friend whose father was a photographer for the Chicago Tribune, which gave him direct access to the archives. Some of those (gruesome) pictures have never been published, but a lot of them have. Between the two of us we collaborated on the display we took down to Ohio,” where serious collectors drooled over them for three days “with glazed looks in their eyes as they laid hands on pieces of history. I came back and told the sheriff, who’s Catholic, that it was like going to church on Sunday and the Pope walked in the back door. These are the Holy Grail to those Thompson collectors and two of the most famous firearms in the world. We know the day they were made, they have completely original parts and everything functions. Estimated value, bidding would start at $1 million.”

“No two guns in the world have the notoriety of these two” except for the Oswald and Booth firearms, Kline stated.

In Chicago in 1929, Capone’s mob and the rival Moran organization vied for power and Prohibition profit.

“When you make something illegal that was once legal, it’s one of the biggest mistakes this country ever made,” according to Kline. “There were profits to be made in the millions. It becomes very competitive to the point where people kill people. Not only Chicago, but Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Kansas City, St. Louis, out west. There were organized criminal organizations everywhere that made money not only off illegal alcohol, but with that come gambling, prostitution, numbers rackets, kidnapping. George Moran ran one side of the city and he and Al Capone had been sniping at each other since the early ’20s, but it had started to get more aggressive. There are a number of different theories from authors I’ve talked to and books that I’ve read. One school of thought is that Capone ordered it and said, ‘Go get him.’  Others say his second in command got a group of guys together, worked out a plan and got Capone’s blessing, but he didn’t want to know anything about it. It was also rumored that it was the Purple Gang out of Detroit. To this day, it’s one of the longest unsolved murders in the United States. No one was ever sentenced, convicted, tried, put in prison or anything. We don’t know exactly who was there, although I’ve got a good idea after researching it for seven years.”

Kline recalled the garage at 2122 N. Clark St. where the gangland massacre unfolded.
“The story goes that a police car drove up front,” he narrated. “Two officers got out and entered the garage. A short time later witnesses said they heard something like backfire sounds from the garage. They said they saw the two police officers march two guys out the front door, they get into the police car and they leave. Witnesses at the scene find seven bodies, although one isn’t dead yet. He’s crawling across the floor with 14 holes in him. He’s taken to the hospital and Chicago detectives repeatedly ask who shot him and he said, ‘Nobody.’ These guys were tough. They didn’t rat. If they even thought you were going to rat, you ended up dead. He eventually died later that evening.”

Two wealthy families in carpet and Palmolive soap tired of the violence pool their resources to form the first U.S. police commission.

Goddard was brought from New York. His passion was firearms.

“He runs into a guy who invented a comparison microscope he was trying to figure out what to do with it. Goddard takes it and starts experimenting. He finds that when you fire guns, it leaves marks like fingerprints. He is the godfather of CSI, the inventor of forensic ballistics, comparing bullets and shell casings and taking pictures with high-resolution cameras of the evidence he’s seeing. He starts the first crime lab at Northwestern University because the Chicago Police Department was corrupt. One author describes criminal organizations as like trying to juggle three balls, paying off the judges and the cops. Capone (who ascended to power at just 25) better than anybody could juggle 20 balls.He kept all the wheels greased and had everybody in his back pocket. He wasn’t necessarily a violent person, he just thought he was running a business.”

Kline then turns his attention to 10 months later, back in Berrien County, specifically Dec. 14, 1929.

Burke, who had 17 known aliases, including Fred Dane, had been drinking as he heads to the train station by Silver Beach to pick up his wife, Viola, coming in from shopping in Chicago.

He is involved in a fender bender near St. Joseph High School.

The other motorist wants $10, but Fred didn’t have any bills that small, so he suggested going into town and breaking a big bill.

But Burke loses the other driver. When the other driver is reporting the incident at State and Broad streets during Christmas shopping bustle, Officer Skelley sees the vehicle that fits the description pass by.

“Follow him,” the policeman directs, jumping up on the running board.

“They follow him two blocks north on State Street, turn on Port Street and head back east toward Main Street,” Kline said. “Burke slows down enough that Skelley is able to jump on. Burke is now heading south. Witness accounts hear the officer yelling, ‘Police! Pull over! They go two blocks, to the intersection of Broad and Main. Right by the police station and fire department, the nerve center of St. Joe.

“Burke stops, rolls down the window, shoots Skelley twice in the chest, then clips him with a third in the back, which perforates the aorta in his heart. Burke takes off and ends up on Lake Boulevard at a high rate of speed, probably heading back to home base. But he doesn’t quite get there. Right before Red Arrow, his car doesn’t negotiate the turn and knocks off both wheels on the right side. He gets out and runs to where a gentleman is going door to door with his wife, selling linens. Burke sticks a .38 in the window and says, ‘Drive.’ They take off. Burke gets violently ill and they take him to the drug store. Burke comes out and carjacks” another vehicle.

Berrien detectives receive a call that an officer is down from a shooting and find in the car on Lake Boulevard a lumberyard receipt which leads them to the house in Stevensville.

There’s a taxi in the driveway and a guy climbing down a ladder in back.

One of the detectives responded in such a hurry he forgot his gun.

A monogrammed shirt was found in the house, along with a heavily fortified closet when pried open contains three bullet-proof vests, two Thompson submachine guns, two high-powered rifles, a sawed-off shotgun, a .45 Colt, eight drum magazines for the Thompson submachine guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, tear gas grenades, hand grenades, nitroglycerin.

In a steamer trunk, $324,000 in bank notes from a Wisconsin robbery.

“When Fred wasn’t doing jobs for Capone,” Kline said, “he had his own little crew which ran around the United States. If you read history of this period of time, the late ’20s and early ’30s, you’ve got Baby Face Nelson and (John) Dillinger. There’s a good book called Public Enemies with an almost daily timeline. It was incredible the bank robberies and kidnappings that these crews pulled off. If you were a cop in a small town and ran into one of these guys, they always had better cars and a whole helluva lot more gunpower than you. Hundreds of police officers lost their lives in that period of time. We’ve got the bullet-proof vests they had, but they’re delicate.”

“We’ve got a dead police officer, a criminal on the lam and this big huge pile of guns. The sheriff at the time was so worried they put it in a bank vault the first couple of nights, not at the sheriff’s office. Chicago P.D. gets with Berrien about the guns because of the ballistics guy at Northwestern. Two of our deputies take the guns over. Goddard takes a look and sees unique things — bullets made by the U.S. Cartridge Co. that appear more silver than brass gold — the same bullets used to kill the guys in the garage. An ‘s’ stamped on the side that took me almost four years to figure out that means smokeless. Smokeless powder was not a common thing. He goes to the St. Valentine’s Day evidence, test-fire the guns into cotton wadding. They didn’t have ballistics gel yet. This gun fired 20 rounds that day at the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. There were 70 rounds total, and this takes a 50-round or 100-round drum. Goddard proves beyond a doubt these two guns did the deed. Burke’s on the lam about a year before he’s found in Missouri and taken to the police station in … St. Joseph.”

Extradited back to Michigan, Burke is convicted of murdering Skelley and imprisoned.

“Chicago wanted him in the worst way,” Kline said. “Illinois had the death penalty. They circulated his picture in crime detective novels. He was the most-wanted man in America. I think the reward was $1,000. He’s in bed, reaching for the shoulder holster when Missouri busts into the shack. When he shot Officer Skelley in downtown St. Joe, he became expendable to Capone or any organized outfit because if he got captured and questioned, he could spill the beans on the others. I could be a rat. I’d end up floating in the Chicago River. They didn’t leave loose ends.”

Burke is a model prisoner in Marquette and even writes letters to the sheriff and his wife for years, thanking them for their hospitality. “I wish I had met someone like  you earlier in my life” and maybe his life would have taken another course. Burke died in 1940 of a heart attack.

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