Part I: Kansas City organized crime – Union Station Massacre: June 17, 1933

” Today, Kansas City may seem tame, but its association with organized crime and political graft ran rampant in the 1920-30s. With Tom Pendergast’s political influence, liquor flowed freely in Kansas City despite Prohibition, and the area became an elusive hotspot for gambling and prostitution.
        In part one of a two part series, U-News looks back at The Union Station Massacre, a notorious episode chronicled by UMKC professor Bob Unger.
        This event led to the modern function of the FBI. Next week, the U-News will explore the Pendergast era and the recent mafia presence in Kansas City.”

A catastrophic event at Union Station on the morning of June 17, 1933 changed the purpose of the FBI. The Union Station Massacre, as it is now called, triggered a complete transformation of the national police force. While the FBI tells one account of the Union Station Massacre, the undisclosed file of events tells another. This file, as decrypted by UMKC Professor Robert Unger in his book entitled The Union Station Massacre, contains the genuine account of the mob-related shootings.

The chain of events began with notorious gang member Frank Nash, who had escaped from the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., and was recaptured in Hot Springs, Ark. Oklahoma police chief Otto Reed, along with federal agents Joe Lackey and Frank Smith, took Nash into custody on June 16. The plan was to drive to Fort Smith and take the Missouri Pacific train to Kansas City, which was due to arrive at 7 a.m. the next day. Word spread that Nash would be arriving in Kansas City and that his crony in crime, Vernon Miller, planned to save him from returning to prison.

On the morning of June 17, Otto, Lackey and Smith arrived in Kansas City with Nash. The men exited the train and walked briskly toward the doors of Union Station. Nash was sandwiched between the detectives and the federal agents, who had created a V-formation which witnesses would never forget. Once they crossed the lobby, the men exited at the eastern end of the station.

Federal agents Reed Vetterli and Ray Caffrey, accompanied by KCPD detectives Frank Hermanson and Bill Grooms, were waiting outside in the armored police car. All of the agents were fully armed with an array of handguns, automatics and shotguns, Reed and Lackey possessed the most powerful. The men quickly filed into the Chevrolet. Agent Lackey sat in the vehicle first, directly behind the driver’s seat. Agent Reed followed, sitting in the passenger rear seat. Nash started to climb in between Lackey and Reed, but was ordered to sit in the passenger seat for easier monitoring. Agent Smith sat between his fellow officers. . Vetterli stood outside the passenger door, along with Hermanson and Grooms. Caffrey closed the passenger door, squeezed past the men and circled around the car to the driver’s side.

The position of the men is a crucial part of the story. If Nash had sat in the back seat then Lackey would not have shot him through the head. Miller and his accomplice were not expecting the lawmen to fire any shots. If Lackey had not panicked upon seeing the villains, the outcome of that morning would have been drastically different.  As Unger’s book stated, “the stage was set for massacre.”

Nearby, Miller and his fellow unidentified gunman watched from Miller’s Chevrolet as the agents piled into the car with Nash. Miller and the other gunman, both armed with machine guns, approached Caffrey’s car. Miller ordered the men to raise their hands. In the backseat, Lackey reacted with his shotgun. He was unaware   his weapon had accidentally been swapped with Reed’s during transit. Lackey tried to fire Reed’s shotgun, but was completely incompetent. After five or six seconds had passed, Lackey adjusted the safety mode and unintentionally fired a shot directly through the back of Nash’s head.

The shot killed him instantly and the bullet traveled through the windshield and hit Caffrey . Lackey panicked and fired again, this time hitting Hermanson in the side of the head. As he tried to fire once more, he was bombarded with bullets and killed. Grooms could not compete with the men carrying the machine guns which caused his own death after he received two bullets to the chest.

“Grooms is the only man who was definitely killed by the bad guys. Nash, Caffrey, Hermanson and maybe even Reed were all killed by Lackey,” Unger said.

Vetterli, who was lying flat on the ground, sprang up and sprinted toward the station doors. Smith lay down in the middle of the back seat to play dead. Reed was shot from the front and the back and died instantly. Once Vernon and his accomplice realized Nash was dead, they sped off  and disappeared. It is unknown to this day who Miller brought to Union Station as backup. Suspects included a number of men such as Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Adam Ricchetti, the Barker Gang or local killer William Weissman.

“The truth is that yes, Vernon Miller and some other people did try to rescue Frank Nash. But a panicked FBI agent in the back seat had a gun he didn’t know how to use and he started shooting,” Unger said.

The chapter entitled “The Truth” in Unger’s book describes how the Bureau handled the situation afterward. “In the end, the Union Station Massacre investigation sheds far more light on the investigators than it ever did on those investigated. It was a series of dead ends, leads not followed, ignored truths and buried secrets…There’s little doubt, for instance, that everybody in the Bureau’s Kansas City office know the true story of the massacre and the consequences of Joe Lackey’s wild panic long before they dared tell Hoover. And when they did tell him, Hoover dared not tell the people. Instead, the Bureau…chose half-truths, lies, perjury, cover-up and worse.”

Director of the Bureau J. Edgar Hoover called the massacre a “turning point in the nation’s fight against crime” and asked for the tools to clean up the mess. In less than a year following the Union Station Massacre, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had nine major anti-crime bills passed under his New Deal. These reforms paved the way for the modern-day FBI. The new federal laws gave Hoover and his agents broad power over federal crimes and the authority to enforce them. While the Union Station Massacre proved to be a monumental error for the Bureau, the incident jumpstarted the change in the national police force that makes the FBI what it is today.

kbaxendale@unews.com

Kate Baxendale is managing editor at University News. She is also an intern at KCUR-FM. Kate will graduate with a B.A. in Communication Studies - Journalism and Mass Communications and a B.A. in Spanish in May 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>