8/14/1931 - Demonstrating the reason he has been nicknamed "The Tri-State Terrror," outlaw Wilbur Underhill, Jr. completes a month that began with an escape from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, by engaging in a running gun battle with the police on the streets of Wichita, Kansas.
Already a felon with robbery, murder, and jail escapes on his criminal resume (stealing silverware from a neighbor's home is his first bust), Underhill is put behind the bars of the Oklahoma State Prison on 6/7/1927 for life after being convicted of the murder of 18-year-old George Fee (the youth is killed when thinking a prank is being played, he refuses to put his arms in the air when the pair of hoodlums announce a robbery is taking place) during the 1926 robbery of a Phillips Drug Store in the oil town of Okmulgee that nets Underhill and his partner, outlaw Ike "Skeet" Akins, a paltry $26. Watching for any opportunity to bust out from the moment he enters the prison, it takes four years for Underhill to find his chance. Part of a group of 150 inmates, marching in a long four abreast line to the prison's brickyard, just outside the facility's gates, on the morning of 7/14/1931, Underhill steps off a small footbridge crossing a creek, silently lays flat in a foot of water until the column of prisoners march on by, then crosses to the opposite side of the creek, hides in growth of canes where he strips out of his prison uniform, and with civilian clothes underneath now exposed, simply walks away from his life sentence (he will not be missed until the mid-day roll call).
The Oklahoma State Pen
Loose, Underhill swims several streams and walks his way east into the forests of the Ouachita Mountain Range (during which, bloodhounds come within feet of discovering the outlaw hiding in a small cave). Hungry and exhausted, he finally arrives at the small community of Wister, where planning for a future that has now arrived, he digs up a bag of emergency money he buried in 1927 for the need he is now experiencing. Traveling cash in hand, the bandit then boards a train for Joplin, Missouri (upon arriving, he treats a handful of hobos he has befriended on the train to a full meal at local cafe), where he visits with his sister, Mrs. Anna Lewis. By 7/21, Underhill is in Cherryvale, Kansas, where he sets up a base of operations in a local hotel under the name of Ralph Caraway ... there, he acquires a new partner for his crimes, his 19-year-old nephew, Frank Vance Underhill (bribed to come along on his uncle's criminal adventures as wheelman for any driving that needs to be done), marries a woman named (not real bright moves for someone in need of keeping a very low profile) Ethel from the nearby town of Independence, and carries on an affair with a 36-year-old waitress named Margaret Smith who is also a boarder at the hotel the outlaw has checked himself into.
Frank Vance Underhill
Base established, Underhill attempts to break a friend out of the Sedgwick County Jail of Wichita, Kansas, but thinks better of it seeing the number of armed guards that are roaming about inside ... the next night, as long as he is in the neighborhood, he and Frank rob the local Skaggs drugstore of a couple hundred dollars in cash. Several days later, they venture to the town of Coffeyville (where the Dalton Gang was wiped out trying to rob two banks at the same time in 1892), where they hit the ticket window of the Midland Theater, robbing 20-year-old Rhea Payne of the Saturday night's proceeds, roughly $220 in cash (though not planned, the target is the perfect target ... the cash box is full from another screening of the Universal blockbuster, Dracula ... and because the movie is Dracula, thinking it is just another frightened movie-goer, Payne's screams from out from at the ticket window are ignored). Back in business, the pair next hit the Wichita gas station of 57-year-old William E. Neely, a businessman who has twice beaten bandits to a pulp that have tried to rob his establishment. Trying for a third K.O., Neely is instead shot to death by Underhill.
Fleeing his latest killing, with some of his ill gotten gains burning a hole in his pockets, as Ralph Caraway, on 8/7, Underhill purchases an almost new Ford Roadster, and motors it to Kansas City, Missouri, where he visits his mother and youngest sister, who are living in an apartment complex as Almira and Dorothy Dean (did I mention that the Underhill Clan is full of crooks, including Underhill's three older brothers). One reunion over, the bandit then drives to Joplin, Missouri again, where he meets with his sister Anna, and picks up his nephew for driving duties once more. On the evening of 8/13, the pair is back in Wichita, ready to take down another filling station.
At 9:45 in the evening, Underhill accosts twenty-three Cecil Honick who is working the counter of a Texaco gas station. "The dough, or I'll kill you," the outlaw demands, and for his efforts he is rewarded with the grand sum of $18.24. Fleeing into a darkened alley where is partner is waiting, the pair drive off. Looking for another caper, an hour later their evening comes to an abrupt end when a car driven by J. A. Walker of Fairview, Kansas runs a stop sign and smashes into the bandits, who act like they are normal citizens and have the car towed away for repairs and agree to meet with Walker the next morning to discuss damages ... they even allow a good Samaritan named Harold Siegel to drive them to the Wichita hospital where they are treated for bumps and bruises. A long day and evening, at about two in the morning they check into the Iris Hotel, near their where their wrecked ride has been taken for repairs.
Still groggy the next morning, they are in Room #15 when a knock on the door begins their day ... a knock from forty-eight-year-old Wichita Police Officer Merle R. Colver, who daily checks out recent arrivals staying downtown. Boom, boom, boom, one shot misses Colver as he enters the room, but two hit ... one in the shoulder and one to Colver's neck and head, the fatal hit (he is survived by his 77-year-old mother, wife, a daughter and a son ... and horribly, his sixteen year old daughter finds out about the murder when she jumps off the streetcar she is riding to ask what is going on to the crowd of people she sees gathering in front of the Iris Hotel). The pair flee the hotel, pausing only long enough for a shirtless Underhill to steal Colver's pistol, as the town comes alive with law enforcement agents swarming the town looking for the cop killer.
The Crime Scene
The Body Is Removed
After ten hours of searching, the pair is discovered lying under a tree near a baseball diamond in the town's Linwood Park. Ordered to surrender, Vance complies, but Underhill goes to his guns (he fails to fire Colver's revolver when it's hammer snags on his pocket) ... an act that causes ex-Wichita cop Jack Myler to tragically wildly fire at the outlaw, with one miss fatally hitting one-year-old John George Colliate in the stomach as he sits on his mother's lap on a nearby swing. Trying to pull his other pistol, another Myler round hits Underhill in the neck, causing the outlaw to drop his weapon. Instead of surrendering though, Underhill runs off. Myler pursues him for five blocks and finally discovers the outlaw curled up in a ball in a patch of weeds. It has been exactly one month since Underhill broke out of the Oklahoma State Prison.
Sadly, his month long crime spree is not the end of Underhill's criminal career and before his death from law enforcement bullets on 1/6/1934 at the age of 32, there will be another prison break (Underhill is kept from killing the warden by master robber, Harvey Bailey), bank robberies, kidnap hostage taking, shoot outs with police ... and even a marriage that does Underhill in (he foolishly uses his own name to get hitched, which the FBI discovers)!
The Tri-State Terror