1921 Grand Rapids Bank Robbery
On 7 December 1921, a Buick touring car
pulled in front of the Grand Rapids Savings Bank. Leo Bolger stayed at the wheel
and three others went in. It was a day that ended in a double murder.
Four men committed a crime but only one was caught and he was not the killer.
The four men were Leo Bolger, Jim "Big Red" Sloan, Frankie "Memphis Kid" McFarlane and "Toughie" Knapp. They came from Detroit to Grand Rapids. Bolger was a rum-runner but the other three were hard-case criminals. They rented a bungalow with a garage on Weaver Street. They they surveyed the routes between the bank and the house. When the pulled the robbery they did it in five minutes.
As the three men entered the bank, R. A. Westrate, the manager, looked up at three large pistols. Quickly $14,000 was out of the vault and the manager, two employees and two customers were in it.
They leaped in the car and went toward Century Street. Bolger proceeded across the maze of tracks and there was a freight train barreling toward them. It pushed the car 100 feet down the tracks. The four robbers leaped out and ran to Hall Street. They flagged down a car and with a gun in the driver's back, they took off. They dropped the driver off two blocks away. McFarlane and Knapp got our of the car and made their way to the bungalow. Bolger and Sloan drove out Lake Drive SE and abandoned the car. They were about a mile from the bungalow and they made there way to it with the satchel containing the money. They fixed a steak dinner. They had stolen another car and it was in the garage. They poured hot water over the radiator every so often to keep the car ready for a winter getaway.
In the meantime, people from the businesses near the bank went in to see what had happened and found that the vault door was not securely closed. The manager telephoned the police and roadblocks were a search were begun.
A housewife across the street from the cottage had observed the men for several days and told the police that she thought they might be bootleggers, which was prevalent in the downtown area at that time. When she saw Bolger and Sloan creep in the back with a suitcase, she called the real estate agent. He knocked on the door that evening and was told by Knapp to "never mind. Get out".
The husband of the housewife came home and he was a Pennsylvania railroad yardmaster who had seen the wrecked Buick. He told his wife about the car and the bank robbery. She called the Superintendent of Police, Ab Carroll. He was not convinced but he sent detective Samuel Slater and officer George Brandsma to visit the housewife and then went to the cottage. When the door was opened, the robbers shot and killed Carroll and Brandsma.
The four men scooped up the money and fled in the car. They drove to Ft. Wayne and divided the money they had saved and split up. Bolger went to Detroit.
The Grand Rapids police had no ideas as to the identity of the four and weeks went by before they had a break in the case. Bolger had made a mistake. He had told a buddy that he was in on the Grand Rapids bank job and he remarked on it one night in the Central Pool Hall in Detroit. Within a few minutes Detroit police had picked him up and he was in Grand Rapids the next day. There was a $2500 reward and Bolger's friend fingered him. Bolger explained that he was out pouring hot water on the radiator of the car when the officers were shot. Later, it was proved that by a witness that it was true. Not until the next summer had the police given up on find the other three men.
A year after the robbery and murders, the famous Denver mint holdup in daylight occurred. Several men in a car got away with $200,000 in $5 bills but one of them was on the running board trading shots with guards and was hit. He was hauled into the car by his comrades and the car sped away. About a month later the car was found in a deserted spot near Denver with Sloan's body in it. McFarlane and Knapp, who had shot the two men in Grand Rapids were never caught for the Grand Rapids crimes. McFarlane was reported arrested in Iowa on a minor charge but had been released before Grand Rapids authorities could get there and he was never heard from again.
Bolger was sentenced for the crime. In 1933 at Marquette, Bolger became a hero at the big prison break attempt. He was shot but although wounded, he operated an X-Ray machine in the hospital and refused treatment until many others who had been hurt were cared for. The testimony of the witness in the 1921 shooting and his actions during the attempted prison break, got him a sentence commutation and a parole 11 years after being sentenced for a crime he didn't commit.
Created: 8 Mar 2009