By R. D. Morgan
Author of "The Bad Boys of The Cookson Hills" and "The Bandit Kings of The Cookson Hills and others.
His books can be found at New Forums Press, Amazon, and Three Rivers Museum in Muskogee, OK
© R. D. Morgan - You are welcome to post a link to this page.
This is a true story of a series of brutal, cold-blooded crimes and the sure and swift punishment that followed.
On the afternoon of June 15, 1924, Muskogee County Sheriff Bud Ledbetter ordered two of his officers, ex-County Sheriff John S. Barger, now serving as a Special Traffic Patrolman, and Deputy Sheriff Joseph P. Morgan to travel to Sanderson, Texas in order to escort a pair of miscreant brothers back to Oklahoma to stand trial for auto theft. Just prior to departing for Texas, Barger told a fellow officer that both he and his companion thought of the trip as a routine assignment. Neither of the fugitives was noted as particularly dangerous. Little did the officers realize they were about to become involved in a nightmare. .
The fugitives in question were officially identified as Muskogee natives William "Bill" Lawrence (sometimes spelled Laurence) and his younger sibling Albert. Twenty-five year old Bill was known in law enforcement circles as a "born loser." A small time but incorrigible thief, he reportedly operated with little flair but iron nerve. According to news reports, the young man had been the victim of several traumatic incidents during his childhood. At the age of twelve, he suffered a fractured skull when he was kicked in the head by a horse he was shoeing. Friends and family members described him as "Nutty," after the incident. A year later, Bill's Father, who was not just the primary breadwinner but also the sole-disciplinarian in the family, died prematurely, leaving the family rudderless and poverty stricken. Minus his fathers firm hand and likely suffering from mental illness due to his past head injury, Bill quickly evolved into a hard-core juvenile delinquent, pilfering auto parts from area salvage yards as well as breaking into several local "Mom and Pop" grocery stores, stealing cigarettes, and candy. Although Bill was arrested several times in his early teens, his overly indulgent mother was always able to persuade the Judge to drop the charges. His younger brother, Albert, nicknamed "Babe," was according to police, a brash, swaggering young man who put all his energies into broadcasting his phony "Tough guy" persona. .
In 1917, Bill teamed up with a local bad man named "Nigs" Crittinton. The duo began raiding the Midland Valley Rail Yards in both Fort Gibson and Muskogee, hijacking loads of sugar, which was a hot commodity due to a shortage caused by the ongoing World War. With government rationing of the sweetener in full-force, a fifty-pound sack of the "white gold" was at the time fetching upwards of $100.00. In the spring of 1918, the pair was nabbed by a pair of railroad dicks breaking into a boxcar near Fort Gibson. Lawrence was sentenced to a one-year term in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Within months of his parole in early 1919, he was arrested at his home in Keefeton, Oklahoma on an auto theft charge. When officers searched the residence, they discovered 300 pairs of shoes that had recently been reported stolen from the KATY rail yard. Once again, the young thug was sentenced to a term at the state rock pile. On his release from prison in 1920, Bill was hired as a mechanic at a Muskogee garage. He married and for a time seemed to be following the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, when his wife died in childbirth in early 1923 the young man promptly returned to his wicked ways. .
Shortly after the untimely demise of his spouse and baby, Bill was charged with both auto-theft and cattle rustling in Okmulgee County. According to a statement made by his mother several years after the event, the youth was brutally beaten by Sheriff's deputies while being interrogated following his arrest. A week after the alleged beating incident, Bill was released from the Okmulgee County Jail upon posting a $4000 bond. On the evening of May 18, 1924 he, his brother Babe, and a companion, Cletus Benson, stole a car in Durant, Oklahoma. The following night, the trio broke into the county garage located at 802 South Cherokee Street in Muskogee. Unfortunately for them, an elderly man who was out walking his dog noticed something amiss and called the cops. On arriving at the scene, police promptly captured Benson still sitting in the stolen getaway car while the Lawrence's, somehow managing to escape detection, fled the scene in the officer's parked police cruiser. After a few hours of harsh questioning, Benson admitted the identities of his companions in crime. A warrant was immediately issued for the arrest of the Lawrence brothers. .
Driving in a southerly direction at breakneck speeds, the fugitives hoped to evade justice by fleeing to Mexico. Stopping in Pittsburg, Texas they picked up Bill's teenage sweetheart, Billie Woods. The following day, June 14, 1924, US Border patrol agents arrested the trio attempting to cross into Mexico. On questioning, Babe admitted the car they were driving was stolen. Officers quickly contacted authorities in Muskogee. Miss Woods was released the following day after the brothers voluntarily signed extradition papers. .
Arriving in Texas by passenger train on the morning of the 16th, the Oklahoma officers quickly took charge of the fugitives. After filling out the necessary paperwork, the party started the long journey back to Muskogee driving the stolen police cruiser. According to statements later made by Officer Barger, he was at the wheel while Deputy Morgan sat next to him in the front seat. The prisoners were shackled together in the rear (Barger stated the pair were placed in the backseat due to their both having extremely disagreeable body odors). On an isolated section of road just south of Fort Worth, Texas, Babe suddenly reached forward yanking Deputy Morgan's pistol from his holster. When Morgan attempted to retrieve his firearm, the young man squeezed the trigger of the revolver sending a round into the officer's head. On hearing the deafening blast, Barger lost control of the vehicle that was traveling about twenty-five miles per hour, fishtailing into a steep ditch then crashing into a corner fence post before coming to an abrupt halt. Turning toward the prisoners he found himself staring down the barrel of his companion's handgun. .
While Babe held a gun on Officer Barger, Bill Lawrence rifled the dying Deputy's pockets gaining possession of the keys to the handcuffs. Barger was then ordered to continue driving north. Nearing a ranch gate, he was instructed to pull into the lane and park near a small grove of cottonwood trees. After halting the car, Bill Lawrence dragged Morgan's body to a nearby shallow ditch where it was abandoned. The boys then forced Barger to dismount the vehicle and walk to a spot about twenty yards off the roadway where they handcuffed him to a tree. Before taking their leave, the brothers robbed him of his watch and wallet. While doing so, they taunted the officer, laughing and telling him he would never capture them in his lifetime. Barger then observed the pair pause at the location of Deputy Morgan's corpse just long enough to strip it of its valuables before leaping into the car speeding off in a cloud of dust. .
For the next hour, the lawman cried out for help, all the while staring at his poor dead partner who lay bleeding only a few feet from his position. By and by, his screams caught the attention of a ranch hand that was fixing fence nearby. The cowboy took one look at the stark crime scene and refused to help the officer, opting to contact the local Sheriff's department instead. When deputies arrived nearly an hour later, Barger, who was nearly parched from the hot sun, took a long drink from an offered canteen before telling his tragic tale to the assembled group of lawmen. .
On receipt of the news of the ambush, Sheriff Ledbetter and two carloads of deputies left Muskogee for Texas. After consulting with Texas lawmen, Ledbetter, along with a distraught Officer Barger accompanied the body of Deputy Morgan back to Muskogee by rail. On June 19, Morgan's funeral was held at the Calvary Baptist Church, where Reverend Thomas Smith preached to a packed house, which included several dozen of his fellow officers. Morgan, who was survived by his widow, two sons and a daughter, had not only been a well-respected member of the law enforcement community, but of the business community as well. He and his wife had operated a grocery store located at 1501 Gibson Street for several years. Later that day, Morgan was laid to rest in Greenhill Cemetery, located on Muskogee's north side. .
At roughly the same time the fallen hero was being interred, reporters from the Muskogee Phoenix were interviewing the mother of the Lawrence boys at her home at 1201 Baltimore Street. As her body literally shook with sobs, she blamed the police for turning her boys to a life of crime. She also stated, "I wonder if my boys thought of what this would do to their mother while they were committing this foul deed." She claimed she had done her best to raise her sons to be decent citizens after her husband's death, but admitted she had failed. That evening she was arbitrarily fired from her job as a waitress at a downtown diner. The owner claimed the prevailing public opinion made for bad business having her working in the establishment. As is often said, sometimes it seems the innocent suffer the most in this world. .
Meanwhile, back in Texas, Tarrent County officials officially charged the Lawrence brothers with first-degree murder. Muskogee County Deputy Sheriff Mont Grady, as well as Detective Ed Corbin, who had both stayed in the "Lone Star" state to assist local officers in the hunt for the fugitives, sped to the home of Bill Lawrence's girlfriend, Billie Woods, in nearby Pittsburg. The lawmen missed the murderers by only a few hours. The boys had evidentially made a beeline directly to her residence soon after their escape from custody. The pair had failed to make a connection with the youthful "moll" due to her immediate departure for Muskogee on hearing the news of the pair's getaway. The following day, the brothers were spotted purchasing gasoline for their getaway car in Jenny Lind, Arkansas. A massive five state manhunt was soon underway. Circulars showing the fugitive's photos were disseminated to law enforcement agencies as far away as Canada. A $2500 reward was posted for their capture. Sheriff Ledbetter, in a news report, stated the fugitives were apparently seeking cover in the heavily timbered hills by day and traveling by night. Over the next week, reports came in of sightings in Fort Smith and Rogers, Arkansas. Another report of two men matching the Lawrence brother's descriptions stealing a 1923 Buick automobile near Sedalia, Missouri was received in early July. Authorities also suspected the pair of burglarizing several country stores in rural Southwest Missouri during this period. .
Sometime in the next few weeks, young Billie Woods joined the outlaws in their flight from justice. In mid-July, a farmer reported seeing the boys in Belle Starr Canyon near Porum. Oklahoma. Deputy Mont Grady along with Sequoyah County Sheriff John Johnson and a small posse rushed to the scene, but drew a blank. .
On the evening of October 20, 1924, Patrolman Charles Wilson spotted a pair of burglars crawling out the window of a residence in the small community of Livingston, Montana. When the officer and a companion gave chase, the suspects ran into a rail yard climbing into an empty boxcar. Upon demanding the men's surrender, the thieves answered with a volley of gunshots, one round striking Wilson in the neck killing him instantly. While retreating from the scene of the shooting, the assassins inadvertently dropped a small leather bag with the name of Joe Morgan etched in gold on the exterior. The day after officer Wilson's murder, an apartment owner came forward positively identifying the Lawrence brothers through mug shots, as residing at her hostelry over the past few days. A second murder warrant was promptly filed against the pair. .
Several weeks later, Colorado officers spotted the stolen Muskogee police cruiser in a downtown garage in Denver. After observing the rig for several days, officers discovered it had been acquired by a local car dealership several days past. When questioned, the auto dealer claimed two men and a woman had traded the vehicle in for a Ford Coupe. The lawmen got a break the following day when a patrolman walking a beat, arrested Billie Woods loitering near the rail depot. When interviewed, the youthful moll asserted the boys had dumped her due to her habit of constant complaining. The young woman, who was described as dirty and destitute, was jailed for several days before given a rail ticket back to Texas. .
Shortly after the first of the year, officers received word from an informant claiming the Lawrence's were hiding out at the home of their brother, George, in Wewoka, Oklahoma. Once again, a huge posse swarmed the site. Although officers discovered the Ford automobile the boys had purchased in Denver abandoned in the back yard, there was no sign of the suspects. The morning following the raid, a Wewoka resident, J. L. Mainaird, reported the theft of his 1922 Nash Sport Model Touring car. Lawmen suspected the pair of outlaws had switched cars in response to being tipped-off to the upcoming raid. .
Nothing was heard of the fugitive's whereabouts until the evening of Febuary 4, 1925, when Phoenix, Arizona Police Officer Haze Burch spotted a pair of individuals attempting to siphon gasoline from a parked car. When the lawman approached the pair, one of the men suddenly turned, firing three rounds from a revolver in the officer's direction, one missile striking him in the mid-section. After Burch fell to the ground, he fired several bullets at the fleeing pair, none of which took effect. Although the fallen officer was rushed to a nearby hospital, he died within the hour due to internal bleeding. Haze Burch would go down in history as first officer from the Phoenix Police Department to die in the line of duty. After the shooting scrape, the fugitives fled on foot into the vast, treeless Arizona desert. .
Throughout the cold moonless night, several huge posses scoured the area in search of the killers. Less than an hour after the fatal shooting, a 1922 Nash Sport Model automobile with Oklahoma tags was discovered abandoned less than a quarter mile away from the crime scene. The cars description and license plates matched that of the vehicle stolen in Wewoka, Oklahoma on January 13 by the Lawrence brothers. .
The following morning, Constable R. L. McDonald received word from a Mexican farm worker who claimed he had spotted a pair of unsavory looking individuals climbing up the side of Tempe Butte; a lofty bald knob located roughly ten miles from the scene of the ambush. McDonald, armed with a high powered Winchester rifle, drove to the base of the butte where he left his vehicle and began slowly making his way on foot up the hillside. Near the top of the incline, he spotted the pair of fugitives huddled under a large rock sound asleep. The officer easily got the drop on the pair, whom he described as completely exhausted, sweat-soaked, and disheveled. After transporting his manacled captives to the nearby town of Tempe, McDonald, who would receive a $2500 reward for his single-handed act of heroism, contacted authorities in nearby Phoenix, informing them of his catch. .
On receiving word of the fugitives capture, Phoenix officers immediately retrieved the pair, transporting them to the Maricopa County Jail. Later that day, when a large group of hostile citizens began assembling on the lawn in front of the jail, hurling threats towards the prisoners, lawmen, fearing mob violence, rushed the captives to the safety of the Arizona State Prison in Florence. When Muskogee officials received word of the brothers capture, they reportedly expressed deep satisfaction. .
When questioned, Bill admitted slaying officer Burch, but claimed the shooting was an act of self-defense. Although he later recanted his confession, he was charged with first degree-murder. Neither suspect would admit to shooting either Deputy Morgan or the Montana officer. Babe Lawrence was transported to Texas where he would be tried for the killing of Joe Morgan. Within a few months, Bill Lawrence would be convicted of the murder of Patrolman Haze Burch, who was survived by a widow and three children. Bill would be sentenced to death by hanging, and in the early morning hours of January 8, 1926, he stepped on to the gallows still proclaiming his innocence. When asked if he had any last words, he said: "I have accepted Christ, and forgive you all for what you are about to do." He then turned to the executioner and calmly said: "Lets do it." Nine minutes and twenty-two seconds after the trap was sprung, he was officially declared dead. When interviewed by reporters shortly after the execution, the prisons Warden stated: "The boy sure had nerve, he may not of lived like a man, but he died like one." Lawrence's body was shipped by rail to Muskogee where he was buried next to his wife, baby, and father in Greenhill Cemetery. Babe Lawrence was convicted by a jury of his peers and sentenced to life imprisonment in Texas. No one would ever be brought to justice for the death of Livingston, Montana, police officer Charles Wilson. .
John Barger, who lived the remainder of his life haunted by the memories of that dreadful day in 1924, passed from this world on April 26, 1938. He is also buried at Greenhill Cemetery only a few feet from the grave of his friend and colleague, Deputy Joseph P. Morgan. .
Muskogee Phoenix-1923-26, 1938
Okmulgee Daily Times-1922-24
"Enter Without Knocking," Daniel G. Moore, 1969, University of Arizona Press
Phoenix, Arizona, Police Department, Historical Division
The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association
Greenhill Cemetery achieves, Muskogee Oklahoma
Muskogee Public Library archives and microfilm
Montana Fallen Officers Memorial
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial
Muskogee County Sheriff's Department-Charles Pearson
Oklahoma Fallen Officers Memorial-Denis Lippe
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"This Page Was Last Updated Sunday, 09-Feb-2014 11:43:18 EST"
© Sue Tolbert
"This Page Was Last Updated Sunday, 09-Feb-2014 11:43:18 EST"
© Sue Tolbert