Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Honor Among Thieves

  I am very close to being finished with my new book about Portland during Prohibition. Here is a little more on the career of Roy Moore -- King of the Northwest Bootleggers -- just one of the characters you will be able to read about when it is released by History Press in February, 2016.

An auto camp like this one was used as headquarters by Roy Moore and his gang when they pulled off the Brownsville Triple Robbery in December, 1945. Photographer unknown. Portland City Archive.
          In 1846 a group of pioneers crossed the Oregon Trail and filed land claims in the lush valley of the Callapooia River, southeast of Corvallis.  Most of the year the river was low enough to cross easily, but at the end of the summer the river rose and the settlers opened a ferry that could be hauled across.  Soon the new settlement of Kirk’s Ferry evolved into Brownsville and by 1860 the new town had a grist mill, a woolen mill, a lumber mill and a furniture factory.  The 300-preson town became the center of business and banking for a large agricultural community in eastern Linn County.  In December 1945 business was booming and the vaults in the Pharmacy and Hardware store were stuffed with cash and War Savings Bonds.
            Before dawn on Saturday December 22 a group of highly experienced robbers hit Brownsville.  They dynamited the safe at the Carlson Hardware Store, peeled the safe at Graham’s Pharmacy and rifled the cash register at Chambers Grocery. Peeling a safe is a specialized technique that removes the outer skin of a safe in order to get at its contents. It worked best on safes of a specific shape, often older models used in small towns.  The robbers got over $8000 in cash and more than $20,000 in War Savings Bonds.  The papers didn’t say anything about stolen drugs, but it would have been out of character for the gang to leave opiates behind; especially with the high prices available in narcotics-hungry Portland.  It was the biggest robbery in Linn County’s history up to that time, and one of the largest to ever occur in the state.  The Brownsville triple robbery was the most memorable job pulled by the armed gang run by Roy Moore, King of the Northwest Bootleggers, who had first gained notoriety after the robbery of the Sells-Floto Circus in Vancouver, WA in 1921.
             Roy Moore and his partner, S.D. McLain (aka Douglas O’Day) drove from Brownville to Portland that night, checking into an “auto camp” at SE 82nd Avenue and Powell.  For the last twenty years, Moore and his gang had been committing robberies all over the northwest and using Portland as its home base.   Moore was well-known in Portland for his arrogant court appearances in 1926 when he testified in the trial of two Oregon State Prohibition Enforcement officers who were charged with accepting bribes.  Moore testified in Federal court that he was “Portland’s leading bootlegger” and described how he had personally been involved with bribing the two officers.  Two years later, when indicted for conspiracy to violate federal Prohibition laws, Moore testified that the liquor “racket” had been good to him and he had earned enough to retire.  The so-called “King of Bootleggers” claimed that he had been involved in the racket from November, 1924 until late in 1926.  He said he earned more than $20,000 ($250,000 in 2015) during that time and since then had “been doing nothing.” Moore dismissed the testimony of Ernest K. Specht and George Mays, government witnesses who claimed to be his partners in the liquor business, saying he “didn’t need any partners.”
In 1928 Roy Moore faced charges of conspiracy to violate the liquor laws. He claimed that he had been a "big time" bootlegger but had made a lot of money and retired more than two years before.  The jury didn't buy it and he went to McNeil Island Penitentiary for two years.
            Moore certainly felt that his partners were dispensable.  D. Rasor, the never captured “third man” in the Sells-Floto Circus robbery was allegedly shot during an argument in the getaway car and seen by witnesses limping away on what appeared to be a wounded leg.  Police speculated that Moore probably shot him in order to increase his cut from the nearly $30,000 haul.  After his release from McNeil Island Penitentiary on the liquor conspiracy charge, Moore returned to Portland in 1930. Unpopular with the police-run liquor racket in Portland because of his violent record, Moore returned to his roots with a series of armed burglaries in remote Oregon towns.  He followed the same modus operendi as the Sells-Floto robbery, two veteran armed robbers/safecrackers, known as yeggs, who recruited local accomplices as combination muscle/fall guys.  The local accomplices were expendable and not infrequently killed.  That is most likely what happened to Ernest Bowman on the Brownsville job.
            Bowman, an unemployed logger from Kelso, WA, had been making frequent trips by bus from his daughter’s home in Longview to Portland.  His daughter said that she thought he was looking for work.  He may have been looking for work and he may not have been choosy about its legality.  His search for a job took him to the auto camp in southeast Portland that was headquarters to Roy Moore’s gang of cut throats.  In fifteen years Moore had turned himself back into a Portland big shot, with a gang of hired muscle that kept up a brisk business in protection and safecracking.  Like most professionals Moore usually didn’t pull jobs in town and used Portland as a place to lay low while the heat died.  Vending machine man, Jim Elkins, and gambling attorney Al Winter were getting the town back under control after the underworld free-for-all of the late 1930s.  The cooperative city government led by Mayor Earl Riley and the newly re-emergent Police Chief Leon Jenkins, who had been demoted to Chief Inspector in 1933, made Portland a safe place for professional criminals, as long as they didn’t get violent in town and kept their professional activities outside city limits.
            Bowman met up with Moore-associate Douglas O’Day (real name S.D. McLain) and “local talent” Jack Orville Mann.  Mann was an unlucky burglar from Sweet Home, OR who had managed to be arrested seven times before he was 28 years old.  Mann would be the “third man” in the Brownsville job and all the details of Bowman’s murder would come out at the trial.  Bowman had been interested in earning money from robberies and McLain had been eager to recruit him for a “third man” spot.  Mann didn’t trust the ex-logger, though and warned McLain that he could be “dangerous.”  It is unclear whether McLain believed that Bowman might have been working with law enforcement, but it is clear that he lured him into a car driven by Mann on the evening of December 18, 1945 with the offer of a job in Corvallis that would net the three of them at least $1800.  Mann was at the wheel with Bowman in the shotgun position; McLain sat in the back seat as the three men headed out of Portland.  According to Mann they hadn’t even gotten out of the city before McLain shot Bowman in the back of the head.
            The two criminals drove to a spot just south of Camp Adair, a wartime Army base near Corvallis, where they slit Bowman’s belly open so he would sink easily and dumped the body from a bridge into a large creek.  They drove on to Brownsville and cased the businesses in town before returning to southeast Portland.  Two days later Mann, McLain and Bowman drove back to Brownsville and pulled off the triple robbery.  The day after the Brownsville job Linn County Sheriff Mike Southard spotted Jack Mann walking down the street in Brownsville. Recognizing the ex-con and knowing there was a warrant for him in Albany for a motel robbery; Southard arrested him to see what he might know about the triple robbery.  McLain and Moore probably wished that Mann had joined Bowman in the rushing creek, because Mann told it all.  Not only did he tell the police all about McLain and Moore and where they were hiding, he told all about the shooting he had witnessed.
            Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputies swooped down on the auto camp on SE Powell and caught McLain and Moore with almost all of the money from the robberies.  McLain argued that $110 of the cash found in his pocket was his own from before the robbery. McLain was charged with murder and tried to show the police where he had dumped Bowman’s body, but he got lost in the unfamiliar rural surroundings and never found the right place.  Bowman was finally discovered in January 1946 when his body washed up near Philomath.  McLain plead guilty to Bowman’s murder and he and Mann both received stiff sentences for the burglaries.  Moore was convicted on robbery charges as well, but the veteran criminal managed to stay out of jail until 1947; plenty of time for Jim Elkins and the boys to throw him a proper going-away party.  Showing up for his third stay in the Oregon State Penitentiary in November of that year; Moore was released in January 1949 when outgoing governor John Hall pardoned the hardened criminal for “health reasons.”
In 1953 Moore was brought back to Oregon to serve a life sentence as a habitual criminal.  He retired to the Oregon State Penitentiary where he taught safe-cracking and extortion to the next generation of young criminals. Historical Oregonian Archive.

            Roy Moore had sense enough to get out of Oregon, because the Linn County district attorney wasn’t done with him.  A habitual criminal case was filed against Moore, who was convicted in absentia in 1951.  Moore didn’t stay out of jail long.  He was arrested in North Carolina in late 1949 and convicted of another safe burglary; this time with his brother as an accomplice.  Moore was released from prison in Raleigh, NC in January, 1953 and delivered into the arms of Ellsworth Herder, guard captain of the Oregon State Prison.  He was brought back to Salem where he served out the rest of his life.  The veteran armed robber, safe cracker, still operator, protection racketeer and professional killer would have been a valuable professor in the Oregon State Crime College.
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