IN SEARCH OF BONNIE AND CLYDE
lawmen shoot it out with notorious bandits
by Mark Vasto
(To read the first part of the story,
which outlines the background of Bonnie and Clyde and
Platte County Sheriff Holt Coffey, please visit our
Even for a highway motor lodge, something struck Red
Crown attendant Delbert Crabtree as being odd when the
shiny Ford V-8 sedan pulled into the service lot and
a young, relatively handsome man got out of the car
and asked to see the two adjoining tourist cabins at
the edge of the parking lot.
For instance, neither of the women in
the car seemed old enough to be the man's mother-in-law,
as he had proclaimed.
And Crabtree watched as two well-armed
men carried a seemingly injured and petite woman into
their rented cabin before pulling the car into the adjoining
garage with the tail in first -- as if preparing for
a quick getaway. If that wasnt suspicious enough,
it certainly seemed a bit strange when they covered
the windows with newspapers and repeatedly peeped out
from behind them, nervously scanning the parking lot.
Crabtree informed his manager on duty,
Neal Houser. Houser even observed as a pretty young
woman who couldn't be more than 22-years-old purchased
sandwiches and beer for the gang, paying in coins. Houser
commented that she didnt look like a criminal
but thought it was wise to alert the Missouri Highway
Patrol's Captain William Baxter. Baxter, in turn notified
Platte County Sheriff Holt Coffey and, as Coffey had
done in previous encounters, he notified the county
prosecutor, David Clevenger.
Up until this point of their careers,
Coffey and Clevenger had only dealt with chicken thieves,
bootleggers and noisy crap games, so one can imagine
that the two lawmen were concerned with the reports
of out-of-towners carrying guns holed up in the Red
Crown Tourist Camp.
To Red Crown owner Emmet Breen, the matter
was a simple one: they were paying customers and he
didn't want anybody visiting his establishment to be
disturbed -- particularly with a hail of bullets.
Coffey, an expert marksman who was noted
for his restraint, was sensitive to Breen's desire.
Expert marksman or not, Coffey didn't want to have a
shootout, either. This became particularly true after
Baxter ran the plates on the Ford and confirmed they
were stolen. There was little doubt in Coffey's mind
that he was dealing with a criminal gang now. In fact,
all indications seemed to point that this gang might
actually be the Barrow gang -- Bonnie and Clyde themselves.
Coffey's suspicions were confirmed when
Clinton Woodsen (who would later become county treasurer)
told him of a peculiar incident that had happened earlier
that day at Platte City Drugs.
Platte City Drugs was a favorite place
for the local men to hang out in during the time. There,
men would drink coke, coffee (or harder stuff) and discuss
the local events of the day. Located directly across
the street from The Landmark newspaper, it was often
a great place to find a source, but in general, not
a lot happened there.
Until, in the words of Woodsen, "a
rather good looking gal dressed in a slinky riding habit
attracted considerable attention" from the men
and pharmacist Louis Bernstein. Bernstein sold her some
Atropine Sulphate (a muscle relaxant) and some syringes.
She paid him in coins, didn't make any conversation
and left just as quickly as she came in, careful not
to make eye contact with any of the men.
Coffey, like other area sheriffs, had
been warned to be on the lookout for a young gang who
purchased bandages and medicine (Bonnie Parker had suffered
severe leg burns and a gaping wound in an earlier car
crash in Oklahoma and Clyde's brother Buck Barrow was
nursing various wounds). If this wasn't the Barrow gang,
Coffey reasoned, then he couldn't imagine a closer match.
Clevenger prevailed on Coffey to call
the Jackson County sheriff, Tom Bash, for support. Clevenger
knew that County Judge Harry S. Truman had appropriated
funds to Bash which were used to purchase advanced crime
fighting tools like armoured assault vehicles and machine
guns. Apparently, other area sheriffs knew of this fact,
Im getting pretty damn tired
of every hick sheriff in the county coming in here,
telling me they have a bunch of desperadoes holed up
and wanting help, Bash is reported to have told
Coffey persisted however, and eventually
prevailed on Bash to send an armored bullet-proof
truck and four gun toting deputies for his posse. As
Coffey assembled the posse on the courthouse lawn during
a big-band concert, Platte City residents nervously
prattled on about the situation at "Highway Junction."
The posse numbered an ominous 13 men (some deputized
that very day) when they literally drove off into the
sunset to begin their siege.
If Holt Coffey had any fear about what he was about
to do, it sure didn't show by his actions that night.
He waited quietly for hours, until the
Red Crown Tavern closed down for the evening and its
patrons had cleared the parking lot. Coffey even brought
his 19-year-old son, Clarence, to watch the raid. Across
the street, at a service station called "Slim's
Castle," a group of witnesses (including Prosecuter
Clevenger) watched from the rooftop.
The witnesses saw that Coffey had blocked
the carport with an armored truck filled with gun-toting
deputies, and had the entire cabin surrounded with officers.
He even blocked the entrance of the hotel with another
truck and had deputies lying in wait alongside the road
in the remote chance that they might even get that far.
They expected to see a rout, and that's just what they
It was approximately 1 a.m. when Holt
Coffey began his confident march to the doors of the
cabin; a six-shooter on his hip and an iron, bullet-proof
shield in his left hand. He approached the cabin on
the left and gave it a strong, hard knock that could
be heard across the street, barking, "Open up,
in the name of the law!
Inside the cabin, Blanche's head shot
up. This was the moment she had been dreading all along.
"Wait until we put some clothes on!
Coffey took a step back, anticipating
Suddenly, windows from both cabins smashed
out, and Coffey was hit from all sides by a tremendous
blast of gunfire. Hit head-on by an incredible barrage
of bullets, it seemed as if he was being driven back
by a high-pressure firehose, the force of the impact
spinning him around in a 360 and finally knocking him
to the ground.
Clarence Coffey yelled in horror, "Daddy!"
He sprinted to his fallen father's side, now the only
target for the gunmen, and immediately felt hot lead
pierce his arm, cheek and forehead. He, in turn, fell
to the ground, but was quickly dragged back into the
tavern by another group of onlookers. They quickly took
cover in the fireplace, bathroom -- anywhere to escape
the constant barrage of bullets.
Still on the ground, hit in the neck by
a bullet and with shrapnel flying all around him, Coffey
probably didn't have the time to think about what he
told his daughter Nancy years later -- that he was done
for. Unbeknownst to him before the raid, the Barrow
gang had knocked over a National Guard supply depot.
The weapons they were using were military issued Browning
Assault Rifles (BAR's) and the terrifying noise they
made was unlike anything Coffey had ever heard before.
By this time, the lawmen had begun to
gamely fire back, peppering the doors of the cabin with
machine gun fire.
Inside, Clyde had been taking shots at
the officers, alternately firing out of the door and
windows of the cabin. At one point, he ordered W.D.
Jones, who began that night sleeping on Bonnie and Clyde's
floor, to start the car.
Jones ran into the carport and started
the Ford's motor, the thick exhaust quickly filling
the garage, bullets coming from all angles. It didn't
take long for the bullets from Buck and Clyde's BARs'
to pierce the armor of the truck in front of the carport,
smashing the glass and cutting through Jackson County
Deputy George Highfill's leg.
Slumping behind the wheel, Highfill screamed
that he had been hit. In the passenger seat, his machine
gun jammed from chipped glass, Deputy Jim Thorpe saw
no other recourse but to shift the truck into reverse
himself, thus clearing the path for the bandit's escape.
Another bullet hit the truck's horn, lodging in such
a way that the horn began a long, continuous blast.
Thinking the horn was a signal to hold
their fire, the already retreating officers stopped
Clyde tossed his smoking gun to the floor,
lifted Bonnie from the bed and quickly ran with her
to the car. He ordered W.D. Jones to open the garage
door, but Jones hesitated, hearing gunfire again.
Seizing the momentum, Buck Barrow sprang
from his cabin and began to wildly spray bullets all
over the parking lot. While many officers fled for cover,
Coffey, Baxter and the remaining officers quickly fired
back, hitting Barrow in the head and sending him reeling
backwards, his BAR still spitting bullets.
Seeing her husband shot, Blanche Barrow
ran out of the cabin, clutching an assault rifle, too.
After falling three times, but quickly popping back
up to fire more rounds, Buck finally collapsed into
the arms of his tiny wife.
When Clyde and Jones finally opened the
door, Jones helped Buck and Blanche get into the car,
and the bandits sped out towards the end of the parking
lot, narrowly squeezing past the truck that was supposed
to block their exit.
Lying in wait at the end of the driveway,
however, was Platte City Deputy Tom Hullet. He fired
off a shotgun round that shattered the rear window of
the car as it passed. The pulverized window sent shards
of glass which cut into the left eye of Blanche as she
cradled the head of Buck in her lap from the backseat
of the car.
Hullet knew he had hit his mark, hearing
Blanche scream hysterically from the inside, "I'm
blind! I'm blind!"
Watching in shock, the beleagured posse
picked themselves up and watched as the bandits sped
off into the Missouri night.
After a battle like that, and up against
that kind of firepower, no way were they giving chase.
They were lucky to be alive.
Next week: The aftermath