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IN SEARCH OF BONNIE AND CLYDE
Part I:
The Battle of Platte County


by Mark Vasto
Landmark reporter

For more than seven months, W.D. "Deacon" Jones had let his gun do most of the talking for him, but on Nov. 18, 1933 he was finally able to put those actions into words for Dallas Deputy Sheriff Ted Hinton.

Captured without resistance while picking cotton on a farm near Houston, the fugitive Jones told Hinton a chilling story of four murders, a multi-state spree of robberies, abductions, a pivotal gunfight and -- most important to Hinton -- a tale of two passionate young lovers who appeared to be on a suicide mission.

The pivotal gunfight he spoke of occurred in Platte County; the two lovers were better known as the bandits Bonnie and Clyde.

Only two-months earlier, Blanche Barrow, married to Clyde's brother Buck, had been sitting in a Platte City jail cell, held on a $15,000 bond and awaiting her trial on the charge of assault with the intent to kill. Captured in Iowa only five days after an epic gun battle with Platte County lawmen, she at first proclaimed innocence and then decided to waive formal arraignment. Her husband dead -- largely due to injuries sustained in the Platte County battle -- she seemed resigned to her fate of 10-years hard time in the state penitentiary.

To Platte City residents, the 22-year-old redheaded outlaw was one of the greatest curiosities they could imagine. For a city whose social calendar was largely comprised of going to Riverside Park for horse races and the occasional band concert on the Platte County Courthouse lawn, a visit to see Blanche Barrow became the "in-thing" to do. In those days, the jail was open to general visitors and Blanche Barrow seemed more bemused at the spectacle she was a part of. She alternately toyed with her visitors fabricated stories or sometimes offered up what seemed to be genuine, heartfelt, jailhouse confessions. Visitors were shocked at her rather diminutive frame, commenting that she looked more like a "Sunday school teacher" than hardened criminal.

Fiercely curious and sharp-penned Maxfield Jones, then editor and proprietor of The Landmark, wasn't impressed with what he saw when he visited.

"Mrs. Barrow is a small, frail, girlish woman but evidently schooled in crime," Jones wrote in September of that year. "Her hard facial features belie any innocence she might otherwise display, and it is well to separate her from better society and be rid for a time at least of her demoralizing, criminal pursuits.”

Max didn't know the half of it.

The Bad Guys:
The Barrow Gang

The subject of countless stories and screen adaptations, the real story of Bonnie and Clyde is far more sensational than most people acquainted with the folklore can even believe.

To some, Bonnie and Clyde are misunderstood depression era vigilantes, to others they are nothing more than psychopathic killers...the Columbine "trench coat mafia" of their day. One thing, however, cannot be disputed: in an era where bank robbers and gangsters like John Dillinger, Al Capone and "Pretty Boy" Floyd inspired a sort of guilty pleasure for a country gripped in the throes of the worst economic depression in history, Bonnie and Clyde were the guiltiest pleasure of them all.

Perhaps it was the innocence of their youth. Both were hardly out of their teenage years and both were of small stature (Bonnie Parker was reported to stand 4'11 and weigh a paltry 100 pounds). They were out on the open road, running away from it all, drinking from the heady mixture of danger with romance. What teenager hasn't dreamed at one point or another of doing just that?

Perhaps it was the sheer audaciousness of their actions that according them a begrudging sort of respect. In a part of the country that was just a buckshot away from the days of the "wild west," the frequently updated chronicle of their narrow escapes from the law and daylight robberies seemed to be other-worldly.

They insisted that they were products of their environment: disrespected, underpaid, bored, poor and ticked off. Two persecuted lovers fleeing from unjust forces of a corrupt government system that wanted nothing more than to see them fail.

They were the stories of Robin Hood and Joan of Arc all rolled up in one; Romeo and Juliet with shotguns.

And nobody believed the legend more than Bonnie and Clyde themselves did.

"They think we're just school kids 'cuz we look so small," Clyde was reported to lament.

But lawmen didn't know the depths of Clyde Barrow's rage.

Born to impoverished dustbowl farmers, Clyde grew up with his parents and eight siblings in a storage room attached to the back of a gas station -- a considerable step up from the viaducts the family often slept under during harder times. Desperate and poor, Clyde and his brother Buck took to running around Waco pool halls, drinking moonshine and engaging in all sorts of petty crime and recklessness. Clyde's story changes forever when he decides at age 20 to rob a garage with his brother and an accomplice in Denton, Texas.

In a theme that would be constant for the rest of his life, a patrolling police car notices their erratic behavior and gives chase. In an equally recurrent theme, Clyde escapes and Buck does not. Buck is sentenced for the crime but an undeterred Clyde continues to burgle Waco area businesses every day.

In Dallas, 18-year-old Bonnie Parker is just as angry and her partners are just as unlucky. Bonnie finds herself reduced to living with her grandmother because her husband, whom she dropped out of school at age 16 to elope with, has been arrested on a petty thievery charge. She works by day in a truck stop, enduring flagrant harassment and belligerent flirtation with every coffee she serves. One frequent (and extremely well-mannered) customer is a young policeman named Ted Hinson.

"She was a very pretty young woman with taffy-colored hair that glistened red in the sun," Hinson would write admiringly of her in later years. "Photographs...failed to do justice to her looks.”

Maybe someday Hinson would have summoned the courage to ask this obvious crush of his out for an Ovaltine after work. Maybe he would have been the one who would have rescued her from the drudgery, in so doing, rescuing her from her ultimate fate. As it turned out, Hinson was destined for a decidedly different and far more violent future with Bonnie Parker.

Worlds collide when the ovaltine is shared with Clyde Barrow instead. Inseparable, the two begin what is, by all accounts, a polite but intense love affair. Their courtship is interrupted by a knock on Bonnie's door in February of 1930 and Clyde is finally arrested for his thievery.

Unwilling to have another paramour pried from her embrace into the long arms of the law, Bonnie smuggles a gun into the Waco prison during a visit and manages to slip it undetected to Clyde, despite the presence of attending guards. That evening, as a guard pushes a meal under his bars, Clyde simultaneously pulls the gun. He busts his friend out of jail and they both escape from prison that very same night.

Knowing police will have Bonnie and his family home under surveillance, Clyde doesn't immediately return to his love, instead running all the way to Illinois where he begins to rob trains and steal cars. His luck runs out when he neglects to change the license plate on a stolen Ford V-8 before the police catch up to him on the road.

Clyde had a chance to reform after his brother was sentenced for crimes he participated in but he did not. He had the chance to serve out the probable light sentence for petty thievery in Waco but he did not. He had the chance to learn from mistakes and perhaps change his ways, but he did not. Now he was a felon who had pulled a gun on a prison guard and fled across state lines. The presiding judge showed no leniency, sentencing Clyde to 14-years hard labor at Eastham Prison Farm Number 2 in Huntsville, Texas.

The judge may as well have sent him straight to hell.

At Eastham, Clyde was allegedly the victim of near-daily prison rapes and constant beatings. Working endless shifts on the sweltering cotton lines of the farm, Clyde sent despondent, hopeless love letters to Bonnie. His mother, after hearing about the incredibly harsh circumstances her son was enduring made a heartfelt appeal for his release. A partisan judge took sympathy on the heartbroken mother, and granted Clyde parole, but not before the desperate prisoner cut off two of his toes in an attempt to get off the picking line.

Freed after serving only two years on the 14-year sentence, Clyde was not gracious in release or grateful for the reprieve. Right or wrong, he had endured more than he could handle, and soon the entire country would taste the unbridled fury he had forged under the savage Texas sun. Reunited again with Bonnie, he vowed never to be away from her side again. Together with childhood friend and expert car thief W.D. Jones, recently paroled brother Buck and his new wife Blanche, the group would proceed to cut a swath across the map that reverberates to this very day.

By the time the Barrow gang pulled into a quaint looking Platte County tourist camp on Wednesday, July 18, 1933, 6 people -- mostly lawmen -- lie murdered in their wake.

The Good Guys:
Sheriff Holt Coffey and
Prosecutor Clevenger

1933 was a big year for Platte City. Favorite son Guy Park was elected Missouri Governor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was readying to offer America his new deal, defeating Herbert Hoover in the previous year's election. Times were tough, to be sure, but the area had its share of rain and the outlook for the year's crops were good. The county had managed to pull itself out of debt and banks in Camden Point and Edgerton were healthy enough to remove their $.10 restriction on withdrawals.

Sheriff Holt Coffey and County Prosecutor David Clevenger began their first year in each of their respective offices and the two became fast friends. They both knew they were in for a tough year, particularly with the anticipated repeal of prohibition and the proliferation of gambling in the area. Fiercely Democratic Landmark Editor Max Jones delighted in it all: there was going to be plenty to write about this year.

If there was ever an All-American composite for county sheriff, Holt Coffey certainly fit the bill. Born on a horse farm in Kentucky, Coffey was a handsome family man with a carefully barbered haircut, a strong and athletic man who even played semi-pro baseball for a time. He was also an expert marksmen in both his right and left hands, although he had a reputation for incredible restraint. Indeed, in his first year as sheriff, Coffey didn't even have to fire a single shot.

He started off the year by collaring Coner Carey, a highway robber wanted in Kentucky, but only after the bandit crashed his car into a fire hydrant in Platte City and was otherwise rendered helpless. On Jan. 13, acting on a tip from Clevenger, the two busted an illegal liquor still in Iatan -- when the owner wasn't present (he came home and quickly confessed to the crime).

Buoyed by the two arrests and enjoying the favorable coverage of their exploits in The Landmark, Clevenger married his sweetheart on Jan. 27. The Coffey family felt the sting of loss, however, as Holt's father Lincoln had a heart attack and passed away on Feb. 3. Both Clevenger and Coffey would take time off from the front pages of The Landmark until resurfacing with decided aplomb on March 3. On that day, it was reported, Clevenger and Coffey, set a "record in criminal pursuits" by capturing a chicken thief, a tire thief and their accomplices only hours after their alleged crimes. Clevenger quickly prosecuted two of them before midnight of the same day.

On March 16, Clevenger and Coffey busted an illegal floating crap game in Weston, again without firing a shot. Like the other instances, The Landmark was happy to report on the success of the county's two heroic law officers while conveniently explaining away a Weston bank safe robbery which occurred during the same week (blamed on outside "experts" who were "slick enough to leave trails that would fasten the crime on local people"). The Landmark, for the most part, was happy enough bashing the Republican party and cheerfully blasting away at the ill-advised repeal of prohibition (except for when St. Joseph's Goetz Brewery announced they would advertise).

The Landmark saved particular venom for the plethora of ramshackle beer halls that soon dotted the Platte County landscape and the patrons who frequented them, particularly the ones who felt the need to "soak their hides with rotgut beverages and go wild." That said, even The Landmark had to admit that one establishment had seemingly gotten it right: The Red Crown Tavern on what was then called "Highway Junction" (today's KCI airport exit on I-29).

The Red Crown, which opened as a "tourist camp" one year earlier (the term "motel" had yet to be invented), was more than happy to take advantage of the repeal of prohibition. Already an acclaimed resort for the area, The Landmark marvelled at the interior, describing it as being "beautifully decorated in water colors of harmonizing and restful shades," declaring it an "ideal stopping place for (a) motorist.”

The next week, in as bold a headline The Landmark's linotype machine could muster, readers were to be informed that Bonnie and Clyde agreed with their assessment of the Red Crown's accommodations. The now infamous story was simply entitled "BANDITS VISIT PLATTE.”

Next week: The battle of Platte County.