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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette:  The Cold Five Thousand

October 10, 2021

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the tenth instalment in Jason’s epic series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin. Here are the links to Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, Six, Seven, Eight and Nine.

Milwaukee’s police force frequently earned national acclaim and recognition for its efficiency and professionalism. In November 1937, such competence would be tested once again after an attempted robbery at the Luick Dairy plant shed blood on both sides. 

An Illustrated Guide to the Luick Dairy Farm Shootout Published in the Milwaukee Sentinel on November 4, 1937

The five perpetrators, all transplants from Chicago—Edward Atkins, Patrick Connolly, Michael Kohlmeir, Charles Coffey, and gang leader Fred Reardon—had planned the heist meticulously for more than two months.  Their target was a safe in the dairy’s office.  The take—five grand cold.

In a series of interrogations after the burglary, Reardon, his eyes black and puffy from a scuffle with police, laid out the scheme…

Acting as an automobile salesman, Reardon telephoned the dairy’s cashier, Fred Tegge, and made an appointment with Tegge to demonstrate a car.  Upon arriving, Reardon pistol-whipped Tegge, and braced the cashier for the Luick office safe’s combination. 

Reardon left Connolly and Coffey to guard Tegge and his wife, who were both gagged and bound to chairs, while he, Atkins and Kohlmeir left for the dairy plant. Connolly and Coffey soon fled the Tegge home, however, after one of them answered a telephone call from a Tegge family member. Mrs. Tegge wriggled slowly out of her bonds, and then freed her husband, who called the police.

Upon arriving at the Luick Dairy, Atkins and Kohlmeir held up two plant workers, Lloyd McCarty and Edward Hegler, but failed to notice a third employee, Rudolph Orth, who ducked out a first floor window and called the police from a nearby tavern.

McCarty and Hegler led the bandits to the cashier’s office on the second floor which contained the safe with $5,000. There were two more safes in adjacent offices, but strangely, the bandits showed no interest in them. Reardon tried the combination Tegge had given him, and it failed. Reardon then untied McCarty and forced the Luick night clerk to try the safe’s combination himself. 

Detective Lieutenant John Niederhorn caught the call and dispatched two police squads to the scene.  Officers George Raabe and George Legge were on patrol nearby, and reached the scene first.  A second squad, comprised of Patrolmen Cecil Daugherty, Charles Smith, Alfred Bassett and rookie Elbert Wright arrived just moments later.

Raabe and Legge entered the dairy, and one of the burglars standing sentry outside the office opened fire. 

Raabe returned fire, and chased his assailant down a stairway.  The gunman continued to fire, ultimately pumping six bullets into Raabe’s abdomen, heart and hand, and then jumping over the policeman’s body to escape. Patrolman Wright fired four shots at the fleeing gunman, and one bullet smashed into a door frame barely an inch above his head.    

Raabe’s body was found near the alley entrance, so the police believed Raabe’s shooter, crouched and concealed in the darkness of the lower floors—shot Raabe as he reached the lower landing.   

Officer Legge shot Atkins in the cashier’s office while the burglar attempted to draw his gun. Officers Daugherty and Smith entered the dairy and bagged Reardon after a brief struggle in which Reardon used McCarty as a human shield while shooting both patrolmen—Daugherty in the hand, Smith in the hip. Reardon earned his first of two black eyes by initially refusing to disclose the names of his companions.  

Interviewed the next day, Officer Daugherty recalled a capricious scene that was also quite an acid test for rookie Patrolman Wright: “We drove in the alley and went in with guns drawn.  A crossfire opened up as we entered—two bandits in front and one to our right.”        

Though Reardon insisted there were no others involved beyond he and his four cohorts, Captain Kraemer was convinced otherwise.  Traumatized cashier Fred Tegge concurred, insisting that his uninvited guests numbered at least six.  Every detective on the force was summoned to headquarters at the request of Chief Joseph Kluchesky to chase down leads.

Rudolph Orth said he witnessed a man run from the dairy to a rose-mahogany 1937 Nash sedan parked in a vacant lot behind the dairy.       

While Milwaukee’s police searched for the sedan, police in Racine and Chicago watched railway stations in anticipation of the escaped gunmen.      

Burglar Michael Kohlmeir admitted to Detective Captain Adolph Kraemer and Detective John McGarvey that Kohlmeir shot and killed Raabe. Kohlmeir himself was also shot above the right hip, between the shoulder blades, and on the right hand, and the burglar had to undergo emergency surgery to treat his wounds. Captain Kraemer said Kohlmeir admitted shooting Raabe to at least six people at the hospital, but refused to sign a sworn statement.  

Under interrogation, Kohlmeir admitted that he was a former Detroit policeman.

Reardon’s three other cohorts; Patrick Connolly, Michael Kohlmeir, and Charles Coffey, were captured the next day in a raid on an apartment house located less than a block from the Safety Building, home to the police and sheriff’s departments. 

Under nearly constant interrogation since his arrest, Reardon finally divulged the address of the apartment where his companions could be found.  Apparently, the apartment was somewhere Reardon often stopped on his visits to Milwaukee to case the dairy plant, and Reardon had assured his companions it was a safe and easy hideout. 

Although Reardon supplied the primary information, a tavern keeper who lived adjacent to the hideout, told police that he may have seen Reardon and other members of the gang around his tavern earlier.

Sergeant Albert Kornitz led the apartment raid, which also included officers Oscar Tschury, Ray Carlson, Elmer Dennis, Edward Courtney, and Ignatz Napierala.  The officers entered the apartment with guns drawn.

Kohlmeir was lying in the bedroom, his stomach wrapped in several blood-stained sheets. The police sent Kohlmeir to the county emergency hospital and took two other suspects, Charles Carney and Patrick Connolly, apprehended at the apartment, to police headquarters. Kohlmeir was treated for two bullet wounds to the stomach and a bullet-grazing wound to the hand. 

At the hospital, Kohlmeir insisted he had been shot three times by a man as he left the apartment. “I know all you guys are against me,” Kohlmeir moaned to detective sergeant Martin Fallon. “That’s why I won’t cooperate.”

Kohlmeir’s fingertips were acid-burned, a common ploy to eliminate fingerprint identification. When police questioned Kohlmeir about his burns, the former Detroit policeman laughed and claimed they were burned during a chemical fire in a laboratory.

Reardon proved to be the most perplexing of the group, a fact quite evident to the no less than six officers (Detective Captain Adolph Kraemer, Inspector Hugo Schranz, Deputy Inspector Hugo Goehlen, Captain Robert Sandout, and even Chief Joseph Kluchesky) conducting his interrogation. Due to a flurry of aliases (Fred William Young, Fred Burchitell, Fred Daniels, Fred Kane, Fred Kinsey, Joe Willis, etc…), the Milwaukee police struggled even to pin down his real name. 

Reardon had a prolific rap sheet that noted numerous arrests for aggravated armed robbery as far back as 1919. The gang leader also served spurts of state prison time in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Kansas.  At the time of his arrest at the Luick Dairy, Reardon was on parole from an Illinois prison. 

Reardon’s long criminal history eventually caught the attention of the feds, who knew Reardon was a “peter man”—police jargon for a bank robber who knows how to blow open a safe. 

Subsequent investigation of Reardon would reveal that he was a former associate of notorious Michigan killer Fred Burke, who was killed by police just a few years earlier.

Just two days after the robbery, Milwaukee District Attorney Herbert J. Steffes said in a press conference that he would issue first degree murder warrants for Reardon, Patrick Connolly, Charles Coffey and Michael Kohlmeir, along with charges for imprisonment and kidnapping, and assault with intent to rob and murder. Steffes also hit the four bandits with charges for the attempted murder of patrolmen Charles Smith and Cecil Daugherty.

Tavernkeeper Thomas Smee, owner and operator of Smee’s Tavern was charged with being an accessory after the fact, while bartender Edward Sweeney was held as a material witness. Both Smee and Sweeney lived at the apartment house where the three bandits were captured. The Milwaukee police made the connection between the bandits and Smee’s Tavern after police found a letter addressed to Reardon at the tavern.      

Milwaukee police located the rose-mahogany sedan Kohlmeir escaped in at a nearby parking station.  The sedan was brought to the police station, where its locked doors were forced open, revealing blood stains on the front seat and gear shift. The sedan bore Minnesota license plates, while several other Alabama and Illinois license plates were found inside.

As word of the failed Luick Dairy robbery quickly spread around Wisconsin, authorities in Racine wondered if members of Reardon’s gang might be responsible for recent safe robberies in their community. Racine Police Chief Grover Lutter was particularly interested in questioning Reardon about the gang leader’s possible involvement in two such incidents at Racine department stores.   

News of the robbery even reached Columbus, Ohio, where authorities  wondered if Reardon’s gang could have been responsible for the September 27th killing of Columbus Patrolman George Conn in Freeport, Ohio. Captain George Mingle of the Ohio State Police arranged for ballistics tests of weapons used by Reardon’s gang. Captain Mingle was particularly interested in a particular gun confiscated from Reardon, as bullets from the same type of gun were extracted from Conn’s body.

The time element of the gang’s movements seemed to also cohere with the timeline of officer Conn’s murder, according to Captain Mingle, as Conn’s killers used a car stolen in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 13, and transit between St. Paul and Columbus passes invariably through Milwaukee.

Mingle, along with Detective Oscar Tschury both interrogated Reardon, who gave them no clear answers.  Though Captain Mingle hoped to take Reardon back to Ohio to face charges in the Conn killing, Mingle acknowledged that his Milwaukee counterparts had too much dirt on Reardon to ever hope that they would ever release him, even if ballistics pinned Reardon to Conn’s death.

In Chicago, the Milwaukee robbery caught the attention of Lieutenant Daniel Healy of the Chicago Detective Bureau. Lieutenant Healy confidently believed the bandits behind the Luick robbery were also responsible for the December 1933 robbery of Chicago’s Unity Bank, as bandit Michael Kohlmeir had been a hunted suspect in that case for nearly four years.               

With hastily assembled contributions from firms and individuals, the Luick Dairy Company presented a $1,000 check to George Raabe’s widow, Meta and her six fatherless children just days after the robbery.

In December, a municipal court jury of five women and seven men deliberated for just two hours before finding Kohlmeir, Reardon, Coffey and Connolly guilty of first degree murder.

During the trial, the state charged that Kohlmeir fired the fatal shots that killed Officer Raabe. While the defense claimed the shooting was at worst third degree murder, Deputy District Attorney George Bowman, summarizing the prosecution’s case, declared “first degree murder is the only possible verdict, that can be returned against every one of them. Theirs was a cold-blooded business of organized lawlessness. To let them off on second or third degree murder convictions would be out of the question.”  The prosecution also called the four defendants “a modern Jesse James gang”.

Reardon’s attorney, Cornelius Hanley, said Reardon had surrendered without firing his gun, and was thus not guilty of first degree murder. Council for Coffey and Connolly argued that their clients merely held Luick cashier Fred Tegge and his wife hostage with no murderous intent. And Kohlmeir’s attorney contended that no one outside of Kohlmeir witnessed the shooting, so all evidence was entirely circumstantial.

Following the jury’s verdict, Circuit Judge Robert S. Cowie sentenced all four defendants to life terms in Wisconsin’s Waupun State Prison. 

Officer George Raabe was the 24th Milwaukee police officer to be slain in the line of duty in the 53 years of records kept at police headquarters.  

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…       

Officer George Raabe
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