The Severs Hotel Murder Mystery
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.
The Severs Hotel murder case is a prime example of a genuine whodunit, a real-life unsolved mystery wrapped in a fog of uncertainty likely never to be penetrated.
The bulk of the records and key pieces of evidence pertaining to this event are lost or destroyed. All the participants and witnesses involved in this sordid affair have long since passed on. However, if one listens closely, their words, which were preserved in now parched and dusty crumbling newspaper files and a few surviving police reports, speak from the grave. If we can only figure out what they were telling us.
While most folks living today have likely never heard of the events described in this tale, it was one of the biggest crime stories to make the newspapers in Oklahoma and on the East Coast in the first half of the 20th century nearly rivaling the Lindbergh kidnapping case.
The story begins in Muskogee over three quarters of a century ago. So put on your Sherlock Holmes hats and I'll try my best to convey to you the facts, as we know them.
In the evening hours of Saturday, April 26, 1930, at roughly 8:30 pm, at Muskogee's imposing and very elegant Severs Hotel, the hotel's telephone operator received a call from room #817, located on the eighth floor of the east side of the building. The clerk heard the voice of a man she described as hysterical, stating his roommate and several companions in an adjoining room had been robbed at gunpoint.
When informed of the frenzied communication Assistant Manager Lee Jones chose to ignore the call claiming he felt it was the work of a drunk. Five minutes later, the operator received a second message, the caller stating; "Come quick my friends have been murdered." On receipt of the second frantic message, Jones and Hotel Engineer, V. S. Sullivan, scurried to the eighth floor to investigate. On their arrival at the room in question, they discovered an elderly man clothed only in a bathrobe, his face covered with shaving cream. The individual, who Jones described as wild-eyed, began screaming the words, "Murder, vile murder" at the top of his lungs while pointing toward the room's interior. Jones attempted to calm the man while Sullivan, now joined by a hotel bellboy, entered the room where they quicklyspotted two still figures lying on the floor in a large pool of blood just inside the adjoining door of room #819. After a closer look, the bellboy proclaimed, " These men are dead".
Both victims had obviously suffered bullet wounds to the head and body. The room's walls were reportedly spattered with bloodstains. Lying nearby on the floor next to the bed in room #817 was an individual with a washrag partially stuffed in his mouth, his hands tightly bound with some sort of twine or rope. Other than having a large red welt on his right cheek, he appeared unharmed. Jones kneeled down untying the poor man's hands while ordering the bellboy to call the police.
Responding to the emergency call were two tough, hard-boiled lawmen, Muskogee Police Captain Ed Corbin, a longtime peace officer and Lt. Marsh Corgan, the one time Sheriff of Wagoner County and highly decorated combat veteran of the First World War. These two fellows were straight out of Hollywood central casting, characters from a black and white film-noir detective movie.
On their arrival at the crime scene, the officers began questioning the witnesses. The man who had reported the crime stated his name was Powell Seeley, age 73, his companion, who had been bound and gagged, was John Wike, age 55. Both men hailed from Connecticut, as had the gunshot victims, whom Seeley named as brothers George and David Smith, ages 62 and 60.Corbin phoned for reinforcements. On their arrival, he ordered officers to cordon off the building and began questioning all employees and guests.
John Wike explained to police that he, Seeley, and the Smith brothers were out of state investment brokers. The quartet had arrived via automobile in Muskogee from Conneticut earlier that day in order to check on a failed business venture. The business, the New Milford Security Corporation, based out of New Milford, Conneticut, had gone bankrupt the previous August, and was subsequently placed in receivership. One of the deceased victims, George Smith, was the companies Secretary/Treasurer, who had been appointed receiver and tasked with salvaging what he could from the company's meager assets while John Wike, one of the surviving witnesses, had been appointed General Manager of the business shortly after it failed in order to replace the previous manger that had committed suicide the day after it was made public the business had collapsed. David Smith, the other murder victim, and Powell Seeley, the other living witness, were merely investors in the defunct venture. Incidentally, Mr. Seeley was rated the third wealthiest resident of the state of Conneticut.
Both living witnesses, Seeley and Wike, were long-time business acquaintances and neighbors of the Smiths back in Connecticut. They had apparently sunk a ton of money into the venture and had subsequently lost their shirts in the deal. The pair had come along for the ride to make sure they got their fair share of whatever was left of the company's capital. About two-dozen Connecticut investors lost nearly $200,000 when the business went under. The corporation, which specialized in land mortgages, had loaned out a small fortune to various ranchers and farmers in the Muskogee area.
Ever since the close of the First World War America's farmers had overproduced food products causing a slow but predictable decline in grain prices and a subsequent downturn in farmland values. When the New York stock market crashed in the fall of 1929, the price of crops, livestock, and land, already teetering on shaky financial ground, in turn hit rock bottom.
Incidentally, New Milford was only one of a thousand companies suffering financial ruin after the Wall Street calamity known as "Black Thursday." On that single day the value of the average stock on the Wall Street exchange dropped an average of 50% in value.
This singular event triggered the end of the prosperous "Roaring Twenties" ushering in the "Great Depression," which lasted until America's entrance into the World War in 1941.
Adding to the company's woes was a recent scandalous rumor implying the business's books had been "Cooked" or tampered with. In addition to its existing difficulties, the New Milford Corp was currently under investigation for selling some $50,000 of worthless paper or stock coupons after the company had been declared bankrupt.
Meanwhile, back at room 817, investigators observing the crime scene noted not a thing was out of place except an overturned trash can and a chair in the adjoining room (#819), which presented a splintered leg. (Officers later discovered a bullet implanted in a wall of that room located just above the fractured chair. Evidently, a stray round had hit the chair richicheting into the wall where it came to a halt). There was little or no appearance of a struggle. As for the victims, they lay just inside the door connecting the two suites.
According to Dr. Ballintine, the recently arrived Police Surgeon/Coroner, one victim appeared to be suffering from a gunshot wound to the mouth, the other several wounds to the torso. Both were warm to the touch and still leaking blood upon the carpet. George Smith laid in a grotesque manner, his right leg drawn up under him, his eyes wide open and pencil just inches from his hand. His right arm was beneath his brother's body, indicating he had been shot first. The body of David Smith appeared normal except an exposed gashing wound to the mouth, which was bathed in congealing blood. His glasses remained intact on his face. The bodies bore heavy gold watches attached to shiny gold chains and diamond studded fobs. Several gold coins and some expensive jewelry were openly lying on a nearby table. Lawmen discovered intact money belts holding a great deal of cash and traveler's checks on both murder victims.
Upon questioning the hotel guests and employees, investigators discovered only one person, a traveling salesman rooming several doors down from the victims, heard anything out of the ordinary. He told police; "About 8:15 PM while I was pounding out a letter to my wife on my portable typewriter, I heard what I would describe as several popping noises. I thought nothing of it and after a momentary pause I went back to typing." Over half of the rooms on the eighth floor were vacant at the time of the murders due to the effects of the depression.
There was, and this may have been an important fact, a high-stakes poker game going on at the time at the end of the hall from the victim's rooms. When questioned the gamblers claimed to have heard or seen nothing unusual. Officers had more luck when they interviewed a painter named Ziegler, who had been contracted to paint several rooms on the hotel's second floor. The painter told investigators, he noticed a pair of unsavory looking men loitering around the servant's quarters around four in the afternoon (approximately four hours prior to the murders). He described one as dressed in a brown suit coat and fedora. He was about twenty-five-years-old -5'9" ruddy complected, and weighed 150 lbs. Adding, "I'm certain he was sporting a false mustache." A hotel cook, L. E. Bogen, and Assistant Manager Jones, both noticed the same pair strolling through the hotel lobby an hour later.
Engineer Sullivan stated he had made his rounds about 7:45 pm and had paused at room # 817 (the scene of the crime) but noticed nothing amiss and went on his way. Although every room in the hotel was thoroughly searched, no perpetrators or weapons were discovered.
In his initial statement to police, John Wike, the surviving victim found tied and gagged on the floor of room # 817, stated, "After dinner I joined the Smiths for a cigar in their room (#819) while Seeley, who does not smoke, took a bath in our room (#817). I was sitting in a rocking chair while David Smith was on the bed and George was sitting at a desk studying the company books we had received from our local agent Virgil Coss. Suddenly, at about 8:30, the door flung open and two well-dressed men, one armed with a revolver, simply forced their way into the room. David Smith asked them, 'What is your business here?' to which one of the men pulled out a revolver and stated, 'We'll show you what we want.' David, who was a physically powerful man known to possess a hair-trigger temper, grabbed the armed man and they grappled. A shot was fired (evidently the round that ended up crashing into the chair and wall). George then seized the other man and they began to wrestle about. I reached out to take hold of the individual David was tussling with and was flung into the wall causing me to scratch my cheek. The four scuffled into the doorway of the other room and I heard four shots. Then one of the men reentered the room I was in and threw me onto my back to the floor tying my hands with a piece of rope and gagging me with a washrag. He then searched my pockets and stole my wallet, which had about $5.00 in it. He told me to roll over on my stomach or I will, 'Blow your damned brains out!" Wike further stated, "I was battered about the head with a metal object and I soon passed out." He described the attackers as, "The man who bound and beat me was about 5'9" tall, weighing roughly 150 pounds, dark complected, brown suite and fedora. I didn't get a good look at the second individual." Although. several large splotches of blood were observed on the front and back of Wike's shirt, the only wound they observed was a red welt on his cheek. No other open cuts or scratches were noticeable on his body. He was not bleeding. Incidentally, police reports state that during this and subsequent interviews, Wike appeared unusually calm and collected.
Powell Seeley, the man who had initially reported the crime by phoning the hotel operator, told investigators the following; "The four of us departed Conneticut on Wednesday morning and arrived in Indianapolis that night. We drove to St. Louis on Thursday and spent the night. Friday morning we motored to Springfield, Missouri, and stayed at the Elms Hotel downtown. The next morning we drove to Muskogee checking into adjoining rooms at the Severs, where we had reservations, arriving at 4 pm. Later that afternoon, we began inquiring into the assets of our failed investment with our local representative, Virgil Coss. We discovered the company was in complete ruins. It was obvious that none of the investors would be receiving a dime from the venture." Seeley further asserted, "Upon completing a review of the account books at the company's branch office, we walked back to the hotel to freshen up. At 7 pm, we strolled to the nearby Liberty Café where we met again with Mr. Coss. After dinning on a meal of pork chops, we exited the establishment. Mr. Coss went home agreeing to meet with us again in the morning." Seeley continued his discourse, saying, "We arrived back at the Severs about 8 pm with the account books in hand. Around half past eight, I decided to bathe and shave. I was very tired. Wike and the Smith brothers adjourned to the Smith's room in order to indulge in after dinner cigars. I did not notice anything amiss until I heard several loud cracking noises. Not being particularly aroused by the noises, I dried from my bath and lathering my face. I began to shave until I noticed a deathly silence in the other room so I opened the door to investigate. I stepped into the room and observed a carnage I will never forget. As long as I live. I then noticed Wike pushing the gag the rest of the way out of his mouth with his tongue. I asked, 'John are you shot?' to which he replied, 'No.' I inquired, 'Shall I untie you?' He retorted 'No, get help.' I called the desk to report my gruesome discovery. Until the arrival of the clerk, I was horribly afraid the perpetrators would return and kill us." According to officers while giving his statement, Seeley appeared visibly shaken and slightly emotionally unhinged.
After hearing the men's statements, the two lawmen, now joined by Undersherrif Joe Lambert and Muskogee Chief of Police Tom Graves, thought their stories sounded fishy. Corbin especially didn't buy the tale. He later told reporters, "Something about these two birds don't add up." Lambert claimed he found it difficult to question the pair in a vigorous manner since they both came across as such proper gentlemen. The pair of witnesses, now suspects, were hauled down to the station for further interrogation, which it is safe to say was conducted under much harsher conditions than are today's norm. Although the two suspects were intensely grilled throughout the night in separate rooms, both firmly adhered to their original stories. They were eventually released from close custody but placed under house arrest spending the night back at their room at the Severs. Must have been hell for the pair to sleep at the very scene of the bloody carnage they had witnessed just a few hours previously.
Further investigation turned up the fact that George Smith's billfold, as well as two of the defunct companies account ledgers were missing. Smith and Wike's wallets held a measly combined $10 in cash. Police wondered why, if robbery was the motive, did the gunmen not hijack them on the street, instead of inside the confines of a crowded hotel. Investigators were also baffled by several other bizarre facts in the case.
First, why did the killers shoot and kill the Smiths, but take the time to tie up Mr. Wike and leave him unharmed? Secondly, why weren't the jewelry, expensive watches, and gold coins lying in plain view as well as cash laden money belts strapped to the waists of both Smith brothers, not taken; yet the failed companies account ledgers were? Thirdly, Investigators wondered why an uninjured Seeley, failed to untie his partner before the hotel manager arrived on the scene and why was Seeley so slow to respond to the events going on in the other room?
Another strange fact was that the room was not in complete disarray. Except for an overturned chair and trashcan, there were no visible signs of the violent struggle reported by Wike. Other questions came up such as ---If George Smith was grappling with the unarmed bandit why was his body found under his brothers indicating he was shot first?
When the autopsies were held the morning after the murders at the Baptist Hospital, the coroner, Dr. Ballintine, reported, "David Smith had been shot once in the mouth with a .32 cal. bullet, the round ranging downward into his right lung. Ballintine deduced he must have been sitting or kneeling at the time the wound was inflicted."
As for George Smith's injuries, the coroner stated, "He suffered three wounds to the body fired from a similar weapon, one bullet to the heart, another to the left arm pit, and a third to the stomach. There were powder burns on his shirt indicating a contact wound." Back at the crime scene, a fifth slug of the same caliber was pried out of the bedroom wall.
Later that morning, a Muskogee beat cop reported to his superiors, that while patrolling an alley a block from the hotel, he spotted a spool of rope on a hardware store loading dock. The rope turned out to be identical to the one used to bind Wike's hands. That evening detectives re-enacted the crime in great detail at the scene.
In case the reader is wondering why no fingerprints were taken at the scene. The art of fingerprinting was in it infancy and area law enforcement lacked the training and tools to enable them to use the new science.
The double murder was reported with blazing newspaper headlines throughout the nation. A rumor quickly spread through town suggesting the killers were a pair of paid assassins hailing from Al Capone's Chicago crime syndicate.
The heat was put on the Police Department to quickly solve the crime. Investagators in Muskogee wired authorities in Connecticut asking for background checks on both the victims and the two men in custody. Turned out neither of the suspects had criminal records and as previously mentioned both were respected citizens of the area. The men had known the Smith brothers for many years. The Smiths also checked out to be reputable citizens both had previously served as state legislators. The following day, wires and telephone calls started coming in from numerous prominent Connecticut citizens, including a US congressman, the states Lt. Governor, and several mayors, demanding the release of the two suspects. Even the widows of the victims wired the DA expressing confidence in the innocence of the two witnesses.
On May 2, Wike and Seeley requested they be allowed to move to the Baltimore Hotel. Sheriff Hamilton agreed but ordered their baggage re-searched before they made the move. When going through Seeley's bags for a second time, Ed Corbin discovered an expensive diamond wedding ring belonging to David Smith, recently deceased, wrapped in an undershirt. When questioned, the two suspects agreed that the ring indeed belonged to Smith and he had been wearing it just prior to his death. Seeley claimed he had no idea how the item got in his bag. Corbin snorted and accused him of not telling the whole story.
At a preliminary hearing held on May 3, District Attorney Phil Oldman informed Judge Charles Wheeler the statements made by the pair simply did not add up-thus he suspected the two were in someway involved in the double murder. Reacting to this statement, Sheriff Fred Hamilton approached the bench informing his honor the duo was in his opinion "No way involved in this foul deed." Oldman, believing Hamilton had just ruined his chances of a successful prosecution, angrily protested the Sheriff's meddling in his case.
The prosecutor then went on to outline the state's evidence against the pair. Verbal statements were also taken from the two suspects. Seeley, who had regained his composure after his harrowing ordeal, ended his remarks protesting the tactics of the Muskogee Police Department calling their questioning of him "brutal in nature."
The Judge ruled that while Oldman didn't have enough evidence to charge the two with the crime he considered them both material witnesses to a homicide. The District Attorney demanded the Judge force the suspects to put up some form of security or bond if they were to be released from custody. He wanted to make sure of the availability of the pair if he decided to further question them. Both suspects were freed on a $5000 bond. The pair immediately boarded the next northbound train out of town. When he arrived in Conneticut, John Wike, the only living eyewitness to the double murder besides the killers, made an emotional statement to the Hartford, Connecticut, newspaper, claiming he believed the crime was not a robbery but the work of paid assassins. Later that day, back in Oklahoma, one of the missing business ledgers from the murder scene was found in a trashcan a block west of the Severs Hotel.
On May 9, a citizen named William Ballard discovered George Smith's draft card, drivers license, Masons card, and a photo of his children lying on a sidewalk near the KATY railroad depot. That afternoon, the Smith brothers were laid to rest in small cemetery near their hometown of Sharon, Connecticut.
Investigators in Muskogee and Conneticut began looking into every angle of the case including the fact the lives of both Smith brothers were heavily insured. The following day, Lt. Marsh Corgan was dispatched to Springfield, Missouri, to follow up on a recently received lead. The "hot tip" concerned an employee of a small hotel where the Smiths, Seeley, and Wike had stopped and spent the night on their journey to Muskogee by automobile. Upon reading of the murder of the Smith brothers in the Springfield News-Leader, the hotel's night manager had contacted the authorities informing them of a suspicious conversation he had overheard between two rough looking men in the hotel's lobby only moments before the Smith party had checked out of the establishment. Apparently, the eavesdropping manager had heard the suspicious "characters" planning the hijacking of a carload of travelers saying, "After we get the goods, we'll sell their car, it's worth a pile of dough, I'll bet." According to the manager, shortly after the conversation had taken place, the men departed the scene. On arriving at the hotel, Corgan interviewed the clerk, who confirmed the story, adding, "I never got a good look at the faces of the men in question." Corgan didn't quite know what to make of the man's story. Was it a break in the case or a red herring?
The following day the Smith family offered a $2000 reward for the arrest of the murderers. The state of Connecticut offered a $1000 reward and the Muskogee County Sheriffs Department $500.
That same day Sheriff Fred Hamilton made a trip by plane to Connecticut in order to re-interview Seeley and Wike as well as consult with the Conneticut State Police. He loudly proclaimed to various newspaper journalists that he was going up north to solve the crime. The lawman assured them that contrary to popular opinion, there were no more criminals residing in Oklahoma per square mile then there was in Conneticut. He dressed up in a ten-gallon cowboy hat, a matching pair of pearl handled Colt .45's, snakeskin boots, a plate-sized gold plated belt buckle, and gaudy ruby-studded silver spurs for the occasion. The eastern press fawned on him, proclaiming he represented the last of that great breed of western folk hero, a genuine American cowboy. The Sheriff hammed it up in front of the reporters.
While all indications suggest the lawman gained little or no significant information from his travels, he did manage to enrage the voting public back in Muskogee by running up a huge expense account staying in a luxury hotel and eating at fine restaurants while the average taxpayer was struggling to put food on the table due to the ongoing depression. His peculiar behavior ultimately cost him his office when he ran against Haskell's own, Virgil Cannon, in 1932.
The first solid break in the case came on May 15, when in the course of the investigation of the recent burglary of the Griffin Wholesale Grocery Company, a contingent of Muskogee policemen led by Lt. Marsh Corgan, raided a flophouse near the KATY rail yards. The raid yielded the arrest of a pair of underworld characters, who under intense questioning, quickly turned informant stating they were innocent of the crime in question but had recently heard rumors implying a hood named Pat McDonald was one of the guilty party.Corgan, who had had dealings with McDonald in the past, immediately sought out his wife, who was residing with the suspect's mother in Ft. Gibson, for questioning. The spouse in turn informed the detective her wandering husband had paid her a visit on April 22nd informing her he had stayed the previous night at the Severs Hotel. Mrs. McDonald added, "He then disappeared until the morning of April 27" (The day after the Severs murders). When he showed up on his mother's doorstep he informed her he had been involved in a high-profile crime and was in his words, "Hot as a firecracker and had to get out of town quick."
These inflammatory statements naturally perked Corgan's interest. Although the information was thin to say the least, the detective considered it possible McDonald had been somehow involved in the Severs murders. When further questioned, the lady claimed her husband's recent running buddy was one R.L. Benton. A warrant was promptly issued for both McDonald's and Benton's arrest for burglary. Incidentally, records maintained by the Severs failed to confirm McDonald's stay at the hotel.
On the morning of June 1st Ottawa County authorities arrested R.L. Benton at a rooming house in Miami. Upon searching his room and vehicle, investigators discovered loot taken from a recent warehouse burglary in Neosho, Missouri, as well as goods stolen from the Griffin Grocery concern in Muskogee. When Muskogee authorities were informed of the apprehensions, Sheriff Hamilton immediately traveled to Miami in order to escort Benton back to Muskogee where he was lodged in the county jail and charged with the Griffin burglary.
Mr. Ziegler, the painter at the Severs Hotel who had witnessed the pair of unsavory characters on the back stairwell on the afternoon of the murders, was brought in and immediately identified Benton as one of the men he had seen. Hamilton then sent a mugshot photo of Benton to the two Conneticut witnesses. When John Wike was shown a photograph of Benton, he positively identified him as one of the attackers. Overjoyed with this encouraging development, the lawman asked Wike to travel back to Oklahoma to officially identify the suspect in person. The prim and proper Wike agreed to his proposal.
Wike arrived by air at Hatbox Field on the morning of June 10 in the company of a brother-in-law of the Smith brothers as well as a Captain of the Conneticut State Police. The airfare and all expenses were paid for by the Smith family. The party was escorted to the Muskogee County Jail where Wike picked Benton out of a four-man lineup, positively identifying him as one of the murders. At the same lineup, Painter Ziegler confirmed his identification while the other two witnesses, Severs' Night Manager, Lee Jones, and the cook failed to recognize Benton.
R. L. Benton turned out to be an alias for none other than the notorious Larry DeVol. Known to his friends and enemies alike by his nickname, "The Chopper." DeVol was described by police as a walking nightmare, a veritable "Prince of Darkness" of the underworld. Growing up fatherless on the tough streets of Tulsa DeVol quickly evolved into a hard-core juvenile delinquent. He had first been incarcerated at the age of nine in the Oklahoma boy's reformatory in Pauls Valley. He later served time in the Granite Reformatory as well as the Men's Reformatory in Hutchinson, Kansas. In 1929, at the age of twenty-three, he and the infamous Alvin Karpis, of the "Ma"Barker-Karpis Gang escaped from Hutchinson and went on a month-long crime spree. DeVol was captured on April 10, 1929 and instead being returned to the Kansas Reformatory, he was sent to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing.
He was paroled from the pen in early 1930 and immediately sought out his old pal Karpis and the pair went on a tear committing about two-dozen burglaries in five states. In the early morning hours of February 22, 1930, the two were spotted by Officer Frank Treadway burglarizing a drug store in Perry, Oklahoma. One of the men shot and killed the officer.
Two nights later two men matching their description murdered Lexington. Missouri, Police Officer John J. Carroll after the lawman had observed them departing a downtown business via the rear window, their arms full of booty. The duo was captured in March of 1930 in Kansas City, Missouri. Somehow, DeVol was allowed to post a $1000 release bond. He immediately jumped bail, and headed back to Oklahoma for a rendezvous with his baby brother Clarence in his hometown of Tulsa.
Meanwhile, on June 29, Sheriff Hamilton traveled to Oklahoma City following a tip from an underworld informant concerning the whereabouts of Pat McDonald. That evening he and several city detectives arrested McDonald at a residence. The suspect was quickly transferred back to Muskogee where under questioning turned snitch admitting his participation in the Griffin Grocery robbery, naming Benton and a habitual criminal named Jimmy Creighton as his partners in the heist. Evidently, the trio had stolen a truck from the premises of the Long-Bell Lumber yard earlier in the evening and simply backed up the rig to the grocery warehouse, loaded it up with 35 cases of cigarettes and a horde of other items, then drove to Seminole and sold the loot to a local fence.
Although McDonald vigorously denied any involvement in the Smith murders, claiming he, Creighton and DeVol were staying at the Weiser Hotel in nearby Haskell the night the killings, he freely admitted to the store burglary and agreed to accept a seven-year sentence. Authorities ordered a mugshot of Jimmy Creighton from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary where he had served time. While none of the witnesses from the Severs case was able to identify McDonald, when painter Zeigler was shown the mugshot of Creighton he emphatically stated, "That's the second man (The other being Benton) I saw loitering about the hotel the afternoon of the slayings." Hotel Manager Lee Jones added, "He certainly resembles one of the individuals I observed in the lobby."
When police questioned the manager of the hotel in Haskell, he identified both MacDonald and DeVol as ex-boarders at his establishment, but stated the unsavory duo had moved from their digs the day before the Muskogee murders.
A brief investigation turned up the fact the third suspect in the killings, Jimmy Creighton, who was still at large, had served three terms in Oklahoma prisons and was currently wanted on a bank robbery, kidnapping, and attempted murder charge in Hastings, Nebraska. Muskogee county authorities issued a warrant for Creighton's arrest for suspicion of burglary.
Although the Sheriff put a great deal of pressure on the District Attorney to file murder charges against Larry DeVol, the DA held back, claiming lack of evidence in the case. For the time being both McDonald and Benton were incarcerated under a technical charge of burglary.
On the evening of July 25, MacDonald broke out of the run-down, dilapidated county jail. A massive manhunt was quickly instituted but the fugitive slipped through the net. A week later, Larry DeVol and a Haskell forger named Oscar Hamilton jimmied the lock of their cell door and strolled out of the front door of the same jail. The pair then broke into a night depository at a Muskogee bank stealing $4000 in cash before hopping a slow-moving freight out of town.
In the months following his escape, DeVol drifted throughout the Midwest burglarizing an assortment of businesses for his daily bread. In the early morning hours of November 17, he shot and killed a Kirksville, Missouri; policeman named John Rose and severely wounded his partner when they attempted to question him.
On the night of April 22, 1931, a merchant policeman captured Pat McDonald and a partner attempting to crack a safe in a Birmingham. Alabama, grocery store. When Muskogee authorities attempted to extradite him back to Oklahoma on burglary charges, the Governor of Alabama refused to sign the order unless McDonald was officially charged with the Smith murders. Fearing he lacked enough concrete evidence to assure a murder conviction, DA Phil Oldman was forced to let the matter drop. McDonald promptly plead guilty burglary charges and he was sentenced to term at the Alabama State Penitentiary.
On the first anniversary of the murders, a farmer named C. D. Kiser discovered John Wikes billfold lying in a ditch on the north side of a dirt road located one mile east of Taft, Oklahoma. Inside were his driver's licence and two one-dollar bills.
The following day, a prominent Muskogee citizen came forward claiming he had witnessed someone throw a package out a fourth floor window of the Severs to a waiting man and a woman standing on the sidewalk below on the night of the homicides. The individual claimed he had held back the information due to his fear of retribution from the killers. He further claimed the man on the sidewalk-resembled photos he had seen of Pat McDonald.On May 16, 1931, the second suspect, Jimmy Creighton, was arrested in Joplin, Missouri. Apparently, he had split with his partners fleeing to Joplin the day after the murders. He rented an apartment with an old pal, Freddy Barker (One of "Ma" Barker's sons), who had recently been released from the Kansas State Prison. Barker, who had a long criminal record, was also a known member of the murderous Barker-Karpis Gang of Tulsa. At a little before midnight on May 15th, Creighton, who had been out drinking and carousing in nearby Webb City, accidentally bumped into twenty-seven-year-old Coyne Hatten on a crowded sidewalk in front of a drugstore. According to witnesses, Hatten turned to Creighton and asked him if he was, "Looking for trouble." Not a smart move, Creighton whipped out a Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol and pumped three steel-jacketed rounds into Hatten who was dead before he hit the sidewalk. Creighton was arrested later that night at his apartment in Joplin passed out from the effects of strong drink. He was promptly convicted of Hatten's murder and sentenced to a life term. In May 1934, Creighton intentionally blinded himself with an ice pick in one eye in an effort to gain his release from incarceration. His plan didn't work. In his case, the old axiom, "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime," comes to mind. Creighton was paroled in 1954 and drifted into obscurity.
After the Kirksville shooting, Larry DeVol fled to Omaha, Nebraska, where the local "mob" employed him as a paid assassin. After spending several months in the "Cornhusker State" where he was involved in at least three homicides, DeVol traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, rejoining the Barker-Karpis Gang as a "Triggerman." Over the next eighteen months, the gang robbed at least seven banks in five states.
On December 16, 1932, they hit the Third Northwestern Bank of Minneapolis for $115,000 in cash and bonds. During the robbery, DeVol was stationed just outside the bank's front door. When a patrol car, occupied by a pair of patrolmen, drove up to investigate the goings on he calmly strolled over to the rig and at close range unleashed a full clip of .45 caliber rounds from a Thompson machinegun into the car's interior, instantly killing both lawmen. DeVol was captured on December 21 at a St. Paul apartment house, charged, and later convicted of the slayings of Minneapolis Police Officers Ira L. Evans and Leo Gorski.
Larry DeVol was sentenced to life in prison, but shortly after his arrival at the state pen, he was deemed mentally unhinged and promptly shipped to the Minnesota Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
In 1936, he and a group of inmates escaped. DeVol and two of his fellow escapees burglarized their way across the country heading towards DeVol's home turf in Oklahoma. After arriving in the "Sooner State," the fugitives were involved in three gunfights with police in the towns of Pond Creek, Perry, and Oklahoma City. One of DeVol partners was killed and three policemen wounded in these incidents. Finally, on July 8, police cornered the desperado in a bar in Enid. When the smoke cleared, DeVol and Officer Cal Palmer lay dead. Another Enid officer named Ralph Knarr was wounded four times but survived. An innocent bystander took a slug to the leg. Thus was the end of Larry DeVol. At the time of his death DeVol was the chief suspect in more than a dozen murders including those of six law enforcement officer. To this day, the Severs Hotel murders remain officially unsolved, an open case. No one has ever been charged with the murders nor has the motive for the killings been brought to light.
Several theories were put forth over the years by investigators.
Muskogee police Captain, later Chief of Police, Ed Corbin, went to his grave believing the two witnesses from Connecticut knew more than they were telling. He also wondered if someone connected to the failed Oklahoma business deal didn't doctor the books in order to conceal evidence of some sort of fraud or embezzlement. Corbin thought it possible, that when the Smiths began looking too hard at the account books, the conspirators hired people to steal them. When the Smith's put up a fight, one of the robbers lost his head and shot them.
Police Chief Tom Graves wondered if the assassins had mistakenly entered the wrong room intending to rob the high stakes poker game that was going on in a suite just down the hall from the victim's rooms. He considered DeVol the chief suspect.
Lt. Ben Bolton once told a reporter just when he thought he had the case figured out something would come up which would destroy his theory. He frequently expressed concerns concerning the case against DeVol and McDonald.
Muskogee police Lieutenant Marsh Corgan privately expressed the opinion; one of Smith's Connecticut investors had hired the killers to extract revenge on the two brokers for loosing their life savings. He firmly believed DeVol was the killer.
Sheriff Hamilton was convinced DeVol and McDonald were the murderers. When he left office, he told reporters he considered the case solved.
Although Muskogee County District Attorney Phil Oldman considered Larry DeVol a prime suspect, he never figured he had enough concrete evidence to indict him. Rumor has it, he suspected Sheriff Hamilton had pressured Mr. Wike into identifying DeVol. Oldman always believed the testimony given by Wike in the immediate aftermath of the killings was riddled with inconsistencies. Saying: "The whole deal may have been an inside job." However, he also mused, "I could be wrong, we may never know what happened". His last statement has stood the test of time.
In 1941, a prominent true crime magazine ran a lengthy story on the murders, offering a $10,000 cash reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the true killers. As of this date, no one has come forward to collect.
As for the fates of the major players in this drama---
Phil Oldham remained with the District Attorney's office for many years. He died in 1963.
Marsh Corgan-would go on to have a legendary career as a lawman. Corgan was appointed Muskogee Chief of Police the last year of his life. He committed suicide in 1936.
Lt. Ben Bolton would be appointed the chief of detectives of the Muskogee PD in 1933 and was shot and killed in a jailbreak from the Muskogee Co/Federal Jail perpetrated by members of the bank robbing O'Malley Gang in 1935.
Captain--later Police Chief Ed Corbin died of a heart attack in 1939.
Seely and Wike returned to their previous endeavors on the east coast living out their lives haunted by their nightmarish memories of that fateful night in Muskogee.
Virgil Coss -the head of the Muskogee branch office of the New Milford Co. died in 1937. If he knew the key to the Severs mystery, he took it to his grave. His imposing home, which was built in 1906 and is located at 1315 W. Okmulgee -is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
As for the Severs building, the overnight residence of such Hollywood luminaries as W. C. Fields, Mae West, and Tom Mix, it is no longer a hotel but an office building. Its once elegant dining room is now a snack bar serving cheeseburgers to a covey of secretaries instead of 'Oysters Rockefeller' with imported wine to the areas avant-garde rich decked out in suit and tails and long flowing silk gowns. It stands a graceful monument to the final dream of pioneer millionaire Frederick Severs and the glory of long ago Muskogee when the metropolis was the Queen City of Eastern Oklahoma and compared equally in size and wealth with nearby Tulsa. Perched high above Muskogee's squat landscape, the aging structure is a well-preserved remnant of a long-lost era, its dark secrets forever tucked safely inside its silent walls.
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"This Page Was Last Updated Sunday, 09-Feb-2014 09:43:28 MST"
© Sue Tolbert
"This Page Was Last Updated Sunday, 09-Feb-2014 09:43:28 MST"
© Sue Tolbert