KC True Crime

The Union Station massacre

A team of hoodlums trying to free a fellow gangster of middling importance caused the bloody morning that brought Kansas City national infamy on June 17, 1933.

The gangster was Frank Nash, a robber of trains and banks who had been serving time in the Leavenworth penitentiary but who escaped in 1930 and spent three years on the run. The law found him in Hot Springs, Ark., arrested him and was taking him back to the prison.

Nash’s underworld pals wanted to set him loose.

Early on that warm Saturday in 1933, the men escorting Nash back to Leavenworth and the men who wanted to pry him away clashed in the parking lot in front of Kansas City’s Union Station.

As officers loaded Nash into a car for a ride back to prison, men carrying machine guns approached. In a riot of gunfire, bullets killed four law-enforcement officers. Nash also died, his brains blown away.

For J. Edgar Hoover and his then-small federal agency, the Bureau of Investigation, the event proved a chance at fame and power.

Yet eight decades later, important facts remained in dispute. Here are the undisputed facts:

Nash was sentenced to Leavenworth in 1924 for robbing a mail train in Oklahoma. In October 1930, as a prisoner who had earned the warden’s trust, Nash was sent on an errand outside the prison. He used the occasion to slip away.

Three years later, the Bureau of Investigation traced Nash to Hot Springs. Two agents from the Bureau’s Oklahoma City office, Joe Lackey and Frank Smith, headed to Hot Springs to take Nash into custody. They took along the police chief of McAlester, Okla., Otto Reed. Reed had pursued Nash for years.

On June 16, 1933, the three came upon Nash in a downtown Hot Springs cigar store. Lackey, Smith and Reed hustled Nash away at gunpoint, packed him into a car and drove him to Fort Smith, Ark. That evening they boarded a train headed to Kansas City. The train was scheduled to arrive at 7 a.m. at Union Station. The head of the Kansas City Bureau office planned to meet them. An agent from the Kansas City office of the Bureau, using his own car, would drive them the 35 miles to Leavenworth.

Nash’s cronies, meanwhile, had learned of his capture. They hatched a plan to set Nash free. The rescue effort would be led by Verne Miller, who had pulled off jobs with Nash.

With help from other gunmen, Miller would get the drop on the law enforcement officers and force them to release Nash. If all went well, no one — neither lawmen nor gangsters — would be hurt.

The train pulled into the station at 7:15 a.m. Waiting on the platform one level below was the head of the Bureau’s Kansas City office, Reed Vetterli. Accompanying him was Ray Caffrey, a new addition to the local office, who planned to drive Nash and his escort to Leavenworth. Alongside the agents were two Kansas City police detectives, William J. “Red” Grooms and Frank Hermanson.

Caffrey’s Chevrolet was parked outside Union Station’s eastern doors. Vetterli, who was unarmed, and the two Kansas City police officers, who carried .38-caliber handguns, walked to the front of the Chevrolet to keep watch. The vehicle was a two-door sedan, and entering the back seat required pushing the back of the front seat forward. One after another, Lackey and Reed, each carrying a shotgun, got in through the passenger side. Nash began to sit between them, but Lackey told him to sit in front so the officers could watch him. Nash did so, sliding across the front seat behind the steering wheel to allow the passenger-side seat to be pushed forward so agent Smith could joint agent Lackey and Reed in back.

Smith carried a .38-caliber handgun and a .45 automatic. Now, with Nash’s three captors in back and the prisoner still sitting behind the wheel, agent Caffrey, who carried a .38, shut the passenger door. He began walking around the front of the car to enter the driver’s side. At that instant, Miller and his team appeared. Miller carried a machine gun. At least one of his accomplices also had a machine gun. Raising a weapon, one of the hoodlums shouted: “Put ’em up! Up, up!”

Shotguns, .38s, .45s and machine guns blazed away. Thirty seconds later, five people were dead.

First to die was the prisoner, a part of the back of his head blown away. Caffrey, rounding the car, was mortally wounded. Grooms and Hermanson, standing in front of the car, dropped to the ground, dead. Reed, sitting in the back seat, was struck and killed, too.

Lackey and Smith, sitting next to Reed, ducked in time to avoid being killed. Vetterli, outside the car, hit the ground, then jumped to his feet and raced toward the station doors amid the gunfire.

With Nash and the four officers dead in the parking lot and their mission botched, Miller and his colleagues entered their car and raced away.

Hoover’s men went after Miller, but the underworld got him first. In November 1934, Miller was found dead in a drainage ditch in Detroit, savagely beaten.

Since the 1930s, that much of the story generally has been agreed upon by the Bureau and by various lawyers, reporters and authors.The claims diverge, however, on who killed whom that day.

According to the Bureau’s official account, a gunman who was crouched behind the radiator of another car about 15 feet away opened fire. That took the lives of the two Kansas City police officers. Then, shots from one or more of the gunmen killed Nash and Reed inside the car.

Not long after the massacre, doubts were raised in the press about that version. In the 1990s, those doubts got a thorough examination in a book by Robert Unger, a teacher and former reporter for The Kansas City Star and The Kansas City Times.

Unger pointed out that Nash was shot in the back of the head. The glass that shattered the windshield in front of Nash landed on the hood of the car, as if caused by a weapon fired from inside the vehicle. Unger found that agent Lackey, sitting immediately behind Nash, had mistakenly grabbed Reed’s short-barreled, 16-gauge shotgun as the prisoner escort left the train. The weapon was specially equipped to fire rapidly when pumped, and Lackey was unfamiliar with its workings. It also contained shells loaded with ball bearings instead of buckshot.

Lackey, Unger says, probably grabbed the weapon when he saw the gunmen approach. Meaning only to pump it to prepare for firing, he unintentionally fired it twice, thus touching off the gun battle. It’s likely that the blasts killed not only Nash in front of Lackey but also Caffrey, who entered the shotgun’s line of fire as he rounded the front of the car. One of the Kansas City officers in front of the car, the autopsy found, had a wound that also probably came from a shotgun.

The gunmen themselves reportedly carried machine guns and revolvers, not shotguns. Grooms was killed by two machine-gun bullets — definitely the work of Miller’s crew. Reed was hit in the head by a machine-gun bullet and a .38-caliber bullet.

When: June 1933 | What: Four law enforcement officers and their prisoner were shot to death at Union Station | Where: Kansas City | Outcome: One hoodlum, Adam Richetti, was executed. Other suspects were gunned down, yet the mystery persists about who did what to whom.