By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
A fingerprint. We leave those everywhere, on anything we touch.
One hundred years ago, law enforcement officers learned that fingerprints could be used as a tool in fighting crime. Where was the first case that a single, latent fingerprint was used by the FBI to convict a criminal? Would you believe in rural Kansas?
The Fleagle Gang was a ruthless band of bank robbers and murderers during the 1920s. They would play a major role in the use of fingerprints in law enforcement, in a groundbreaking case in western Kansas.
The Fleagles moved from Iowa to the Garden City area in 1886. The family had two younger sons – Ralph and Jake – who liked to gamble and drink rather than work. They moved to the west coast.
Jake came back to Oklahoma, committed robbery, was arrested, fingerprinted, and jailed. When he got out, he and his older brother Ralph took up a life of crime.
They started robbing card games and then banks. After grabbing the loot, they would return to Kansas. Historians and criminal researchers estimate that they committed 60 percent of the robberies committed in California during that time, plus many robberies in Oregon, Kansas, and Colorado.
In 1927, the Fleagles found and leased a ranch in a remote area near the rural community of Marienthal, population 64 people. Now, that’s rural. This became their hideout, with a large barn in which to store getaway cars and guns.
Ralph and Jake decided to rob the First National Bank in Lamar, Colorado. They brought in two accomplices, a bootlegger named George Abshier and 250-pound Harry “Heavy” Royston. On May 23, they loaded their guns and headed for Lamar. Having cased the joint previously, they planned to kidnap the son of the bank president and use him as a hostage to make their escape.
Their plans went awry. When the bank president realized it was a robbery, he grabbed a gun from his desk and shot Royston in the jaw. In the ensuing melee, both the bank president and his son were killed. The Fleagles used another hostage as a human shield, escaped with the cash, and returned to Marienthal.
Royston had been badly wounded so they went after a doctor in Dighton. They told the doctor that a boy had crushed his foot in an accident and the doctor was needed right away. According to one account, Jake rode back to Marienthal with the doctor and tried to roll down the car window with his hand, unknowingly leaving a print on the glass.
At the hideout, the doctor found the wounded outlaw Royston. There was nothing he could do for him except administer morphine, which he did. Then the Fleagles drove the doctor to a remote location near Scott City, executed him with a shot to the head, and pushed him and his car into a ravine. They killed the other hostage in the same manner and then split up to different parts of the country.
A large but unsuccessful manhunt ensued. When inspecting the abandoned car, a policeman found and preserved a latent fingerprint on the car window. Months later, an alert fingerprint specialist at the FBI would identify the fingerprint as belonging to Jake Fleagle.
Lawmen then staked out the Fleagle place and eventually caught the gang members, who confessed. Jake was shot in a separate gunfight with police while resisting arrest. Ralph and two gang members were found guilty and executed. This is said to have been the first-ever case of the FBI using a single fingerprint as part of the evidence leading to a conviction.
Crime-fighting technology has improved dramatically through the years. The Federal Bureau of Investigation established a fingerprint repository in 1924. During the following years, the FBI would process and eventually automate 200 million fingerprint records. Now DNA evidence is considered more reliable than fingerprints.
We commend these hard-working FBI and western Kansas law enforcement officers for making a difference with their innovative and persistent approach to solving crimes. This case in rural Kansas changed the course of criminal investigations forever, and it all began with a fingerprint.
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