Who Was Behind the Kansas City Massacre?

by Jay Robert Nash

On June 16, 1933, local police and FBI agents arrested Frank "Jelly" Nash [no relation to this writer] in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Nash had escaped from Leavenworth in 1930 and, for more than three years, had robbed banks throughout the Midwest with Harvey Bailey, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, the Holden-Keating gang, and the Barker brothers. His underworld contacts were deep and wide and he had taken refuge in Hot Springs. His captors immediately boarded a train to take Nash on to Kansas City, Missouri, and then back to his cell at Leavenworth. Powerful people in the underworld, however, had different notions.

The carnage following the machinegun attack at Union Station
The carnage following the machinegun attack at Union Station with K.C. detectives Grooms and Hermanson lying dead between the two cars; the auto at right was the police car riddled with bullets. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

Hot Springs gambler Dick Galatas immediately contacted Johnny Lazia, telling him about the Nash pinch. Lazia, crime boss of Kansas City, who operated all rackets in that town for the powerful Pendergast political machine, quickly put in motion a plan to ostensibly free him. On the evening of June 16, 1933, Lazia learned from his Kansas City Police contacts that Nash would arrive on the 7:15 train the next morning. He, in turn, called Vern Miller, a local independent bank robber and strong-arm man. Miller and Lazia met in a restaurant that night and Lazia assigned two of his best killers, brothers Homer and Maurice Denning, to help Miller free Nash.

The following morning, Kansas City detectives Frank Hermanson and W. J. "Red" Grooms appeared at Union Station, driving an armored car in which Nash was to be taken to Leavenworth. Both detectives noticed that all the automatic weapons in the armor-plated car had been removed, leaving the detectives with only their two police revolvers. They got out of the car and met two unarmed FBI agents, Reed Vetterli and Raymond Caffrey. Earlier, Vetterli had mentioned to Caffrey that he had not seen one uniformed policeman in or around the station. Vetterli and Caffrey carried no weapons as FBI agents were then prohibited from carrying arms.

A contemporary sketch shows how gunmen attacked lawmen
A contemporary sketch shows how gunmen attacked the lawmen in the Kansas City Massacre of 1933. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

At that moment, a car drove into the station parking lot and parked. At the wheel of the car was Mary McElroy, the impetuous daughter of City Manager Henry McElroy. She took her thrills from the exploits of underworld characters such as the slick Johnny Lazia, who worked for her father and Boss Tom Pendergast. She had asked another gangster, James Henry "Blackie" Audett, to accompany her to the station that morning, telling him that "all hell is going to break loose." Somehow, she had heard that Frank Nash was going to be freed by gunmen planning to attack federal agents accompanying Nash on the 7:15 train. The two sat in the car like spectators awaiting a circus parade.

A Chevrolet sedan then pulled into a parking spot a short distance from where McElroy sat with Audett. It was parked so that it faced a two-door sedan parked there earlier by agents Caffrey and Vetterli. Three men sat in the Chevrolet, the heavily armed gangsters Vern Miller and Homer and Maurice Denning.

Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd
Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, shot and killed by FBI agents a year after the Kansas City Massacre; the Bureau insisted that he was one of the killers, but Floyd denied being one of the killers with his dying breath. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

The train carrying Nash arrived on time at Track Twelve. Nash was escorted by two FBI agents, Joseph Lackey and Frank Smith, as well as Otto Reed, Police Chief of McAlester, Oklahoma, who had officially arrested Nash. When they got into Caffrey's car, Miller and the Denning brothers alighted from their Chevrolet. They all held Thompson submachine guns and Miller shouted to the lawmen: "Up! Up! Get 'em up!" The four lawmen outside the car, Vetterli, Caffrey, Hermanson, and Grooms, stood motionless for some seconds, their eyes riveted on the three gangsters slowly approaching them, guns aimed directly at them.

The police car attacked by Vern Miller and the Denning Brothers
The police car attacked by Vern Miller and the Denning Brothers; behind the wheel, dead, is Frank Nash, the gangster they reportedly attempted to free from lawmen, but most likely killed to assure his silence. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

Then Red Grooms' hand instinctively reached into his coat pocket and he withdrew his police revolver. He fired two shots, and although one appeared to hit a heavyset gunman in the arm, the gunman showed no signs of being wounded.

"No! No!" Frank Nash shouted from inside the car.

Vern Miller made a split-second decision. "Let 'em have it!" he shouted to the other two gunmen.

Three submachine guns sent a torrent of bullets into Caffrey's car and sprayed the group of officers inside and outside the car. As Homer Denning stood in front of the Chevrolet, Miller and Maurice Denning ran around behind the Caffrey car, continuing to fire at it so that it was caught in a cross fire. Within seconds, the killers fled and five men were dead: FBI agent Caffrey, police chief Reed, detectives Grooms and Hermanson, and Frank Nash, the very man the attackers had intended to free. Nash was not wearing his traditional wig when found behind the wheel of the car. He had removed the wig and waved it at the machine gunners so that he could be properly identified. It was clear to all, however, that the killers intended to murder Nash, that the raid was not intended to free Nash, but to ensure his silence about his deep association with Lazia and his underworld operations in Kansas City.

FBI agents later tracked down bank robber Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, killing him in a gunfight in Ohio, and capturing his associate, Adam Richetti. They blamed the Kansas City Massacre on both of them, and Richetti was executed for the crime.

Adam Richetti, Floyd's bank-robbing associate
Adam Richetti, Floyd's bank-robbing associate, who was executed for the Kansas City Massacre, but who insisted he was innocent; his claim was supported by an eye-witness to the massacre. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

"Blackie" Audett, who watched the awful carnage that day and clearly saw the killers, insisted decades later to this writer that the true killers were Miller and the Denning brothers. "Floyd was nowhere near that station that day," Audett said.

"The FBI had to solve the case fast because one of their own men got killed so they pinned it on two guys who were already wanted and widely known. They ran down Floyd and killed him and then they executed little Adam Richetti for the same crime and he wasn't there either. I know. I sat in that parking lot with Mary McElroy and saw the whole thing from less than fifty yards away."

Mary McElroy, the daughter of Kansas City's city manager
Mary McElroy, the daughter of Kansas City's city manager, who knew the attack would take place and went to Union Station with gangster Blackie Audett, where both witnessed the slaughter, seeing the actual killers. (image from the Jay Robert Nash Collection)

The massacre produced one immediate result: Congress quickly authorized FBI agents to carry firearms.