And the case of the Lunch Hour Bandit
Harry Monn was born in 1906 and came to Waynedale from Altona (near Garrett) Indiana. He was a delivery truck driver and one of his stops was at Noble’s Home Store on Bluffton Road where Alma Bade worked. The two met and fell in love. They were married in 1925 and purchased a home at 6810 Old Trail Road. They had five children, Dick, Harriet, Janis, Donna and Butch. The kids still live in Fort Wayne, except for Butch, who lives in Indianapolis.
In 1944, Harry was 38 years old and was drafted into the army. He was sent to Camp Sibert, Alabama where he was trained in chemical warfare. From Sibert he was transferred to Fort Benjamin Harrison and then was sent to Belgium where he drove trucks, delivering ammo to the front lines. He did his driving during the middle of the night and it was a lights out assignment due to the military safety blackouts. The time he spent in Belgium towards the end of the war was especially stressful for his family as the mail wasn’t getting through and, Harry was out of touch for 16 months. After the war, Harry returned home to Waynedale and joined the Waynedale Volunteer Fire Department. After the fire department he became a deputy sheriff in Allen County. Most mornings he could be found at Al’s Restaurant, drinking coffee with any number of local patrons. He was promoted to detective and is often remembered as a solid Waynedaler.
Bernie LaClair was also a solid citizen. He lived just off of Wells Street and owned a downtown garage. He had operated two used-car lots and financed an infant’s-wear store for his wife. He gave generously to the Red Cross, and similar worthy funds, attended church, and lived moderately. He was faithful to his wife, devoted to his children. He had no police record and several police friends.
But he hand a secret vice…a beauty! Once he paid for a drink at a bar near his garage with a crisp new five-dollar bill.
“Did you make these?” joshed the bartender.
“No, I rob banks,” he replied.
It was the literal truth. Between October 22, 1952 and January 26, 1954, this “good citizen” held up nine banks…two in the East and seven in the Midwest. He stole $158,581, of which only $23,063 was recovered.
He managed most of this alone. Once he used a partner during the robbery. Other times he used a confederate to help switch getaway cars. The rest he did himself…always cool, invariably polite, often joking.
Nine times he slipped through police blockades…once talking his way past a detective who stopped him when the loot and gun were in his car trunk.
Yet in the criminal sense he was an amateur. No one taught him the bank-robbing trade; he didn’t even know a major criminal.
Police first realized they had a new bank robber at work on June 9, 1953. That day he robbed the State Bank in Hamlet, Indiana of $3,662, including $1,100 in dimes and pennies.
FBI agents moved into Hamlet and quickly gathered these facts: The bandit was a well-built, athletic six-footer, dressed neatly in good sport clothes and a snap-brim hat. He wore aviation sunglasses and used a sawed-off shotgun. He was firm, but polite. When he ordered bank employees and customers to lie on the floor, one patron pleaded, “I can’t. I’ve got a wooden leg.”
“Ok, Pop,” the bandit grinned. “You sit on this chair where I can watch you.”
He was unusually cool. Apparently disappointed over the small amount of currency, he filled a bank wastebasket with heavy bags of dimes and pennies, carried the basket to his car thirty feet away, and then calmly returned for the bag of currency.
The holdup occurred at 2p.m. Within the hour, FBI agents relayed the basic facts to Leonard Blaylock, the Indiana agent in charge, in Indianapolis. Blaylock routinely sent these facts by teletypewriter to FBI offices in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Springfield (IL), Louisville, and Cincinnati.
Cleveland promptly called attention to the similarities in description of the bandit and his method of operation. Between the Hamlet case and earlier bank robberies in Ada, Ohio on October 22, 1952 and in Dunkirk, Ohio on May 16, 1953. FBI agents concluded that the same bandit probably had pulled all three holdups. He obtained $7037 in Ada, and $4603 in Dunkirk.
As bank robberies go, that wasn’t much. But the suspicion that the same man had staged three bank robberies in eight months was disquieting. Actually, at that point, he had robbed four. On January 6, 1953 he had relieved a branch bank in New Britain, Connecticut of $25,900. But no one guessed it because that case was considered solved.
Late in March, Connecticut State Police had singled out as a suspect one Laurence Howely, for several good reasons. Howley had a criminal record. He was the bandit’s reported age, height, and build. Lastly, he lived in Middletown, Connecticut, close to the Wesleyan University campus, where the getaway car used in the robbery had been stolen.
Accordingly, Howley was placed in the lineup. Five out of six witnesses picked him out and “positively” identified him. On May 20th, a jury in Hartford found him guilty. He drew a ten-year sentence.
Later, the real robber, LaClair, admitted the Howley case disturbed him. He said, “I intended to rob that same bank again, the same way, in the same clothes, so they’d know that they had imprisoned the wrong man.”
At the time, he was too busy. On June 30, only 21 days after Hamlet, he robbed the Old National Bank in Evansville, Indiana of $23,354. On July 29, he took $14,961 from the First State Bank of Bourbon, Indiana. On August 24, he returned to Ohio and relieved a bank in Forest of $8363. Then, after a three-month breather, he returned to Evansville on December 8 and robbed the same bank a second time, getting $10,802.
“It was so easy the first time, I decided to hit it again,” he said later.
By then the press had started calling him the Lunch-Hour Bandit, because he often struck during the noon lull. His debonair manner, the effortless way he evaded blockades and his long string of single-handed successes made for rich fare for Midwest crime reporters. So they poured it on, and editorial writers followed with pointed jibes: “Why can’t the police catch this bandit? What are they doing?”
For the cops concerned, this was salt in a painful wound. They were, of course, doing all they could.
Checking tips was hard, delicate work…but the FBI was willing to explore a thousand roosts if one might yield the right pigeon. In fact, the FBI was about to seek still wider distribution of the sketches when the case broke in a curious way…partly because the robber succeeded too well in his ninth and last holdup.
To confuse police, LaClair had moved his scene of operations a thousand miles east and changed his method of operation. For the first time, he used a partner, a young nephew.
At 3:57p.m., on January 26, the two walked into the Main Street branch of the Union Trust Company in Springfield, Massachusetts, cowed six employees and four patrons with sawed-off shotguns and walked out with a rich $59,899 haul.
From this fat haul, the robber gave his getaway driver $5000…a fatal mistake when compounded with the professional curiosity of a deputy sheriff.
Shortly before 7:00a.m. on March 4, 1954 Deputy Sheriff Harry Monn and State Troopers George Coon and Gene Ellis arrested one George Martin Miller, age 28 in Waynedale.
Miller, who lived in Fort Wayne, had been on an all night spree and run his 1951 car into a ditch. Miller’s driver’s license had been revoked earlier for drunk driving. One thing about Miller aroused Deputy Monn’s professional curiosity. He was carrying 52 crisp, new one-dollar bills.
While Miller was sobering up in a cell, Monn and Walter Adams, another deputy, did some quiet checking. Later they quizzed Miller. That afternoon Monn reported to Sheriff Harold Zeis, his boss, “Something’s fishy. Miller has no job. He paid $1700 cash for his car two weeks ago. He’s got $52 in new money. Receipts in his billfold show he spent about $500 recently for other things. He’s been boozing and chasing around. He says he won the money gambling. I don’t believe it.”
“Try to get him sent to jail on the driving charge,” Sheriff Zeis suggested. “That’ll give us time to dig deeper.”
Miller got ten days. Monn and two Fort Wayne city detectives, Sgt. Jack Lake and Edwin McCarthy, questioned him anew.
Miller, dull-witted and a clumsy liar, was soon enmeshed in a web of contradictions. Monn said it came to a head like this:
MILLER: “If I tell you something big, will you keep me from getting shot?”
LAKE: “Who will shoot you?”
MILLER: “Bernie LaClair. He runs a garage on Main Street, just off Harrison.”
LAKE: “Why will LaClair shoot you?”
MILLER: “He’s the Lunch-Hour Bandit. I drove getaway for him.”
That kind of confession was totally unexpected. Monn said, “For a moment, I just gawked at him. Miller was a punk, strictly not in the bank-robber class. We figured him for some local burglaries or stickups. We had no idea he’d hand us the Midwest’s most wanted bank robber since Dillinger.”
Miller’s questioners quickly notified their bosses and there was a fast gathering of police brass…Fort Wayne Chief Alfred Figel; Captain Mitchell Cleveland, the Chief of Detectives; Sheriff Zeis, and two local FBI agents. Two hours later they caught up with LaClair, the illusive Lunch-Hour Bandit, at his son’s school.
Federal authorities wrapped up the loose ends. FBI agents arrested LaClair’s nephew, John Henry Martin III, in East Hartford, Connecticut. He readily confessed his part in the Springfield holdup. Within 72 hour, Lawrence Howley’s wrongful ten-year sentence was revoked.
Police recovered $23,630 of LaClair’s loot.
“Where’s the rest?” asked FBI agents.
“Gone.” insisted LaClair. “I paid some bills, made a down payment on the house and remodeled and refurnished it. I helped a few guys. I lost most of it in my business.
Skeptical FBI accountants examined his books. LaClair, they soon discovered, had been as clumsy in business as he was agile at robbing banks.
LaClair could barely read and write. He knew nothing of accounting or business practices. Big-hearted, he paid most employees one hundred dollars a week or more.
One hireling sorely grieved him. LaClair said, “I paid him well, made him foreman, even an officer in my garage corporation. One day I gave him $2000 to deposit. He skipped town with it. Imagine! After all I did for him, he turned out to be a thief!”
On July 7, 1954, Judge Luther Swygert sentenced LaClair to a total of thirty years and fined him $50,000. On July 15 he tried to escape. For that the judge added another five years and $5,000. George Miller, LaClair’s getaway driver, got twenty years and $10,000 in fines for aiding and abetting in two holdups. LaClair’s nephew, John Henry Martin III had already been sentenced in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut. He drew 20 years for his part in the Springfield robbery.
Harry retired in 1965, but worked at the County Assessor’s office after his retirement. In August of 1980, Harry stopped at Karen’s Kitchen here in Waynedale and picked up a doughnut for his wife Alma. On the way home, at the age of 74, Harry Monn had a heart attack and died.
Harry’s wife Alma died in 2003. When their daughters, Harriet, Donna and Jannis cleaned out her freezer, they found the doughnut Harry had purchased for Alma 23 years earlier. She was 93 years old.
Editor’s note: Excerpts of this story were taken from The Saturday Evening Post, August 28, 1954. The Post story was brought to my attention by Sue Stark.
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