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Better than a gangster movie: The real-life exploits of St. Paul’s Barker-Karpis gang

image of historic reward poster
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Reward poster seeking Karpis and Barker for the 1931 murder of Sheriff C. R. Kelly, the crime that drove the gang from Missouri to St. Paul.
The Barker‒Karpis gang, a revolving cast of Midwestern criminals, shuttled in and out of St. Paul in the 1930s, committing robberies and kidnappings under the protection of a corrupt police force.

In 1932, the Barker‒Karpis gang rented a house at 1031 South Robert Street in St. Paul, posing as a family of speakeasy musicians. Fred Barker and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, the gang’s principal members, had entered St. Paul, then a haven for criminals, after killing a Missouri sheriff. Other members included Fred’s brother Arthur (called Doc) and his mother, Kate (called Ma).

Later that year, the gang robbed Minneapolis’s Third Northwestern Bank. While they emptied the vault, a teller activated an alarm, and two officers—Ira Evans and Leo Gorski— responded. The gang’s lookout, Larry DeVol, fired into their patrol car, killing Evans and wounding Gorski.

A few months later, the gang planned the kidnapping of William Hamm Jr., president of Hamm’s Brewing Company. On June 15, 1933, Doc Barker and Charles “Fitz” Fitzgerald approached Hamm as he walked home for lunch. They wrestled him into Alvin Karpis’s car, placing a pillowcase and goggles over his head. En route to their suburban Chicago hideout, they forced Hamm to sign ransom notes demanding $100,000 (more than $1.8 million in 2018).

William W. Dunn, the brewery’s sales manager, quickly became the gang’s contact. He was instructed to bring the ransom money to Duluth and wait for five rear headlight flashes before dropping it beside the road. After receiving the ransom, the gang released Hamm and headed to Chicago.

After returning to St. Paul in August, the gang planned to rob the payroll of Swift and Company, a meatpacking plant, as it was transferred from a Minneapolis vault to St. Paul’s stockyards. While robbing the messengers, Doc and Karpis shot accompanying officers John Yeaman and Leo Pavlak. The gang stole $33,000 and escaped in an armored car, aided by a smokescreen.

Over the next four months, the gang planned their final major crime: the kidnapping of Commercial State Bank president Edward Bremer. On January 17, Bremer was driving to work when he stopped at the corner of Lexington Parkway and Goodrich Avenue. A gang-driven car blocked his path while another pulled up behind. The kidnappers opened Bremer’s door; when he struggled, the kidnappers pushed him to the floor. They then abandoned Bremer’s sedan, forcing him to sign ransom notes.

Within two hours, Bremer family friend Walter W. Magee received ransom instructions. The $200,000 was requested in $5 and $10 bills. When ready, Magee was to print “We are ready Alice” in the Minneapolis Tribune‘s personal ads.

Magee ran the ad, but the gang did not respond. They delivered several other ransom notices to people close to the Bremer family, but because of the blood left in Bremer’s car, his family suspected he was already dead. Edward’s father, Adolph Bremer, demanded a note in his son’s handwriting before he would pay. The next day a bank cashier received the requested note.

The gang finally delivered instructions for ransom payment to priest Father John Deere, another friend of the family. On February 6, Magee, following the instructions, located a car with Shell Oil stickers in St. Paul, transferred the ransom into the car, and trailed a bus for Rochester. After seeing a cluster of red lights on a hillside, Magee turned down the next gravel road, driving until he saw five headlight flashes. He placed the money beside the road and drove off.

The gang released Bremer after twenty-one days of captivity. They drove to Chicago to launder the ransom but realized the FBI had recorded the serial numbers on the bills.

The next spring, a Wisconsin farmer found a discarded gas can that the gang had used to refuel their car between Chicago and Minneapolis. FBI investigators lifted Doc’s fingerprints from the can to connect the gang to the kidnappings.

Gang members scattered across the US to escape the FBI. Fred and Ma Barker holed up in Ocklawaha, Florida, where the FBI eventually located them. On January 16, 1935, both Barkers were killed in a shootout with FBI officers. Karpis remained on the run until the FBI arrested him May 1, 1936. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and served twenty-six years in Alcatraz.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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