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September 4th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Brothers stand trial in extortion scheme

This Week in Texas History:
A column
by BARTEE HAILE

After dispensing with the delaying tactics of the defense at a Sept. 5, 1954 hearing, a Dallas federal judge set a trial date for two brothers accused of a six-figure extortion plot against a score of prominent Jewish families.

On Apr. 29, the heads of 20 wealthy households received identical letters written in pidgin English.  “Fire – dynamite – fire – guns will make you pay the $200,000.  Bury husband – bury wife – bury son – bury friend.  You pay before you die.

“You tell Julius Schepps what to do.  I write him how to pay.  This is the last letter you get from me.  All letters from now to Julius Schepps for you.”

Separate instructions for taking up the collection arrived by mail the same day at the home of the business and civic leader.  As soon as Schepps had the money, he was to let the extortionist know by coded message in the classifieds.

Several targets of the strange squeeze play did not give the threat a second thought, and others, like retailer Stanley Marcus, were out of town.  But many victims took the letter seriously and immediately contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Jack Mumford, agent-in-charge of the Dallas office, utilized every resource at his disposal to protect the frightened families and to hunt down their anonymous tormentor.  Fifteen to 20 G-men worked the case around the clock.

An eight-word message in the personal column of the May 1  Dallas Morning News signaled the ransom was ready:  “John come home as all is forgiven.  Florence.”  The next day, a special delivery letter ordered Julius Schepps to hold onto the cash and to await further instructions the following night.

The phone finally rang at eight o’clock that evening, and the overqualified errand boy heard a voice calmly announce, “This is John.”  While Agent Mumford listened on the extension, the caller told Schepps when and where to drop the bundle of 7,500 twenty dollar bills, 4,000 tens and 2,000 fives.

Mumford persuaded Schepps to let him make the payoff.  Wearing a borrowed hat and puffing on an expensive cigar, the FBI agent hoped to pass for the businessman in the dark, but the disguise did not fool the cautious criminal.

Five days dragged by before the next contact.  Once more the feds came up empty handed and had to retrieve the unclaimed currency.

On the third run two nights later, Julius Schepps’ brother George was at the wheel with three agents crouched behind the front seat.  As the nervous chauffeur approached the payoff point near the White Rock Lake dam, the trio rolled out of the vehicle and into tall weeds on the shoulder.  Schepps drove a little farther down the road before tossing the prize package onto the pavement and speeding away.

White Rock Lake Dam, scene of the drop

White Rock Lake Dam, scene of the drop

The lawmen could not help but wonder whether “John” would take the bait.  They had about given up hope, when a figure materialized in the mist on a railroad embankment high above the road.  Deciding the coast was clear, he made straight for the money.

Harlon Brown kept a tight rein on his adrenaline until the mystery man could nearly reach out and touch the package.  Then the agent jumped to his feet and shouted, “FBI!  Put up your hands!  You’re under arrest!”

James Hollis Jones turned on his heel and sprinted up the steep hill as the three FBI men quickly converged on him.  But he slipped on the wet grass and fell flat on his face.

As Agent Brown recalled for the press, “I could see him in a sitting posture and saw he held a gun in his right hand.  I brought his arm over his head and the gun fired.”

Disarmed and subdued, the depressed desperado moaned, “Go ahead and shoot me.  I’d rather be dead than caught.”

Six hours after the capture of his 42 year old brother, Ralph Franklin Jones, age 49, was pulled out of a rented bed at a local tourist camp.  (That’s what motels were called back then.)  One of the agents recognized him from the second aborted payoff.

The sensational case took less than three days to try in September 1954.  The U.S. district attorney denounced the defendants as “the dirtiest, lowest and meanest criminals” it had ever been his pleasure to prosecute.  The jury agreed returning guilty verdicts on all counts in a mere seven minutes.

Hollis Jones faced a maximum prison term of 50 years, while the magic number for brother Ralph, who had played a supporting role in the plot, was 20.  After a sleepless night, the Jones boys learned their fate.

Judge T. Whitfield Davidson

Judge T. Whitfield Davidson

Judge T. Whitfield Davidson sounded like he planned to throw the book at the convicted extortionists.  But the East Texas native, who sat on the federal bench from 1936 until his retirement at age 90 in 1965, let them off with surprisingly light sentences — 20 years for Hollis and a five-year slap on the wrist for Ralph, which meant he would be up for parole in only 18 months.

“They were so happy they could have hugged the judge,” remarked the deputy marshal that escorted the pleased pair back to the county jail.

 

 

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or haile@pdq.net and invites you to visit his new web site at barteehaile.com.


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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