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Fred Burke - Charles Skelly
Fred "Killer" Burke, Charles Skelly - a Fateful Meeting in Berrien County
February 14, 1929 may have started out as a typical winter day in Chicago but it soon would be remembered for one of the darkest events in crime history - the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
While Chicago earned the nickname of "Bloody Chicago," Berrien County had become "Capone's Playground." Al Capone made frequent visits, often staying at the Whitcomb Hotel in St. Joseph, and the Hotel Vincent in Benton Harbor. He would partake in the fare of Benton Harbor's "Little Italy," entertain himself at the House of David Amusement Park, and practice his favorite hobby of golfing at many area courses. Although Capone never owned any residences in the area, several of his henchmen did, including Louis "Little New York" Campagna, Philip D'Andrea, Jake Guzik, Edward Konvalinka, and Paul "The Waiter" Ricca DeLucia.
One gangster wound up in Stevensville, known to his neighbors as Fred Dane, and in December of 1929, police and citizens of Berrien County would learn that his real name was Fred "Killer" Burke, wanted in Chicago for his leading role in the murder of seven members of the Bugs Moran gang, known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre was thought to have been arranged by Al Capone and the way it went down transformed him from the "Babe Ruth of American Gangsters" into the country's first "Public Enemy Number One." It was considered the gangland crime of the century, and since then virtually every book, magazine article and movie description of that event has perpetuated a theory popularized at the time: In the course of researching The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Bill Helmer and Art Bilek uncovered information that substantially revised the popular account. Capone had indeed targeted Bugs Moran for killing two of his most important mob politicians, but according to a relative of Moran, he himself had called for the meeting two weeks earlier, after an attempt on his life in the middle of January. That fact that February 14 fell on Valentine's Day was coincidental. He was not expecting to meet a truckload of whiskey (a guess by a local Prohibition official who soon was transferred and then fired), or there would have been no need for three weeks of surveillance by the lookouts; and any such truck would have been met by workmen instead of by his top lieutenants dressed in stylish gangster wear. The shooters were not "the usual suspects" but a special assignment crew known as the "American Boys," originally from St. Louis. None of the men knew Moran by sight. The two men in police uniforms probably arrived in a second car that parked in the alley behind the garage and entered through the back. They disarmed the victims before letting the machine-gunners in through the front door.
The first break in the case occurred on December 14, 1929, in St. Joseph, Michigan. On this Saturday night, 25-year old St. Joseph City Police Officer Charles Skelly was on foot patrol at the corner of Broad and State Streets. Hired as the new motorcycle officer in June of 1929, Charles Skelly was the former Assistant Chief of the St. Joseph Fire Department. At around 8 p.m., while helping to direct the downtown Christmas shopping traffic, Forrest L. Kool of Weesaw Township approached Skelly to let him know that a Hudson coupe had brushed fenders with his car. After not being able to settle the damage, both drivers continued driving towards downtown. Skelly ordered both men to go to the police station, a couple blocks away at Main and Broad Streets so they could settle the matter there.
Skelly then jumped onto the Hudson's running board and ordered the driver to drive to the police station. After a few blocks, they came to a stop at a traffic light. As soon as the light turned green, the man pulled a Colt .45 caliber automatic from the door pocket and fired three bullets into the Skelly's body. One bullet entered his chest, one in his right side, and the third bullet was fired into his back. Skelly stumbled backwards but managed to get on his feet for a moment while he clasped his hands to his abdomen, crying out in pain. He fumbled for his gun but the Hudson roared south on Main Street. Witnesses rushed the officer to the St. Joseph Sanitarium on Niles Avenue in a futile attempt to save him. Even two fellow firefighters donated blood to help their comrade but the injuries were too severe and Officer Charles Skelly died at 11:10 p.m. His last words were, "Get that guy!"
During his escape the driver of the Hudson lost control on a sharp curve on Lake Boulevard and smashed into the curb. Seemingly uninjured, the man climbed out of the car and began running; cutting through backyards near Winchester and Forres Avenue where he encountered Monroe Wulff, a member of the House of David who was sitting in his car. Wulff was waiting for his wife to return to the vehicle when out of nowhere the fleeing gunman jumped into his car, pointed a pistol at Wulff, and ordered him to "beat it south and be quick." Minutes later, Berrien County Sheriff's Deputy John Lay reached the crash scene only to find the driver of the wrecked car had fled. Papers found in the wrecked Hudson coupe identified the driver as Fred Dane on Lake Shore Drive. Wulff stopped along Jericho Road, south of Stevensville where the man got out. Wulff floored it and left him on the side of the road. Albert Wishart then drove up, and since the two men knew each other Albert didn't think twice about stopping. However, Dane again pulled his gun and forced Albert to drive him out of town, but then ordered him to stop at a drug store in Stevensville. Albert drove off quickly once Dane had gone inside. Realizing that he had lost his ride again, Dane started walking behind the Stevensville Post Office and towards his own neighborhood. As he neared his house on Lake Shore Drive, just south of Glenlord Road, he saw that officers were already there.
Berrien County Sheriff Deputy Erwin Kubath, St. Joseph City Police Chief Fred Alden and other officers were entering the cottage when Deputy Kubath went back outside to conceal his squad car. He saw a shadowy figure along the road but when he turned on his lights the figure disappeared into the woods.
At 9:30 p.m., with police hot on his trail, Fred Dane ran to neighbor Steve Kunay's house, told him his car had broken down, and asked for a ride to Coloma. Unaware of the commotion around him, Kunay agreed, and as they drove north towards Coloma, Dane told Kunay to head down Niles Road and cross the Napier Avenue Bridge. This was not the most direct route to Coloma and Kunay questioned Dane, who admitted he was in great trouble. They then proceeded over Fair Avenue to Territorial Road and onto Red Arrow Highway, where the now-fearful Kunay made up a story about needing gas and left Fred Dane in a park out side of Coloma. As soon as Kunay reached his own house in Stevensville, the presence of many police officers gave him the impression that something was terribly wrong.
The true identity of Fred Dane began to emerge shortly after officers searched his residence. Upstairs in the stylish bungalow they forced open a locked closet and found a small arsenal. It included ammunition, three bulletproof vests, revolvers, sawed-off shotguns, hand grenades, tear gas bombs and two Thompson submachine guns. Officers also found trap doors, dozens of disguises, several well-thumbed detective novels, and some $390,000 worth of bonds stolen in November of 1929 from a Jefferson, Wisconsin, bank. A fingerprint lifted from a household object returned as belonging to Fred "Killer" Burke, lead suspect in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and many other crimes.
The Thompson submachine guns and other ordnance were immediately delivered to Colonel Calvin Goddard in Chicago, a ballistics expert hired by two prominent citizens to investigate the Massacre. Goddard established that the two Thompsons not only had been used in the St. Valentine's Day murders but that one had been used the previous July to kill New York mobster Frankie Yale, who had once employed Capone at his dive in Brooklyn. This was the first time a submachine gun had been used in the state of New York.
The hunt for Fred "Killer" Burke became the highest priority with the Berrien County Sheriff Office and St. Joseph city police. Burke's description and the circumstances of Officer Charles Skelly's killing were telephoned to the Michigan State Police and the police in other cities, as well as to law-enforcement authorities in Chicago, Gary and Hammond, Indiana, and to other places where Burke had lived. Rewards totaling over $1,000 were offered. The wait, however, would be long.
Fast forward to March 26, 1931, to Green City, Missouri. After an investigation based on a tip by a local resident who read detective magazines, four officers from St. Joseph, Missouri, and a local sheriff entered a small farmhouse in neighboring Sullivan County. Still asleep in his bedroom, Fred "Killer" Burke was suddenly awakened and tried to reach for a .38-caliber revolver, but officers overpowered him without a shot being fired. They quickly whisked him to the Buchanan County Jail in St. Joseph, Missouri. Once in secure custody, authorities made the long awaited announcement that Fred "Killer" Burke was no longer on the lam.
Berrien County Prosecuting Attorney Wilbur W Cunningham was informed of this by telephone and together with Michigan Attorney General Paul Voorheis, papers were filed seeking Burke's extradition. Other states were in the process of doing the same, and on March 27, 1931, Missouri Governor Henry Caulfield announced that he would issue a decision shortly. The next day, March 28th, a Saturday, after a fifteen-minute hearing, he approved extradition to Michigan as the only state to have made application formally, and in light of Berrien County's airtight case against Burke in the killing of Officer Skelly, Illinois dropped its own request.
Using an armored car outfitted with mountings for machine guns and accompanied an army of guards, Burke's trip from St. Joseph, Missouri, to St. Joseph, Michigan, began on Sunday morning at 4 a.m. Burke was awakened in his jail cell and after a hearty breakfast he was placed in the armored car to start the journey. The caravan was led by detectives from St. Joseph, Missouri, and following behind were Berrien County Sheriff Fred J. Cutler, Undersheriff Bryan Wise, and Prosecuting Attorney Wilbur W Cunningham. In yet another vehicle were Michigan State Troopers George Waterman and Lyle Hutson, St. Joseph City Police Chief Ben "Curley" Phairas, and Berrien County Deputy Fred Taylor.
By late afternoon thousands of people began filling the streets surrounding the Berrien County Sheriff's Office. Disregarding the cold winds and darkness, the onlookers watched as the caravan arrived about 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 29, 1931. After clearing a path by wailing their sirens, officers led Fred "Killer" Burke to the Berrien County Jail. Dozens of camera flash bulbs popped and Burke covered his face and shackled hands as he hurried up the steps. He was rushed down the hallway and few people got more than a fleeting glimpse of him. He was led to an office where deputies booked him in at 8:26 p.m. After the booking, newspapers photographers were allowed to take more pictures and Fred "Killer" Burke posed unwillingly while shutters clicked and flashes blinded. Wearing a rumpled gray suit, he flinched each time a flash went off. Refusing to talk to reporters, Burke was locked in his cell, the third from the front on the east side lower level. During the night, special guards were placed around the building and deputies inside the jail made extra searches of each cell. Guards also were posted outside his cell twenty-four hour a day. Detectives from Chicago and other states tried to question him but received only flippant answers.
On April 27, 1931, Burke pled guilty to 2nd Degree Murder of Officer Charles Skelly and was sentenced to life in prison by Berrien County Circuit Court Judge Charles E White. He would serve his sentence at the Marquette State Penitentiary, refusing to implicate anyone else in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The life sentence for Fred "Killer" Burke would amount to only nine years. On July 10, 1940, a massive heart attack claimed the life of this infamous gangster, murderer and short-time resident of Berrien County. At the end he was described as a model prisoner who raised canaries in his cell. He died in his sleep, as peaceful as he could have ever hoped for.
Berrien County hasn't forgotten the impact that Fred "Killer" Burke and Officer Charles Skelly both played in its history. The arsenal of weaponry found at the Burke residence, specifically the Thompson submachine guns, have become the ever-popular topic of magazine articles and television documentaries, including a 2004 episode of "Unsolved History" on The History Channel, a 2009 episode of "History Detectives" on PBS, and a 2012 documentary on the National Geographic Channel called "Valentine's Day Massacre."
Not far from where Officer Charles Skelly lost his life stands the Berrien County Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial Monument. Presently on the monument are the names of 17 fallen officers, including that of Officer Charles Skelly. His body was laid to rest in Crystal Springs Cemetery in Benton Harbor, while his name is etched into the history of Berrien County and the entire nation.
- Chriss Lyon
Excerpts from "A Killing in Capone's Playground: The True Story of the Hunt for the Most Dangerous Man Alive" 2014