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 soon would be remembered for one of the darkest events in crime history--The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Before that slaughter, Berrien County had no obvious connection with the Chicago underworld other than frequent visits by Al Capone, who was known to reserve entire floors at the Whitcomb Hotel in St. Joseph, attend functions at the Hotel Vincent in Benton Harbor, partake in the fare of Benton Harbor's "Little Italy" and occasionally stay at various residences in the area. Capone's mobsters lived quietly for the most part and caused no disruptions in the daily lives of local residents. Some known Capone associates who owned property in the area included Louis "Little New York" Campagna and Philip D'Andrea, but attention usually focused on Capone's inner circle.
One of Capone's associates found himself in Stevensville, known to his neighbors as Fred Dane, who had trouble even loading a shotgun and had forgotten to move the safety lever when shooting at a rabbit. Not until December of 1929 would police and citizens of Berrien County 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.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre was thought to have been arranged by Al Capone but 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: That the slaughter was masterminded by Capone's right-hand man, "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn, and that Bugs Moran's gang was lured to their North Side booze depot at 2122 North Clark Street specifically on St. Valentine's Day to meet a truckload of Old Log Cabin whiskey that had been hijacked from Capone. It's true that lookouts across the street mistook another person for Moran and summoned the killers prematurely, and that the Capone gangsters, two of them dressed as cops, arrived in a touring car tricked out to look like a detective cruiser. It's less certain that Capone intended them to machine-gun all of the seven men who had congregated there. The flap over his inadvertent killing of an assistant state's attorney and two others should have taught him the price of bad publicity.
In the course of researching The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Bill Helmer and Art Bilek uncovered information that substantially revises that 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 February 14th 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 gangsterwear. The shooters were not "the usual suspects" quickly rounded up by police, but a special assignment crew known as the "American Boys," originally from St. Louis, who did not know Moran by sight and also would not be recognized by his North Side gang. The two men in police uniforms arrived in a second car that parked in the alley behind the garage and entered through the back, where they disarmed the victims before letting the machine-gunners in through the front door, as observed by witnesses who saw the "cops" afterwards march them out, hands in the air as though under arrest, to the fake detective cruiser parked on State Street. Jack McGurn was no doubt aware of the intended killings but was too notorious at the time to "mastermind" the plot and had already holed up at a downtown hotel with his girlfriend, Louise Rolfe known as the "Blond Alibi." And because Bugs Moran was not one of the victims, police initially believed he had been kidnapped.
Detectives' leads pointing to Fred Burke, Byron Bolton, and St. Louis gangsters were never followed up, possibly because detective Chief John Stege reportedly was on Capone's payroll at $5,000 a month. Despite nearly a year of regular meetings by a special Coroner's Jury, the case was never officially solved.
The first break in the case occurred on December 14, 1929, in St. Joseph. 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 8:00 PM, while helping to direct the downtown Christmas shopping traffic, Forrest L. Kool of Buchanan approached Officer Skelly to let him know that a Hudson coupe, driven by Fred Dane, had brushed fenders with his car. Mr. Dane was on his way to meet his "wife" at the Pere Marquette Train Depot when the accident occurred. Although the accident occurred about a mile south, near Lakeshore Drive and Cleveland Avenue. After not being able to settle the damage, both drivers continued driving towards downtown. Officer Skelly approached Fred Dane. The officer ordered both men to go to the police station, a couple blocks away at Main and Broad Streets so they could settle this matter there.
Officer Skelly then jumped onto Dane's running board and ordered him 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, Fred Dane pulled a Colt .45 caliber automatic from the door pocket and fired three bullets into the Officer Charles Skelly's body. One bullet entered his chest, one in his right side and the third bullet was fired into his back. Officer Charles Skelly fell to the pavement 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 Fred Dane 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 PM. His last words were, "Get that guy!"
During his escape Fred Dane lost control on a sharp curve on Lake Boulevard and smashed into the curb. Seemingly uninjured, Dane 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. Mr. Wulff was waiting for his wife to return to the vehicle when out of nowhere Dane 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. With Monroe Wulff heading south on Red Arrow Highway, Dane became violently sick and ordered Wulff to stop along Jericho Road, south of Stevensville. As he got out of the car, Wulff floored it and left Dane 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 Fred had gone inside. Realizing that he had lost his ride again, Fred started walking behind the Stevensville Post Office and towards his own neighborhood. As he neared his house on Red Arrow Highway, just south of Glenlord Road, he saw that officers were already there. To his dismay, they had his found ownership papers in the wrecked Hudson coupe and observant witnesses had jotted his license plate down as he fled the scene, all leading them to the Dane Residence.
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 PM, 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 the park. As soon as Kunay reached his own house in Stevensville, the presence of many police told him that something was terribly wrong.
The true identity of Fred Dane began to emerge shortly after officers searched his residence and found a shirt with the monogram "FB," which they guessed were the initials of Frederick Burke, known to be the principle suspect in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Upstairs in the stylish bungalow they forced open a locked closet and found a small arsenal. It included ammunition, four 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 $320,000 worth of bonds stolen in November of 1929 from a Jeffersonville, Wisconsin bank.
The Thompson submachine guns and other ordnance were immediately delivered to Major 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 but later had defected to Bugs Moran. That was the first time a submachine gun had been used in New York City.
The hunt for Fred "Killer" Burke became the highest priority with the Berrien County Sheriff Department 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 $100,000 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 Missouri's St. Joseph 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.
Officers 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 Fred "Killer" Burke's extradition. Other states were in the process of doing the same, and on March 27, 1931, Missouri Governor Henry Caufield 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 4:00 AM. 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 B. F. 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 Department. Disregarding the cold winds and darkness, the onlookers watched as the caravan arrived about 8:00 PM 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 PM. During the booking, deputies remarked to Burke that he looked scared as he was led to the jail and his reply to them was, "No, I wasn't scared, but that crowd outside made me kind of nervous. You know, you never can tell when someone might lose his head." 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. He requested a "big thick beefsteak" that soon came along with French-fried potatoes, sliced tomatoes, bread, butter and coffee.
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. When asked if he knew Al Capone, Fred Burke answered, "Capone? Never heard of him."
On April 27, 1931, Fred "Killer" Burke pled guilty to 2nd Degree Murder of Officer Charles Skelly and was sentenced to life in prison by Berrien County 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. Later they would be found to include Fred Goetz, Gus Winkeler and others.
When Sheriff Cutler personally delivered Burke to Marquette Prison on April 28, 1931, the 600-mile trip was for the most part uneventful but for the first time since his arrest, Burke softened a bit. He told Sheriff Cutler, "I'm glad it's all over. I'm terribly sorry for everything - not because I have to serve my time, I don't mean that - but I'm sorry that I killed that boy." The following February, Sheriff Fred Cutler died unexpectedly and his wife, Jane Irene Cutler assumed duties as Sheriff of Berrien County. As unexpected as was her husband's death, even less expected was a Christmas card that came in 1932 from Fred "Killer" Burke, then serving his sentence at Marquette. It read, "If every boy had a chance to come in contact with a man like Fred Cutler, life would be different."
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 and a 2009 episode of "History Detectives" on PBS. William J. Helmer's first book, "The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar," carries the earlier story, but the revised accounts appear in his books on the Massacre itself and "The Complete Public Enemy Almanac", based in part on the memoirs of a Chicago gangster's widow published in 2012, "Al Capone's American Boys".
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 15 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.