The two-story stucco home where Dr. William Wesley Wineinger lived with his wife and two small children still stands along K-96 in the middle of Dighton.
It was nearly 10 p.m. 89 years ago that the doctor heard a knock at his back door – then was beckoned out of his home for an emergency. A couple of strangers told him a story about a boy crushing his foot in a farm accident.
It would be the last time his family would see him alive.
A search party found the Dighton doctor’s body bound, gagged and shot in the back of the head, underneath his blue Buick at the bottom of a Scott County canyon. No other evidence remained except a single fingerprint on the car’s window.
The place it happened rests just south of the ghost town of Elkader on an unassuming parcel of windswept prairie. Joy Cole stops her vehicle and points to a gully in the pasture.
“This is it,” she said, recalling what she knows about the place located several miles north of Scott City.
It was 1928 – before crime scene investigators and before the Federal Bureau of Investigation had a detailed database of fingerprints. Yet that single fingerprint eventually brought down a notorious Kansas gang.
The tale of the Fleagle Gang is one that many like Cole in this stretch of west-central Kansas grew up hearing. It is story of bank robbers, a legend of buried loot and a Lamar, Colorado, bank robbery that went wrong, resulting in the murder of four people and leading to the gang’s demise.
Yet, while the prairie has reclaimed some shadows of the horrific past, such as the gang’s “horseless horse ranch” hideout near Marienthal where they developed the plan, other traces of the nearly nine-decade-old crime still linger. On this spring day, the doctor’s home is empty and for sale. The outhouse from the ranch has been moved and preserved on a Lane County farm. And the window of the doctor’s car that holds the famed fingerprint is in storage at the Finney County Historical Museum.
The graves of the gang leaders – brothers Ralph and Jake Fleagle – are buried in Garden City’s Valley View Cemetery, not far from their parents, Annie and Jacob, and their siblings. Ralph was hanged for the crimes in 1930. Jake was shot and captured three months later.
It’s part of the reason why Cole kept prodding her elementary school teacher – Eleanor Hooker – to tell her what she knew for a Scott County historical program in 1986.
Born Eleanor Fleagle, she was a niece of the Fleagle brothers. Eleanor, who lived on a farm near Leoti with her husband, Kenneth, felt the aftermath of the murders her entire life. She turned Cole down countless times, until one day, she relented.
“They were my uncles; I loved them,” she told Cole, who lives in Modoc, not far from the ranch hideout. “But since I was a Fleagle and about 10 years old when it happened, it has affected my life all these years.”
Eleanor died in 1996.
“She gave her opinion on a lot of things, and she knew they were guilty,” Cole said.
From farm boys to outlaws
Tom Betz recalls his grandfather’s stories of the Fleagle Gang’s bank robbery in Lamar. Fred Betz was the editor of the local newspaper, reporting on the case and even helping organize the reward money to help find the culprits.
“I got fascinated about it,” said Betz, a former newspaper editor with papers in Lamar and Goodland. “I read the accounts my grandfather wrote and talked to him about it. I always thought it would make a great book.”
Betz published “The Fleagle Gang: Betrayed by a Fingerprint” in 2005.
The Fleagle story unfolds in the the 1880s, when Jake Sr. and Annie Fleagle moved their family from Iowa to a farm in Finney County near the little town of Friend. There, they raised their children, which included four boys – Ralph, Jake, Walter and Fred.
Ralph and Jake both left the family farm around 1910 – heading to California and other areas. Eventually, they ran a pool hall together. It went well for a while, but hard times came, and the brothers had a hard time making payments. When the bank closed down the hall, Jake suggested robbing the bank.
The job was easy, Ralph said in the months before he was hanged.
The two soon began traveling up and down the Sacramento Valley, usually raiding big money crap games and high-stakes gambling houses. They would return to Garden City regularly, according Betz’s book.
They always selected new men for each job. By the early 1920s, they also were robbing a number of banks, including in McPherson, Kinsley and Larned. They’d deposit large amounts of money in area banks, causing some curiosity. But mother Annie Fleagle would tell bankers her sons were in the cattle business and needed money to make big purchases.
Neighbors, too, began to notice Ralph and Jake were coming and going on the Finney County farm and that the family was prospering. Their parents had a new house and an increasing number of cattle.
In all, they would steal more than a million dollars, Betz said.
In spring 1928, the brothers began planning the Lamar bank heist from their brother Fred’s horseless horse ranch near Marienthal in Wichita County. They brought in George Abshier and Howard Royston to help – offering them a portion of the loot.
In the early hours of May 23, the four headed to Lamar.
When the Fleagles entered the bank around 1 p.m., Amos Parrish, the bank president, was smoking a cigar and leaning on the gate talking to his son, John. When the gang ordered them to put their hands up, Amos slipped into his office and retrieved “Old Betsy” – his single-action Colt .45.
He aimed it at the nearest robber – Royston – hitting him in the jaw. Royston fired back, hitting the bank president in the head. More gunfire ensued and John, the bank president’s son, was killed, too.
After stealing more than $200,000 in Liberty Bonds, commercial paper and currency, the gang took bank employees Eskel Lundgren and Everett Kesinger hostage. They left Lundgren a few miles out of town but kept Kesinger.
Fred was at the ranch when they arrived close to nightfall. Royston, however, was needing medical attention.
Late that evening, the brothers were knocking on W.W. Wineinger’s back door.
A scary time
For a year, residents in western Kansas were on edge. No one knew who shot the doctor, except it was speculated it was in connection with the bank robbery. About three weeks after the doctor’s body was found, the body of Kesinger was discovered in a shack near Liberal by youngsters, said Betz.
Dennis Bosley, of Topeka, who grew up in Lane County, said he remembers a family tale about his grandfather Charles’ hired man finding a gate open on the family’s farm a few days after the robbery. His grandfather rode his horse to check out the area, finding bandages near the creek. The Prowers County Sheriff soon landed a plane in their pasture.
According to Abshier’s confession, Ralph at one point after they killed the doctor, tried to burn his bandages.
The family spent the night in the Healy hotel. His father, Charles C., was 8 years old at the time.
“Everyone was saying, ‘who did this?’” said Bosley, later adding, “People were charged up and worried.”
But the gang’s downfall was the fingerprint.
Among the law enforcement officers to help at the scene was Bosley’s relative, Roland Terwilliger.
Terwilliger started his law enforcement career as a vigilante and soon studied and completed a correspondence course in fingerprinting, according to the Garden City Police Department. He then became a police officer for the department.
Arriving on the scene, Terwilliger and Garden City Police Chief Lee Richardson searched the car but found it wiped clean, except for a single right index fingerprint on one of the windows.
They took the window back to Garden City, where he lifted an impression, which was eventually given to the FBI, according to Betz’s book.
It was a long shot, Betz said. Back then, there was not a large database of fingerprints. However, a year later, they would find a match. Richardson received a letter informing him the man who had made the fingerprint on the doctor’s car window was Jake Fleagle.
Betz said it was about a month later that Ralph was caught in Illinois. Hoping he wouldn’t receive the death penalty, Ralph confessed and Royston and Abshier were eventually caught. With Jake still at large, the three pleaded guilty.
They spilled their story in court documents – copies of which are at the Lane County Historical Museum. Abshier tells of how they tried to first kill the doctor on the night of May 24, but a storm took them back to the ranch. He also tells of how they tried to return to the scene of the crime, worried the doctor scribbled notes about the situation. Seeing a plane flying low, they realized the doctor had been found and turned around.
The jury didn’t honor Ralph’s plea deal, sentencing him to die. All three were executed in July 1930.
Jake, however, eluded the law until October 1930, Betz said. Tipped off by an informant, officers caught him on a train at Branson, Missouri, where he resisted arrest and was shot. He confessed to crimes before dying the next day.
Terwilliger eventually moved to Colorado, but Lonnie Terwilliger, who farms in Lane County, remembers his “Uncle Twig.”
“That was the first case that they ever used a fingerprint to convict anyone,” said Terwilliger. “That car that was abandoned up north in the canyons, the window didn’t work well. One of the members of the gang (Jake) pulled it up.”
He said his uncle knew the Fleagles. They were ornery but he never thought them capable of what they did.
Clara Wineinger stayed in Dighton to raise her two children, Carol and John, said George Paris, who lives in Topeka.
John Wineinger, who was just a baby when his father died, was Paris’ childhood best friend.
“While John and I were in high school, we’d go to his house and look through (his dad’s) medical books and prick our fingers and put it under the microscope,” Paris said.
The family didn’t stay in the same home that the Fleagles came to that spring night. Paris’ parents, however, bought the house from another owner and turned Dr. Wineinger’s office into an apartment.
The friends parted ways when they both went to college. John became a doctor like his father, Paris said.
According to her obituary, Carol, too, graduated from medical school and practiced psychiatry.
As for tales of the Fleagles burying money, Leoti artist Charlie Norton thinks it is true.
His father was friends with Kenneth Hooker, Eleanor Fleagle Hooker’s husband.
Norton said he was told once that the son-in-law went with his father-in-law Walt and used a metal detector to dig up $35,000. Walt held the gun.
He said he took Kenneth out once to the location of the Lamar bank. A historian with them got into an argument about whether it was gold or gold certificates the Fleagles stole.
“Hooker said, no, it was gold certificates, that’s what (we) used to build that house.”
Norton said the relative was convinced his wife’s family had unearthed all the money. “But people still want to go out there with a metal detector and snoop around. People love the idea of buried treasure.”
As for Cole, she still thinks about that interview with Mrs. Hooker. She pulled out her presentation on this March morning, along with the newspaper newspaper clippings from the era she had copied.
Eleanor told her how when a Fleagle relative won the spelling bee, the headline in the newspaper read “A Fleagle wins.” When one of the Fleagle children went to K-State, a professor announced in class “I thought we got rid of all you Fleagles.”
Cole remembers Eleanor as strict. She didn’t smile a lot.
“But we studied, we learned,” said Cole, adding she was her favorite teacher.
When Cole gave her presentation for the historical program in the Scott High School gymnasium, Eleanor was in attendance.
“I gave it six times and she sat through all six,” said Cole, adding Eleanor told her how much she appreciated the presentation. “She told me later ‘it has changed my life so that in my older age, I’m able to talk about it.’”