The Reign of Creepy

by Steve Gerkin


Dental records proved the badly decomposed body that washed up on the Crystal Beach shores of Ontario, minus hands and feet, to be twenty-nine year-old crime-boss physician, Joseph P. Moran, M.D. of Chicago.

So that one bad guy, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, could not be traced to abandoned hotel rooms and cars, Moran had injected Karpis’ fingers with cocaine and successfully scraped off his fingerprints. The doctor also helped launder a portion of the $200,000 ransom money for St. Paul banker Edward Bremmer. While drinking heavily with the gang at the Casino Club outside Toledo one evening, he bragged, “I have you guys in the palm of my hand.”

Later that night, Moran disappeared. Authorities claimed Tulsan Fred Barker and Karpis had taken him night fishing on Lake Erie.

On May 1, 1936, a Friday, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover hurried to catch a plane for New Orleans to make the arrest of Tulsa gangster—and Public Enemy No. 1—Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. As Hoover landed, an execution team of twenty-six federal agents formed a web around a Jefferson Parkway building where they knew Karpis was hiding. Unexpectedly, Karpis and one Freddie Hunter sauntered out of the building and climbed into their car. Ray, as his friends called “Creepy”, got behind the wheel.

Agents quickly surrounded the automobile, with two Feds lying on the hood pointing their Tommy guns directly at the occupants. The situation was well in-hand when Hoover was encouraged to approach the driver side window. The only “collar” of his career involved ordering the handcuffs be placed on Karpis. Only there were none.

The G-men were armed for a murderous shootout, not an arrest. The nation’s most notorious criminal—wanted for murder in fourteen states—was cuffed with an agent’s necktie and taken prisoner.

It was fitting that the evil and deadly Karpis would spend the next three decades in the most vile and dangerous federal penitentiary, Alcatraz, the infamous Rock, as Prisoner 325. Arriving in a Fort Leavenworth train car with twenty other hardened criminals—including former Tulsa Central Park gang member and criminal compadre Harry Campbell—their railcar cellblock was shunted onto a long pier jutting out into San Francisco Bay.

“Take a good look, you bastards,” the huge, uniformed guard yelled to the shackled residents of the launch as it bounced through the chilly, fifty-degree waves. Up ahead, dozens of guards armed with riot guns, heavy rifles and Thompson sub-machine guns lined a catwalk along the perilous cliffs below the three-story, maximum-security prison that housed America’s most irredeemable criminals.

It was going to be “old home” week for Karpis. Awaiting his arrival, Tulsa hoodlums Volney Davis, Harry Sawyer and Doc Barker, the third son of the infamous “Ma” Barker, were already suited up with Alcatraz “heavy wool” long johns and coveralls with their name and Alcatraz prisoner number sewn on. Having graduated to the major league crime scene from the bad-boy incubator of Sixth Street and Peoria Avenue, Tulsa’s Central Park Gang was reunited on The Rock. During their formative years these burglars and highway robbers terrorized the neighborhood and met in the then-sprawling Pearl District park. The park served as a boardroom and storage facility for stolen goods and explosives.

Central Park has come a long way. The Sixth Street landmark of Longfellow Elementary across from the park was the educational home to many gang members. In its place stands the Indian Health Care Resource Center. The grounds of the once heavily treed greenspace that was Tulsa’s first park now feature a senior recreation center and a large tract of high-dollar brownstones. The tranquil beauty of the pond and water treatment soothes the former hotbed of derring-do nine decades gone.

In the early 1920s, a patrol officer discovered a small tent pitched in Central Park that contained twenty-six pairs of stolen shoes. The petty thieves included five gangsters, the oldest 17, who were quickly detained.

Later uncovered by park beat cops, gang members a little further up the crime chain had hidden a stockpile of dynamite and nitroglycerin intended to blow the doors on the National Guard Armory across the street. The expected bounty was shotguns and pistols.

The young toughs became newspaper legends for their dangerous holdups of cars on main Tulsa thoroughfares as well as daylight petty burglaries. Their guns intimidated scores of city innocents during a decade-long reign.

Sixteen-year-old gang member Eva Jacobs—known in the tabloids as the “bandit queen”—and several male hoods stopped a family sedan on a downtown street. Forced from their car at gunpoint, the victims handed over their valuables before being brusquely thrown back into their vehicle.

Eva and her thugs successfully terrorized motorists for months. Newspapers reported the police were powerless to stop the nightmare of these “stick-up artists,” adding, “Unfortunate wayfarers were held at the points of pistols and robbed of their belongings, citizens cringed in their homes.”

According to the Sept. 3, 1922, morning edition of the Tulsa Tribune, Little Eva and her teenage crew were finally captured, thus reducing the threat of byway holdups and the danger of their weapons. Yet, the Tulsa crime scene swelled its ranks.

It was into this scene that Karpis came. He was born Alvin Raymond Karpis in 1908 to Lithuanian immigrants in Montreal. The family subsequently moved to Chicago, where young Alvin was diagnosed with a “leaky heart” and advised to move to quieter surroundings. He was shipped to an aunt in Topeka, Kansas, where, by age 10, he owned his first gun and was running errands for local pimps and other crime figures. He began a life of crime, he told a biographer, because “that’s where the action was.”

Nicknamed for a sinister smile that rode below a pair of dark, stone-cold eyes—pure evil, “Creepy” Karpis came to Tulsa late in the Central Park Gang saga. He met Fred Barker, son of Tulsa resident Arizona “Ma” Kate Barker, while serving time in the Kansas State Prison. After their release in the spring of 1931, they came to Tulsa, where the cool and handsome Karpis met a downtown Bishop’s cafeteria worker, Dorothy Slayman. He told her he was a jewelry salesman, and they married.

Later in 1931, Barker and Karpis—employing the alias of “George Haller”—were back in business. The pair robbed a jewelry store and were arrested. Barker was never charged and soon released. Oddly, Karpis, who entered a guilty plea, had his four-year sentence overturned when the loot from the heist was returned. Free again, both fled to Missouri.

Several days later, the two robbed a store in West Plains, Missouri. Sheriff C.R. Kelly and a deputy named Kurt spotted the pair and approached their car to investigate.

“I was with Sheriff Kelly when we found the Ma Barker Gang,” Kurt was reported saying. “They knew it was us when Kelly opened the door. Bullets came out of the blue DeSoto. Then the DeSoto went out of the garage and got away. Sheriff Kelly was dead!”

Deciding against a return to Tulsa, Barker and Karpis headed for Minneapolis to hide out with the now-legendary “Ma” Barker. He never returned to his marital bungalow at the northwest corner of Brady Street and Boston Avenue. Filing for divorce in 1935, Slayman claimed she had not seen him for four years. He was on the road a lot, raking in non-taxable revenue and leaving a bloody trail.

The Central Park gang kept up its antics. “Curley” Davis enters the pages of history in a tag-team effort with rising star Fred Barker and fellow Central Parker Howard Musgrave. Davis worked as a water boy at the St. John Hospital building site and put his inside knowledge to use organizing a burglary of some equipment. During the heist, night watchman Thomas Sherrill discovered the intruders. Davis wheeled and emptied his revolver into the under-matched Sherrill and killed him.

While serving a life sentence for the Sherrill murder—a stay that involved multiple escapes and recaptures—Davis was granted a 20-month leave of absence from the state pen at McAlester. Karpis claimed the state’s decision was greased with his $1,500 bribe. Davis chose not to return to prison; instead he took up with the Karpis-Barker gang to successfully rob numerous banks.

The gang was poised for its most complicated and lucrative undertaking. Following the successful, maiden kidnapping of Minnesota beer magnate William J. Hamm Jr. and the collection of a $100,000 ransom, Karpis set in motion the abduction of banker Bremmer. It proved to be the demise of the remaining Barker family, Karpis and all their henchmen.

Needing more manpower, Karpis headed for Tulsa to recruit colleagues from the hoodlum pool at Sixth and Peoria. Although the Barker hideout at 401 N. Cincinnati Ave. occasionally provided him refuge on his visits to Tulsa, Karpis usually bunked with the notorious George “Burrhead” Keady, an agent of sorts for local petty criminals. Harry Campbell, a Keady find, was an oil-field thief before becoming Karpis’ right-hand man.

Nicknamed “Limpy” for a bum leg, Campbell was first arrested at age 16 for burglary and larceny. After an escape from the Tulsa County jail, he was incarcerated for some bank burglaries in which he used nitroglycerin. Karpis liked his credentials. Tulsans Harry Sawyer, William Weaver and Cassius McDonald teamed up with buddies Davis and Campbell to become a part of the Karpis-Barker gang’s Minnesota rampage that included the fateful kidnapping and successful ransoming of Bremmer. Netting $200,000 in marked bills, the gang split up to launder the proceeds in Cuba, Chicago and Reno and lay low. Yet by 1936, they had all been convicted in the Bremmer case and were at Alcatraz when Karpis arrived from New Orleans via Ft. Leavenworth.

When the gang separated after splitting the Bremmer ransom, Karpis returned to Toledo, Ohio, where he settled into a house with his moll of three years, Dolores Delaney. Early in their liaison, Karpis arranged and paid for the sixteen-year-old to abort their love child. In 1935, she was pregnant again when the Feds traced Karpis and Campbell along with their female companions to the Dan-Mor rooming house in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Blasting their way out, Karpis and Campbell shot a policeman in the face and wounded several others. Errantly shot in the leg by Campbell, Delaney was nabbed, arrested and charged for her complicity in the Bremmer kidnapping. She was temporarily moved to Philadelphia, where the child she conceived with Karpis—a son—was born.

Returned to court, Delaney ultimately received a five-year sentence for harboring Karpis. The two lovers never saw each other again and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Karpowicz of Chicago, adopted the infant, christening him Raymond Alvin Karpowicz. Karpis spent time in Chicago, but business always came before family.

In 1958, while imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth for a few months, Karpis got a visit from his 23-year-old son and new daughter-in-law. “Then I seen them,” Karpis remembered in his autobiography On The Rock, co-authored with Robert Livesey and released in 1980. “It is as if I am looking at myself in the mirror.”

The presence of a special guard during their visit infuriates the younger Ray and the guard promptly ended the visit. On the way out, Karpis’ son lost his temper with the warden and was permanently banished from the facility. Leavenworth didn’t want his dad there, either, and Karpis was returned to Alcatraz.

Determined to stay clear of other prisoner’s problems, Karpis spent his remaining time on the island by himself. Sitting in his cell across from the barbershop, he learned to play steel guitar. Shortly after his transfer to McNeil Island in Puget Sound, Washington, where he would be paroled, Karpis met a quiet, meek inmate called “Little Charlie,” a devout believer in the Church of Scientology. Karpis began to teach him the instrument, but Charlie preferred rock ’n’ roll to Karpis’ country-and-western. In time, Charles Manson mastered the steel guitar.

In 1973, four years after being paroled and seeking peaceful refuge, Karpis moved to the sunny Spanish riviera city of Torrelimos. He worked on the “Rock” book beside the pool at Sofico while amusing himself with a series of girlfriends. Yet some of his thoughts smacked of yesteryear. In an odd criminal salvo, Karpis planned an imaginary robbery of the Banco Coca near his apartment in Spain. The “perfect score,” he explained to author Livesey, were the two side-by-side banks teeming with money during the tourist season. Easy to break in at night and empty both vaults. Bada–bing, bada-boom.

With no regrets or remorse for past actions, Karpis claimed Alcatraz did nothing to reform him.