Joseph Edward Earlywine
On May 3, 1938, Special Agent William R. Ramsey died from wounds he sustained while attempting to arrest suspects in a Lapel, Indiana bank burglary that had taken place the previous year.
On May 2, during the course of the arrest operation, one of the suspects, Joe Earlywine, drew a gun and shot Agent Ramsey several times.
The agent returned fire, and a bullet struck Earlywine in the forehead, killing him instantly.
The December 1937 Bank Robbery
The burglary of the State Bank of Lapel in Lapel, Indiana on the night of December 2, 1937, during which time the paltry sum of $5.45 was surreptitiously stolen, led to the slaying of Special Agent William R. Ramsey, Jr., the death of Joseph Earlywine, a twice-paroled convict who in cold blood killed Agent Ramsey, and the apprehension of Fred Steffler and William Hulett, two other paroled convicts.
On the morning of December 3, 1937, the cashier of the State Bank of Lapel telephoned the Indianapolis Field Division of the FBI and advised that the bank had been burglarized on the previous night. Since deposits of this bank were insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the burglary was in violation of the Federal Bank Robbery Act, and a crime within the investigative jurisdiction of the FBI.
The Bureau commenced an immediate investigation that disclosed that the burglars gained entrance to the bank by loosening a grate over a rear window and sought to gain access to the safe with the aid of an acetylene torch. However, apparently becoming disturbed, the burglars departed abandoning an acetylene torch and equipment in the bank and stealing the small sum previously mentioned.
In cooperation with the Indiana State Police, information was developed indicating Earlywine, Steffler, and Hulett were involved in this burglary and in other robberies in Indiana and were engaged in the theft of certain acetylene torches and other burglar equipment.
More Bank Robberies in 1938
During the investigation of this burglary, the First State Bank and Trust Company of Indianola, Illinois, and the State Bank of Oakwood, Illinois, were burglarized on the nights of March 3, 1938, and April 29, 1938, respectively. The State Bank of Lapel was also the victim of a second burglary on the night of April 25, 1938.
An investigation was conducted by the FBI in regard to these burglaries, and it was found that the modus operandi employed by the burglars in each case was similar to that used in the burglary of the State Bank of Lapel, Indiana, on December 2, 1937.
In investigating the second burglary of this bank on April 25, 1938, it was ascertained that a night watchman, in making his round, had noticed unusual activity in the bank. However, he was apparently seen by the burglars and before he could summon aid the burglars had fled from the bank abandoning an acetylene torch and equipment in the vicinity of the bank. The night watchman later identified Fred Steffler as being one of the perpetrators of the burglary. After this information was obtained the efforts of the FBI and the cooperating local law enforcement officers were directed toward the location and apprehension of Earlywine, Steffler, and Hulett.
A federal warrant was issued on May 2, 1938, for Steffler charging him with violation of the Federal Bank Robbery Statute in connection with his participation in the burglary of the State Bank of Lapel on the night of April 25, 1938, and state warrants were issued for the arrest of Earlywine and Hulett upon charges of theft of acetylene equipment used in some of the above-mentioned bank burglaries.
The Suspects Are Located
The investigation resulted in the location of Earlywine and Hulett on a farm near Penfield, Illinois, and after observing the activities of Earlywine and Hulett for several days in an effort to ascertain the location of Fred Steffler, it was decided that Earlywine and Hulett should be taken into custody.
Accordingly, Agent Ramsy, together with another special agent, the local sheriff, and members of the Illinois and Indiana State Police, approached the farmhouse for this purpose. Upon reaching the farm, Hulett was seen plowing in the field and was immediately taken into custody.
Special Agent William R. Ramsey
Agent Ramsey accompanied by two Indiana State officers and the sheriff entered the house while the other FBI agent and local officers waited outside to prevent the escape of anyone within the house.
Upon gaining entrance to the house, Earlywine was identified and advised of his arrest. Instead of submitting to arrest, Earlywine whipped out a gun and shot Agent Ramsey several times. Agent Ramsey returned the fire and a bullet struck Earlywine in the forehead, killing him instantly. Agent Ramsey was mortally wounded by Earlywine’s bullets and he was immediately taken to a local hospital where he died early the next morning.
In his mad frenzy, Earlywine fired wildly and recklessly with no regard for even the lives of members of his family. During the shooting, Earlywine’s seven-year-old son, Virgil, rushed excitedly into the room and was wounded in the chest by a bullet from his father’s .45 caliber automatic.
In a subsequent search of Earlywine’s farmhouse many burglars’ tools and equipment, such as acetylene and oxygen gas tanks, gauges, torches, dynamite, and hundreds of items of loot of various types and varieties were discovered, all of which gave positive proof of Joseph Earlywine’s activities as a burglar.
On the afternoon of May 2, 1938, special agents of the FBI and local law enforcement officers apprehended the 41 year-old, hazel-eyed, scarfaced Fred Steffler as he was entering his residence at 210 Stroup Street, Danville, Illinois.
A search of Steffler’s dwelling resulted in the recovery of a .45 caliber Army Model Colt revolver, the numbers of which had been filed off and completely destroyed so that the gun could not be traced. Three ounces of nitroglycerin were also found. Immediately, Steffler was incarcerated in a local jail where he was interrogated by FBI agents.
During this interrogation Steffler furnished a lengthy signed statement in regard to his criminal activities. Steffler, in commenting on his recent criminal activities admitted that he, accompanied by Joseph Earlywine, burglarized a safe of an automobile agency in Muncie, Indiana, in the fall of 1937, and obtained approximately $900, and blew another safe of a theater at Petersburg, Indiana, and obtained $245 soon after. Early in 1938, he and Earlywine robbed a safe in Mattoon, Illinois, and obtained approximately $500. Later, he alone burglarized a safe at Bloomington, Illinois, and obtained $300.
According to Steffler, on the night of March 3, 1938, he and Earlywine burglarized the First State Bank and Trust Company of Indianola, Illinois, but were forced to abandon the bank before opening the safe because a gas bomb exploded in the bank. Although Steffler did not admit that he burglarized the State Bank of Lapel on December 2, 1937, he admitted Joseph Earlywine had informed him that he, Earlywine, had committed this crime.
Steffler also advised that Hulett did not assist in these burglaries and in view of the lack of evidence indicating Hulett participated in these crimes, he was not prosecuted in federal court. Hulett was tried on August 17, 1938, in the state court at Danville, Illinois, on the charge of receiving stolen property. However, he was acquitted on this charge.
On June 27, 1938, a federal grand jury at Indianapolis, Indiana, returned an indictment against Steffler charging him with violation of the Federal Bank Robbery Statute by unlawfully entering the State Bank of Lapel, Indiana, on the night of April 25, 1938. The next day, June 28, 1938, he was arraigned in federal court, entered a plea of guilty, and was sentenced to serve 15 years in a federal penitentiary.
At the direction of the Attorney General of the United States, he was sent to the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, to serve this sentence.
Background on the Three Criminals
The files of the Identification Division of the FBI reflect that Earlywine, Hulett, and Steffler had become entangled in the meshes of the law on numerous occasions prior to becoming involved in the burglary of banks in the states of Indiana and Illinois.
In 1921, Earlywine was arrested at Frankfort, Indiana, on a charge of stealing chickens. He was given a suspended sentence of one to eight years in the Indiana Reformatory. In 1922, he was arrested at Noblesville, Indiana, for rape, and acquitted by the jury. He was received at the Indiana State Reformatory, Pendleton, Indiana, on February 19, 1926, after having been convicted on a charge of grand larceny, to serve a sentence of from one to fourteen years. He received a parole from this institution March 11, 1927. On July 27, 1934, he was received at the State Prison, Michigan City, Indiana, to serve a sentence of from two to fourteen years upon a charge of conspiracy to commit a felony. However, he was paroled on December 23, 1935.
John William Hulett was another recipient of parole. His criminal record indicates that he was received at the Indiana State Reformatory, Pendleton, Indiana, on July 28, 1934, to serve a sentence of from one to ten years for grand larceny. He was paroled June 27, 1935.
The third person involved who had also been granted clemency by a parole board was Fred Steffler. On June 27, 1916, Steffler was received at the State Farm, Greencastle, Indiana, on a charge of petty larceny to serve 215 days. He escaped on July 4, 1916. He was arrested for theft of a motor vehicle and received at the Indiana Reformatory, Jefferson, Indiana, to serve from six months to five years on November 11, 1917. Here he was paroled and turned over to the Indiana State Farm on July 12, 1918, to serve a two to five year sentence for escaping from the institution. On May 14, 1919, he was paroled.
Steffler was received at the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas, on June 19, 1920, for violation of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, to serve a sentence of five years. On December 9, 1924, he was incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, to serve four years for unlawfully breaking into and entering a United States Post Office. He was transferred to the United States Penitentiary at McNeil Island on October 6, 1926, and released on January 7, 1928.
On January 22, 1928, Steffler was received at the Washington State Penitentiary, Walla Walla, Washington, on two charges, burglary and grand larceny, to serve not less than fifteen years on each charge. He was paroled on April 3, 1933. On January 6, 1934, he entered the Indiana State Prison, Michigan City, Indiana, to serve from two to fourteen years. However, he was paroled on February 7, 1936.
On November 5, 1936, he was declared delinquent for failure to report and being suspected of safe cracking. A warden’s warrant was issued for his arrest but he was not located until apprehended by special agents of the FBI and local officers on May 2, 1938, on the bank robbery charge for which he received a 15-year sentence previously mentioned.