In March of 1931, four wanted desperadoes on a state-wide crime spree were captured by a posse comprised of police officers, and citizens from different Panhandle communities. After spending the night in hiding in the Mulat swamp, six miles west of Milton, the trapped criminals surrendered to Deputy Sheriff Wade Cobb of Milton, Deputy Alex Cooper of Washington county, and Roscoe Rollins, a civilian from Chipley.
The quartet on the run were two men, Leonard “Tex” Hayes, Bert Oglesby, and two women, Fay Harris, and Mabel Wertz. The women were from St. Louis, Missouri, and the men from Oklahoma.
The crime spree started in Jacksonville on Wednesday night, March 4, when two police officers recognized an Oklahoma license plate reported to be on a car used in a hold up on Feb. 25th. Officer Wilbur Blizzard was shot, and patrolman H. V. Branch was clubbed. The bandits fled to the west and abandoned their car at Lake City.
Early Thursday morning, they seized a truck in Wellborn, FL, twenty miles west of Lake City, and took two hostages, father and son, D.C., and J. L. McDonald. They continued westward with their hostages two hundred miles to Chipley. Officers in Chipley had been forewarned by authorities in Live Oak that the bandits were probably heading their way, and were on the lookout for them.
Nearing Chipley the bandits were engaged in a gun battle with the local officers badly wounding Posse man Gillis Malloy, and Deputy D. J. Brock, who were later transported to a hospital in Dothan, Alabama. Both eventually recovered, even though Malloy was hit at least 6 times. There were also 40 convicts, and their guards who were near the shootout and ordered to lie down by the bandits. The quartet seized a car from a motorist and headed back to the east for seven miles, before taking another car, and eventually turning back to the west. The McDonalds got away from them during the gun fight, and were not injured. One of the male bandits was using a “riot” gun, and one of the women was using a small automatic pistol, and Deputy Brock believed (mistakenly) that he had hit her with one shot.
There were reports coming in from all over with the bandits being spotted heading to Panama City, Dothan, Ala., and Pensacola. Later, it was learned that after taking a car from a motorist, the bandits sped east to Cottondale, turned off on a side road and went north, then got back on the main road to DeFuniak Springs where they obtained eight gallons of gasoline and continued on toward Pensacola.
The bandit car was seen speeding across the Blackwater river bridge into Milton, and the final pursuit began. Deputy Sheriff Wade Cobb, Mack Williams, and other citizens, including the Mayor of Chipley, R. H. Rollins, and Deputy Alex Cooper from Washington County, gave chase and the bandits turned off the main road at the Rozier farm, and after three miles on the backroad abandoned their car and went into the marsh on foot. A perimeter was set up and the bandits spent the night in the swamp.
Recognizing the hopelessness of their situation the four surrendered, by Mabel Wertz shouting, “Don’t shoot, we’re coming out!” As they came out Hayes made a move like he might be reaching for a gun, but Deputy Cobb had him covered with an automatic rifle. Wertz had a handbag under her arm and unsuccessfully tried to prevent the deputies from taking it. Hayes, and Oglesby were disarmed and a rifle was found in the woods. The only wounds noted on the bandits were a slight cut on Oglesby’s ear probably caused by a flying piece of glass in the Chipley shoot out.
Santa Rosa county Sheriff Henry Mitchell, and Escambia county Sheriff Mose Penton were attending the state Sheriff’s convention at Sarasota. They drove all night Thursday, and arrived in Milton Friday morning. The prisoners posed for photographs, and answered some questions from a Gazette reporter.
The prisoners were transported back to Washington county Friday afternoon, and formally charged with highway robbery, assault with intent to murder, and kidnapping.
A large crowd had gathered in Chipley when the convoy of three cars arrived, and it was thought that an attempt would be made against the men who had shot and wounded the two Washington county posse men. There was no attempt. Sheriffs Mitchell, and Sheriff Farrior of Washington county appeared in front of the crowd at the courthouse and talked to the assembled crowd. Sheriff Mitchell described the events, and complimented Sheriff Farrior for his assistance, then appealed for the crowd to go home and let the law take its course. He received a large round of applause.
By Monday, Sheriff Mitchell received letters, and photographs from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas, and other places. A detective from Tulsa, Jack Bonham, was particularly interested to know if Mabel Wertz, who was also known as Dammerel, was still with Oglesby. Bonham said that Wertz was from a nice family in St. Louis, but had married a criminal named Doc Dammerel, who was now serving time in the Oklahoma Penitentiary for highway robbery. Oglesby was wanted in Oklahoma for escaping from the State Prison. According to a letter found on Wertz, she was the mother of two children. The letter was from her mother, begging her to give up her association with Oglesby, and come home to the children.
Hayes, and Oglesby had escaped from jail in Springfield Missouri, by taking a gun from a jailor and forcing him to open the outside door of the jail. As they escaped the jailor fired a rifle at the escapees, hitting Hayes and another escapee in the neck, and Oglesby in the shoulder. Detective Bonham in his letter, said that Wertz had smuggled in the gun for the jailbreak. A car that that was stolen by the escapees was abandoned in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Sheriff Marcel Hendrix of Green county, Springfield, Missouri, was anxious to get Hayes and Oglesby. They were wanted for numerous robberies in Missouri, and Oklahoma, and for breaking out of jail in Springfield on January 27th. Sheriff Mitchell received the following telegram from the Springfield Sheriff Friday night: “See you have Burt Oglesby, Tex Hayes, Mabel Dammerel alias Mabel Wertz and Fay Harris. I am much interested in the capture of these men as they and four others broke out of jail here January 27th. One of their partners recaptured and sentenced to 40 years today, and another got twenty-five years. If you do not have a strong case I am anxious for these men. Positive they will receive Ninety-nine here. Will extradite.” Sheriff Mitchell informed the Missouri officials that the prisoners had already been turned over to Washington county.
Hayes, and Oglesby were indicted as principals, and Wertz, and Harris as accessories. All four pled not guilty to the charges in front of Circuit Court Judge C. D. Jones. States attorney L. V. McRae said all four would be tried jointly. None of the four displayed any anxiety over being held for trial.
On April 2, 1931 after changing their pleas to guilty, Hayes, and Oglesby were sentenced to 20 years for robbery and 10 years with assault with intent to commit murder. The sentences were to run concurrently. The two women were sentenced to 10 years for being accessories to the robberies, and to five years for being accessories to the assaults. Judge Jones denied the couples request to be married before sending them to prison.
At the time of his arrest, Bert Oglesby was on parole from an eight year sentence for car theft, and burglary in Oklahoma. Governor Murray revoked the parole upon learning of the Florida crime spree. C.E.B. Culter, pardon, and parole attorney said there would be no attempt to return Oglesby to Oklahoma if he was prosecuted in Florida.
In October of 1931, Oglesby’s brother Jack, 22, and his sister Zelma M. Woodmansee, attempted to mail arms, and ammunition to Oglesby at the prison in Starke, FL. Mrs. J. Young, Postmistress, at Starke, 12 miles from the prison, testified that she had received a package containing two pistols mailed from Tulsa. Oglesby, and Woodmansee pleaded not guilty when arraigned and were released on $5000 bond. They were later found guilty, and sentenced to prison.
The two women, who had become known at the “bobbed-hair bandits”, were paroled from the state prison in Raiford on November 27, 1935. They were released on December 22nd, to the county judge in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The length of their parole was for six months. They were eligible for a full pardon after their parole completed.