In the spring of 1918, Three men burst into a business meeting and steals a pocketful of cash, leaving three men, including one of their own, dead in a fusillade of bullets.
Here’s an exciting story that has many of the elements of classic noir: A deadly robbery, an exhaustive manhunt, a daring escape from the county jail and a tense showdown ending with a clever police ploy.
Music by Chuck Wiggins
Continue reading “Their Secret Died in the Chair”→
Calera, Alabama, Police Chief Henry Blake’s story was consistent throughout, from the time he reported the incident to the judge/acting coroner to the time that the dead girl’s aunt stabbed him in the neck: Miss Louise Monteabaro used her own gun to commit suicide in the passenger seat of her car.
Miss Monteabaro, as his story goes, was speeding down the Montgomery Highway from Selma on the Monday evening of November 14, 1927. She left Calera at an excessive speed, so Chief Blake and Officer W.H. Farmer gave chase on motorcycles. For five miles they followed her, then the chief saw her throw a glass bottle out of the window. It shattered on the highway and the chief fired a warning shot into the air. A quarter of a mile later, she stopped the car and the chief approached.
Blake said that Miss Monteabaro, 26, had been drinking heavily and did not seem excited when he told her that she was going to have to get in the passenger side of the car and let him drive it back to town. She was under arrest.
“What charges are you going to make against me?” she asked.
“Speeding and violating the liquor law,” he replied.
Blake parked his motorcycle and she offered no objection as he got behind the wheel of Miss Montebaro’s Star Coupe, turned it around and headed back to Calera, following Officer Farmer on his motorcycle. The chief said that when they got back to where the bottle had been thrown from the car, Farmer stopped, got off his motorcycle and began brushing the glass out of the road, mopping up what liquid he could find with a rag. Blake slowed the girl’s coupe and stopped at the spot, noting the odor of alcohol. When the car came to a halt, the girl asked if she could roll down the window. Blake said OK, and in an instant, there was the sound of a gunshot. Blake at first thought it was a blowout, but then the girl’s body slumped forward and he saw blood on her face.
One bullet from a .32 automatic revolver had been fired into her right temple and exited the left side of her face.
That same evening, the inquest of acting Shelby County coroner Judge L.B. Riddle, based on the investigation of Sheriff C.J. Faulkner, ruled that Miss Monteabaro committed suicide and took no further action in the case. Riddle said it was not a formal inquest with a hearing, just a decision he made after speaking to the sheriff and other witnesses at the scene.
One of the witnesses was M.T. Hathaway, who lived on the Montgomery Highway near where Miss Monteabaro was killed. Hathaway saw the car speed by with two police motorcycles following it, sirens blaring. When the car and the motorcycles stopped down the road, he heard a shot. After returning a short distance back to Calera, Hathaway saw one of the police attempting to “mop something in the road”. The car halted again and he heard another shot, then heard one of the officers say, “I told you she had a gun.” The car and the motorcycle then sped past Hathaway and toward the town.
Eddie Spain, 16, lived near the scene and drove up in an automobile while Farmer was mopping up liquid from the road with a rag. Spain said Farmer flagged him down and asked him to “smell this handkerchief and see if it hasn’t got whiskey on it.”
“I smelled the handkerchief, but I couldn’t smell any whiskey on it,” Spain said. “It did have some peculiar odor, but I’ve smelled whiskey lots of times and I know it wasn’t that. Mr. Farmer told me that the woman tried to wreck us by throwing a bottle of whiskey on the road in front of us. Then he asked us to come on over to the automobile because he thought the woman has shot herself. I went over to the car, and the woman was slumped over in the seat beside Blake, who was sitting behind the wheel. The auto had been turned toward Calera but the engine was not running. There was an automatic on the girl’s lap, but I did not notice what make it was.”
Despite being shot in the face, Miss Monteabaro was still alive and Blake rushed her into town to the office of Dr. C.O. Lawrence.
Doctors said there were no powder burns on the girl’s face. Her lashes were not singed and the bullet that killed her was larger than a .32 caliber, the gun that she carried while she traveled as a salesperson for a sewing machine company.
Another development that heightened the mystery was the discovery of a bullet under the upholstering on the back of the seat of Miss Monteabaro’s Star Coupe, which was brought to Selma after the incident. Inspecting officers discovered a tuft of hair 20 inches above where she sat at the wheel, and the right sleeve of her suit coat had dirt and grease marks.
Coroner Andrew Brislin of Selma authorized Dr. F.G. Dubose to perform the autopsy, which revealed that the bullet came from below and behind her. There was no fracture of the skull, either from where the bullet entered her head or left it, and the wound appeared to be caused by a steel-jacketed bullet fired from some distance. Had the bullet been fired at close range, there would have been fracturing of the skull, the doctor said.
“I made a careful examination for burns about the lip of the wound and then probed within it,” Dubose’s report said. “There was no trace of a burn. Any gun, regardless of the powder used, will make a burn when fired within a radius of two feet. And another point that would indicate the girl was shot from a distance is the fact that there were two clean holes, where the bullet penetrated and where it emerged. To accomplish this, even a steel jacket must be fired from a distance to attain sufficient velocity. I have examined many suicides and in every case the skull was fractured at the point of emergence. The bullet had not attained the needed velocity. The gun that Miss Monteabaro carried was a .32 automatic. The bullet we found in the upholstery of the car was of a caliber known as a special, an intermediate size between a .32 and a .38. But any expert will be able to tell whether or not the bullet was fired from the gun. The rifle marks on a bullet are as certain on the bullet as are fingerprints on a man. I found no trace of alcohol about the body during the autopsy.”
Her right wrist was bruised and the skin twisted. The discolorations appeared after mortification set in.
Her uncle, her mother’s brother Alton Tubb, said that Louise was a working girl, a sewing machine saleswoman for Singer, and had $70 on her when she left their hometown of Berlin on Monday afternoon. Miss Bert Eason, who met Miss Monteabaro at Cowart’s drug store, where she had used the telephone, confirmed that Louise had a roll of money in the left-hand pocket of her skirt.
“The roll was fairly good-sized,” Miss Eason said. “I saw without any possibility of mistake that that there were at least three five-dollar bills and a number of one dollar bills.”
When her body arrived at the office of Dr. C.O. Lawrence, she had only $6 on her. Pete Eason, Bert’s brother, removed the bloodstained bills from her skirt pocket. There was blood on the inside of her pocket.
When Dr. Lawrence administered first aid, he said he could smell liquor on her, but could not say that she was drunk, as the chief insisted. J.F. Seale, proprietor of Seale’s Café in Calera, confirmed that Miss Monteabaro was drunk and cursing when she stopped in his establishment for a soft drink, and had in fact offered him a drink.
The Rev. J.S. Jennings, however, spoke with the victim when she was in Calera: “We were standing face to face within a foot of each other and I did not smell any liquor. There were no signs whatever that the young woman was drinking. In fact, I will swear she was not.
Despite the evidence, the chief stuck to the story.
“The claim is baseless,” Blake said. “She killed her own self after we had arrested her and nobody regrets the tragedy more than I do.”
Hundreds of people attended the funeral at Berlin on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Mabel Monteabaro, the victim’s mother, went to Calera with her brother Alton Tubb; Norman Stanfil, chief of Selma police; Dr. W.W. Stewart, who participated in the autopsy; and several other citizens of Selma and Berlin. They were joined by state investigators John C. Coleman and L.H. Camp, sent by Governor Bibb Graves at the request of Judge J.B. Evans of Selma.
“I personally ordered this investigation and I am watching it closely,” Governor Graves said. “I talked with the officer who is making it and I told him to get to the bottom of it. Until his report is made, of course, I have only the reports which have been published and can form no opinion.”
By that weekend, there were four different investigations taking place in Selma, Berlin and Calera: by state investigators Coleman and Camp; by Arthur L. Hardegree, solicitor of the 18th judicial circuit at the direction of Judge E.S. Lyman; by Attorney General Charlie C. McCall; and by Normal Stanfil, Selma Chief of Police, at the insistence of the Monteabaro family. The investigation by Calera police and Shelby County Sheriff ended at the ad hoc inquest on Monday evening.
“I have talked to both Chief Blake and Officer W.D. Farmer,” Calera Mayor Brown said. “They have told me their story and I have no reason to doubt them. As far as I am concerned, the case is closed unless something else develops.”
Attorney General McCall arrived in Selma on Friday afternoon, and after borrowing the Star Coupe from the Selma Police, retraced the narrative. He said that his investigation was “far from complete,” but he already had a good idea about what happened.
“There is a strong probability the girl did not take her own life, as officers have said,” he told the press. “Miss Monteabaro’s character and life and nature point strongly to the falsity of the allegation that she is a suicide. My office has investigated some 30 or more witnesses during the past few days and a mass of valuable evidence has been gathered. It is not my purpose to become controversial with anyone about the affair. However, without divulging the specific evidence and the authority thereof, I may officially state that, one, there is a very strong probability that Miss Monteabaro did not commit suicide. Two, her character, life, manner, nature actions and training point strongly to the falsity of the allegation that she is a suicide. Three, there are contradictions by highly reliable authorities that the wound showed powder burns, that she could have fired the shot without others being aware of it, that she had been under the influence of liquor; as to the number of shots fired, that there was any liquor in her car and what took place after the officers stopped her car.
“I do not think much of the powder burn story. There is, I am positive, a logical explanation of this death which I am sure I can give after a thorough investigation. My investigation will remain independent of any other department or county affair. Things are not looking good for the suicide theory after all.”
In his examination of the highway, McCall said he found blood stains at the approximate point where officers reported Louise first stopped her car, and that they extended back toward Calera for a distance of 112 feet. He said there were no blood stains on the highway at the spot where Blake said the girl shot herself. McCall had an eight-inch section of the pavement taken up and sent to a laboratory.
McCall also took the gun that Calera Police said was used in the shooting and showed it to Berlin resident W. T. Alison Jr., who had given Louise a pistol in 1926 and said she had carried it habitually ever since.
“This was a Remington .32 automatic,” the attorney general reported. “Alison said that the gun he gave the girl was a Savage .32 automatic.”
On Wednesday, November 23, Selma Police Chief Stanfill said that four bloodstained one-dollar bills had been found in circulation near Calera. On the night of her death, Louise Monteabaro had $61 in one pocket and $6 in another. Only the $6 had been recovered when she was brought in fatally wounded. Blake said that she did not have any money on her when she was arrested.
The day before a special grand jury met at Columbiana, newspapers reported that police had been keeping secret an eye witness to the event, Mrs. C.W. Jones, who lived within 100 yards of the spot where one of the officers fired a warning shot. Mrs. Jones said she saw the flash from the shot, but could not tell which of the two officers fired it.
“I was standing with my husband in the front yard when we heard an automobile coming up the road at full speed with the officers chasing it. Just as they passed our house, a shot was fired and I saw the flash from the gun. They went on up the road for about 200 yards or maybe a little more and two more shots were fired. The automobile zig-zagged across the road and stopped. I could not tell who fired the two shots after they had passed my house.”
Mr. Jones confirmed the story, though he did not see the flash of the first shot.
The trial of Chief Blake began on March 6, 1928, in Columbiana, Judge E.S. Lyman presiding, was contentious and spectacular at first–and at the end–beginning with a near fist-fight between the defense attorney, State Senator Leven H. Ellis, and Alabama Attorney General Charlie McCall.
McCall asked that witnesses be allowed to remain in the courtroom, to which Ellis protested.
“I do not need any of your advice and didn’t ask for any,” McCall snapped.
“And I do not need advice from the so-called attorney general of Alabama,” Ellis countered.
McCall jumped from his seat and made a move toward Ellis, his hand on his hip, but a deputy sheriff jumped between them and told McCall, “I’ll take that gun.”
“Well,” McCall said, “We’ll both take off our guns.”
It turned out, however, that neither attorney was armed.
The first witness was Cecile Tubb, who testified about the money Louise Monteabaro had been carrying the night of her death.
Mr. C.W. Jones related the story of the cars passing by his home and the shots fired. Under cross-examination, he admitted that Blake had once arrested him for possessing a gallon of whiskey, and in re-direct claimed that one of Blake’s attorneys, L.L. Saxon, had tried to intimidate him: “He told me that I had better keep quiet about the case or there would be trouble.”
Witness after witness, four of them physicians, took the stand with testimony saying that Louise did not die by her own hand. Most damning was Dr. Dubose: “I inserted a .32 bullet in the wound and it was far smaller than the hole in her skull. Then I tried a .38 bullet and it fit snugly into the hole caused by the bullet which ended the girl’s life… There would have been powder burns if the gun had been fired within 12 to 15 inches of her head. Her hair was not singed, either, as it would have been if the gun had been held close to her head.”
Dr. S.W. Wallace, head of the Fraternal Hospital in Birmingham, where the girl died, testified that he found no trace of whiskey: “Miss Monteabaro was still alive when she reached the hospital, and I noticed particularly to see if she had been drinking because one of the nurses said she understood she had been. There was absolutely no odor of whiskey on her breath, nor was there any trace of any having been spilled on her body.”
The state’s bombshell witnesses were Minnie Foster, an eye witness to the scene that no one had been expecting, and Marian Redfern, who was expected to be a defense witness.
Miss Foster said she saw a gun flash before the girl’s automobile came to a stop and that she heard one man ask, “Now what are you going to do?” and another replied, “I guess I’ll just go on back.”
McCall and Ellis almost came to blows once again over the testimony of Miss Redfern. After calling her to the stand, McCall asked Ellis for a copy of a statement the witness had prepared for the defense. Ellis complied, and looking at the paper, McCall asked Redfern if she and the victim had ever roomed together.
“No, sir,” she said. Ellis suddenly burst into a storm of objections, asking McCall if he were questioning the witness from the statement. McCall did not answer, and despite Ellis’s appeal, the judge did not compel him to answer.
“Did Miss Monteabaro ever state in your presence that someday she intended to ‘end it all’?” McCall asked.
“No, she did not,” the witness replied.
McCall then announced to the court that the defense had taken a statement from Miss Redfern contending that she was ill and could not be present at the trial.
“We propose to show that the defense is presenting fictitious evidence, which the Honorable Mr. Ellis has accused the prosecution of doing,” he said. Ellis snapped to his feet again and demanded that the attorney general be reprimanded. Judge Lyman seemed on the verge of complying with the request when McCall apologized. Ellis did not cross-examine the witness, nor would he indicate whether he intended to call her back to the stand during the defense portion of the trial.
For five days, the state produced witness after witness refuting the defense before it even began. When the defense did get underway, it seem ineffective. When the state cross examined Ellis’s first witness, Miss Lily Martin, called upon to talk about how the victim was cursing up a storm in Seale’s Café on the night of her death. Assistant Attorney General John J. Haynes had little trouble shaking her testimony, getting her to say that she really didn’t know anything about the case.
“I was in the back of the restaurant when I heard someone pounding at the door,” she testified.
She said she let Monteabaro inside, but the girl railed at her: “What do you have this (expletive) door fastened for? Give me some kind of (expletive) soda water.” At that, Martin said she told Seale that he would have to wait on this one himself. In the dining room, the obviously drunk girl then went up to Officer Farmer and said something about “the old shed cop.”
But in cross-examination, pressed to account for discrepancies in her story, she confessed, “Well, I just didn’t know how Mr. Ellis wanted me to answer.” She also did not recall seeing the two state’s witnesses who were in the café that night.
As the trial entered its third week, interest began to wane. Even when Chief Blake took the stand in his own defense, repeating the story he had been telling from the beginning, the prosecution failed to drum up any drama in cross-examination. McCall and his team did provide a rousing rebuttal by discrediting the defense witnesses, bringing people in to say that the doctor who described the powder burns on the victim’s temple was only there for a few minutes and that another defense witness was in Birmingham that night and could not have possibly been on the scene. Still, Ellis called for a mistrial, saying that the state’s case was founded on nothing but perjured testimony.
The state also called for a mistrial, bringing witnesses who said that at least one of the jurors had said his mind was made up before testimony began. The judge denied both motions.
In closing arguments, Ellis said that he’d never had to defend a client “at the point of two guns, but no matter how many guns they bring up here, I will defend him to the last,” then proceeded to belittle the victim: “I’m sorry for the little girl with a package of cigarettes in her purse, a cigarette lighter around her neck, a bottle of liquor under her coat and an oath on her tender lips.”
The same newspaper that complained that the drawn-out trial was not only the longest ever but also the most boring Alabama had ever seen, changed its tone the day of the verdict, calling it “one of the most dramatic cases in the state’s history.”
The jury had been out all night, and early on the morning of Thursday, March 22, 1928, delivered a verdict of not guilty. Judge Lyman sent them home and adjourned court. Spectators began filing out while people at the bar lingered, waiting for the room to clear. Chief Blake stood near the jury box, happily accepting the congratulations from the jurors when Cecile Tubb, Louise Monteabaro’s aunt, drew a knife from her pocketbook and stabbed him in the neck. Two of the jurors grabbed the woman and McCall’s investigators quickly took control of the incident. As they were wresting the knife from Aunt Cecile, the wild shot of a revolver rang out, splintering paneling on the wall behind the jury box. McCall fainted. In the pandemonium, police seized on Alton Tubb, who denied being the shooter as sheriff deputies forcibly removed him from the room, just behind his wife. Several moments passed before anyone realized that Mabel Montebaro, the victim’s mother who was hysterical and unable to speak coherently, had fired the shot, having taken the pistol that had once belonged to her daughter from the evidence table. Another pair of deputies removed her as well, taking her to join her sister and brother in the county jail, while Blake ended up in the emergency room, a three-inch deep stab wound in his neck.
Officials feared that the dramatic climax would inspire violence among the citizenry and so put the National Guard on standby. This gave Judge Lyman an opportunity to call them in or not (he did not), and to remove Mabel Monteabaro and the Tubbs to Birmingham for their own safety.
Blake’s condition was serious and could have been fatal, though no major blood vessels had been damaged. He remained touch and go for several days and officials hesitated filing formal charges against the Tubbs siblings until they knew what they could charge them with.
“I hope Mr. Blake gets well,” Mabel Monteabaro told reporters. “I have no murder in my heart.”
The sisters were indicted for assault with intent to commit murder and released on bond. Public sentiment seemed to be on their side and a substantial defense fund began to grow. Their attorneys filed for a change of venue and McCall did not oppose the petition. “I see no reason why this trial should be made a political football as was the case in the former trial. Also I find that the people here are prejudiced on the case.”
The case was reassigned to Talladega County and got as far as calling a venir of 60 jurors, but on November 13, 1928, one day shy of the one-year anniversary of Louise Montebaro’s death, the solicitor for the 18th Judicial District, which included Shelby County, decided to not go forward with the trial.
Although McCall swore that he would proceed with the trial of Motorcycle Officer Farmer, the case never went to trial either.
The Anniston (Alabama) Star: Girl Arrested Near Calera Kills herself, November 15, 1927; Chemist Will Find if Girl was Drinking, November 16, 1927; Girl Did Not Kill Herself, Doctors Say, November 17, 1927; Officers Puzzled Whether Girl Had Struggle in Auto, November 18, 1927; Mystery Still Shrouds Death of Selma Girl, November 19, 1927; Carry Calera Probe Further, McCall Advises, November 20, 1927; Analyzing Blood Stains Found Near Scene of Shooting, November 21, 1927; Bloodstained Currency May Solve Mystery, November 23, 1927; Monteabaro Story Told by Witness, December 1, 1927; Did Not Smell Liquor, Spain Boy Declares, December 2, 1927; McCall and Ellis Have Sensational Courtroom Clash, March 6, 1928; Selma Girl Did Not Kill Self, State Claims, March 7, 1928; State Continues Attack on Story of Girl’s Suicide, March 8, 1928; Testifies Girl Given $60 Just Before Death, March 9, 1928; State Scores Another Point in Blake Trial, March 14, 1928; Blake Defense ‘Planted’ Care, State Charges, March 15, 1928; Pistol Pressed Against Head, Witness Says, March 17, 1928; Blake to Take Stand in Own Behalf Monday, March 18, 1928; Full Denial of Shooting Made by Blake, March 19, 1928; Blake Murder Trial Drawing Near Its Close, March 20, 1928; Blake Trial Reaches Its Final Day, March 21, 1928; Three Placed in Jefferson Jail After Blake Stabbing, March 22, 1928; Special Jury Probe Seen in Blake Attack, March 23, 1928; Two indicted in Chief Blake Stabbing Case, September 4, 1928; Montebaro Cases Nol Prossed, November 13, 1928.
Florence (Alabama) Times: Blake is Reported Dying From Knife Wounds, March 23, 1928.