“If You Can’t Serve Time, . . .” (Part 1): “Lights! Camera! Robbery!”

His mother was only eighteen when he was born in Rhome in Wise County in 1929. He was her second child. His father was a laborer and truck driver.

Lawrence Edward Byrom left school after the third grade—about the time his parents divorced. Lawrence lived with his father. Early on Lawrence began to go wrong. A relative later recalled that Lawrence would steal “everything from goats to groceries.” At age sixteen Lawrence stole a car and was sentenced to Gatesville state reformatory. He escaped from Gatesville, was captured, and was sentenced to the federal reformatory in El Reno, Oklahoma for three and a half years.

Fast-forward to 1949. In August Byrom, now age twenty, was conditionally released from El Reno. But he soon fell into old habits. In November he stole a car, committed three robberies in Dallas, Denton, and Jacksboro, wrecked the stolen car and abandoned it, kidnapped motorist Herman Tatum, and forced Tatum to drive him to Gainesville and Fort Worth in Tatum’s car. They passed through several roadblocks set up to apprehend Byrom and then abandoned the car.

Searching the abandoned car, police found an eyeglasses case bearing a name and address. Police traced the case to the home of Larry’s mother, who had remarried. Mrs. Edith Palmer and husband Roy lived at 1410 Gould Street on the North Side. Mr. Palmer was a packing plant truck driver. At Mrs. Palmer’s home kidnapping victim Tatum was shown family home movies and identified Byrom.

Byrom later was arrested at his mother’s home by Tarrant County Deputy Sheriff J. V. Green. Byrom said he had surrendered in compliance with his mother’s pleading.

During interrogation after his crime spree Byrom was philosophical about his arrest: “If you can’t serve time, don’t do crime.”

In the next forty-eight years Lawrence Edward Byrom would do plenty of both.

In April 1950 Byrom was in Cooke County jail in Gainesville awaiting sentencing for robbery and kidnapping when he decided that maybe he didn’t want to serve time after all. He and another prisoner, armed with a knife and a bottle covered with a sock, overpowered a jailer and telephoned for a taxi. When the taxi arrived, the fugitives tried to force the jailer into the cab with them, but when he resisted, Byrom and his partner got into the cab without him and ordered the taxi driver at knifepoint to drive on. After a few miles on a rural road the fugitives jettisoned the taxi driver. They were pursued by a Gainesville police car, but drivers of both cars lost control and crashed into obstacles on opposite sides of the road. The fugitives escaped on foot. As a posse of fifty law enforcement officers with bloodhounds set out in pursuit, the fugitives flagged down a car containing six people and forced the occupants to drive them to the North Side of Fort Worth.

By now Byrom had been indicted on three charges of kidnapping and one charge of jailbreak. He also was wanted for car theft and four armed robberies.

At this point veteran Star-Telegram reporter Tony Slaughter entered the story. Slaughter was born in Van Alstyne in 1910 and began his newspaper career in 1932 in San Angelo. He later worked for the Associated Press before joining the Star-Telegram in 1943.

Slaughter went to Mrs. Palmer’s house and sat down with her to get her side of the story.

Mrs. Palmer—“brokenhearted,” “nervous and crying”—told Slaughter that twenty-five members of her church had “stood and prayed that Lawrence would be captured safely.”

“Everything was going good when he got in the last trouble,” she said of her son. “If he would just call me on the phone I know I could talk him into coming home. . . . He could snap out of it and do right if he wanted to. Everyone is working in his favor.”

At Slaughter’s suggestion, Mrs. Palmer handwrote a letter to her son asking him to come home and surrender peaceably, as he had done in 1949. The Star-Telegram printed her letter as a photo on April 27:

“Will you please come home or call me . . . I know you won’t let me down. . . . Please don’t get hurt or hurt any body.”

“Lawrence doesn’t read well,” Mrs. Palmer told Slaughter, “but maybe he will hear about my letter asking him to come home.”

Meanwhile in Wise County fifty-five law enforcement officers and one bloodhound searched—in vain—a five-miles-square heavily wooded area near Eagle Mountain Lake after a man fitting Byrom’s description was seen there. A cousin of Byrom owned a farm in the search area, and investigators suspected that the cousin’s husband, who had been convicted of murder in the late 1930s, was taking food to Byrom. Byrom was thought to be armed with a pistol taken from an uncle’s home near Boyd in Wise County.

(Among those taking part in the manhunt was Denton County Sheriff W. O. Hodges, who was blind after being shot while making an arrest in 1949 only six days after taking office.)

Finally, on April 29, after three weeks on the lam, a son listened to his mother. Lawrence Byrom returned to the home of Mrs. Edith Palmer. He had indeed been hiding for four days in the wooded area that law enforcement officers had searched.

“Sometimes they got within 50 feet of me, but I just watched and stayed quiet,” he recalled.

“I made up my mind late yesterday that I should come back and face the music, but it took a lot of talking on my mother’s part to make me finally do it.”

“Minutes before his surrender,” the Star-Telegram wrote, “he had joined with his mother and an Assembly of God minister in a prayer session in the living room of the house.”

Mrs. Pamer said: “He said he hadn’t slept in three days. He was wet from the rain and very tired. I fixed him some bacon and eggs. . . . We talked about it, trying to decide what to do. . . . We finally convinced him the right thing to do was the only thing to do, and he decided he would surrender.”

The Star-Telegram wrote: “Byrom expressed relief that the ‘whole mess’ is over.”

Byrom surrendered to Tarrant County Deputy Sheriff J. V. Green—the same officer to whom Bryom had surrendered at his mother’s house after his first crime spree five months earlier.

One month later, on May 29, 1950, Lawrence Edward Byrom pleaded guilty to robbery, burglary, and theft. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison.

Star-Telegram writer Tony Slaughter’s coverage of the Byrom crime spree won that year’s Texas Associated Press award for spot news.

Fast-forward to 1955. Lawrence Edward Byrom had been in prison five years when a production company for the TV series The Big Story arrived in Fort Worth to film his crime spree as reported in the Star-Telegram in 1950 by Tony Slaughter. The episode of The Big Story was entitled “Wanted—Dead or Alive.”

From 1949 to 1959 The Big Story series dramatized news stories as reported by American newspaper writers. The host of the series from 1955 to 1959 was Burgess Meredith, venerable character actor whom you may remember from Rocky, Twilight Zone, Batman (the Penguin), and dozens of other movies and TV shows.

Predictably, the plot of “Wanted—Dead or Alive” deviates some from the facts. In the plot Mrs. Palmer is a widow, about to marry a man whom her son resents. The plot focuses on her attempts to assuage her son’s resentment and curtail his life of crime. After Lawrence is arrested for a string of robberies, he escapes from jail. About thirty-five real members of the Fort Worth Police Department, Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department, Texas Rangers, and Cowtown Posse riding club are the posse that searches for Byrom. Trinity Park serves as the wooded search area “around Boyd.” Background scenes also show the stockyards, downtown, and Jacksboro Highway.

The manhunt is in vain. But while Byrom is still on the lam, Tony Slaughter suggests that Mrs. Palmer write a letter to her son urging him to surrender. The Star-Telegram publishes the letter.

Then comes a scene that may be a fabrication: Slaughter personally places “over two hundred” copies of the newspaper in the wooded search area in the hope that Byrom will read his mother’s letter.

In the final scene Byrom comes home. Present for the emotional reunion are Byrom, his mother, her fiancé, and Tony Slaughter.

“I read what you said, Ma,” Byrom says as his mother hugs him. Slaughter’s stratagem worked! Byrom then surrenders by handing his pistol to Slaughter.

After the conclusion of the story, the real Tony Slaughter speaks briefly from his desk in the Star-Telegram newsroom.

The episode first aired in 1955 as a combination of film and live action performed in a studio in New York City. The Star-Telegram story about the episode said Byrom would be portrayed by actor Bert Brinckerhoff. But in the copy of the episode I have, copyrighted in 1957 (I videotaped it on VHS from the Nostalgia Channel more than twenty years ago), Byrom is portrayed by actor Joey Walsh. For the 1957 version the scenes with Brinckerhoff apparently were replaced by new scenes with Walsh.

Brinckerhoff would go on to become a TV director (7th Heaven, Alf).

Watch “Wanted—Dead or Alive” on YouTube:

So. There you have it. Troubled kid goes on crime spree, is sent to jail, breaks out, goes on another crime spree, newspaper reporter covers the story, troubled kid surrenders, is sent to prison, crime spree and reporter’s coverage are dramatized on The Big Story. The end, right?
Not by a long shot:

“If You Can’t Serve Time, . . .” (Part 2): Bonnie and Clyde, Meet Alice and Larry

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2 Responses to “If You Can’t Serve Time, . . .” (Part 1): “Lights! Camera! Robbery!”

  1. Samantha Mican says:

    This was my mothers dad’s brother. I loved reading this!!! Everything I ever heard was hear say, we have some of the articles and letters to his brother from jail but I never knew a lot of this especially that there was a tv show episode!

    • hometown says:

      Thank you, Samantha. I worked alongside Tony Slaughter as a cub reporter. By then he was “just” writing a column filled with names of local people. I had no idea of the work he had done as a reporter and his fifteen minutes of TV fame.

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