The Gray Scourge of the Southwest (Part 2): A “High-Class” Hoodlum

On February 18, 1953 the attorney for Floyd Allen Hill said Hill planned to plead not guilty to charges of robbing two Cubans of $248,000 at the Western Hills Hotel (see Part 1).

The state in its case against Hill argued that the two Cubans, who were seeking to buy arms from gunrunners, had been conned by Hill and associates: There had been no gunrunners. Hill’s attorney, conversely, argued that Hill and associates had been framed by the two Cubans: There had been no robbery. Rather, Hill’s attorney claimed, the Cubans had diverted all that money-for-guns into their own pockets.

But that night Floyd Allen Hill, the student of crime, went to the head of his class: He put on his hat and coat and walked out of the Tarrant County jail.

Hill was one of ten (not eight, as reported by the Dallas Morning News) men who escaped after prisoner Bobby Dean Baker, eighteen, discovered that a door to his cell block A on the fifth floor had been left unlocked.

A plan in his head, Baker removed a pipe from a shower. Baker was free to move around within cell block A because the doors of individual cells in that block had not yet been locked down by 10 p.m.

“Let a peep out and you’re going to get some of it,” Baker warned other prisoners as he and prisoner Lonnie Baugh lay in wait for guard Jim Holcomb to return to perform the nightly lockdown.

When Holcomb appeared, Baker attacked him with the pipe.

“Gimme those keys or do I have to keep hitting you?” Baker said to Holcomb.

Equipped with the keys to all the cells on the floor, Baker went to cell block B, whose individual cell doors were already locked.

“Anybody who wants to go, come on,” Baker called to the prisoners on the floor.

Sixty-five prisoners declined the dash to freedom.

Floyd Hill was not one of them.

Hill called Baker to his cell. Baker freed Hill and seven more prisoners. After Hill was freed, he took command of the break. At forty-one he was twice the age of the other nine escapers.

The ten prisoners took an elevator to the basement. When they stepped out of the elevator, four officers on duty saw that Baker had a pipe in his hand and Hill had a pistol in his hand.

Taken by surprise and outnumbered ten to four, the officers were helpless as Floyd Hill took three pistols from a desk drawer, and the escapers found the key to an outside door.

Floyd Hill and his nine youthful companions walked out of the Criminal Courts Building into the cool night air of freedom.

District Attorney Howard Fender offered a $100 reward for information leading to the capture of Floyd Hill “dead or alive.”

The next day Sheriff Harlon Wright dismissed guard Jim Holcomb for carelessness in not locking the cell block door.

Years later Hill downplayed the jailbreak: “It wasn’t a jailbreak at all. I just walked out. Those boys who went out with me had no idea what was going on. I left with my hat and my coat and a pocket full of $100 bills. Now you know, in a real jailbreak you don’t get your hat and coat.”

Mugshots of nine of the fugitives. The tenth fugitive had been captured thirty minutes after the jailbreak.

The next day two groups of the fugitives were traveling in stolen cars. They stopped to get gasoline, left without paying, and were pursued by police. One fugitive car overturned near Beaumont, the other collided with four other cars in Arkansas. Six youthful fugitives were captured.

But not the gray scourge of the Southwest, not Floyd Hill.

While Floyd Hill remained at large, a Fort Worth attorney said that while Hill had been in jail Hill had made threats against the attorney. The attorney said that after Hill escaped from jail the attorney received phone calls from someone who said Hill was going to kill the attorney. And a source said that a colleague of Hill had been offered $20,000 to kill the attorney and $5,000 to kill Hill’s wife Juanita. Hill suspected Juanita of telling police where Hill’s share of the robbery money was hidden.

While Floyd Hill remained at large, the criminal justice system continued to process the other three Western Hills Hotel robbery suspects. In March 1953 Orville Lindsey Chambless, charged with transporting stolen money across state lines, was no-billed by a grand jury after the Cubans were unable to positively identify Chambless in person. He walked.

In April 1953 Gene Paul Norris, indicted for the capital offense of armed robbery, was acquitted by a jury despite the fact that at his trial the Cubans had identified him as “Johnny.” Like Floyd Hill, Gene Paul Norris had spent years getting an education in crime in schools with bars such as Huntsville state prison. Norris had learned how to rob, how to kill, and how to build a solid alibi. Six people—friends and relatives—testified that Norris was in Duncan, Oklahoma at the time of the robbery. He walked.

While Floyd Hill remained at large, some of his companions during the jailbreak of February 18 asked for a do-over. On March 22 seven prisoners attempted to escape from the county jail. The seven included Bobby Dean Baker, who had instigated the February 18 break, and two others who had escaped on February 18. As in February, prisoners on the fifth floor overpowered a guard and took an elevator to the basement. But this time the prisoners ran into a hail of bullets. Baker and two other prisoners were fatally shot by Chief Turnkey W. P. Foster, seventy-three.

Fast-forward to April 18. Hill was now on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. He was the only prisoner of the February escape still at large. That night FBI agents, acting on a tip, raided a house just southeast of Dallas and arrested Hill. Hill’s two hosts were charged with harboring a fugitive.

Exactly two months had passed since Floyd Hill had put on his hat and coat and walked out of the Tarrant County jail.

Script of a WBAP-TV Texas News broadcast. (Photo from UNT Libraries Special Collections.)

In January 1954 Floyd Hill finally went on trial. Because he had worn a handkerchief over his face during the Western Hills Hotel robbery, his victims were not able to positively identify him. Nonetheless, by the time the dust and dollars settled, Hill was vulnerable to a medley of charges: committing the Western Hills Hotel robbery, violating his conditional parole from Alcatraz, escaping from Tarrant County jail, and committing robberies in Houston and Kilgore. He pleaded guilty to the Western Hills Hotel robbery and accepted a twenty-year sentence rather than gamble on pleading not guilty and hoping to be acquitted of armed robbery, which carried a maximum penalty of death and thus required a trial by jury. Hill told a reporter he was fearful of the “psychology of juries.”

“The jury could be with you all along and then switch over in the last 20 minutes because of something someone said,” Hill explained.

Hill was the only one of the four Western Hills Hotel robbery suspects to be convicted. Because of that distinction and the stark image of him as the masked man with a Tommy gun, Floyd Allen Hill would “own” the sensational crime and would be remembered as its mastermind.

By the time Hill’s charges, including those in Harris and Gregg counties, were settled, he was sentenced to seventy-five years in prison.

According to his prison record at Huntsville, the “lean, gray scourge of the Southwest” was six foot one with gray hair, was unable to read and write. His occupation was listed as “barber.” Entered Huntsville: 2-26-54. Expiration of sentence: 4-12-2028.

And then there was one: For his role in the Western Hills Hotel robbery, Sam Brown Cresap had been indicted for armed robbery and complicity—both capital offenses. His indictment claimed he “advised, commanded and encouraged Paul Norris to commit the said offense.” He was also charged with transporting stolen money across a state line even though he never left Fort Worth after the robbery. But by August 1955 he still had not been tried, and eventually charges against Sam Brown Cresap were dropped. Like Orville Lindsey Chambless and Gene Paul Norris, Cresap walked.

The year 1957 brought the end of the careers of half the Western Hills Hotel robbery gang:
1. On April 29 Gene Paul Norris was killed in a shootout with police after a high-speed chase on Jacksboro Highway. Police suspected him of nine murders. Others put the number as high as forty. Cato Hightower, by then police chief, said Norris was a madman who killed for money. By 1957 Norris had become a criminal’s criminal: Like Floyd Hill, he had made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. And he had achieved that status before he planned yet another audacious crime. In 1957 Norris planned to rob a bank. But not just any bank. Norris and William Humphrey planned to rob the branch of Fort Worth National Bank that was located in Carswell Air Force Base and held the base’s payroll of $225,000 ($1.8 million today). But police found out about the plan, and when Norris and Humphrey made a practice run along their escape route, police were waiting.

2. On November 8 the “badly decomposed” body of Orville Lindsey Chambless was found in a shallow grave in Oklahoma. Authorities theorized that sometime before April 29 Norris and Humphrey had killed Chambless for implicating Norris in the Cuban robbery.
In 1963 Floyd Hill was paroled. But he was promptly rejailed to serve out sentences that had been incomplete when he had been conditionally paroled in 1952. He was paroled for the last time in 1967. By then, jailers said, Hill had become a model prisoner. While in prison Hill had served as a trusty. And he had turned to the traditional education he had missed as a child: He read books. And he painted: more than one thousand oil paintings of landscapes, farm animals, and other prisoners. “I’ve never served time. I make time serve me.”

“Floyd Hill was a hoodlum,” Dr. James Beto, former head of the Texas prison system, said, “but a high-class one.”

After Hill’s final  parole, his parole officer said Hill was a model parolee. The parole officer recommended that Hill be discharged from parole.

In 1969 Hill moved to Riverside, California and, at age fifty-seven, married a twenty-one-year-old model. He was described as “a model citizen” and a trusted employee of a wire company.

Floyd Allen Hill, the student of crime once known as “the lean, gray scourge of the Southwest,” died in 1971.

Tying up loose ends:

If the remainder of the robbery money was ever recovered, I have found no report of that.

As for Sam Brown Cresap, who played such a prominent role in the con but escaped consequences, he apparently stayed clean the rest of his life. When he died in 1980 his death certificate listed his occupation as . . .

self-employed bacteriologist.

And what about the three Cubans? Soon after their skinning in Texas, Deputy Police Chief Hightower said in 1952, they returned to Mexico. There, I am sure, they were not surprised to hear of the news that made the front page of the Star-Telegram on July 27, 1953: Forty-eight Cubans were killed when rebels stormed the Monchada army barracks “for the purpose of starting a revolution to oust President Fulgencio Batista.” “The leader of the attacking forces in the Monchada barracks assault was Fidel Castro, a student, who escaped in the shooting.” “Ammunition seized from the attacking forces had Montreal, Canada markings on it.”

Fidel Castro’s revolution to oust Batista would finally be successful on January 1, 1959. But the rebels would have to get there without $248,000 that walked out the door with two “banditos” at the Western Hills Hotel.

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