For two weeks Sheriff’s deputies surveilled the four key members of the Burton gang: Edward Burton; J.W. Gilkye, Louis Reese, aka “Big Dick” or “Lefty Louie”; and Kenneth Fleenor. The surveillance paid dividends. Deputies learned that the gang was planning one last job before leaving for Chicago. They were going to rob the cashier at the Union Ice Company at 650 South Alameda Street.
The Burton gang had pulled a number of jobs in Los Angeles and local law enforcement had had enough. Sheriff Traeger put Chief of Criminal Investigation A. L. Manning in charge of catching the bandits in the act.
At 6 p.m. on August 10, 1922, deputies, armed with sawed-off shotguns, surrounded the ice company building. They stayed in the shadows waiting for the Burton gang to show up. It was a long wait. At 9:30 p.m. a car parked on the west side of Alameda. Several men exited the vehicle and climbed between the cars of a slow moving freight train. They approached the factory office.
Inside the office were E.R. Rathman, the night cashier and E.C. Bailey, one of the company’s drivers. Rathman was sitting at an adding machine and Bailey was asleep in a chair a few feet away. Also inside the office, in a side room, were more armed deputies.
One of the crooks stayed outside the building as a lookout. The other three men, all of them wearing white handkerchiefs over their faces, entered the office and pointed revolvers at Rathman. One of the gunmen said: “Stick up your hands.” Rathman did as he was told. With a pistol shoved up against the back of Rathman’s neck, he was commanded to “Get into that corner!” With his hands up, Rathman moved toward the corner. Another of the masked men looked at Rathman and said: “We don’t want to hurt you.” Was the gunman telling the truth? Rathman didn’t want to find out. When he was told to lie on his face on the floor he did so without complaint.
One of the armed men began to rifle the cash drawer and pulled out about $2,000 (approximately $30k in today’s dollars) in cash. It was then that four deputies, wielding sawed-off shotguns, rushed into the office and shouted for the bandits to put up their hands.
Burton, firing as he ran, made a beeline toward the exit He didn’t make it. One shot took out an eye and one side of his face was ripped away. He fell to the floor. He was alive–but just barely.
Louis Reese went out in a hail of gun fire. He ran toward the deputies who continued to fire. Hit multiple times, Louis reeled out of the door and onto the sidewalk where he collapsed and died.
Burton was transported to the County Hospital. Surgeons who examined the wounded bandit said that he was so grievously wounded that he could not live.
Detectives examined the contents of Burton’s pockets for information that might lead them to other gang members. Burton had two one-way tickets to Chicago where he planned to resume his place in the city’s criminal underworld. The cops were also interested in learning if Burton was in contact with any of his fellow gangsters. In particular, they hoped to find out if he knew anything about “Terrible” Tommy O’Connor.
Rumor had it that Burton was tight with O’Connor, and O’Connor recently escaped from Chicago’s jail just days before he was scheduled to hang for the murder of a policeman. If Burton knew anything about O’Connor’s whereabouts the information accompanied him into the afterlife. Curiously, O’Connor was never recaptured and his date with the hangman remained on the books until the gallows were dismantled in the 1970s.
J.C. Gilkye, the surviving member of the gang, gave Chief Investigator Manning an earful about the activities of the group. Gilkye said that not all of the gang’s attempted crimes were successful. Far from it. But even with the failures, they had done pretty well in Los Angeles — until their final job. Had the Burton gang been completely wiped out as law enforcement hoped? If they could locate Burton’s sweetheart maybe they’d know for sure.
NEXT TIME: The end of the Burton gang?