|St. Joseph Police Officer Charles Skelly, 1929|
Christmas was on the minds of everyone, and maybe a few other things, too. That night was the opening of the Class D high school basketball season for Benton Harbor’s St. John’s Irish who faced the Gaels of the Berrien County community of Galien. Those seeking to cozy up at home could listen to WGN Radio’s “Radio Floorwalker” at 8:00 p.m. News around the state showed that liquor law violations were down, and Detroit’s new police radios were proving to be highly successful in the fight against crime.2 Nationally, the U.S. Senate was about to pass a 1 percent income tax cut resolution, and the date marked the 130th anniversary of George Washington’s death. There was so much to celebrate and be grateful for. It was Christmastime and almost the end of a decade.
Among the crowds on the streets and sidewalks were people familiar to the young officer. Fred and Leona Ludwig noticed Officer Skelly when they exited one of the downtown stores. Mingling for a moment, the three continued walking for the distance of a pleasant conversation and then went their separate ways, offering a wave to each other as they did. At 25-yearsold and still a bachelor, the ruggedly fetching Charles Skelly worked 12-hour shifts, sometimes seven days a week, which made romance difficult. Bevies of beauties were always within sight around a man in uniform, yet Skelly had become aware of a special girl, Mildred Thar, a 20-year-old brunette with a smile that could make any male “dizzy with a dame.” Mildred shared an apartment with her sisters, Belle, Caroline, and Gladys, at 607 Broad Street in the Freund Building, across from the police and fire station. Skelly could not help gazing at Mildred any time she was around. The attraction must have been mutual because the two began a courtship. Mildred worked at the Williams Box Factory just a few blocks away and looked forward to running into her handsome boy in blue. On that busy night, he walked his beat, the ashy flame from his cigarette visible as he took sight of others walking hand in hand. He may have thought about the day when he would marry…maybe Mildred.
The atmosphere of downtown St. Joseph was magical that night. A Christmas tree adorned the corner of State and Pleasant Streets where Santa Claus hollered his greetings. Storefronts displayed the latest fashions to entice the ever so tempted consumer. Men in overcoats and fedoras noticed a group of young women who were pointing out the newest lingerie that you “step into.” Who could resist the “silken wisps of loveliness,” as Gilmore Brothers described their stockings? They cost $2 a pair.
By 7:00 p.m., darkness covered the city, but flickers of candlelight and sidewalk lamps lit up the streets. The whistling wind wafting around lampposts created dust swirls on the sidewalks and ripples over the wool-adorned shoppers. A jettisoned piece of velvet ribbon floated to the ground and curled, as if seeking a package to adorn. The dull roar of Lake Michigan only two blocks away grumbled like a machine, dark and ominous. Officer Skelly kept watch, like the lighthouse stationed at the end of the pier to keep all who enter the harbor safe. He lifted a cigarette to his lips and inhaled, the bright amber glow reflected in the store window on the corner where he stood, just as the lighthouse beacon illuminated the harbor. Skelly heard the giggles of several young boys and girls approaching. He pointed out Santa Claus, much to their delight and his own.
As the clock hands pointed to 25 minutes past seven, the sudden blaring of a car horn drowned out the distant sounds of sleigh bells. Skelly turned toward the sound and saw a man driving a Chevy Coach, hailing his assistance.The vehicle pulled up along the southeast corner of State and Broad Streets where Skelly had been walking his beat. Listening to the excited story of the driver, Skelly had no idea he had just stepped into a role in a Shakespearian tragedy about to unfold.
Skelly approached the car and leaned in to the driver, who rambled the numbers six, five, seven, one, zero, six. While reaching for his notepad, Skelly interrupted, “Sir, please calm down and start at the beginning.” The man explained that they had been involved in a fender bender on U.S. Highway 12 back by Cleveland Avenue and said the man driving the car that hit them was very drunk. Taking notes, Skelly interrupted once again to ask some basic questions. The driver finally identified himself and the occupants of the car, apologizing for being flustered.
“I’m Forrest Kool from Buchanan and this here’s my wife, Laverne, with our three-month-old daughter, Joyce,” he said, while gesturing in the direction of each person. “In back is my mother-in-law, Hattie Carlson, and brother-in-law, Harold.”
Skelly took note that Harold was only about 10 years old. He nodded and then asked Kool to tell him what happened.
The 22-year-old Kool explained that they had been Christmas shopping and were on their way home to rural Weesaw Township, driving south on U.S. Highway 12, when he noticed a Hudson coupe driving toward them in the same lane, near the intersection of Cleveland Avenue. Seeing that the oncoming vehicle was not moving back into its own lane, Kool abruptly swerved his Chevy off onto the shoulder but still took a direct impact in the side rear fender, jarring his passengers. After making sure everyone was safe, he turned around to see the Hudson slow and pull over about a quarter mile down the road behind them. Kool managed to pull his car, which was no longer drivable, into the driveway of the home belonging to Dr. Charles W. Merritt. Kool got out of the car and waved down a couple in a passing Chevy, who he figured had seen the accident. The driver pulled over and introduced himself as Edward Rupp of Union Pier. Kool hopped onto the running board of Rupp’s Chevy and they drove the short distance to the Hudson, which had come to a stop near the St. Joseph Auto Camp, across from LaSalle Street.
Rupp pulled in front of the Hudson and Kool stepped off the running board. The Hudson appeared to be new, and Kool took note that it had an orange Indiana license plate, number 657-106. The car had slight scuffing and a small dent in the front quarter-panel, where it had hit Kool’s fender. He walked up to the driver’s side, boldly opened the door, and confronted the man sitting inside, “What do you mean by running into me like that?”
“Hit your car?” the man slurred, looking puzzled. Kool realized the driver was clearly intoxicated. “Well, why don’t you drive it over here so I can look at the damage,” he mumbled.
“Well, the fender is bent in against the tire so I can’t drive it,” Kool explained. “Why don’t you come with me and see for yourself?”
The intoxicated driver attempted to get out of his car but hesitated for a moment as if getting his bearings. It was then that he apparently noticed Rupp standing next to Kool. This seemed to make him nervous because once again he asked Kool, “Why don’t you drive yer car over?” apparently forgetting that he had already suggested that.
Not interested in dealing with the intoxicated man, Rupp drove away. The man seemed quite relieved. Just then, another car slowed down and stopped. The driver, William Lohraff of Berrien Springs, asked if they needed any help. Kool waved him off, and Lohraff continued on his way.
The intoxicated man managed to struggle to his feet. He took a few steps, stopped, and turned to look at his car for a moment, but then joined Kool, who was walking south toward his Chevy, where his family still sat. The intoxicated man seemed to stagger more than walk the quarter-mile distance. Kool took note that he wore a cap, light buff-colored sweater, and dark pants, but no coat. His face was rosy from inebriation and he reeked of alcohol. He was all of 200 pounds, tall, with a small dark mustache and manicured nails; he was well groomed but missing a front tooth. Kool thought the man acted polite, but noticed that he talked somewhat brokenly. Kool wondered if he was from another part of the country, but considered that perhaps the missing tooth was the cause.
The man then said, “You know, I was on my way to pick up my wife at the train station.”
Trying to avoid being downwind of the foul-smelling man, Kool showed him where he had swerved and finally where the car ended up. Laverne and her mother peered through the car windows at the tall stranger. Their piercing shouts penetrated the windows, even when rolled up. Worried that they were agitating the man, Kool quickly interrupted, “Shut up. I’ve got this under control.”
Looking puzzled, both women complied. The man glanced at the women as he tried to keep his balance but hardly reacted to them. He let out a belch and rocked back on his heels.
Both men looked over the damage. Kool asked the man if he would help pull out the fender so he could drive home. With a few tugs, they managed to wrench the fender from the tire.
“You know, there’s a repair shop up the road,” the intoxicated man managed to say. “I’ll show you where. Follow me.”
Kool sighed, knowing that a repair shop would be closed on a Saturday night. “Look,” he replied, “I’ll have to get a new fender and probably a new tire, so I’ll settle for $25.”
Calling him to the side of the road near some trees, the intoxicated man reached into his pocket and pulled out a large roll of bills. He thumbed through them, telling Kool, “Sorry, but I don’t have ‘nuff small bills to make change.”
Frustrated, Kool backed away from him. “If you’re not interested in settling this, it really doesn’t matter. Either way, you are not fit to drive in your condition and I am going to have to report this to the police.”
“Do whatever you have to do,” the man unsympathetically replied as he put the roll of bills back in his pocket.
Being a proper gentleman, Kool offered the other driver a ride on the running board, back to his Hudson, so that they could make their way to the police station. However, it became clear that the man was too drunk to manage that, so Kool was satisfied that he chose to walk. Kool turned his Chevy around, drove ahead of the Hudson, and waited. Once the intoxicated man reached his car, Kool watched as he fell into the driver’s seat and—remarkably—was able to start up the vehicle and pull forward. Driving by the St. Joseph Auto Camp, he blew the horn, and then passed Kool’s Chevy. Then he blew his horn again, apparently signaling Kool to pass. Kool pulled around him and turned onto State Street in hopes of finding a police officer, but the intoxicated man in the Hudson kept blowing the horn. Unsure whether something was wrong or the man had suddenly reconsidered paying for the damage, Kool stopped about two blocks south of the Caldwell Theater on State Street to find out what his problem was. Laverne urged him to stay in the car, but instead Kool got out and walked up to the driver’s side of the Hudson. The window was already rolled down, and the stench of alcohol wafted out.
“You’ve been blowing the horn the last half mile,” Kool said. “What’s the problem?”
“I’ve been following you, I don’t have any problem,” the driver replied. He then gave a few toots of the horn and smiled as if amused.
Shaking his head, Kool returned to his car, but before he reached it, he saw the Hudson speed down a side street and vanish. He realized that the drunk had duped him.
A simple Christmas shopping trip to St. Joseph had become much more complicated for the Kool family. Now with a dented fender and a drunk driver on the streets, Forrest Kool hoped to notify the authorities so the family could be on their way home once again. He started blowing his horn at the intersection of State Street and Market Street in an attempt to find a policeman and spotted Officer Charles Skelly, just a block away, standing at the corner near Broad Street.
Just as he had finished explaining their misadventure to the police officer, Laverne Kool noticed the Hudson pass by. “There he goes,” she blurted, while pointing to get the officer’s attention.
Skelly looked up in time to recognize a familiar face behind the wheel. He was the new guy in town, Skelly realized. He grabbed hold of Kool’s doorframe, hopped on the running board, and hollered, “Follow him.”
Excited to be on a chase with a police officer, Kool drove north about two blocks on State Street and then came to a stop behind the Hudson at the intersection of Ship Street, where the driver had stopped for a red light. Skelly jumped off Kool’s running board, ran a few car lengths to the Hudson, and climbed up on the driver’s side running board.
Skelly leaned his head into the open window to confront the driver. “Better pay the money and save going to court,” he suggested. This was routine business and Skelly knew the script.
Several people in the area had taken notice of the activity. Pere Marquette Bridge tender Lawrence Terry, standing in front of the Jefferson Poolroom at the corner of Ship and State, had heard Skelly blow his whistle and saw the Hudson come to a stop. St. Joseph police officer Arthur Truhn, also on foot patrol, had watched Skelly jump off the Chevy and run toward the Hudson.1 Phil Daly, Ted Lucker, and Adam Ehrenberg had all seen Skelly climb on the Hudson’s running board. Gustav Getz also saw what was taking place from his vantage point a few blocks away. Just a cop doing his job, it must have appeared to all of them.
Allowing other vehicles to pass, Skelly signaled back at Kool, motioning for him to follow. Skelly would direct the man to the police station in order to sort this all out. When the traffic light turned green at Ship and State, the Hudson and the Chevy turned the corner heading east and then made a right on Main Street heading for the police station. They passed Charles L. Miller’s Garage with Skelly still riding on the running board. The Kools followed behind by about 20 feet. As both vehicles approached the intersection of Main and Broad, just within sight of the Freund Building apartments where Skelly’s gal, Mildred Thar, lived, the traffic light turned red.
Puffs of exhaust mixed with Skelly’s breath as he glanced up toward her apartment. There in the second-floor window he saw her silhouette illuminated by a light. She must have heard the commotion. Mildred saw Charles and waved. Skelly smiled back, keeping his hands on the doorframe, but he lingered for a moment in her smile. Here he was in action for Mildred to see and he must have been proud. As the opposing traffic light transitioned from green to yellow, Skelly redirected his attention to the man behind the wheel. He pointed ahead, instructing him to pull over by the station just beyond the intersection. Mildred walked away from the window, probably impressed by the strapping Skelly.
When the light turned green, traffic began to move north and south, but the Hudson sat idling. Staring straight ahead toward the endless roadway, the driver loosened his grip on the steering wheel. Skelly bent down to look into the vehicle.
From a car length behind, Kool watched the man through the Hudson’s large glass rear window, his head fully visible. What is he waiting for? Kool thought. He then saw the man lean to his left.
With eyes blurred from alcohol, his mind consumed with fear, the driver of the Hudson grabbed for his Colt .45-caliber pistol in the side pocket of the door and took aim at his obstacle to freedom.
Officer Charles Skelly found himself face to face with the barrel of a pistol and the cold eyes of a killer. A secret kept for the last 10 months was about to be revealed along the brick boulevard.