Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City
The story of the disastrous 1954 riot that leveled much of the Missouri State Penitentiary and left four convicts dead and 30 wounded. One of the dead inmates was a police informant, and seven men were convicted of that murder - after claiming to have been tortured. One legendary St. Louis defense attorney fought for 29 years at his own expense because he believed his client to be innocent.
On Sept. 22, l954, Donald DeLapp was a 19-year-old convict at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City serving a four-year sentence for armed robbery. He was in solitary confinement on the third floor of E Hall, a dreary old cellblock originally constructed in l889.
The convicts had been through a brutally hot summer - farmers in Missouri still talk of the "drought of '54". Rats and other vermin crawled around the solitary unit. An occasional snake crawled up through the piping and dropped into the shower.
The convicts slept on straw tick mattresses which, as they aged, exuded a fine, powdery dust that hung in the aching heat, causing convicts to lay motionless on their bunks to avoid stirring up more dust. The sweat dripping from their bodies caused rivulets of mud.
The food, never good, reached a new low that day when rotten watermelon was served. DeLapp, the kind of guy who would later break his hands punching cement walls when frustrated, went off: "I broke the water pipe off my sink," DeLapp later said.
"When they came up to fix it I broke out and turned Hoover (William Hoover, 23) loose. One guard hit me over the head with a club, but I was just interested in getting the keys, and I ran down to the end to keep another guard from throwing the lever box" (which would lock all the doors remotely and keep the keys from working).
The convicts on E 3 were turned loose, then they captured the other two floors in the building, which allowed them into the prison proper.
The riot exploded like a bundle of gas soaked rags.
Within the prison the most isolated place of all was Death Row. Located on the south side of B Basement (B Hall being above it), most of the men on death row were waiting to die. But there were a few others being held there for security reasons:
*Rollie M. Laster, a 21 year old serving 12 years for robbery, who'd thrown a molotov cocktail into a guard tower while trying to escape.
*James "Slick" Stidham, 28, a craggy faced, former Alcatraz inmate serving 25 years for armed robbery, had spent the last 20 months in solitary confinement for trying to escape, and a year earlier had tried to get the FBI to investigate the prison administration;
*James Creighton, a 51 year old lifer who, since coming to prison, had burned one convict to death by throwing gasoline in his cell, and slashed the throat of another. Creighton once spent two years pretending to be blind, in an effort to win clemency from the Governor.
*Walter Lee Donnell, 29, the most notorious stool pigeon in the prison. He had snitched on Irv Thompson, Richard Lindner, and several other members of a St. Louis armed robbery gang. They had tried to kill him while he was in St. Louis City Jail, so when he got to the prison he was held on Death Row for his own protection.
Outside of Death Row the riot was raging. The guards dragged machine guns to the roof of the Tunnel (which connected cellblocks with the dining room, etc.) They machine-gunned several convicts who were milling around in the compound between the cellblocks.
In l975, when I originally wrote about this story for the Kansas City Star, DeLapp told me: "I grabbed an officer (Oscar V. Carrington, who'd been taken hostage), and we were going to go out there and tell them to let those people go, they didn't have anything to do with this (the riot).
"I went looking for a phone," DeLapp said, "so I could call the officials and have the shooting stopped so we could get the wounded to the hospital."
Clarence Dietzel, the guard assigned to work Death Row that evening, later testified that, once the convicts succeeded in breaking into Death Row, that DeLapp forced him to call the front office so DeLapp could talk to Thomas Whitecotton, director of corrections. Then Dietzel was locked in a cell, and Stidham and Laster were let out of theirs. Donnell and Creighton, the two snitches, were in the last two cells on Death Row. A group of inmates tried to get to Creighton, but he had stuffed his cell door lock with matches and other debris. They broke his jaw by poking at him through the door with a broom handle.
Sammy Reese was waiting to be executed for two murders committed in St. Louis. He later told me that Irv Thompson, Richard Lindner, and a third man, all wearing masks, came onto Death Row. They were members of the St. Louis group against whom Donnell had testified.
Reese told me he heard them beating Donnell's cell door open, and he heard the murder. When it was over this group stopped at his cell, and Irv Thompson offered to kill Dillard Wren, who had testified against Reese. Reese turned the offer down, since he felt that would cause the Governor to refuse to grant clemency, if he applied for it.
Reese said Thompson, Lindner and the other man were covered with blood. After the riot, Don Fanning, a member of the St. Louis clique, bragged that he had been involved in the murder of Donnell. I heard this from other convicts, and was also told this by Maj. B.J. Poiry in l975. Poiry was senior captain of the guard force at the prison at the time of the riot.
By the next day the Missouri Highway Patrol and policemen from the St. Louis Police Department were in control of the prison.
Four convicts had been shot to death, another 30 were wounded. The prison had sustained an estimated $20 million in damages.
Lt. W.S. Barton of the Highway Patrol was the first outsider to go into Death Row after the riot. Donnell's body was found in his cell, the right side of his head crushed by a sledgehammer. He had been stabbed numerous times, and two of the wounds had gone completely through his heart. His throat had also been cut on both sides, but none of the major arteries had been severed.
Shortly afterward the task of getting the convicts back into the proper cells began. Stidham and Laster were returned to Death Row.
Donnell's body was shipped back to Tennessee for burial. It was widely reported in the press that his tongue had been cut out, although this was untrue. It did, however, inflame a lot of emotions.
When an undertaker in Tennessee alleged that Donnell had been shot to death, the Missouri Highway Patrol flew the prison physician to Tennessee to participate in an autopsy, which had to be performed after the body had been embalmed for burial. No bullet wounds were found.
This was the largest riot in any American prison at the time of its occurrence. The violence and destruction shocked the public.
The officials knew that DeLapp and Hoover were instrumental in starting it. They had observed certain other cons during the riot who seemed to be giving orders: Stidham, Laster, Paul Kenton, and Jackie Lee Noble.
One-hundred-and-one St. Louis policemen had gone to the prison to help quell the riot. Twenty-five of them stayed to participate in the interrogation of the convicts.
There has always been a large St. Louis clique at the Missouri State Penitentiary. During the 50s and 60s it consisted of some of the most feared armed robbers and burglars in the Midwest, and this clique at times had as many as 100 members. Although these men were not part of organized crime in St. Louis, they had friends in organized crime. Grant and Irv Thompson were widely respected in the St. Louis underworld.
Although members of the St. Louis clique at the prison were the obvious suspects in the killing of Donnell, none of them was even questioned by the St. Louis police about the murder. The police were specifically asked in court if they had questioned the Thompson brothers and Lindner about the murder, and they said no.
Instead, everyone focused on the men who had led the riot.
James T. Riley, the prosecuting attorney of Cole County, Missouri (later appointed Circuit Court judge), aggressively took the position that the riot had been started for the sole purpose of murdering Donnell.
The incongruity of that position is underscored by the fact that the Truman Commission, which was ordered by Gov. Phil Donnelly to investigate the riot and report on its causes, gave many causes: bad food, overcrowding, etc., but nowhere in the report was Donnell even mentioned.
No matter. Prosecutor Riley was on his home turf. By and large the citizens of Cole County have little use for convicts, even though the prison is a mainstay of employment. Virtually everyone in Cole County is either related to someone who works, or has worked, at the prison, or they know someone who works, or has worked, at the prison.
Everyone in Cole County lives in the evil shadow of the prison. Throughout their lives they live in dread of desperate escaped convicts - many of whom have terrorized the surrounding communities.
So the leaders of the riot were singled out. One by one they were taken to the Athletic Shed on the yard, or to the ID section, under the administration building, to be interrogated. The police would later testify - again and again - that these hardened convicts, who normally would spit on a policeman, willingly, almost gleefully, confessed to the murder of Donnell.
A month later, when a smaller riot occurred, a leader of that uprising, 18-year-old Joseph "Jap Joe" Vidauri, a Kansas City Mexican, made a trip to the ID section and decided that he, too, had killed Donnell.
There were no more uprisings. The message was unmistakable: start trouble, and you'll confess to killing Donnell.
A week after the riot, after confessing to the murder of Donnell, the riot ringleaders were taken to the federal prison hospital in Springfield, Mo. The doctor there testified that they were covered with bruises. He also testified that Stidham had suffered a loss of sensation in his hand and wrist.
DeLapp had been shot in the foot, and that wound was finally treated.
At their first court appearance, all seven convicts asked the court to let them take a lie detector test on whether they had killed Donnell. All seven said they had been tortured into confessing to the murder.
In addition to Creighton, who had agreed to testify against the seven men, the state came up with a second convict willing to testify: Herman Trout, serving 42 years for crimes committed in and out of prison.
The court denied their requests for a lie detector.
Rollie Laster was the first to go to trial, in Cole County. He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber.
Slick Stidham had met Father Charles Dismas Clark, a St. Louis priest who often visited the prison and ministered to the underworld in general.
He contacted Clark, who came to see him. Stidham told the priest he felt there was only one lawyer in the world who could save him from the gas chamber: Mark Hennelly.
Clark knew Hennelly – the most legendary criminal trial lawyer in St. Louis history (he later became president of the Missouri Pacific Railroad). Hennelly told me that Clark had run into him one day shortly after Hennelly had been on a four-day drinking binge. AfterHennelly confided to the priest that he had reached his emotional bottom, Clark pulled back his lapel to reveal an Alcoholics Anonymous pin, and proceeded to talk Hennelly into joining AA. "After that," Hennelly told me, "I never said no to anything Father Clark asked of me."
Clark told Hennelly that the seven men were innocent of the murder for which they were charged. Hennelly said he'd already heard that, that it was widely believed among St. Louis criminal defense lawyers that the seven men were innocent, and that the "guys from St. Louis" had murdered Donnell.
Hennelly, a dapper lawyer with bushy eyebrows and a near photographic memory, took the case. Other top lawyers, including Godfrey Padberg of St. Louis, signed on to represent other members of the group.
Normally a prosecutor such as James T. Riley would have been no contest for these top criminal lawyers, but Riley had the advantage of the confessions.
Again and again Trout, who worked in a plumbing office in B Basement, testified that he had 'heard' the killing, that he had seen the seven defendants enter and leave Death Row during the time of the killing. Creighton, whose cell was next to the victim's, testified that he saw the seven men go into the cell and heard the killing. Both men denied, again and again, that they had made any deal with the state in return for their testimony, and even denied that they expected to receive anything in return for testifying.
Hennelly knew that the two convict informers were being held in the Cole County Jail, rather than the penitentiary. He'd heard that they were being given access to the female prisoners at the jail, and tried to bring that out at trial, to show that Trout and Creighton had been given uncommon privileges, and did, indeed, have reason to believe they would receive their freedom in return for their testimony.
The trial judge ruled that it made no difference if the two were being given access to the females. It would only make a difference, the judge ruled, if Hennelly could prove that the two convicts had specifically been told they were to have access to the females in return for their testimony. Hennelly made an offer of proof, and wanted to call Mary Annis, a female prisoner at the Cole County Jail, but his request was denied.
William Hoover pled guilty to the murder to avoid getting the death penalty, as Laster had.
One by one the seven were convicted. In every trial the police testified that the confessions were voluntary.
Stidham wrote to me on April 22, l975, saying: "It was the State's position that my motive for killing Donnell was, he lived by the stool pigeon code, I lived by the convict code, and my code was , stool pigeons should die. Don't this sound incredible? I would grow arm weary if I killed all the stool pigeons in the Missouri Prison system. Furthermore, if I lived by that code, would I violate it by voluntarily snitching on guys in the confession made by me? A person don't kill a snitch, then snitch."
The most glaring defect in the seven cases are the so-called "voluntary" confessions given by the defendants. A voluntary confession should contain all the facts, and the facts contained in it should be truthful -- particularly if the confession is to be used to try to put seven men in the gas chamber.
However, these seven confessions are all different. They name different people doing different things.
Laster's confession says he, Stidham and Paul Kenton committed the murder. His confession says nothing about Hoover, Noble, DeLapp, or Vidauri.
Stidham's confession names himself, Laster, Kenton, and he managed to insert the names of two of the real killers, Thompson and Lindner.
Even though Thompson and Lindner were named in Stidham's confession, the police later testified that neither Thompson nor Lindner was ever interrogated in connection with the murder of Donnell.
After the second prison riot, in October, l954, Vidauri was singled out and forced to confess to the killing of Donnell, even though the "voluntary" confessions given by Laster and Stidham did not name him as a participant. By this time the number of participants in the murder had gone from three in Laster's confession, to five in Stidham's confession, to seven in Vidauri's confession.
A Highway Patrol sergeant instrumental in getting Vidauri's confession was E.V. Nash. Although a mere sergeant in the patrol, Nash was appointed warden of the Missouri State Penitentiary after the riots.
Stidham had complained to the FBI that his confession had been tortured out of him. He did not know, at the time of his trial, that the FBI had tried to interrogate the St. Louis police officers about the confession, and that the police had refused to discuss the matter with the FBI.
Other than the testimony of Creighton and Trout, the only evidence against the seven convicts was their own confessions. The law often uses the testimony of convicts, usually successfully.
It is a fact, however, that any time one convict testifies against another, he does so in expectation of being paroled or pardoned. The convict testifying is almost always rewarded. He knows that, having testified against another convict, the prison authorities will have to protect him, most often by letting him out of prison.
Creighton, serving life for murder, and having murdered again after going to the penitentiary, had almost no hope of ever getting out of prison. Normally, he would be considered too vile to parole even for testifying in a convict-on-convict murder.
But the murder of Donnell was no ordinary murder. The Democrats were under heavy fire after the riot. The Republicans intended to, and did, reap all the political hay they could, by decrying Democratic ineptitude.
Harold L. Butterfield, Republican nominee for state auditor, blamed Gov. Donnelly for the riot. Butterfield said Donnelly had refused to fire corrections chief Thomas Whitecotton, and that there had been indications months before the riot that trouble was brewing, and that no steps had been taken to prevent the riot.
Perry Compton, chairman of the state Republican committee, was calling for a bi-partisan investigation into the riot. Edward L. Dowd, prosecuting attorney of St. Louis, was demanding that the murder of Donnell be solved, saying that a failure to solve the killing would hamper efforts by police to get criminal suspects to turn state's evidence.
It was in this atmosphere that it was decided the riot had been started for the sole purpose of murdering Walter Lee Donnell and Creighton, because they were stool pigeons.
Even Whitecotton, the director of the prison system, could not bring himself to promote such an incredible scenario. On Sept. 25, l954, Whitecotton gave the following reasons for the riot: 1. A wave of prison riots over the entire country; 2. A large concentration of men in one institution; 3. Understaffing of guards; 4. The fact that a group of "younger, irresponsible convicts saw a chance to capitalize on the general psychological situation."
"Whitecotton said there was no one real reason to explain the riot" (Kansas City Star, Sept. 25, l954).
The Kansas City Star's Jefferson City correspondent was Lew Larkin. Larkin, unknown to his editors, was secretly participating in the effort to get rid of Whitecotton. Larkin was close to Hugh Waggoner, chief of the Missouri Highway Patrol, and Larkin was promoting Ralph Eidson, a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper on leave to serve as warden, as the new corrections chief. Larkin went to the governor with his suggestion that Eidson replace Whitecotton, and this was done.
The editors of the Star had no way of knowing that Larkin was making the news rather than reporting it. When he filed stories giving prominence to Prosecutor Riley's allegation, that the riot was started to kill Donnell, those stories were printed in one of the state's most powerful newspapers.
The biggest story of all was never printed: dozens of innocent convicts had been wounded during the riot. Most of the men shot were in the quadrangle between the cellblocks. These men had fled the riot, and thought they would be safe in the quadrangle, under the eyes of the guards. Instead they were shot.
With Lew Larkin's help, the prosecutor was able to focus everyone's attention on the murder of Donnell and away from the massacre on the quadrangle. In short order, seven men were convicted of murder and the publicity surrounding the riot had all but faded away. The only loose detail that popped up occurred when Cole County Circuit Court Judge Sam Blair urged Gov. Donnelly to commute Laster’s sentence to life. Donnelly refused.
Donnelly did, however, at the request of Prosecutor Riley, grant pardons to Creighton and Trout.
None of the juries hearing these murder cases was ever permitted to know the full extent of the privileges granted to Trout and Creighton in return for testifying against the seven men.
Had the defense lawyers been allowed to explore that avenue, the juries would have had to consider the fact that Creighton had been in prison for 21 years without a woman, and in return for agreeing to testify against the seven, was being granted access to the female prisoners at the Cole County Jail.
Mark Hennelly did get the judge to let Creighton answer the single question, whether he knew Mary Annis, but was not allowed to pursue the matter. Creighton, in response to the question, said he did know Mary Annis.
Gov. Donnelly was succeededby Gov. James T. Blair, brother of Judge Sam Blair. Gov. Blair's first official act in office was to commute the death sentence of Laster to life imprisonment.
The outside world quickly forgot the seven convicts. Once in a while the newspapers would report Laster's latest attempt to escape. Laster spent year after year after year in solitary confinement for attempting to escape from the prison.
Paul Kenton did succeed in getting over the wall with another convict, Howard Nunn, but broke his ankle and was quickly recaptured.
By l960 most of the seven had become even more embittered than they'd been in l954, particularly Vidauri, who would have been released from prison years earlier except for the Donnell murder conviction. Called "Jap Joe" by the other cons, Vidauri was a loner who specialized in hustling and being a con man. The first time I ever saw him he was in chains, reading a law book, and pretending to have severe breathing problems. He'd wheeze asthmatically, then wink when the guard wasn't looking.
Stidham became a part of the St. Louis clique, even though Grant and Irv Thompson, and Lindner, were still in prison and still were members of that group. Stidham spent most of his time running poker games and a lending operation, and trying to keep his case alive in court.
Jack Noble was a hustler, and in the early 60s paid another convict to stab a member of the St. Louis clique, which led to a years long feud involving the St. Louis clique.
Noble and Laster hated Stidham. Stidham was feuding with Paul Kenton. Vidauri went his own way. He was often the only Mexican in the prison, and felt alienated. DeLapp developed a reputation as an informer, a burden that all seven men carried to some degree because of the confessions they signed, but which DeLapp enhanced by his demeanor after the riot (DeLapp was often friendly with the guards).
Little was known of Hoover. He was paroled from the prison in the mid 60s, and disappeared, never to be seen or heard of again. It was rumored that he had gone to South America, and was hiding down there. It is more likely that he was murdered and his body never found.
The many years he'd spent in solitary, and the pressure of feuding with the St. Louis clique, finally got to Laster, and he tried to kill himself in the mid l960s. He lay in his bunk one day and slashed his arm so severely it severed the radial nerve, leaving that arm permanently crippled.
Although he appeared to be completely broken, he wasn't. He would still attempt to escape again, blinding a guard captain in one eye in the process.
Noble got out of solitary and lived in an uneasy truce with the St. Louis group.
Slick Stidham kept on being himself. DeLapp made parole and straightened up, moving to Seattle where he'd originally come from.
Kenton went quietly about his business.
The Missouri Supreme Court finally ruled that Joe Vidauri had not known what he was signing, and turned him loose.
In l975 I heard that Laster had suffered a serious heart attack.
It seemed a shame that he'd die in prison while serving time for something he didn't do, so I told the editors of the Star about the Donnell killing, and asked them to let me work on it.
I contacted Mark Hennelly, who by then was vice president and general counsel at Missouri Pacific Railroad. Hennelly was not only still fighting the Stidham case, but was having some success in the U.S. Court of Appeals, with the case having been reversed several times.
How do you investigate a case that is 21 years old?
Creighton was dead. But Herman Trout was living in Holcomb, Mo. He owned a motel there, and was rumored to be running a poker game and being involved in other illegal activities. A few years earlier he'd murdered a man, and had gotten off with a $500 fine and jail time.
I called down there, and Mrs. Trout said Herman had suffered a stroke and couldn't talk to me. She said Trout didn't even remember being in prison, and suggested I direct my questions to Raymond Scott, sheriff of Dunklin County, Mo.
So I went to Holcomb, a sleepy little town in the Missouri bootheel, and checked into the Trout motel. I went to the local tavern/pool hall and casually asked about Trout. He was well known in those parts, but the people were reticent about discussing him.
As the evening wore on I noticed that a police car was following me everywhere I went. I talked to Trout's daughter-in-law, who knew nothing about Trout's testimony against the seven men, and called me a liar when I told her about it.
When I left the roadhouse after talking to the daughter-in-law the police car was waiting in the shadows. This time it pulled over by my car and I was told to get into the police car.
Charles "Chuck" Blagg, chief of police of Holcomb, introduced himself. He told me he'd run my license plates, then had run me through the NCIC computer, which told him I was on parole from a life sentence for murder.
I showed him my Kansas City Star ID and explained why I was in Holcomb.
"These people don't want you bothering Herman," he said. "And if they don't want you bothering him, then I'm not going to let you."
He told me if I didn't leave town, he'd find a pretext to put me in jail. So I left.
Once back in Kansas City I called chief Blagg and tape-recorded him.
"I've talked to them since you left," he said, "and they're still not going to let you talk to Herman. So I don't know anything else to do, really, do you?"
He apologized for getting heavy handed with me, and answered all of my questions about Trout.
"There's quite a few people around here could tell you quite a bit about Herman if you could just get 'em to tell you," Blagg said. "There's not nobody around here that cares anything about Herman Trout, not the mayor or anybody else, cause we know what he done in the past, and he done it as long as he was able to get around. But we jes' never could get nothin' on the man. It wasn't that we wasn't tryin' to, or was scared to, it's just that he was, you know, a pretty slick operator."
Blagg said it was true that Trout was running whores out of his motel, and was running a gambling operation, and had burned down several buildings for the insurance.
"Yep.Burned two or three of them down," Blagg said. "That's what I tell you, we know what he was doing, but just wasn't able to catch him."
It didn't seem likely that anyone was going to get Trout to discuss his testimony after the riot.
Hennelly wondered if I could arrange a polygraph test for Stidham. From their first appearance in court, all seven men had asked to be allowed to take a polygraph test. In all the years following the riot, not one of them had ever had the opportunity to be tested.
A lot of people are skeptical of polygraph testing, and the courts, generally, will not accept the results unless both sides stipulate prior to the test.
But this was an unusual case. The primary evidence against all seven men wastheir signed confessions. Court after court had decided that the men were telling the truth when they confessed, but were lying when they said they were tortured into confessing. It was their own word against their own word. On the one hand, when it would hurt them, they were telling the truth. On the other hand, if it would help them, nothing they said was truthful or worthy of consideration (that is basically the law in the United States (inculpatory statements by a defendant are admissible, exculpatory statements are not).
I called some of the best polygraph outfits in the United States, but the cost would have been exorbitant to have them come to Missouri and test Stidham at the penitentiary. Finally I heard of Carroll Price, a Ph.D. who was teaching criminal science at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, and who specialized in teaching polygraph testing.
I contacted Price and he was interested. It was the strangest of coincidences, because in September, l954, Carroll Price had been a Missouri Highway Patrolman, and part of his job was administering polygraph tests for the Highway Patrol. If the court had granted the seven men their request to be tested in l954, Carroll Price would have tested them.
Even more interesting was the fact Price had been on duty at the prison during the riot, and three other state troopers had told him about Stidham and the others being tortured.
When I contacted Warden Donald Wyrick, he had no objection to Stidham taking a polygraph test sponsored by the Kansas City Star.
I accompanied Price to Jefferson City, where Stidham was tested. He passed the test.
On May 30, l975, my story ran on page one of the Star. The response was perhaps not unpredictable: The public seemed not to care that seven convicts might have been convicted of a murder they did not commit. These men had, obviously, committed other crimes or they wouldn't have been in prison when the riot started.
State officials remained silent. It seemed as though every one was sitting the story out.
I learned that Paul Kenton had been paroled and was living in Kansas City, so I tracked him down and asked him to take a polygraph test. He agreed, and Carroll Price tested him. Kenton passed the test.
I pursued the story by whatever avenue was available. So when Hennelly told me there would be a hearing in federal court in Jefferson City, the Star sent me to cover it.
Hennelly tried mightily to get the court to consider the polygraph test results, to no avail. Judge Collinson issued the strangest ruling: He could not accept the polygraph test result because he found it incredible that Stidham could claim not to have any knowledge as to who had, in fact, murdered Donnell.
Collinson came to that conclusion despite the fact that Stidham had named the real killers in his confession, and had injected their names into his trial, and into post trial proceedings over the years.
During the days that hearing went on, however, I came to know Hennelly and developed a great deal of respect for him. He was a dynamic lawyer, who overlooked nothing. He was full of passion and conviction. He had pursued this case single handedly, at his own expense, year after year, simply because he believed Stidham was innocent.
But Hennelly was fair; he not only represented convicts, he represented cops. For many years the St. Louis police would look to Hennelly when a cop was in trouble, and Hennelly routinely defended them free of charge.
He felt that in many ways the St. Louis police had betrayed him. After all he'd done for them, he reasoned, the least they could do for him was to tone down the lies in the Stidham case or at least not invent any new lies.
So he lost his cool when Sgt. Charles Billings testified that he, Billings, had personally mailed a letter for Stidham after the interrogation, and that there was no water on Stidham's cell floor as Stidham had testified. Hennelly had been trying to prove that Stidham had tried to write to a lawyer, but that the letter had never gotten out of the prison. When Billings went so far as to testify that he had advised Stidham to hire Hennelly, because Hennelly was the best in the state, Hennelly jumped to his feet in a rage, and made Billings admit that in all of his previous testimony, over a period of 21 years, he’d never made this claim before.
He also got Billings to admit that he had refused to talk to the FBI about the circumstances of the interrogations, after Stidham had written to the FBI and told them of the torture.
When the hearing recessed, Hennelly stalked Billings in the corridor and Billings seemed alarmed. Hennelly got up in Billing's face and said, "You sonofabitch, you've gone too far this time. I've done you favors, and the least you could do is not get up and lie your ass off to defeat me." Hennelly waggled his finger in Billing's face.
"I'm not going to let you get away with this. That's a promise."
Hennelly was doubly galled because, in early 1954 – the same year as the riot – Hennelly had defended St. Louis Patrolman Elmer Dolan, free of charge, when Dolan was charged with perjury during an investigation into $300,000 in missing ransom money from the Bobby Greenlease kidnap/murder case. Dolan was Billing’s brother-in-law.
Later that night we were at The Library Lounge at the Ramada Inn, in Jefferson City, as he explained: "This case is like a fingernail on a black board with me, as it should be with any lawyer. As long as I believe that man's in prison for something he didn't do, I can't rest."
While we were at the Library Lounge I spotted one of the St. Louis police officers sitting with State Sen. Lawrence Lee of St. Louis. I went to their table and asked the police officer if he would take a polygraph test on the circumstances of the interrogation of Stidham. He clutched his chest and said he'd been having heart trouble. Then he looked at Sen. Lee and said, "And my attorney has advised me not to discuss this matter."
Lee looked at him and said, "I don't know why you're looking at me. I'm not your lawyer." Lee was a close friend of Hennelly’s.
Sgt. Billings apparently gave some thought to what Hennelly had told him, and changed his story. He contacted the circuit attorney in St. Louis, who contacted the Attorney General's office, and Billings recanted his testimony that he had mailed a letter for Stidham. He also recanted his testimony that there was no water on Stidham's cell floor. Hennelly had maintained for years that Stidham had been unable to sleep for days because his cell was flooded with water.
I contacted more than a dozen of the St. Louis policeman and Missouri Highway Patrolmen who'd been involved in the interrogations, and every one of them refused to submit to a polygraph test on whether the seven defendants had been tortured into confessing.
Lt. Eitzman, by then retired from the St. Louis Police Department and living in Arizona, told me his eggs were getting cold, and that the interrogations had happened so long ago he didn't want to think about them.
Godfrey Padberg, by then law partner to former Gov. Warren Hearnes, estimated that Hennelly had spent upwards of $150,000 of his own money fighting the Stidham case.
Hennelly intrigued me. He didn't smoke or drink. He was a devout Catholic. He was one of the top officers of a $1.5 billion corporation (Mississippi River Corporation, in addition to his position at Missouri Pacific).Yet he fought year after year, decade after decade, to free a convict the world didn't give a damn about.
Rollie Laster died in prison. Ironically, had he been able to hang on a little longer, he would have been paroled. Warden Wyrick, once a bitter foe of Laster's (Laster took Wyrick hostage in a desperate escape attempt in l959) even seemed saddened to see Laster die without having been paroled. Laster, with Wyrick's assistance, had made it to a minimum-security institution, the last step before freedom.
Kenton made parole then was returned on a parole violation. He had taken a job as a bodyguard, and was caught with a gun. He was paroled again in l987.
Stidham made parole several times after the Star had publicized his case and was returned for technical violations. One time he simply refused to report to his parole officer in California, on the theory that as an innocent man he was exempt from that foolishness. When Hennelly told me about it he got so mad he threw a file folder across the room.
Stidham was paroled again and was living in California. If alive, he would be in his 70s.
Jackie Lee Noble was paroled, and then was convicted of armed robbery in Joplin, Mo. I covered his case, including the fact that another convict confessed to the armed robbery. In spite of the other convict's confession, Noble received 50 years for that robbery.
DeLapp is free at last. The last time I had checked he was working two jobs full time, in an effort to catch up with the rest of the world.
William Hoover disappeared 30 years ago.
Joe Vidauri, although freed by the Missouri Supreme Court in the Donnell case, was later convicted of another crime in St. Louis, and was returned to the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Warden E.V. Nash shot himself in the temple during a prison scandal at Jefferson City on Christmas eve, l964.
After leaving the Star, I lived in St. Louis for a while, and met occasionally with Hennelly. Our conversations invariably turned to the Stidham case. By l983 Hennellyhad been battling for Stidham for 29 years, and he showed no sign of quitting.
He fought to his dying breath, which came in the summer of l983, shortly after he had retired as president of Missouri Pacific Railroad.
Whenever someone speaks ill of lawyers, I think of Mark M. Hennelly, and I know the good ones are out there.
I know of no other lawyer who has fought a criminal case for 29 years at his own expense. It seems a genuine tragedy that this saga should die with Hennelly.
Particularly since the truth is now available. Around l981 Irv Thompson died. He had told his sister, who lives in Illinois, that he had killed Walter Lee Donnell, and that, should he die, the sister should let the authorities know that Irv Thompson, and not the seven men who were convicted, had killed Donnell.
The sister called Donald Wyrick, warden of the Missouri State Penitentiary, and told him what Irv Thompson had said.
On Aug. 29, l989, Wyrick told me about the sister's phone call.
"I got a call one time from Irv Thompson's sister. I forget now where she told me she was calling from, but it seems like it was somewhere in Illinois, but she was telling me that he had died, and he had told her before he died that he knew he was going to die, and when he died for her to call somebody and tell them that those guys were all innocent. So she called the prison, and I talked to her myself.
"I couldn't get anyone to listen to me, and it just kind of went by the way."