Now largely forgotten, the infamous Tri-State Gang blazed a trail of mayhem and murder through Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia during the early to mid-1930’s. They were so notorious at the time that even TV series ‘The Untouchables’ starring Robert Stack gave them their own episode.
Sometimes known as the ‘Dillingers of the East’ the gang, led by Robert Mais and the psychopathic Walter Legenza, committed a string of armed robberies and murders. Even when they’d been caught, tried, convicted and condemned to Virginia’s electric chair Mais and Legenza still managed to escape from Richmond’s City Jail, fleeing first to Pennsylvania and then New York to continue their rampage. During their spree they murdered police officers, security guards, informants (real and merely suspected), pretty much anyone facing them risked a swift, violent end.
Legenza in particular was the most cold-blooded of killers. He wasn’t a sadist, he just had a total indifference to the value of human lives and the taking thereof. Mais was less violent, but no less ruthless. Where Legenza went, Mais followed, even to the electric chair where Legenza went first. Not that Mais was any less dangerous, he hadn’t been listed by Pennsylvania as their Public Enemy Number One for nothing.
After making a name for themselves with a series of cigarette truck hijackings, they really hit the big time in Richmond, Virginia on March 8, 1934. They hijacked a Federal Reserve truck in Richmond, expecting to make a huge score from it. Legenza, true to form, immediately shot guard E.M. Hubard the instant the gang forced the truck’s rear doors open. Hubard hadn’t given Legenza a reason but, with Legenza, nobody had to. Throwing a large pile of mail sacks into their getaway car they fled, only to find they’d murdered Hubard for bags after bag of cancelled checks. Their huge score wasn’t even worth the paper it was printed on.
That didn’t slow them down in the slightest.
Being a mail robbery, the FBI had jurisdiction. Months later they tracked the gang to a house in Baltimore, Maryland. After a short, vicious firefight Mais took a burst of tommy gun slugs in his belly. Legenza, seeing this, surprisingly surrendered without further shooting. They were swiftly shipped back to Virginia for trial. If convicted they faced the electric chair.
In short order both men were convicted and, as expected, sentenced to death by electrocution. Their execution date was set for November, 1934. Unfortunately neither Mais or Legenza intended to try their luck with anything as legitimate as winning any court appeals. They did, however, have every intention of escape.
One of their very few perks as condemned men was having food sent in from outside. One day, however, a canned chicken delivered to them came with a little something extra in the form of two loaded pistols. On September 29, 1934, only weeks away from execution, they decided to use them.
That day was a dark one in the history of Richmond’s City Jail. It was darker still for police officer William Toot (who they murdered) and two other officers wounded during their successful escape. It wasn’t any better for City Night Sergeant Richard Duke who, wracked with guilt and distress for not preventing their escape, later took his own life.
Legenza and Mais fled to Philadelphia to plot their next move. Needing money and plenty of it, their next move was the kidnapping of former bootlegger William Weiss for a $100,000 ransom. Weiss’s friends could only raise $8000 which they paid, but it would have made no difference. Legenza had murdered Weiss almost as soon as the gang had abducted him and dumped his body. With yet another murder at their door it was time to flee again, this time Legenza and Mais fled a joint raid on their hideout by Philadelphia police and the FBI on December 13, 1934. Mais was wounded and Legenza broke both legs jumping down an embankment, but the pair still made it to New York.
Legenza checked into New York’s Presbyterian Hospital under a false name while Mais rented an apartment, also under an alias. Two other gang members also arrived. Edwin Gale and Martin Farrell (Farrell had helped abduct and kill Weiss with his pal Francis Wiley) checked into a Midtown hotel under false names. The weak link in the chain, however, was moll Maria McKeevor, who knew where all of them were hiding. A combined force of New York detectives, Philadelphia detectives and the FBI, however, knew all about McKeevor’s link to the gang and als o knew that if they followed her then they’d soon find everybody they were looking for. Discreet surveillance of her as she went from hideout to hideout let them do exactly that. On January 18, 1935 they made their move.
The Mid-town hotel was first. Gale and Farrell were taken without a fight. Then Legenza, his alias discovered, was arrested in his bed at the Presbyterian Hospital. McKeever, suspected of helping smuggle the guns used in the break from the Richmond City Jail, was also arrested. Only Robert Mais remained at large.
Detectives and FBI agents took him, surprisingly, without a shot fired. Smashing down the door of his apartment on Manhattan Avenue they found him fast asleep. By the time Mais realised what was happening he knew it was pointless to resist. He didn’t even try to reach for the gun within easy reach of his bed, just surrendered meekly as the handcuffs were slapped on. Legenza and Mais were shipped back to Virginia while Farrell was returned to Pennsylvania to stand trial for the kidnap and murder of William Weiss.
It didn’t end well for any of them. Despite trying to make a deal with Pennsylvania authorities and showing them where to find Weis’s body, Farrell was condemned with fellow gang member Francis Wiley who was already in custody. On December 2, 1935 both Farrell and Wiley died in Pennsylvania’s electric chair at the State Prison near Rockview.
Legenza and Mais were, by that time, long gone. Their hearing before the same Virginia judge who had originally sentenced them to die was short and certainly not sweet. Seeing them stood before him January 24, 1935 he decided that, as they’d already been condemned to die and responded by shooting their way out of jail, they should be executed before they had any further chance to do it again which, in the judge’s opinion, they certainly would if the chance arose. They stood before him on January 24. He set their execution date for February 5.
Ten days after their return to Virginia.
Ten days was all the judge gave them and, as it turned out, ten days was all anyone who could have reprieved them was prepared to offer. They were so notorious that practically the entire Commonwealth of Virginia wanted them executed as soon as possible. On February they got their wish. Mais, apparently repentant and denying ever having killed anybody, went first. Before dying Mais gained much consolation from the prison Chaplain. Legenza went second, having scorned any and every effort to make him show any remorse whatsoever.
Both went quietly and without further incident.
Such was Legenza’s notoriety that his family refused to claim his body for burial. Instead, Walter Legenza lies beneath a small headstone beside a busy road in what was the front yard of the local undertaker. The undertaker’s grand-daughter still lives there today. Appropriately for so toxic a character as Walter Legenza, his headstone is liberally overgrown by poison ivy.