Decorated war hero, Sheriff, armed robber, hitman and gun-for-hire. Quite an impressive resume, all things considered. Verne Miller was all of these things during his brief, turbulent and violent life and there’s seldom been another American criminal like him. He even played a pivotal role in turning what was then merely the ‘Bureau of Investigation into the modern-day FBI, but we’ll get to that later.
Miller was South Dakota, born in the town of Kimball on August 25, 1896. By America’s entry into the First World War in 1917 he was 21 years old and already serving in the US Army’s 18th Infantry Regiment. He served with distinction, earning both decorations and the rank of colour sergeant before leaving the Army at war’s end and becoming a police officer in the town of Huron. It was then that things began to take a dramatic (and violent) turn for the worse.
He resigned from the police and won election in 1920 to the Beadle County Sheriff’s office. So far, so law-abiding. Until in 1922 he embezzled $4000 of public funds and went on the run until being caught in April, 1923 and sent to the South Dakota State Penitentiary on a four-year sentence.
Released in 1925, Miller kept his nose clean (apart from a $200 fine for bootlegging) until 1929. Bootlegging was a major criminal business by then as Prohibition was in full swing and so were America’s bootleggers. Many people simply didn’t see drinking as a crime, even though the Federal Government thought otherwise, and it was through his bootlegging contacts that Miller began to mingle with an altogether higher league of criminals.
In 1928, after several years of rampant drug abuse and also suffering from the effects of advanced syphilis, Miller was facing charges for wounding two Minneapolis police officers. The one-time law-enforcer was on his way to becoming one of America’s most notorious felons. That case was later dropped, but Miller was by then hopelessly committed to full-time major crime. At the time of the Minneapolis incident he was already known as both an armed robber and a freelance gunman, relying on his military training and combat experience to make a tidy living robbing banks and as a freelance hitman.
Miller utterly unfazed by violence, amply proving as much by committing the then-infamous ‘Fox Lake Massacre’ in May, 1930. A friend of Miller’s, one ‘Red’ McLaughlin, had been murdered by Al Capone’s triggermen and Miller sought personal vengeance. He found it when he confronted the three gunmen at the Fox Lake Hotel in Illinois. Within ten minutes of his confronting them, all three gunmen lay dead while Miller simply disappeared. But this wasn’t the last time he would take part in a massacre, nor would it be his most notorious. That would came later at Kansas City in 1933.
Prohibition ended in the early 1930’s and with it so did Miller’s interest in bootlegging. Freelance hits were also less frequently available since the Beer Wars were now over. Miller decided instead to move into armed robbery as a profession. He worked with some of the best in the business. Harvey Bailey, Frank ‘Jelly’ Nash, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly (although, like many top-level armed robbers, he considered Kelly clumsy, gauche and a chicken), Lawrence de Vol, . Miller himself wasn’t above the occasional blunder, though. In 1932 he turned up with his gang to rob a bank in Minneapolis and left having murdered two police officers. He retired from armed robbery in favour of working as a freelance hitman, although he kept in touch with his former accomplices. It was his contacts with them that led to his being hired to take part in what became known as the ‘Kansas City Massacre.’
Frank Nash had escaped and been recaptured and was then being escorted back to the infamous Leavenworth Penitentiary to complete decades of unserved jail time. His escort was composed of FBI agents and local lawmen. With a half-dozen armed, experienced escorts it was thought that Nash could be safely escorted via ordinary public trains, and so it proved until the group had to stop in Kansas City before continuing Nash’s return to prison. Criminal contacts, however, had hired an escort of their own to ensure that Nash never spent another day in jail. After their bloody handiwork, Nash didn’t.
Verne Miller is the only one of the three gunmen responsible to have been positively identified. For decades afterward FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover publicly proclaimed notorious outlaw Charles Arhtur ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd and his sidekick Adam Richetti to have been the other two. Floyd was killed by FBI agents in 1935, one of the last of the legendary ‘Public Enemies’ to fall. Richetti was captured and tried in Misouri for his alleged role in the Kansas City Massacre. A combination of a hapless defense team and FBI publicity, however, saw him convicted and condemned. In fact, Richetti was among the first inmates to die the Jefferson City’s brand-new gas chamber in 1938.
The Kansas City Massacre was effectively the end of Verne Miller’s outlaw career. On June 17, 1933, Nash and his escort arrived at Union Station in Kansas City. Within minutes of their arrival they were ambushed by Miller and at least two other unidentified gunmen. FBI agent Ray Caffrey and Officers Grooms and Hermanson of the Kansas City police, along with police chief Reed, were killed. FBI agent Lackey was seriously wounded, as was Special Agent-in-charge Reed Vetterli. Unfortunately for the gunmen, so was Frank Nash who had been among the first to be shot. Nash had taken a bullet in the head and was dead before the ambush even ended. With Nash dead and a scene of carnage and chaos in their wake, Miller and his fellow triggermen fled the scene empty-handed.
It was the Kansas City Massacre that enabled Hoover to revamp the FBI and secure new funding and new laws under which his baby could operate. Funds were available to buy weapons and vehicles. Experienced law enforcement officers were hired away from other State and local forces to pass their experience on to the new crop of fresh-faced, keen and often woefully naïve agents who formed the new and improved FBI. The publicity-minded Hover saw the massacre as grist to his personal mill and, using it wisely, he forced through all manner of measures designed to make the FBI into a law enforcement titan and gain spectacular results both for the public and the newsreel cameras.
Miller, on the other hand, had reached the end of the road. He was so hot that even his criminal associates dared not be seen anywhere near him. Just being a known associate of Verne Miller was enough to bring them the highest level of attention from law enforcement and even his high-level gangland associates like notorious racketeer Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter and Abner ‘Longy’ Zwillman refused to continue to help him out.
It was Zwillman who allegedly brought Miller’s career (and existence) to a the customarily brutal gangland end. Zwillman had provided sanctuary for Miller after Kansas City, a sanctuary that Miller rather unwisely abused by murdering one of Zwillman’s men during an argument. After that Verne Miller was on his own. Miller had also been tracked East through New York and New Jersey and the resulting police and Federal dragnet had caused the New York and New Jersey Mobs serious disruption. Business was bad because Miller’s pursuers were cracking down everywhere in the hope that somebody would fold and give Miller up.
The underworld decided that Miller was simply too great a liability to be left roaming free, that he knew too much to be allowed to talk and his murdering one of ‘Longy’ Zwillman’s heavies didn’t help his case either. From gangland’s perspective a solution, preferably a lethal one, had to be found.
On November 29, 1933 it became obvious that Miller could be filed under ‘Problems solved’ when his body was discovered in a ditch by a roadside near Detroit, Michigan. Detroit being the home of the notorious ‘Purple Gang’ it’s possible that they might have done gangland a favour. ‘Longy’ Zwillman was also a prime suspect, given his having been so disrespected by Miller. Other senior figures may have simply decided Miller was bad for business or perhaps a friend or relative of one of his previous victims might have found him. We’ll almost certainly never know. What we do know is that Verne Miller’s death was both brutal and lonely. He was found tied up with a clothesline twisted tight around his neck. He’d also been repeatedly beaten around the head with a claw hammer.
Verne Miller’s life is both a strange and sad one. It’s a tale of a formerly respectable and respected man who descended into a life of crime, violence and eventual infamy. When he was buried in his hometown his fellow-townsfolk made it clear they wanted to remember him as he was and not for what he became. He was given a funeral befitting a decorated war veteran while his criminal history went entirely unacknowledged.