Go Down Together
The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde
Simon & Schuster. 468 pp. $27
April 12, 2008
Chapter OneThe Platte City Shootout
N.D. Houser, the owner-operator of the Red Crown Tavern and its adjoining two-cabin motor court, was suspicious from the moment Blanche Barrow walked into his office on July 18 and asked to rent the cabins overnight for a party of three. For one thing, Blanche was wearing her beloved "riding breeches" - jodhpurs was the correct fashion term - that were skintight across the rear and flared out from the hip to the knee. Pants like that were seldom seen in Platte City, Missouri, and several people who saw Blanche there were still remarking about them decades later. Then she paid the $4 rent in loose change, undoubtedly looted earlier in the day from the cash registers and gum machines at the three service stations in Fort Dodge. Houser took the money and watched as the fellow driving the Ford V-8 pulled up to the cabins, opened the door of the garage between them, and backed his car in. Criminals were notorious for doing that so they could make fast getaways.
Clyde got Bonnie settled in the right-hand cabin. W. D. Jones joined them there as usual. Buck and Blanche took the cabin on the left. Almost as soon as everyone was inside, Clyde sent for Blanche. He gave her more loose change and told her to go over to the tavern and buy five dinners and beer. She was to bring the food back so they could eat in the cabins. Blanche reminded Clyde that they'd just checked in as a party of three. Buying five meals would be a tip-off that there were more of them than that. But Clyde said he didn't care - she was to get five dinners, period, and he wanted chicken if they had it. Blanche did as she was told, and as she poured more coins into his palm Houser said he'd have to go back to the cabins with her. He'd forgotten to take down the license number of their car, and it was required information from all their guests. Feeling helpless, Blanche led him back to the right-hand cabin and called for Clyde to come out. He opened the garage door so Houser could jot down the V-8 sedan's license number: Oklahoma 75-782. Clyde didn't think it was an immediate problem as he routinely switched plates on stolen cars. But it should have served as a warning sign that the staff at the Red Crown was especially vigilant. Clyde apparently didn't care. He told his family later that he liked the Red Crown cabins. They had stone and brick walls, which made him feel secure. If they needed to get to their car in a hurry, there was an interior door in Clyde's cabin that opened directly into the garage. Buck and Blanche's cabin didn't have one. They could only go in and out through the front door.
After dinner, everyone went to bed. They slept late on the morning of July 19. When Buck woke up, he told Blanche to go over to the other cabin and see when Clyde, Bonnie, and W.D. would be ready to leave. Clyde said he'd decided they would stay another day. He wanted Blanche to fetch some more food and beer. Clyde felt relaxed about their situation. The cabins were nice. Bonnie needed rest. So Clyde gave Blanche yet another pile of change. After she brought the food, he sent her out to pay Houser $4 for a second night's stay. Blanche wasn't exaggerating in her memoir when she complained about having to run all the gang's errands. Houser took the money and told Blanche she could have a refund if her group decided to leave before nightfall. She thought it was an odd remark, and told Clyde that Houser "was the type that might tell the law we were there if he had the slightest suspicion about us." He was, and he didn't have to go far to do it.
The Barrow Gang had no idea that the Red Crown Tavern served as a gathering place for local cops and the state highway patrol. Two-way radios were still nonexistent for most lawmen in the region, so officers and supervisors would often meet somewhere at mealtimes to exchange messages and receive orders. The Red Crown was a favorite spot because the food was so good. On July 19, Missouri Highway Patrol captain William Baxter and some of his men met there for lunch. Either Houser or one of his employees mentioned to Baxter that the people in the two tourist cabins were acting awfully strange. The woman checking them in said they were a party of three, but she was buying meals for five. Besides paying for everything in loose change and parking backward in the garage the way crooks often did, whoever was in the right-hand cabin had taped paper across the windows to block anybody looking in. Houser described them to Baxter, and also gave him the Ford's license number. Baxter made a note to check the plate, and meanwhile put the cabins under surveillance.
Someone also passed the word about suspicious characters at the Red Crown cabins to Platte County sheriff Holt Coffey. Coffey and Baxter got along well. When they conferred early in the afternoon of the 19th, they concluded it was possible that the four or five people (they weren't entirely sure whether it was three men and two women, or two and two) might be the notorious Barrow Gang. Bonnie Parker was known to be badly injured, and a farmer in Iowa had recently reported finding used bandages at a campsite in the country. That meant the Barrows were probably somewhere in the region - why not Platte City?
The Barrows packed BARs, and Coffey worried that his own officers and the members of Baxter's highway patrol only had handguns and a few low-caliber rifles to return fire if it really was the gang and they tried to arrest them. Determined not to be outgunned, he went to see Sheriff Tom Bash, whose Jackson County department had jurisdiction for Kansas City and whose available armaments included machine guns, steel bulletproof shields, tear gas launchers, and armored cars. When Coffey drove over to ask for Bash's help, he didn't get the hoped-for offer of cooperation. As Coffey recalled it later, Bash snarled that he was "getting pretty damn tired of every hick sheriff in the country coming in here telling me they have a bunch of desperadoes holed up and wanting help." When Coffey insisted that they might be able to corner the infamous Barrow Gang, Bash finally agreed to send along a few officers and one armored car. This was an ordinary sedan whose sides had been reinforced with extra metal.
While Coffey pleaded with Bash, Lieutenant Baxter of the highway patrol got a report back on his license check. The number matched the plate on a Ford V-8 stolen on June 26 from a Dr. Fields in Enid, Oklahoma. Clyde, of course, had long since left that vehicle behind, but he foolishly kept the plate and screwed it on the bumper of the V8 he stole outside Fort Dodge on July 18. The Barrow Gang was suspected of the car theft in Enid, so Baxter felt he had more proof that Clyde and his cohorts were holed up in the Red Crown cabins.
By midafternoon, Baxter and Coffey began planning their raid. They knew Blanche had paid for the gang to stay a second night, so they decided to attack well after dark. The lawmen did their best to keep a low profile, but customers at the service station, grocery, and tavern all noticed highway patrolmen and county cops gathering and watching the tourist cabins. Word spread, and it soon seemed as though everyone but the Barrow Gang knew a confrontation was imminent. The newspaper Clyde had taped to his cabin windows to keep people from looking inside also prevented him from seeing what was going on outside.
At some point, either Clyde or Blanche walked to a local drugstore to buy bandages and over-the-counter medical supplies for Bonnie. Witnesses subsequently disagreed about who it was. Apparently, the lawmen let him or her come and go freely, not wanting to alert the rest of the gang and risk letting them escape. The druggist, who'd heard the rumors about criminals being in town, contacted Coffey to tell him about the purchases. The sheriff now felt certain that Bonnie Parker was in one of the Red Crown cabins.
That night in the left-hand cabin, Buck and Blanche talked about what they wanted to do next. Both were ready to leave Clyde, Bonnie, and W.D. They were tired of being bossed around. While Buck shined Blanche's boots, he suggested that they go north to Canada and find an isolated cabin to hide in. Buck thought they could make a living as trappers. Blanche said it would be fine with her -anything to get away from the others. Then Blanche walked over to the grocery across the road to buy some soap. When she went inside, she noticed there were quite a few people there, and all of them stopped talking as soon as she entered. While Blanche waited for her purchases, she stepped on a scale and discovered she weighed ninety-one pounds, almost twenty less than she had back in March when Buck was released from prison.
Back in the cabin, Blanche told Buck the people in the store had acted strangely. He suggested that she go tell Clyde about it. Buck added that he thought they'd be fine if they didn't leave until the morning. Clyde told her the same thing. He sent Blanche back to the left-hand cabin, and a few minutes later W.D. followed to say Clyde wanted her to return to the grocery for sandwiches and beer. She refused, so W.D. went. After he got back - apparently, W.D. didn't notice anything suspicious going on - everyone had some food and then went to bed.
Around 1 a.m. on July 20, Baxter and Coffey gathered their men together. Counting themselves, the highway patrolmen, county cops, and two officers sent by Sheriff Bash of Jackson County in the armored car, the posse numbered thirteen. Coffey's nineteen-year-old son, Clarence, was one of the highway patrolmen, along with Leonard Ellis and Thomas Whitecotton. Whitecotton had rushed from the department office to be there. He was still wearing the fancy seersucker suit and Panama hat he favored for days spent behind a desk instead of out on patrol. Baxter and Coffey had machine guns. They also had thick metal shields that they carried in front of them like medieval knights. The shields were supposed to protect them from even high-caliber bullets.
Coffey and Baxter were in the lead as the posse closed around the cabins. Jackson County officer George Highfill steered the armored car in front of the door of the garage connecting the cabins, effectively blocking the Ford V8 inside. Then he shone the car's lights directly on the left-hand cabin door. Crouching behind their shields, Coffey and Baxter moved forward. Coffey knocked on the door. Blanche jumped out of bed and began pulling on her jodhpurs and boots. Stalling for time, she asked who it was. Coffey yelled, "The sheriff -open up!" From the right-hand cabin a man's voice replied, "Just a minute," and then the Barrow Gang started shooting, Clyde and W.D. from the right side and Buck from the left, blasting their bullets at the lawmen right through the cabin doors and windows.
Watching from behind, Clarence Coffey told reporters later that he saw his father "pushed him back like he was hit by a high-pressure hose" as the bullets from the BARs smashed into his metal shield. Baxter was knocked back, too. The high-caliber slugs couldn't penetrate the shields, but their impact was still staggering.
Except for the headlights of the armored car shining on the door of the left-hand cabin, the light in the area in front of the cabins was patchy. All highway patrolmen Whitecotton and Ellis could see were two shadowy figures lurching in front of the cabins while gunfire exploded everywhere. Whitecotton mistakenly thought Sheriff Coffey must be one of the Barrows and yelled to Ellis, "There's one of 'em! Get him!" Ellis, armed with a shotgun, raised his weapon and fired. A bit of buckshot scratched Holt Coffey's neck. Afterward, when Coffey bragged about being shot by the Barrow Gang and living to tell about it, Whitecotton and Ellis decided not to ruin the Platte County sheriff's story by revealing that he'd been hit by friendly fire.
Inside the cabins, Clyde yelled for W.D. to go into the garage through the interior door and start the Ford. Bonnie fished the keys out of Clyde's pocket and tossed them to the teenager. When W.D. had the engine engaged, Clyde yelled for him to pull the garage door open, but the posse was pouring tremendous fire into the cabins and W.D. was too scared to do it. Holding his BAR in one hand, Clyde ran into the garage through the interior door and began pulling the door open himself. W.D. tried to help. As the door rose, they saw the armored car about fifteen feet in front of them blocking the way out. Clyde opened up on the car with his BAR. The car's side armor was supposed to repel any bullets, but Clyde's slammed through, wounding driver George Highfill in both legs. Another bullet smashed the horn button on the steering wheel, and the shrill howl of the horn blended with the gunfire. If Highfill had held his ground, the rest of the posse could have tightened their circle around the cabins and eventually captured the whole gang, but the injured officer astounded both his fellow lawmen and Clyde by easing the much perforated armored car several dozen yards to the right, opening a way for Clyde to drive the V8 straight through the surrounding cops. Both sides realized what was about to happen, and for a few seconds there was no more shooting.
Using the interior door in the right-hand cabin that opened directly into the garage, Bonnie hobbled into the V8. Clyde and W.D. climbed in. But Buck and Blanche had to leave their cabin through the front door to get to the car, and as they slammed the door open and began running for the garage, the posse laid down a high-caliber fusillade. A bullet from Baxter's machine gun struck Buck in the left temple and exited out his forehead, taking away part of his skull and exposing his brain. He dropped between the cabin door and the car.
Ever since she unwillingly joined the gang back in late March, Blanche Barrow repeatedly engaged in whining and other petty behavior. But now she proved she had courage. With bullets flying all around her, Blanche stopped to loop her arm under Buck's waist. Skinny and scared as she was, Blanche still helped Clyde drag Buck into the car while W.D. provided covering fire.
Somewhere behind the cabins, one of the lawmen fired a tear gas rocket that overshot the Ford, sailed across the highway, and exploded next to the service station. Clouds of stinking smoke added to the chaos. Clyde floored the gas pedal of the V8 and drove straight out of the Crown Tavern lot, past Holt Coffey with his metal shield and onto Highway 71. Everyone in the posse was shooting and their bullets smashed into the Ford. In the back seat Blanche was bent over Buck, trying to shield him from further harm. Her face was turned toward the right, and that was the side where most of the posse were standing and firing. One of their bullets struck the car's back window. It exploded. Though her body protected her mortally wounded husband, glass splinters drove straight into both of Blanche's eyes. She screamed, "I can't see," but Clyde had to concentrate on getting them out of there and kept on going, around a sharp corner and then off into the night.
The posse didn't immediately pursue them. The armored car was a sieve. Besides Highfill's wounded legs and Holt Coffey's nicks, several other officers had been injured, though none seriously. The Barrow Gang hadn't added to their body count of lawmen this time. Baxter got to a phone and called in a description of the gang's Ford, which like the Jackson County armored car was riddled with bullet holes. He emphasized that his posse "had a shooting scrape with the Barrow brothers." The lawmen found some pistols and a BAR in one of the cabins, along with syringes and morphine. The latter discoveries sparked rumors that the Barrow Gang were junkies, but the needles and dope were just the last remnants of booty from the doctor's bag Clyde had stolen back in Enid.
While the posse poked about the Red Crown cabins, Clyde was finding it tough to get away from Platte City. He spent several hours lost on backcountry roads. At one point a tire went flat, and the V8 had to bounce along on the rim until Clyde found a suitable place to stop and change it. They encountered several locals but no police. Clyde assured Blanche that despite the glass slivers driven into them, her eyeballs weren't "busted." The right eye was less damaged than the left - she could discern light and movement through it, but very little else.
Buck faded in and out of consciousness. Blanche tried to keep her fingers pressed tightly against the hole in his head. The floor by the back seat was soaked with Buck's blood. He asked for water - they had none to give him - and even in his dire condition Buck tried to comfort Blanche by telling her his head only hurt a little.
At dawn they stopped for gas at a service station north of Kansas City. Clyde told Blanche to cover Buck with a blanket, hoping the attendant wouldn't notice anything was wrong. Apparently he didn't think the man would see dozens of bullet holes in the car. But as soon as the attendant walked over, Buck began vomiting loudly, and the fellow looked in and saw the blood and carnage. Shaken by his brother's condition, Clyde simply drove away, telling Blanche he was sure the attendant would call the Kansas City cops to report seeing them. There was still enough fuel in the tank so that they could keep driving for a while.
Excerpted from Go Down Together by Jeff Guinn Copyright © 2009 by 24 Words LLC. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.