Killer of 2 HPD Officers Gets Swift Justice: ‘The Chair’ 69 Days Later

Nelson Zoch, Contributor

EOW: September 20, 1930

In the fall of 1930, the United States of America was less than a year into the Great Depression. The economy had taken a serious blow in October 1929 and times were tough everywhere, with businesses uncertain of what the future held for their livelihood. Cash money was scarce. Most Americans had little disposable income and spent what little money they had on necessities – or were flat saving it for emergencies. Unemployment reached an all-time high. Furniture was not considered a necessity, but people were buying what pieces they absolutely needed on credit or layaway. Consequently, unlike today, furniture stores required cash for their goods.

On Saturday night, Sept. 20, 1930, at approximately 9:45, closing time was nigh for one such establishment, the Touchy Furniture Store at 720 Milam Street. T. T. Clarke, an employee, and H. E. Hall, the credit manager, were closing up, both out on the sidewalk as they showed a customer to the door. They were in the process of lowering the awnings on the Milam Street side of the store when the armed bandits approached them and forced them back inside.

The two well-dressed young bandits were both white men about five-foot-ten and each weighing about one-hundred-thirty pounds. According to Clarke, both of the men emptied the cash registers, taking $300 in bills – which amounted to a small fortune in 1930. After taking Clarke as a hostage, they fled in a Chevrolet coupe. After-the-fact witnesses said this vehicle had been parked around the corner with the engine running. Clarke, in fear of his life, asked the bandits where they were taking him. They said they would release him down on the viaduct and admonished him not to remember the license number of their car since it was stolen anyway.

The crooks answered Clarke’s plea for freedom and left him unharmed at the intersection of Bagby and Rusk. From there the armed men were seen westbound on Rusk. When Clarke got his wits about it, he was in fact able to recall the license number of the car, which was immediately flashed over police wires to all detectives and motorcycle men on duty.

Two officers who promptly responded were motorcycle officers Fitzgerald and Phares.

Upon his arrival back at the Touchy Furniture Store, Clarke and the other robbery victim provided police with as many more details as they could remember. An all-alerts bulletin was again issued for the getaway car and subsequent information was obtained from eyewitness statements in newspapers as well as the crucial statement of Officer W. B. Phares. Bleeding from the mouth and losing blood internally from a gunshot wound to the abdomen, Officer Phares told investigators:

“Fitzgerald and I reported at the police box at Dowling and Leeland. We were told to search for an automobile bearing such a license number as the occupants of the vehicle had been involved in a robbery and abduction. We were told to search for a specific automobile and were given a license number, as the occupants were reported to have been doing some hijacking. As we neared Milam and Anita, we saw an auto parked there with the license number on it. Fitzgerald was the first to alight from his cycle. I followed quickly after and parked my motorcycle. I drew my gun as a man emerged from his automobile.

“He opened fire at me and the first shot struck me, knocking me down to the pavement. I emptied my pistol at him and he slumped downward. I did not see Fitzgerald fire and I did not see whether he was shot or not. It was at this point that a man named Fred Carr came to my assistance. He placed me in a private car and this is all I remember until I reached Baptist Hospital.”

Several witnesses were in the area and heard the first shots. Sewall King, operator of a filling station at Rosalie and Milam, saw most of what happened and was a key witness in the subsequent trial. He stated:

“After hearing several shots, I ran down to the corner and saw a uniformed officer standing on the northeast corner of Milam and Anita. He had been wounded already at this time. My attention was attracted to the officer because he was shouting and pointing to a Chevrolet coupe on the northwest corner of the intersection. The officer, who I later learned was Phares, was yelling, ‘There he is in that coupe, the hijacker, don’t let him get away.’ At this time, Fitzgerald was walking up to the left side of the coupe. Just as he got opposite the door, a hand came out of the coupe window and two shots were fired. The officer never had a chance.”

It was at this point that another civilian, Clark Christian, who got there with Sewall King, ran up to the wounded Officer Phares. The officer was able to hand his pistol and some more bullets to Christian, who then chased the fleeing suspect on foot south on Milam toward the Fannin School. He fired at least one shot but lost the suspect when he ran through a yard. While they were unable to assist in the identification of the gunman, these civilians agreed that there was only one shooter, a white male in his mid-thirties who fled on foot. Sadly enough, the description of the scene told the story of what happened.

Officer E. D. Fitzgerald, twenty-six, of 4714 Floyd, was dead at the scene from multiple gunshot wounds. Other later news accounts indicated he died at a hospital. Officer W. B. Phares, also twenty-six, of 1102 Bomar, was critically wounded and hurriedly removed from the scene also to be treated at a hospital.

The details of the story began to fall into place after Homicide detectives interviewed these witnesses at length. These men both said that after hearing the shots they ran to find Officer Phares standing on the curb, wounded. This was when the officer shouted to them that the fleeing men were hijackers. Phares handed Christian his empty gun and fumbled with his belt, producing more rounds for a reload. At this point the gunman saw Fitzgerald come up to the rear of the vehicle and opened fire, shooting the officer numerous times.

While the witness accounts were rather confusing, physical evidence and a recreation of the scene painted an accurate picture. Officers Phares and Fitzgerald had come upon the getaway car just as the occupants were about to get into second vehicle. Just why the suspect, later identified as J. J. Maples, remained in the wanted vehicle, is unknown to this day. It is important to remember that there were two hijackers at the furniture store and in the ensuing getaway only one was ever identified as being at the shooting scene.

Houston police strongly suspected the second hijacker went to get another vehicle. When the brave officers approached the scene, only one suspect gunned them down. It was determined that at least twenty rounds were fired. Also, in tracing the foot chase of the suspect, officers found a straw hat with a bullet hole in its crown. One of Officer Phares’ rounds had nearly struck home.

Police Chief Percy Heard arrived and assigned Lieutenant George Peyton, head of the Homicide Squad, the responsibility for the investigation. Chief Heard had been appointed only a few weeks before. He praised both officers and issued the ultimate tribute to the slain Officer Fitzgerald, saying, “He died fearlessly in the line of duty.”

With crime analysis being what it was in 1930, it became apparent early on in this investigation that these two hijackers had been very active in the month prior to this tragedy. In addition to detectives assigned specifically to this case, the entire day shift traffic squad remained on duty Saturday night after the shooting and acted as detectives reported any clues they found directly to Chief Heard and Lieutenant Peyton.

At the shooting scene there remained the stolen vehicle used by the hijackers and a large amount of fired cartridges. Chief Heard and Lieutenant Peyton searched the vehicle and produced a brown leather wallet which contained a valuable clue – a card with this inscription: “J. J. Maple, painting and paperhanging, 7143 Avenue H.” Elated by this find, a posse headed by Captain J. K. Irwin and Lieutenant Peyton left immediately for the location on Avenue H. Included were Lieutenant Dave Turner and Detectives Kesseler, Owens, Arnold, Jones and Jamison.

Entering this location with a pass key, they learned that J. J. Maple had recently moved his family to a housekeeping room at 2508 Fannin, which was a very short distance from the shootout scene. Finding the room unoccupied, Detectives Jones and Jamison secreted themselves inside the room to await further developments. At 8:30 a.m. Sunday, a woman later determined to be Mrs. Maple arrived alone. Officers took her to headquarters for questioning and were soon told this amazing story:

Shortly after 10:45 p.m. the previous night, Mrs. Maple said her husband came in all out of breath saying he was in a terrible jam and needed to get out of town. The pair hurriedly loaded up their small daughter and began walking out to Harrisburg Boulevard. They spent the night in a churchyard near a cemetery on Altic (probably Evergreen Cemetery) where her husband, J. J., told of shooting several men. Maple sent his wife back to their room to get more clothing while he kept the small daughter with him on the banks of Braes Bayou as people began arriving at the nearby church for Sunday morning services.

Realizing how serious the situation was, Mrs. Maple reluctantly led officers to the bayou, where Maple was arrested while holding the couple’s daughter. Taken to headquarters, Maple refused to reveal the name of his partner in crime. However, Mrs. Maple had already provided the name of the man who had been with her husband on various recent drinking sprees.

She said it was unusual that both of them seemed to have money lately even though neither had found steady work. Initially, she pled ignorance to having knowledge of what her husband had been doing to support them. Later, however, she said she been present on several recent occasions when her husband and a man she knew as E. F. Grimes had come home and divvied up their loot in front of her. Using this information, detectives went to an apartment at 711 Anita, also in the vicinity of the killing. They arrested Grimes there in the presence of his wife and two small children.

While Maple was initially uncooperative with Homicide investigators, he eventually confessed to the shootings and also told about numerous robberies. He steadily refused to provide the name of his partner in this crime spree. That later became unimportant since Grimes grew to be very talkative, apparently to distance himself from Maple’s deadly actions. Maple seemed resigned to the fact that there was little hope for him after what he had done. He later would not help his attorneys and seemed to feel that nothing could be gained by fighting the case that was building up against him.

Grimes seemed anxious to cooperate, feeling that the more distance between him and Maple the better his chances of facing just robbery charges instead of capital murder. Officers also recovered two pistols, one hidden near the spot where Maple was arrested on the bayou. That .45-caliber gun was the weapon Maple used to commit murder in the death of Officer Fitzgerald and later Officer Phares. This means that one small clue found within several hours of the offense resulted in capital murder and attempted capital murder charges filed against J. J. Maple. Those charges were filed within two days of the tragedy and came thanks to an around-the-clock effort by many hard-charging HPD officers and supervisors.

Maple also was charged with five other robberies he and Grimes were identified as committing. Facing these same five charges, Grimes – like Maple – was held without bond. In one of the robberies, a civilian was shot but survived his wound. Newspaper accounts indicated that Grimes was the “brains” behind the robbery schemes with Maple doing “the heavy work.” At one point, Grimes said, “There wasn’t a damn bit of reason for him (Maple) to kill those officers like he did. He could have gotten away like I did if he hadn’t been so hard and cold-blooded.” Investigators felt that Grimes may have witnessed the shootings but would never admit it. Grimes wound up doing prison time for the robberies but he was not charged with murder.

HPD and a grieving family still had to bury a loved one. Officer Edward Davis Fitzgerald was born February 1, 1903. He was a Houston native who was educated in the local public schools. He entered the police service on his birthday in 1927 as a probationary patrolman. He was assigned to the downtown mounted traffic squad. His first assignment was working the intersection of Texas and Travis. Upon the dissolution of this squad, his next assignment was motorcycle duty. He also was a member of the Cavalry branch of the National Guard. One of his HPD supervisors later commented, “He came to us with training in the Texas National Guard and there apparently he had learned well the lesson of discipline. To him, an order was an order and he asked no unnecessary questions.”

Officer Fitzgerald was survived by his mother, Louise Fitzgerald, and two sisters, Virginia Fitzgerald and Mrs. Lomis Eckman. Also mourning his death were his grandmother, Mrs. Edith A. Davis, and his grandfather, F. M. Fitzgerald. His father, Joseph Fitzgerald, preceded him in death in 1909 when Edward was only six years old.

On Monday afternoon, September 22, 1930, at the Morse Funeral Chapel, Houston said farewell to the gallant young officer. The Reverend E. A. Peterson, Fitzgerald’s pastor, friend, and neighbor, described him as a splendid young officer. He also said, “Nations pay tributes of respect to those who lay down their lives for their country in war. Far more should we respect this man who laid down his life for us in time of peace.”

The Christian burial service included several of his favorite renditions, “The Indian Love Call” and “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes.” The funeral cortege headed by a squad of motorcycle officers also included the HPD band, in which Officer Fitzgerald had played the saxophone. After the service, a long procession traveled north on Caroline Street en route to a rain-soaked country cemetery at Barbers Hill, northeast of Houston, where he was laid to rest.

For nearly seventy-four years his grave has been marked with a small headstone showing only his name, date of birth and death. In July 2004, a 100 Club of Houston/HPOU-sponsored project further honored his death as being in the LINE OF DUTY as a member of the HOUSTON POLICE DEPARTMENT.

Meanwhile, the life of Officer Phares, shot many times in the melee, still lay in the balance at Baptist Hospital. His hometown newspaper, the Lufkin Daily News, provided daily updates on his condition, which amounted to an emotional rollercoaster ride for his family and many Houston friends. Initial condition reports were “favorable” while he was “putting up a fine fight with a splendid constitution” but soon degenerated to “holding his own” and, by the end of the first week, “taken turn for worse.” He “showed stamina” by telling his doctors he had to survive for his wife and baby.

But on Tuesday, September 30, 1930, Officer Willie Bonner Phares succumbed to the injuries he sustained in the line of duty ten days earlier at age twenty-six.

Phares went by W. B. or Bonner, which was his mother’s maiden name. He was survived by his wife, Lenore Kerr Phares, and son, William Bonner Phares. Also surviving were his parents, Johnsa and Florrie Bonner Phares and two brothers, Johnsa Jr. and Gil.

To say that justice moved swiftly in the depression era would definitely be an understatement. The lead story in one local newspaper dated Wednesday, October 1, 1930, said a court was picking a jury to try J. J. Maple for capital murder in the death of Officer Fitzgerald. That very same day many Houston officers traveled to Lufkin to bury Officer Phares. District Attorney O’Brien Stevens had played an active part in the investigation by providing legal advice to HPD as developments arose. He was the leader of the prosecution team. After a two-day selection process, twelve people were selected to serve on a jury of J. J. Maple’s peers.

In Lufkin, the largest crowd in many years assembled at the Methodist Church to pay tribute to the memory of Houston Police Officer W. B. Phares. The funeral service was conducted by the Reverends C. A. Long, J. R. Nutt and J. N. Wooten in the presence of a throng gathered in respect for this young member of one of the oldest and best-known pioneer families of Angelina County. He was a descendant of the Bonner family, which had attained honor and fortune in various sections of Texas.

The funeral procession, one of the longest in the history of Lufkin, wound its way to Glendale Cemetery in the heart of this East Texas mini-city. A squad of state highway officers led the procession, followed by Houston Police Chief Percy Heard, Senior Captain of Police J. H. Taut and City Manager George Pruter, alongside Lufkin city officials and Phares’ childhood friends, who served as pallbearers.

Next in order came a car with the eight Houston officers designated as honorary pallbearers, followed by thirty Houston motorcycle officers, led by HPD Sergeant Roy Rogers. At the conclusion of the graveside service, a Houston police officer sounded Taps for a comrade who had made the supreme sacrifice while in the discharge of his sworn duty.

As early as the Monday following the shootings, criticism arose regarding the weapons used by Fitzgerald and Phares. Many veteran officers came forward to allege that police regulations restricted officers to .38-caliber pistols. Had they been allowed to use .45s the hijacker would not have escaped unscathed and the perpetrator may have been prevented from firing so many shots. Bowing to this pressure, the city business manager quickly announced that tests would be conducted to determine which weapon is best suited for officers. It was learned during the crime scene investigation that two shots fired by the officers would have struck J. J. Maple had they contained more power.

The scene revealed that one of the bullets struck the back of the coupe and could have bored into Maple’s neck. Another struck the side of the coupe and – had it entered the car – would have surely struck Maple. However, both missiles merely bounced off the car, doing no harm whatsoever. Another bullet was found to have struck the rear glass, but in shattering the glass, stuck in the rear curtain after losing velocity. It was stated that the Texas Rangers were carrying .45s and possibly it was time for Houston police officers to do the same thing.

While this controversy unfurled, the trial continued. More evidence surfaced against Maple: While the two partners in crime were on their robbery spree, Grimes turned on Maple after a robbery in which a citizen was wounded. Although Maple initially refused to communicate with his attorneys, as the jury selection proceeded, he began whispering to them. A jury was selected and the state planned to seek the death penalty.

Then Maple pled guilty. In doing so, he saved the people the time, trouble and tax money needed to convict him. After a brief punishment phase of the trial, on October 4, 1930 – fourteen days after the offense – J. J. Maple, a former World War I sharpshooter, was assessed the death penalty. Then, on November 28, 1930 – sixty-nine days after the offense – the State of Texas strapped J. J. Maple in the electric chair in Huntsville and electrocuted him. This was swift justice, indeed.

Extensive research showed that common threads ran through the families of each of these two brave men. A niece and a nephew of Officer Edward Davis Fitzgerald survive to this day as well as another distant relative. Fitzgerald he was born in La Porte, the son of Joseph Amos Fitzgerald and Edith Louise Davis Fitzgerald. He had two sisters, Louise Fitzgerald Eckman and Virginia Fitzgerald Lillich. A third sister died as an infant. From photos provided by Fitzgerald’s niece, Mrs. Mary Eckman Pendley, a wonderful lady in her early eighties, her uncle appeared to be a handsome young man who had a love for motorcycles even before his job as a Houston police officer. A nephew said that stories about his uncle abound regarding his love for life, as well as the young ladies. He was not married at the time of his death and left no children.

Ironically, Willie Bonner Phares and his deceased partner were both blessed with their mother’s maiden name as middle names. The Bonner family was legend in the cattle business in Lufkin in Angelina County. The Fitzgerald family was tied to the oilfields in the Mont Belvieu area.

Phares apparently had an adventurous spirit. At age nineteen, as a deputy sheriff in his home county, he was the target of moon shiners’ bullets. Newspaper accounts said he pursued these men and captured them. From there he ventured to the West Indies Island of Aruba in the employment of the Eagle Oil Company, attempting to tame the land and build a refinery. He survived but several of his co-workers were killed by poison arrows from the restless natives. Also, while on that job, he contracted the black water fever and narrowly survived.

In the attempt to find Phares’ final resting place, several Lufkin citizens advised, “You best get some better information, as Glendale is a large cemetery and is actually not separated from two other cemeteries.” It is in fact large. Entering the first gate, the investigator drove slowly through as if expecting pay dirt very quickly. Sure enough, there, while making the first circular drive, the Phares family plot was spied. It did not contain stand-up markers, either. There were flat ones that over the better part of a century had emerged upright so they could even be seen. Officer Phares is buried amongst his parents, an infant sister and his brother Johnsa.

His grave is marked thusly:

BONNER PHARES

FEBRUARY 29, 1904-SEPTEMBER 30, 1930

HIS TOILS ARE PAST, HIS WORK IS DONE,

HE FOUGHT THE FIGHT, THE VICTORY WON.

The effort to mark this gravesite with the specially designed LINE OF DUTY marker will continue until it is placed here.