The Smiling Bandit
Roy Gardner was known throughout the United States in 1921 as “The Smiling Bandit” and “The King of Escape Artists”. He was quick with a gun but claimed never to have hurt anyone. He was arrested multiple times for robbery and theft throughout his colorful criminal career and he believed that no prison could hold him.
Gardner’s first escape came in 1906 when he was arrested in Mexico for selling guns to the rebels attempting to overthrow the Mexican government. Thrown into solitary confinement, he made his break one day while the guard was serving him breakfast. An “armed to the teeth” posse was sent out for Gardner, but he vanished like a ghost and ended up back in the United States.
In 1910, Gardner was arrested after robbing a Jewelry store in San Francisco and was sentenced to five years at San Quentin. During a violent prison riot, Gardner managed to save the life of a guard and as a reward, was paroled early in 1913. Gardner ended up back in custody after holding up a mail truck in 1920 by shoving a gun in the stomach of the driver as he pulled away from the depot. He was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil Island and while en-route to the prison, he managed to escape on June 5th, 1920 outside of Portland Oregon.
After spending some time in Canada, Gardner made his way back into the United States. He worked a short time as a salesman before the urge to rob the mail car of a train he was riding overcame him. Posses were sent after Gardner and he managed to slip through them like a phantom. Police began monitoring the phone calls to his wife, Dolly, in an attempt to locate Gardner. Through the phone calls, they discovered Gardner in California in May of 1921 but were unable to capture him.
On the night of May 19th, 1921, Gardner held up another train and robbed it of two mail sacks. Wanted posters were posted throughout California. Gardner was eventually captured again and was sentenced to an additional 25 years at McNeil Island.
U.S. Marshal Thomas F. Mulhall and Federal Guard D.W. Rinckle were tasked with transporting Roy Gardner on the 158 N.P. Owl Train to McNeil Island to serve out his two 25 year sentences. The guards also had a convicted counterfeiter, Norris Pyron sentenced to 13 years, in their custody as well. Shortly after leaving the station in Portland, the guards were preparing their prisoners for bed when Gardner told the officers that he wanted to use the washroom. With Norris Pyron already in his bunk in leg irons, Mulhall escorted Gardner into the washroom. Having a gun concealed in his undershirt, Gardner spun around and presented the gun on Mulhall.
In a statement to the press, Mulhall said:
“Gardner asked to wash his hands and we took him to a basin in our drawing room. He was leaning over the basin. I was standing right in back of him. Quick as lightning he swung around. He had whipped out a pistol from beneath his clothing and had me covered.... Rinckle made a rush at him, but Gardner was too quick. With the cleverest move I ever saw, he got my gun and backed into a corner, where he could cover us both and be safe from attack. Pyron jumped down from his berth to the floor and Gardner told him search us for keys. He found them in the first pocket he went into and freed himself and then Gardner. Gardner took off the Oregon boot, covering us all the time with both guns. He then told Pyron to handcuff us. This Pyron did, putting us face-to-face, and then he clinched the handcuffs very tight. ...he made me sit on the edge of the berth. Another part was fastened to some pipes so that we were handcuffed, booted and chained to the car.”
When Mulhall complained about the Oregon boot hurting his leg, Gardner agreed to not put it on him if they (the guards) would agree to give him a 20 minute head start before they started the search for him.
Gardner and Pyron then stole $200 from the wallets of Mulhall and Rinckle. While the bandits rifled through their wallets, the guards attempted to make small talk with Gardner and Pyron trying to keep things calm. According to the guards, Gardner was cool and collected while Pyron was very excited and nervous.
Gardner pulled the shades down on the windows as the train approached the Castle Rock Depot to fill up with more water. Mulhall told Gardner that if he took all his money, they wouldn’t be able to buy breakfast. Gardner then tossed Mulhall $5 and climbed out the window with Pyron close behind. Gardner later stated, “I didn’t put the leg irons on the two guards because they promised to give us twenty minutes’ start before they said anything. They broke their word--and I’m through with them.”
Armed and Dangerous
Word of the escape spread like wildfire. Sheriff Hoggatt (pictured right) was contacted and a large number of deputies and posse members converged on Castle Rock. The Sheriff ordered all exit points in town be covered to include every road, bridge, or any other means of escape. Gardner was considered “armed and dangerous”. U.S. Marshal J.B. Holohan and three postal inspectors (G.H. Austin, George E. Lewis, and C.W. Linebaugh) are immediately sent to Castle Rock to take charge of the search effort.
The San Francisco Bulletin ran the following story on Saturday, June 11th, 1921:
AIRMEN TRAIL GARDNER
“Airplanes of the United States Army, Navy, and Forest Patrol Service, equipped to hurl poison gas bombs and with machine guns, were ordered out at noon today in the hunt for Roy Gardner, mail train bandit, who escaped last night at Castle Rock, Wash., from two Federal deputy marshals whom he covered with a gun, handcuffed and robbed of $200 while the train on which they were taking him to McNeill’s Island to serve a 25 year sentence for robbery was stopped at the station. Norris H. Pyron, alias J.A. Bell, of Dunsmuir, convicted counterfeiter, escaped with Gardner.
United States Marshal James Holohan is determined to throw in every resource within his power in a mighty effort to run Gardner to earth within the next 24 hours. The man hunt now is on from land and sky, heavily armed posses scouring the hills and woods below, keen-eyed aviators watching from aloft for a trace of Gardner, today one of the most dramatic crime figures the West has ever known. …Gardner’s escape last night was one of the most sensational and dramatic in the annals of crime.”
Because he was considered armed and dangerous, the posse was heavily armed as well. Another newspaper wrote that the city was, “…a veritable armed camp Sunday night and Monday. Men armed with shotguns, rifles, and guns of every description were seen on every corner coming and going.”
Once off the train, Gardner and Pyron split. Gardner stayed in the Castle Rock area while Pyron headed south. Making his way to the “Stock place” Saturday afternoon, he paid fifty cents for lunch and then spent the night in the barn. Around 7:30 Sunday morning, according to Pyron, he left and headed into Kelso. Around noon, he made his way to the Liberty Restaurant where he sat and ate lunch. After eating, he went into Joe Sweeny’s place and bought a cigar and an Oregonian. Feeling the heat of the manhunt, Pyron decided to head back north out of town.
News of Pyron staying at the Stock place came in and a posse with Marshals C.E. Rankin and Charles Palmer, T.T. Fannon and a number of other volunteers headed up to the Rocky Point area and started south. A short distance outside of Kelso, Pyron was actually spotted by Roy Carroll and was initially thought to be Gardner. W.A. Pratt (pictured right) with Marshal Palmer and T.H. Foster were asked to assist and they headed north from the Crescent Shingle Mill. Checking along the side of some railroad cars, Pratt noticed some tracks leading up the hillside. Pratt signaled back to Palmer and Foster and they climbed on top of a rail car to get a better view while Pratt followed the tracks. At the top of the hill, Pratt encountered Pyron in the bushes where he immediately gave up. Pyron told how he was forced to escape by Gardner and that he was terrified of him. Pyron was taken to the jail in Kalama, interviewed, then put on a train bound for McNeil Island.
Meanwhile, Gardner laid low around Castle Rock. After splitting from Pyron, Gardner ran south on the railroad tracks, crawled under some box cars on the other set of tracks and then jumped into the brush. He made his way down a dark ravine and settled in behind the Dan Hummel home about ¼ mile east of Castle Rock where he stayed until early Tuesday morning (June 14th). Feeling the pangs of hunger, Gardner came up out of the ravine and stole four chickens and some onions from Hummel’s place. He cooked the chickens on a fire but got nervous with the thought of someone seeing the smoke so he decided to quickly put it out.
While the posse worked their way through the brush and following every tip that came in, to include the smoke, they actually found the small camp that Gardner had made. They found remnants of a fire, half eaten onions and under cooked chicken torn apart and partially eaten.
Gardner never moved very far way. He managed to stay just out of reach of the posse for the next couple days. He claimed that he watched the posse moving around and said that at one point, they were no more than 20 feet away. He said he recognized a couple of the Federal posse members and could hear them talking as they went by.
Getting bored and hungry, Gardner decided to head to town. Around 3:00 in the morning on Tuesday, he walked through downtown Castle Rock to the Cowlitz River where he built a fire and tried to dry out his clothes until about 6:00 in the morning. Getting hungry, Gardner decided to take a chance.
With the manhunt still in full swing, and wearing the same dirty clothes that he had on when he made his escape, Gardner approached Henry Wend on the south end of town while Wend was milking one of his cows. Gardner asked Wend if there was a grocery nearby. Wend looked over his shoulder and noticed the disheveled Gardner and told him that the nearest one would be in town. Gardner left and headed towards town while Wend continued to milk his cow. Suddenly it dawned on Wend that the stranger that just approached him might have been Roy Gardner. Wend decided to head to town to find him again.
Gardner walked into town and found the Royal Restaurant where he went in and ordered ham, eggs, and mush. His mush just being set down, Gardner took one bite and looked out the window to see Henry Wend walking past. At the same moment, Wend looked inside the restaurant and noticed Gardner. Wend walked past the window then decided to turn around and walk past the window again. Gardner saw him a second time, stood up and ran out the door. Gardner later said in an interview, “No sooner had my order been taken than the same man came up and peered through the window. Right then I decided it was time to go. I knew my mug had been posted all about the country and was known. I ran through the town to the rock and hid.”
Witnesses say Gardner turned the corner and headed south towards Frank Wolfe’s residence. He turned into the school yard and then ran back onto the road towards the Rock and then disappeared.
The alarm went out that Gardner was seen in town. Word reached Sheriff Hoggatt in Kalama and the posse in Kelso was dispatched towards Castle Rock. Five carloads of deputies were sent. Castle Rock Town Marshal and Deputy, Clarence “Humpy” Dunbar (pictured left) is immediately summoned and put together a hastily formed posse and they set out for Gardner.
Dunbar and his posse searched as far as Ostrander but found no trace of him. The assumption was made that he was hiding somewhere near the Rock so Dunbar’s posse turned around and went back to Castle Rock and surrounded the Rock.
By 10:00 in the morning, the Sheriff and his posse, U.S. Marshals, Railroad detectives, and a search team from Clark County all arrived in Castle Rock. Along with the searchers, truck loads of newspapermen began arriving and literally lined the streets. Newspapers across the country ran the headlines that Gardner is seen in Castle Rock and “sightings” of Gardner began to roll in. At one point, the posse was directed across the river to a potential sighting that proved to be a false alarm.
Each train that rolled into town was thoroughly searched by the posse. They would begin at the front of the train and would go completely through it until they were satisfied that Gardner was not on it.
The posse scoured the rock. They combed the island and the brush north and south of the highway and found no sign of Gardner. But, Gardner never ventured far. He stayed just across the highway and watched the posse search for him. He claimed that it was the most miserable day of his life and that he would rather spend time in prison than go through that day again. The rain poured down in torrents and not getting to finish his meal, Gardner could do little more than think about eating. Wet, cold, and starving, he waited.
The search continued through the wet, miserable day. Around 10:00 that evening, Gardner had had enough. He decided that he needed to make a break for it. After watching the posse and how they checked each train, he moved from his hiding place and made his way across the highway. He circled back around the north side of town to the train depot and waited for the next train to arrive.
Shortly thereafter, a freight train arrived with a large cow catcher on the front. The train rolled to a stop and Gardner watched through the windows of the train depot as the engineer dismounted and began to walk around the train. As soon as the posse and the engineer move toward the back of the train, Gardner moved up and climbed up on the cow catcher. The train departed and Gardner safely made his way out of Castle Rock.
With no success finding Gardner, the search began to wind down. On June 18th, 1921, word came down that Gardner was captured in Centralia at the Oxford Hotel by Centralia Policeman Louis Sonney.
Gardner eventually made it to McNeil Island only to escape on September 5th, 1921 during a prison softball game. On November 15th, a mail clerk was accosted by Gardner brandishing a gun but the clerk fought back and held Gardner until the police arrived. In court, Gardner was sentenced to another 25 years in prison and this time was sent to Leavenworth Kansas.
Gardner made several more escape attempts but all failed. He was eventually sent to prison in Atlanta and ended up finishing his prison time in Alcatraz where he was finally paroled in 1938.
Officer Louis Sonney of the Centralia Police Department became famous as “the man who captured Roy Gardner”. Jumping on this new found fame, Sonney went on the Vaudeville circuit pitching his “Crime Doesn’t Pay” show and demonstrated before the awe inspired crowds his handcuffing prowess while reliving the story of the capture of Roy Gardner.
Soon after, Louis Sonney discovered motion pictures and decided to make a movie about the capture of Roy Gardner. So in 1924, Sonney’s newly formed production company shot on location around Kelso, Castle Rock, Centralia, and McNeil Island. They re-formed part of the posse and they played themselves in the movie, “Roy Gardner, Notorious Bandit”. The movie was filmed in all of the locations that the search happened. When finished, it was shown at Castle Rock’s Dreamland Theatre.
Sonney stayed in contact with Gardner and ended up forming a close relationship with him. Sending him $10 each month while in prison, Sonney worked tirelessly to get Gardner out of prison. When Gardner was finally paroled, Louis Sonney was the only person standing outside the gates to greet him. Sonney had Gardner work for him for a short time and convinced Gardner to star in a movie titled, “You Can’t Beat the Rap”. In the movie, Sonney and Gardner played themselves and they recreated the great capture of Gardner in the hotel room in Centralia.
In 1940, tired and unable to keep a job, Roy Gardner committed suicide by gassing himself using cyanide tablets dropped in acid. His body was found in the bathroom of his hotel room by a housekeeper in the run down hotel he was staying in. He was 56 years old.