previous | next
Chapter Nine -
The Arm of the Law
by Clinton B. DeSoto
AMATEUR RADIO often has served as a valuable aid to beleagured law-enforcement agencies.
In recent years municipal police radio systems have become so universal and effective it is difficult to realize that prior to 1932 or 1933 police radio was a rarity rather than the rule. Before then amateur radio operators were not infrequently called on to aid in police work.
Perhaps the oldest municipal police radio installation is that of the New York Police Department which began regular broadcasts of police information in 1921. But concurrently with the installation of this station amateurs in cities such as Hartford, Dallas and St Louis co-operated with local officials by sending QSTs (broadcasts) of crime information for local use. New York and Boston soon installed special experimental stations operated by the police and used to communicate with amateurs, but in many other cities the hams themselves carried on all of the work. In Ohio amateurs were given appointments as special police officers with an extensive network under a state supervisor. A similar network existed in California, including most of the larger cities. Throughout the country amateurs co-operated with the authorities in broadcasting police information.
Of course, there were no radio-equipped squad cars or motorcycles in those days. It was not until about 1927 that police radio cars were introduced. At that time Chicago police cruised the city listening to broadcasting station WGN for crime flashes which occasionally interrupted the programs.
In the early twenties the police transmissions by amateurs were about crimes that had occurred, rather than those in the making, and were directed at the law-enforcement agencies of adjacent communities rather than officers in the municipality itself.
Stolen automobiles and escaped convicts were the principal subjects of these flashes. The office of every police chief, sheriff, constable and peace officer in adjoining communities was equipped with a receiver tuned to the transmitting wave length used by the amateur station. When an alarm was sounded all streets and highways would be guarded and a sharp lookout kept for cars or persons answering the broadcast description.
They achieved results too. Shortly after Dallas transmissions were inaugurated a stolen car was recovered at Mobile, over seven hundred miles away. The thief was an ex-convict wanted on a number of charges. Ordinarily the broadcasts were most effective over a smaller radius however. As an example, the driver of a car stolen in Oakland was picked up in San Jose, fifty miles away, in just two and one half hours as a result of one of the broadcasts.
The pioneer step in this movement was taken in Hartford by the American Radio Relay League during the summer of 1920. The purpose of the system as initially set up was to transmit immediately to all parts of New England details of stolen automobiles.
The creation of similiar systems in other cities was urged, and by the end of 1921 the police departments of many of the principal cities were utilizing amateur co-operation. Whether as a direct result of this campaign or not, the total number of thefts of automobiles, which had reached alarming proportions in some localities, soon decreased sharply.
A decade later municipally owned radio systems were instituted and found highly effective as a crime deterrent. But even now occasions arise when radio amateurs can still aid the law.
There is one story they tell, a somber story of feud and sudden death on Minnesota's last frontier--the fastnesses and wilderness of that part of the deep North Woods known as the Northwest Angle. That little island of U.S. territory, jutting up into Canada, is the first break in the smooth contour of the twelve hundred miles of boundary east of the Straits of Georgia. Its few square miles of forest-covered land are set apart from the rest of the country by the Lake of the Woods.
Sunday in the Northwest Angle is a day of rest, a day when the country people lay down the burdens of the week and spend the day in quiet contentment, visiting each other, talking, reviewing the week that is past and telling of plans for the week to come.
This was the Sunday of Labor Day week end. On that day Elos Bergstrom, a settler, went to pay a visit to his neighbor, Paul Melhorn. A thirty-year-old trapper, Melhorn had a newly built cabin facing the wind-whipped waters of the Lake of the Woods.
Bergstrom strode steadily along the forest trail, breasting the strong north wind. There was the nip of approaching autumn in the air, and his thoughts were on the winter to come.
But when he rounded the corner of the trapper's shack he was shocked back to the present. For there in the doorway, lying face down, half in and half out, was Melhorn's body.
Bergstrom hurried forward and knelt beside his friend's body. It was stiff and cold in death. A dark, stiff stain spoiled the design of the red-plaid flannel shirt.
"He's dead!" Bergstrom exclaimed in amazement. "Shot through the heart!"
It was murder--no doubt of that. The trapper had been shot in the back as he was entering his cabin. The thought of vengeance entered Bergstrom's mind. He looked about him wildly for an instant. Then he realized the killer had long gone. This was a matter for the law; he must notify the authorities at once.
But how could this be done? Bergstrom thought the matter over. The sheriff was at Baudette, forty miles away across the lake. There were no telephone lines from Baudette into the Angle. The only way to get there was by boat.
He looked across at the Lake of the Woods. Its waters were being churned to a foam by the high wind. It would be dangerous out there in a small boat, and the wind was against him.
Bergstrom pondered the problem. It seemed insoluble. But ingenuity and quickwittedness are essential qualities in the North Woods, and soon an idea came. He could reach Oak Island, even with the wind. Fred Petersen lived on Oak Island and Petersen had one of those amateur radio outfits. Petersen could get word to the county seat. . . .
Stepping carefully in order not to disturb the body, Bergstrom got Melhorn's oars from inside the cabin. He walked down to the beach and pushed the small rowboat into the water. Then he started rowing to Oak Island.
The cross wind whipped the water into choppy waves, but Bergstrom's shoulders were strong from long hours of ax swinging, and he drove the small boat vigorously across the ruffled lake.
In time he reached Oak Island and W9CYY. When Fred Petersen, the operator, heard the story he opened his station and called KIKJ at Baudette. This was the aircraft station of Peter Klimek, a young aviator of the border country.
By a stroke of luck Mrs O.P. Klimek, the flier's mother, was sitting at the receiver when the call came through. She called her son. He rounded up Sheriff Slind and Coroner Don Burrows, and within an hour the trio were in the air.
Klimek whisked them across the lake in his plane and landed near the cabin. Bergstrom and Petersen joined them there. The coroner examined the body while the sheriff questioned the settler.
From then on the story is one of short and merciless pursuit. They learned that Melhorn had a bitter enemy, a man named Lewis Payne, forty-eight years old, all his life a shacker and trapper of the Canadian border country.
He was the killer. Sullenly nursing his bitter enmity, he had hidden within rifleshot of Melhorn's cabin. When the trapper made his appearance Payne shot him. There was just one shot; he didn't even approach the body to see if Melhorn was dead. When he shot 'em they stayed shot! Quietly, like a shadow in the gathering dusk, he left the scene of his crime and slipped off down the trail.
Unaware of the instruments of modern civilization, radio, airplane, motorboat, in relentless pursuit behind him, Payne traveled leisurely. He even stopped to visit awhile at the isolated cabin of Jonas Johnson, far up in the Angle.
It was there the forces of law and order overtook him, a self-confessed murderer.
"Yes, I killed him," he snarled. "I shot him the minute he showed himself."
Then they asked him why he had done it, but that he wouldn't tell. He would only say, "I didn't like that man. He talked out of turn."
And so they took Lewis Payne to the lonely north-country jail to await the beginning of the district-court term two months later. And as they saw him sitting there in his cell, sullen and still, day after day, they wondered whether he brooded most on his hate or on the incomprehensible powers of modern civilization that had frustrated his escape.
Walter Wallace and Herb Scmitt didn't get their man but they did foil an attempted drugstore burglary early one morning in Milwaukee.
It was a clear, cold Sunday morning three days after Christmas. Walter Wallace pulled back his chair from the operating table. "Guess I'd better get to bed or I'll never get up in the morning." He sighed. It was 3 A.M. as he sat down on the edge of the bed in the small upstairs apartment at 964 North Thirty-fifth Street. Slowly putting on his pajamas, in his mind he relived the contacts he had made during the night.
Across the hall in the adjoining apartment Fabian Clements stirred restlessly in his sleep. There was something unfamiliar--some noise--that disturbed him. Suddenly he sat up straight in bed. A sharp, unaccustomed sound had awakened him. It was the sound of breaking glass.
Clements shook his head and rubbed his eyes. He pushed the bedcovers aside and went to the window.
In the shadowy darkness below his window he could distinguish the rear entrance to the Haertlein drugstore next door at 966 North Thirty-fifth and near the door the dim outlines of two men bending over a basement window.
"Burglars!" This was the first thought that flashed through his mind. The second was that he must call the police. But there was no telephone in the rooming house, none to be found at this hour of the night for a distance of several blocks.
Clements left the window and looked into the hallway. A light showed under Walter Wallace's door across the hall. In an instant Clements was tapping urgently on the door.
"They're robbing the store!" he said when Wallace stuck his head out. "We've got to do something!"
Wallace came to the window. His quick mind added the problem and came out with the same answer. No telephone . . . the police must be notified . . . something must be done quickly.
Without a word he turned back to his room, sat down at the operating table and threw the power switch. The tubes were still warm; the receiver came to life swiftly. As his hand turned the tuning dial a strong, rhythmic code signal started up. Luck was with them. It was Herb Scmitt, W9VZJ, also in Milwaukee, calling CQ.
Seconds passed that seemed like minutes. Still Scmitt did not sign. Wallace could hear Clements in the background impatiently shuffling around the room. Finally W9VZJ said "K [Go ahead]," and Wallace gave him a short, urgent call. In a matter of seconds contact was established, and Wallace's fingers waggled the bug with nervous precision.
"W9VZJ de W9EYH. Notify police a burglary is being committed at drugstore at Thirty-fifth and State streets."
"W9EYH de W9VZJ. Are you kidding?"
"No kidding! It's the real thing. Call the police at once."
"O.K. I'll call them."
Wallace leaned back and took off his headphones. Clements was back in his own room. Hearing a shout, Walter crossed the hall and looked in.
Clements had decided to take matters into his own hands. Impatient and excited, he had hauled his rifle out of its case in the closet. Opening the window, he shoved the barrel out.
There was a shadowy figure in the alley. Pointing his rifle, Clements yelled, "Get out of here, or I'll plug you!"
The man ran down the alley. A second later he was followed by his companion. Then they heard a car speed away.
A few seconds later the police car arrived on the scene. The patrolmen listened to Clement's hurried story and poked inquisitive flashlights around the areaway behind the drugstore. There they found two basement windows shattered. They saw that an effort had been made to remove the iron grating over one. Then they came upstairs and looked at Walter Wallace's little forty-watt transmitter and homemade superheterodyne receiver, and one grizzled cop shook his head.
"Begorra," he said, "and a crook sure ain't got a chance when it gets so they even ring in one of these here amature radio sets to tip off the cops with!"
There is one kind of police work that hams are carrying on all the time. It is the policing of their own territory in the air. They are constantly vigilant in tracking down "pirate" stations and "bootleggers"--operators using transmitting apparatus without proper license authority. Some of these violations are sinister in purpose, typical among them being concealed transmitters carried by race-track gamblers. Others are more innocent offenses. But all are relentlessly tracked down, for all unlicensed operation is contrary to law, a law that is purposely made strict because transmitting apparatus in the hands of unqualified persons might well be the cause of disastrous interference to a vital service at a critical time.
Michael Zeigler of St Louis discovered that fact when his "bootleg" transmitter, operated under calls stolen from licensed stations, drifted into the police bands and jammed police radio calls. The St Louis Post-Dispatch in its issue of August 9, 1939, carried this story about his subsequent capture:
Zeigler, thirty-one years old, was arrested by Department of Justice Agent Jack Brennan, himself an amateur radio operator, as Zeigler was operating his unlicensed transmission set yesterday at his home at 2219 Indiana Avenue.
Today at the Federal Building where he pleaded guilty before United States Commissioner John A. Burke of operating an unlicensed radio station and broadcasting without an operator's license Zeigler told a Post-Dispatch reporter that he did not know until recently that he was required to obtain a Federal license to operate his equipment.
"I understood that the way to qualify for an operator's license was to build your own set and practice," he said. "I've been fooling around with this since I lost my job with the Kilgen Organ Company about eight months ago and I built my own set from used parts that cost me about twelve dollars."
Zeigler said he had not been broadcasting regularly since completing his equipment but when when he did use it he generally carried on conversations with other local amateur operators. As a rule he used station call letters assigned to other local amateur stations when broadcasting.
Police and amateur operators had been complaining recently about interference from a local station which they knew was operating illegally because of the interference. The fake radio distress calls last week from a purported sinking ship off the Florida coast prompted local amateurs to attempt to clean up the situation here.
The matter was taken up by members of the O.B.P. Radio Club, a group of licensed amateur operators, of which Brennan is a member, Henry Eschrick, secretary of the club, who operates an amateur station at his home, 3524 Gravois Avenue, decided with five other club members to find the origin of the illegal broadcasts.
DIRECTION FINDER USED
Tuning to the mysterious station, they used a direction finder and after working several days they thought they had located the approximate position of the unlicensed station. They reported their findings to Brennan who obtained a search warrant from Commissioner Burke and set out with Deputy Marshal Tilden Delaney to find the source of the interference.
After getting into Brennan's automobile at a parking lot near the Federal Building they turned on the car radio and found that the illegal broadcasting was going on. Brennan drove to the neighborhood indicated by the tests made by the amateurs, and the broadcast became louder as they approached Zeigler's home.
Finally Brennan saw the aerial of the station and went into Zeigler's home and found him operating the set. At the time Zeigler was talking to an East St Louis amateur. Brennan arrested him and confiscated his equipment.
Operating an unlicensed radio transmission set and broadcasting without an operator's license is punishable by a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment and ten thousand dollars fine for each offense. Commissioner Burke set Zeigler's bond at one thousand dollars.
The chief engineer of one of the larger Chicago broadcasting stations was only trying to be a good fellow when he engaged the nervous young violinist in conversation. He didn't know that potentially he was saving a man's life.
The violinist was Dr Philip Weintraub, a clever young Chicago dental surgeon with a musical bent who was making his debut over the station that night. The engineer noticed his tension and tried to help by talking casually about anything that came to mind. He mentioned his amateur radio station.
"It seemed pretty much like a postman's holiday to me at first," said Dr Weintraub later, "but then he began to explain some of the varied and enticing phases of his hobby. Within half an hour the bug bit; I, too, would be a ham."
It turned out that of the two careers launched that night, radio and music, the ham radio one was the more successful. After a time in which Philip Weintraub struggled grimly with the elusive "dits" and "dahs" of the radiotelegraph code he finally found himself seated between a jolly little man of sixty and a boy of thirteen in the Chicago office of what was then the Federal Radio Commission, waiting for his official code test. In due course his license arrived, and the powerful station he had installed in his penthouse apartment made its baptismal transmission.
Simultaneously there appeared a radio widow in the Weintraub household. At first Evelyn Weintraub was a bit annoyed when her husband spent so much time with his new hobby. But soon she, too, became interested and in time even learned to tune the receiver.
As for Philip Weintraub, it seemed he couldn't get enough radio. Not content with operating outside office hours, he installed a second, smaller, station in his office. There he would make an occasional contact at odd moments. Often his wife would be listening to him on the home-station receiver.
It was this station he was operating one cold Thursday evening in late January. At home Evelyn Weintraub was sitting by the fireplace listening.
"I'll be a little late for dinner tonight," he had said as he left that morning. "Want to try out the new speech amplifier."
"Oh? And what will I be doing? Waiting for you while dinner gets stone cold?" Evelyn was dark haired, with a sultry beauty that glowed with the effort to be stern. But there was a teasing note in her voice that belied her scolding words, and her husband only smiled with quiet affection.
"You'll be sitting here listening to me as usual," he said, kissing her. As he went to the door he called, "I should be through by eight o'clock. Don't forget to listen!"
At seven twenty-five Phil Weintraub sat down at the operating position and began twisting the dial of his receiver. The large office building was almost deserted. Down in the street the life of the city moved along, its smoke and steam rising in the still, cold air. Inside a few late workers hastened to finish their daily chores. An occasional straggler or two lingered in the solitary corridors.
A voice moved smoothly into the loudspeaker. "CQ--CQ--CQ," Phil heard. "Hello CQ--calling CQ. This is W9JJF calling CQ."
Weintraub smiled with satisfaction. Here was his chance to try out with the new rig. Everything was "on the nose"! The final adjustments had all been made. The new speech amplifier possessed tremendous gain; with it full on he could modulate the transmitter from all the way across the room.
W9JFF said, "Go ahead," and Phil threw the switch. For a brief minute he spoke into the microphone and then stood by. There was the Iowa station all ready to talk with him.
"Good evening, old man," W9JFF said. "Thanks for the call. Your signals are coming in here QSA 5 R 9 this evening--very fine business indeed."
They exchanged greetings, reports, and had just reached the usual topic of weather when there was a knock at Dr Weintraub's door. "Wait a minute," he said. "I'll have to see who it is. Stand by for just a minute."
Leaving the transmitter running and the microphone alive, he rose and swung open the office door. Two men stepped in, two particularly tough and dangerous-looking men with guns in their hands, guns that were pointed straight at the dentist's stomach.
"Put up your hands," the larger of the two ordered thickly. Phil noticed through his astonishment that this one, older and more heavily built than the other, was the leader. The second man was nervous, even afraid. The big fellow pushed his way into the room forcing Weintraub against the desk.
After the first moment of stunned astonishment Phil's mind began to function again. "I don't keep money here in the office," he said. "It's all gone to the bank."
"Shut up!" the bandit snarled. "Are you alone here?"
"Yes, I am, but-----"
"O.K. Hold still." He pushed his gun into the doctor's ribs and ran a hand swiftly over his clothing. He found Weintraub's wallet in an inside cost pocket and with one motion transferred it to his own.
The gunman spoke to his companion. "Look in that box there," he said, nodding toward a green cashbox lying on the desk. "See if there is anything in it."
The younger man's hand shook as he reached for the box. His face was white, and his lips were taut with fear. He was badly frightened.
"Don't be scared, Joe," the older gunman encouraged him. "This guy can't hurt you. See, I got him covered." And Weintraub flinched with pain as the bandit shoved the muzzle of the pistol hard into his abdomen.
The kid was young, and his face was weak. He plunged his hand into the cashbox, but all it contained was a few stamps.
"You can have 'em," the older thug grunted. He emptied Weintraub's pocketbook onto the table.
"Why, you--------" he roared. "All you got here is five bucks!"
"I told you I didn't have any money here," the dentist replied steadily.
"Why, for a plugged nickel I'd--------" He raised the gun threateningly. "But that ain't what we came for anyway. Where do you keep your gold?"
"My gold? What do you mean---gold?"
"The stuff you fill teeth with, ya dope." The bandit's eyes were tight with strain.
"I haven't any left--it's all used up," Weintraub replied anxiously.
"Stop stalling! Come on--give. Where is it?"
"I tell you I haven't got any more. See, the cabinet's empty." The cabinet was hastily ransacked, but there was nothing there.
"You----- I'm gonna give it to you!" the gunman grated. The muzzle of his gun jerked up, and Weintraub saw death in those piggish eyes.
Then the younger hoodlum edged forward. "No, Joe, not that. D-don't do that. We---we done enough already. Come on, let's get out of here."
"We-ell, O.K.," the leader acceded unwillingly. "But we gotta tie this guy up first. Here, give me a hand."
There was a sharp curse, scuffling, a thud. . . .
The sensitive microphone, still running, picked up the noises; through the amplifier and out over the air they went as had all that had gone on before. W9JFF, frantic but impotent, listened with his heart pounding madly. Evelyn Weintraub sat numb with horror as the action moved swiftly forward.
The sounds of the struggle subsided. The harsh voice of the leader, breathing hard, was heard again. "Lock him in that closet."
"What if he croaks in there?" asked another, a husky, uncertain voice.
"Let him croak," was the answer. "Let's get out of here."
But Evelyn Weintraub was not hearing that. Into her horror had pierced the thought that her husband needed her, that at any minute she might hear a shot that would mean his life. With that thought her muscles worked again. She ran to the telephone, dialed the police. The call went to the squad cars. "Calling Car 16. . . . Calling Car 16. . . . Holdup at 3860 West Harrison Street. . . ."
It was after seven o'clock on a cold evening in January, but there were crowds on the street. There are always crowds on the streets in Chicago, worldly-wise, incurious folk, impervious to surprise. But that evening the crowd stopped and stared in amazement. For down the street, running madly, they saw a young woman without a coat or hat but with an expression of horror on her face.
Around the corner to West Harrison she ran, around the entrance at 3860. Then up the stairs she flew, outdistancing the police. The office door was open, the office itself deserted. She leaned against the desk for a moment, regaining her breath. Then she saw the closet door. It was locked, and the key was gone. Inside there was a faint scraping. "He's in there!" she screamed, and wrenched frantically at the doorknob. Her futile fists were hammering desperatlely at the door panels when a pounding of feet sounded outside, and two squad-car patrolmen dashed in.
It was a matter of moments before the door of the airtight closet came off its hinges. The gag and the ropes were removed, and Weintraub, already half suffocated, gasped air back into his lungs.
"Where are they?" he demanded when he could talk again. But the bandits were gone; they had ransacked the office and disappeared.
"You'd be a widow right now if you hadn't heard those holdup men and reported it," the police sergeant told Evelyn Weintraub. She was still sobbing softly from the fear and shock that had gripped her but she lifted her head then to smile thankfully at her husband.
Dr Philip Weintraub smiled back. Then his eyes shifted to the gleaming microphone perched alertly on its slim stand. He walked, a bit unsteadily, to the operating table. "W9SZW signing off and clear with W9JFF. Good night, old man."
His fingers reached down, and he threw the big switch.