Trailing Jailbreak

by: Wade Hitson
Dynamic Detective Magazine

Sheriff Bill Arthur's new car purred smoothly over the road on that morning of Oct. 25, 1934. He was on his way from Dickens, Tex., to Spur, some ten miles distant, to transact some business. With him was his deputy, F. E. Dillon. The two men drove slowly, talking over local affairs and enjoying the invigorating air.

Shortly after the two officers reached their destination, Sheriff Arthur received a telephone call from home.

"I've got to go back," he announced to Dillon. "Something's wrong with the plumbing in the jail. Water is running all over the place."

Dillon started to join the sheriff in his car.

"No, you stay here," Arthur said, "I'll come back and pick you up this afternoon."

But the sheriff did not come back. Forty minutes after Dillon watched him drive away, the deputy received a frantic phone call.

"Mr. Dillon," a terrified voice shouted over the wire, "there's been a jailbreak here in Dickens and Sheriff Arthur has been shot."

Hardly able to believe the bitter message, Dillon chartered a car and raced back over the winding road.

As the motor roared out the miles, Dillon's thoughts sped on ahead. Bewildered, he wondered how such a tragedy possibly could have occurred. Sheriff Arthur was one of the most popular men in Dickens county. He was serving his third term as sheriff. Both adults and children all over the county called him by his first name, and even his prisoners had a respectful affection for him. It was unthinkable that any of them had taken the life of the popular officer.

As the car raced through the one main street toward the two-story rock building that housed the prisoners, Dillon stared ahead. Already an excited crowd milled about the jail yard. The car came to a stop and Dillon pushed his way through the mob.

No one was able to answer his questions. Gibbering shock possessed the citizens of the little West Texas town.

The deputy's first thought was to prevent escape of the remaining prisoners -- if any remained. He hurried to the side of the building, where an iron stairway led from the upstairs jail. There an astonishing condition confronted him.

the big iron door swung open, as he had expected, but the keys ere on the outside of the lock.

Dillon noted this in a flash. "Must have intended to lock the jail behind them, so nobody would know what happened until they had made their getaway. Something changed their minds." His thoughts were occupied with these details as he raced up the stair.

Two prisoners huddled together in the small run-around, Dillon glanced down the dark corridor. The sheriff's body had been removed but blood still stained the pool of water surrounding the plumbing. The deputy stared at the scene.

"They plotted this scheme to get him up here," the officer said slowly. "Stopped up the plumbing with bed clothing. Then when he came in to see about it, they shot him."

He turned to the cowering prisoners.

"Who shot Sheriff Arthur?" he demanded.

"We don't know, Mr. Dillon," one of the men said, "We were carrying water to help the sheriff open up the drain. All of a sudden there was a shot and the sheriff fell."

Shot in Neck

Further questioning brought no results. Either the men did not know who fired the shot or they were afraid to talk. Dillon went back down the stairs. He met Dr. J.W. Quinn and paused to hear the doctor's report.

"The sheriff was shot once in the neck with a heavy caliber gun," Quinn said. "The bullet lodged in the left side of the neck, killing him instantly. We recovered the bullet."

Dillon nodded. That bullet might help, later. He hurried to his office. He knew what prisoners the jail had contained before the break but Sheriff Arthur might have picked up someone on his way back from Spur - a prioress who had overpowered him as he was working over the drain. The two men Dillon had questioned had not mentioned such a new man but a look at the docket would settle the question.

Dillon glanced at the record, No new names. The two men he had found in the run-around were petty offenders, not killers. Stalcup and Brown, the two who had escaped, and... Yarbrough!

W.J. Yarbrough was a gunman. When Sheriff Arthur had arrested him several weeks previously, he had fired five times at the officer, resisting arrest. Sheriff Arthur had subdued his prisoner and placed him in jail, then went to the doctor's office for treatment. One of the gunman's bullets had lodged in his right hip.

Yarbrough had been kept in jail in lieu of an appeal bond. Where was he now? In his excitement, Dillon had forgotten him.

Dillon hurried from the office and down the row of cells. He stopped before one and peered through the bars. Yarbrough was sitting on his cot. He grinned as Dillon stared at him.

"Don't ask me," he said. "I don't know who shot the sheriff."

The deputy ignored the jibe. He could attend to Yarbrough later. His presence meant that only two prisoners were missing. Only Clarence Brown and Virgil Stalcup had actually made the break.

Of the two, Brown was the older, more hardened criminal. Stalcup, on the other hand, was a roistering robber with a talent for dramatic coups. He added daring to Brown's case-hardened fund of experience. he had escaped from a long term in Huntsville penitentiary on April 13. At Harlem Farm he had made a key, or cut a lock from a garage door, then had stolen a car and driven away. Sheriff Arthur had recaptured him only a few days before and had placed him in Dickens jail.

"Yarbrough knows something about this," the deputy thought grimly, "even if he didn't escape."

But ten minutes of questioning told Dillon that the stubborn gunman would not talk. Questioning of the other prisoners merely brought confused shaking of heads.

Dillon knew now that he must capture Brown and Stalcup before he could learn the truth about the shooting.

Help was arriving from all parts of the county. Telephones were sending the alarm to peace officers all over the state.

Stalcup and Brown evidently had left in the sheriff's car. By now they were far away from Dickens, escaping from years of robbery sentences hanging over them. They would not be easy to stop.

First news of the escaping prisoners came next morning. A farmer living in the Highway Community heard of the jailbreak and Sheriff Arthur's death.

"I think the sheriff's car passed through here yesterday afternoon," he told Dillon.


"Two men in a new Ford V8 stopped me and asked the way to Crosbyton. I didn't pay much attention to them but they seemed excited."

Dillon made rapid notes. "Did you notice anything outstanding about the car?"

"Only that there was a bright chain of some kind hanging over the steering wheel."

"The sheriff's handcuff chain," Dillon said. "What time was this?"

"Not long after noon."

Dillon gave hurried instructions tot he telephone operator. He knew now which way the fugitives were traveling. Maybe some officer down state could stop them.

but the night passed and the fugitives still were uncaptured.

Preparations were under way for the funeral of Sheriff Arthur. The town of Dickens was under such a strain of excitement that the deputy sheriff got little help from his fellow townsmen.

Who Fired Shot?

A brother of the slain sheriff had come over to Dickens and Dillon discussed the strange murder with him.

"It looks like Bill was shot with his own gun," Dillon said. "The coroner says it was a heavy weapon that killed him, probably his .45"

But the brother disagreed. "It never was Bill's policy to enter the jail carrying a gun, I've heard him say a dozen times that was a good way to get killed."

Dillon knew this was true. Sheriff Arthur kept a club on top of the piano in his apartment. Whenever he went upstairs into the jail he always carried this, but never took his gun.

"He must have broken his own rule," Dillon contended. "There hasn't been a chance for another gun to be taken in. We've always searched the prisoners carefully. That was one of Bill's rules, too."

Then suddenly another fact came to the officer's mind: Sheriff Arthur had not worn his .45 since the day Yarbrough had wounded him.

"I remember now," Dillon said, "Bill had been wearing a .38 since he was wounded. Said his .45 hurt his hip. He kept the .45 in his car.

"He must have brought in a prisoner when he came back from Spur who was armed, and for some reason Bill got careless about searching him," Arthur said.

But when Dillon questioned the inmates again they said no new prisoner had been brought to the jail. Panic in the jail had subsided, and though the prisoners were obviously reluctant to talk, Dillon forced a little information from them.

"There was a gun in the jail," one said, "but I don't know how it got here."

"Who fired the shot?" Dillon asked.

"I don't know."

Dillon turned his attention to Yarbrough.

"All right, I'm not afraid to talk," Yarbrough said with sudden bravado. "I was sitting in my cell reading. Across the corridor there, Brown and Stalcup were playing cards. When the sheriff came in to see about the plumbing I saw them nod to each other. They'd been whispering together before that. When the gun was fired the room was full of smoke for a minute. I saw the sheriff fall and Stalcup was bending over him in a minute. Then they made a dash for the door. One of them yelled back: 'You guys keep your mouths shut,' That's all I know."

"For the time being we'll have to accept Yarbrough's explanation," Dillon Told Arthur later. "Stalcup and Brown both have long prison sentences and have plenty of reasons for wanting to escape. I believe the three of them planned the escape, then after the sheriff was killed the other two ditched Yarbrough."

"That might be the reason he was so willing to talk. Trying to get even with them for double-crossing him," Arthur agreed.

"Stalcup had been in jail only since Thursday night," Dillon continued, "but Brown and Yarbrough have been in a couple of weeks. I believe they had it all planned before Stalcup was arrested.

But the story, Dillon knew, could not be finally pieced together until his prisoners were back in jail. He continued to send phone calls and telegrams to officers throughout Texas. His efforts were futile. From Crosbyton the trail of the fugitives apparently was lost.

On the third day after the murder, however, he got more news. A man called in from Calvert, in Robertson county, far across Texas on the Big Brazos river. He had read an account of the murder in his newspaper.

"I saw the car you describe pass through here Sunday," he told Dillon on the phone. "It was a Ford V8 and I recognized Clarence Brown."

"Has Clarence Brown lived in Calvert?" Dillon asked quickly.

"He's got kinfolk's here."

Dillon decided to take the road. His men might well be hiding with relatives near the East Texas town and he would enjoy making the capture himself.

Find Letters

Sheriff Tom Abel had driven over from Lubbock, about 60 miles to attend Sheriff Arthur's funeral. He volunteered to stay and help in the search.

"First let's go to the jail. I want to take a look around."

In the cell block where Brown and Stalcup had been prisoners, Abel began a careful search. In a few minutes his efforts were rewarded.

Stuffed under the mattress in the cell which Virgil Stalcup had occupied, were a number of letters. Eagerly the two officers scanned the contents. several bore Houston addresses, one was from Calvert.

"Calvert! That's where that call came from," Dillon exclaimed.

"We'll notify Houston officers to watch these addresses," Abel said, "and in the meantime we'll take care of the Calvert address ourselves."

But before they started Southeast to Calvert, Sheriff Abel did one more thing. He wrote to the office of the FBI in Washington, asking for a ballistic check on the murder bullet.

The next day Dillon and Abel took the trail across Texas. Keeping in mind the address on the letter found in jail, and the meager reports, concerning the fugitives' route, the two officers headed for Robertson county. At Calvert they received unexpected news.

A Ford car had been stolen there on Saturday night. A witness who had a fleeting glimpse of the bandits described them. From the description, officers believed the thieves were Brown and Stalcup.

"They're heading for Houston,' Abel said, "But we'd better check the address here."

The two officers drove out on the highway toward Temple. Several miles out from town they stopped a farmer.

"Do you know where Bert Bronson (fictional name, to protect innocent) lives?" Abel asked.

"About two miles farther on." the man replied. He eyed the officers curiously, then hurriedly walked out of sight into the brush.

"Looks like a hot trail." Dillon commented.

As they drove into the yard of the Bronson home, the shadow of a tall man fell momentarily across the window shade, then vanished from sight.

"We must have flushed them," Abel commented dryly.

They knocked and a woman came to the door. Her gaze darted over the visitors, searching and scared.

"Is Mr. Bronson at home?" Dillon asked.

She hesitated. Then Bronson appeared beside his wife. "I didn't understand who you were," he apologized, I thought at first..."

"What did you think?" Abel snapped, as the man's lips closed firmly.

"Well, I just didn't know who you were and thought I'd hide until I found out."

Hear New Name

Mrs. Bronson invited the officers in, making a show of hospitality.

"We're looking for Clarence Brown and Virgil Stalcup," Sheriff Abel said flatly. "We know they've been here, and we want to know where they are now."

The woman, thoroughly frightened only shook her head. The man spoke.

"Yes, Clarence was here, but Stalcup wasn't with him. There was a young man named King with him."

"did they tell you anything?"

Bronson hesitated.

"Do you want to be implicated in prisoner's escape?" Abel asked. The man's hesitation vanished.

"They got here about daylight Sunday morning." Bronson said. "I knew something was wrong. Then Clarence told me they had to turn the heat on the sheriff up at Dickens and he wanted to lay low awhile."

"Are you sure the other man wasn't Stalcup?" Dillon interrupted.

"Clarence introduced him as King and I'm sure that's who he was. They stayed here all that day. I tried to get rid of them but couldn't. One of them would sleep while the other sat on the edge of the bed with a gun to watch."

"How long id they stay?"

"They left that night. I told them that afternoon that a neighbor was coming over. King asked me what kind of neighbor and I told him the neighbor was windy. He said that was all right for if the neighbor came they'd take him out and tie him up. There wasn't anything else I could do to get rid of them."

Further questioning brought no results. The Bronsons insisted that the man with Brown was named King; that they had no idea where the two men went when they left that night.

Got FBI Report

The officers were puzzled by this information. What had become of Stalcup? Where did King fit into the picture? The Bronsons were relatives of Clarence Brown but correspondence from that address had been found in Stalcup's cell.

Without another lead on the direction the two where going, Abel and Dillon decided to return to Dickens. Before leaving Calvert, however, they got in touch with Sheriff T. A. Binford of Harris county, at Houston, and asked him to keep a watch for the fugitives.

Returning to Dickens, the weary officers found news awaiting them. The FBI had made a report on the fatal bullet. This slug, the report said, could not have come from the sheriff's .45, as such a gun was not chambered for the death bullet.

"That mans we've got to look for the person who smuggled a gun into the jail," Dillon said. "If the sheriff wasn't killed with his own gun, there's another angle to this thing somewhere."

Deputy Dillon received unexpected cooperation in this next phase of the investigation.

Mrs. Arthur had been sworn into office to finish her murdered husband's unexpired term. She had received many offers of help in catching her husband's killer from citizens over the county. One of these was a man who became sheriff of Dickens county at the next election - J. L. (Johnnie) Koonsman.

When Koonsman learned of the ballistic report, he began quietly ferreting out information on the smuggled weapon. Together with Deputy Dillon, he talked with Mrs. Arthur.

"We've got to find out where the murder weapon came from," he said. "If you can remember any unusual event, Mrs. Arthur, or any visitors to the jail who might have brought a gun, it will help."

"There was a visitor to the jail on sunday, a week before Bill was murdered," Mrs. Arthur said. "I remember now, Mrs. Clarence Brown visited her husband."

The two listeners jumped to startled attention. "When was that?" Dillon asked excitedly.

"Why, it was the day they had that funeral for the football player who died over in Spur."

"I know, Bill went over to control the crowd," Dillon added.

"Just before he started, I remember that Mrs. Brown came to the jail, Bill was in a hurry and told her he didn't have time to let her in to see Clarence. But she had her little boy with her and begged so hard. Said she'd borrowed a car and traveled over from Snyder so the boy could visit his father. So Bill told her she could stay in jail until he got back from the funeral. It might be after dark."

"He rushed back to jail and opened the bottom part where the jailer slept. He let her in there and went up and unlocked Clarence Brown and let him come down and spend the afternoon with her in the run-around."

"And for his kindness he got shot and Clarence Brown escaped," Dillon said bitterly.

"Before we talk to Mrs. Brown, we'd better get some proof that she did smuggle a gun in," Koonsman observed, "I'll see what I can find out for you."

For several days after that Koonsman worked on the case. He questioned people he believed were friends of the Browns, but for a while there seemed no connection between Mrs. Brown's visit to the jail and her husband's subsequent escape. But finally Koonsman got a tip which looked as if it might bear on the case.

At Snyder, he was told, lived an ex-convict, who was friendly with the Browns. This man had done some gun-swapping lately but details were vague.

The first thing Koonsman did was to call at all of the second-hand shops in Snyder. He went through several before his work brought results.

"Traded any .45s lately?" he asked over and over.

It was a small, inconspicuous shop where the owner answered affirmatively. Koonsman quickly learned what he wanted to know.

In a few minutes Koonsman was facing the gun-swapping ex-convict in his apartment. Koonsman came direct to the point.

"You traded a rifle for a .45 over at the gun shop. What did you want with the pistol?"

The man stared warily a minute. But Koonsman's stare was uncompromising. "Remember," he said, "a murder's been committed."

"Well, I didn't have anything to do with it! I gave the gun to Mrs. Clarence Brown because she said Clarence need it for something."

"Describe the gun you gave her."

"It was a .45 single action Colt thumb-buster."

"When did she get it?

"About the first of October."

Koonsman returned to Dickens with this news. The web of evidence was closing in around Clarence Brown.

With the aid of Johnnie Koonsman, officers located Mrs. Clarence Brown and she was brought in for questioning. Reluctantly she admitted that she had smuggled the gun in to her husband. "But I didn't know it was going to be a killing," she added tearfully.

While officers at Dickens worked on the angle of the smuggled weapon, Houston officers had struck the trail of the fugitives.

Joe Trapalena, young deputy sheriff, located a girl whose name had been furnished by Sheriff Abel from the jail correspondence. At first the girl denied that she knew Stalcup.

"What about the letters you wrote to Dickens jail?"

"That was to Art King, not Stalcup," she replied hotly.

"What did you see King last?" the officer asked.

The girl's lips closed stubbornly. Trapalena became stern. "Would you like to be arrested for aiding a fugitive to escape?" he demanded.

Her eyes dilated with fear. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that I know Virgil Stalcup was here recently. I want to know what he said, how long he stayed, where he went."

"He was here on the 29th of October," she said uneasily. "He acted queer so I asked him what was the matter. He just said, 'I'm hot girlie.' But later he told me that he had broken jail at Dickens and had to turn the heat on the sheriff."

"Why did you say it was Art King, no Stalcup?"

"Well, he used to call himself Art King."

Other than to say she believed Stalcup was still in Houston, the girl contended that she knew nothing else.

"What about Clarence Brown?" Trapalena asked.

"Virgil said Clarence had gone fishing."

Trapalena engaged a boatman, then dressed in worn fisherman's garb, took bait and tackle and paddled out on the river. He explained the deal to his boatman and issued careful instructions. It was several hours before he signed the quarry.

The officer repeated instructions to the oarsman, then prepared for action. Gradually his boat neared the place where Clarence Brown sat in a boat, fishing idly. The boatman began to pull in.

"You darn fool," Trapalena yelled at his boatman.. You're going to strike that boat."

The man pretended to obey, while actually he slid the boat nearer the other fisherman. The ruse was working perfectly. In seconds the two boats slapped together.

Instantly Trapalena was on his feet. with one agile leap he was in the other boat, gun in hand. "Get'em up, Brown," he snapped. "You're under arrest."

In the Harris county jail that evening, Sheriff T. A. Binford and his deputies questioned Brown, but Brown wouldn't talk. "I won't talk until I've seen Virgil," he said stubbornly.

Trapalena, meanwhile, had gotten a tip that Stalcup was hiding with relatives. He had been seen coming out of a garage. Inside the garage, stairs led up to a room above. In this room, Stalcup was supposed to be living. Trapalena, with the assistance of Deputy Henderson, prepared to close in.

"I'll stay in the garage." Trapalena said.

"You go up stairs and get behind the door. The minute he walks in, you throw down on him. I'll follow him up the stairs."

Accordingly the two officers waited. It was nearing midnight when cautious steps sounded in front of the house. Trapalena flattened himself in the shadow of the garage and listened while steady steps mounted the stairs.

As Stalcup opened the door of his room, he switched on the light -- and looked into the muzzle of Henderson's gun. Stalcup crouched instantly but as he did so Trapalena's gun prodded his back.

"We've got you covered, Stalcup," Trapalena said quietly.

The two officers searched their prisoner, and found that he was carrying the sheriff's handcuffs and identification cards. Arthur's .45 was later found in Brown's fishing shack.

With Stalcup in jail, Brown related part of the story, but at first he refused to state who fired the shot. He admitted that they planned to break jail together, with the gun his wife had given him, and they escaped together in the sheriff's car. Yarbrough was not included in their plans.

"After we left jail, we drove through Crosbyton, went on through Snyder and Calvert to Temple, then back to Calvert. Virgil stole a Ford there Saturday night. He drove the Ford and I drove the sheriff's car on about seven miles to the Black Bridge on the Brazos. We stopped the car and Virgil put it in second gear and ran it in the river."

"What did you do with the gun?" Sheriff Binford asked.

"We threw it in the brush about 200 yards from my brother-in-law's house. That was about daylight Sunday morning. We stayed there all day and then came to Houston. After that we separated."

Officers soon found that their prisoner was in mortal fear of Stalcup. But it was several days before they drew from him the statement they wanted. Stalcup fired the fatal shot.

The persecution showed that Stalcup was the most wanted man in Texas at the time, with combined prison sentences amounting to 254 years. This showed a motive for the crime, that he intended to escape at all costs.

Virgil Stalcup was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair on May 4, 1936. The case was appealed, but the higher court affirmed the sentence, and on the date set, it was carried out. Clarence Brown was sentenced in the same court to 99 years in Huntsville penitentiary.

Shortly after this trial, Mrs. Clarence Brown was tried in Dickens county for her part in the crime. She was sentenced to two years in prison.

Home Page | Cemetery List | Table of Contents | Helping with this Project
USGenWeb Project

Dickens County TXGenWeb Project
Webmaster Linda Fox Hughes
© Dickens County Historical Commission 1997-2017

           This site may be freely linked to but not duplicated in any fashion without consent.
           The information on these pages is meant for personal genealogical research only
and is not for commercial use of ANY type.