Rifle bank robbery scuttled when funds were transferred to Denver
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
He harms himself who does harm to another, and the evil plan is most harmful to the planner.
– Hesoid, 800 B.C.
The two Buick automobiles gathered a great deal of attention when they pulled into Rifle in the late summer of 1924. Four men, promising wealth to the community through the development of oil, quickly set up headquarters in the town.
The company they proposed was the Divide Creek Oil Co. The mission of the corporation was to secure leases to “pump, prepare for market, refine and treat petroleum and its products.” When the certificate of incorporation was filed Sept. 22, 1924, W.C. Messick, E.M. Larson and J.J. Laton were the official faces of the corporation and on the board of directors. Merritt Austin and J.H. Cummins were additionally named on the board. W.H. Ryan acted as the company’s manager.
The offices of the Divide Creek Oil Co. were established in the upper floor of Rifle’s First National Bank building. Messick, along with his wife, and Ryan took rooms in the Winchester Hotel. Mrs. Messick incorporated herself into the town’s social fabric.
Everything appeared well with the company. Stock was issued. The first annual report noted that $5,000 had been paid into the corporation in cash. According to the report, Messick and Ryan’s long and frequent trips into the countryside garnered 7,000 acres of leases worth $95,000.
Things were booming in general in Rifle. In addition to the promises of the Divide Creek Oil Co., the First National Bank itself was profitable. It was so profitable that Gordon Hollis of Denver bought control of the bank. Hollis then ordered the transfer of $80,000 of the bank’s funds to Denver banks in which he was interested.
Overnight, Messick, his wife, Ryan and the Divide Creek Oil Co. disappeared.
Although strange, not much was mentioned about the disappearance. Citizens became immersed in the events of the day. Then, on May 23, 1928, four men using a blue Buick automobile as a getaway car robbed the First National Bank of Lamar in Prowers County, Colorado. During the robbery netting $219,000 in cash and bonds, bank president A.N. Parrish and his son were killed. A teller taken hostage was later found murdered. The doctor tricked into helping one of the wounded robbers was also found murdered. All of Colorado was outraged.
A single fingerprint tied Jake Fleagle to the Lamar robbery. In August 1929, authorities arrested Jake’s brother, Ralph, who then confessed to the crime. This confession led to the arrest of George Abshire and Howard Royston. All were returned to Lamar in September 1929. One month later these three members of the Fleagle Gang were sentenced to die on the gallows in Canon City.
With less than one month to live, George Abshire recounted to a Denver newspaper the casing of two banks – the First National Bank and the Union Bank – in a small Colorado town named Rifle. He admitted he presented himself as W.C. Messick. His associate, W.H. Ryan, was actually Jake Fleagle. The Divide Creek Oil Co. was merely a ruse to buy time to set up the robbery, and the time Abshire and Fleagle spent in the countryside was to prepare an escape route. All plans were abandoned when the funds were transferred from the First National Bank, making the take too small.
Ralph Fleagle, George Abshire and Howard Royston were hanged at the Colorado State Penitentiary in July 1930. Jake Fleagle was shot dead by authorities on a train in Missouri in October 1930.
Gordon Hollis had no idea that his transfer of funds from the First National Bank would alter the course of Colorado history. Sometimes, a seemingly insignificant act can prevent evil deeds from harming a community.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Summer hours are 11 a.m to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.
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