Part 2/conclusion of "Notorious bandit in shoot out near El Dorado"
During his years in prison, the mother of Bill LaTrasse, burned a light in a window of her Kansas City home for the time when her “Billy” would be free.
She scrubbed miles of floors and saved $1,800 to give her son when he stepped out of prison.
But almost on the same day that LaTrasse was to be freed - June 25, 1931 - the bank holding his mother’s account closed.
His mother visited a Kansas City police station weeping about her lost nest egg for her son, and the police felt sorry for her. Money was soon collected and Bill was able to purchase a shoe shop in the central part of the city.
Bill had the trust of the Law and his mother once again.
Hazel, the young girl who loved him through the years, also waited for him and the two immediately married. The 16 years between them made no difference, as Bill was quoted saying, “Hazel is the only girl I ever loved.”
Perhaps the Depression may have been too much for Bill because he was unable to stay out of trouble. He held up a gambling game and was sent to the Missouri penitentiary for seven years.
LaTrasse still wasn’t finished. He was arrested again in Parsons, Kan. in 1942 for a double shooting in a tavern robbery. He was 60 at the time and his accomplice, Harry Downs, 39. Victims of the shooting were Thomas M. Miller, 44 and his son, Clinton, 24. The father had gone to the aid of his son and both were shot.
Police overpowered and disarmed LaTrasse and Downs on the street outside the tavern. The two were rushed out of the county due to the fear of possible mob violence.
Later that same year, LaTrasse was sentenced to life imprisonment for the double slaying. Seven witnesses had testified to what had transpired. Neither man on trial was represented by counsel and pleaded guilty to first degree murder.
The judge stated, “If future governors of this state and future administrators, which handle paroles, do their duties, your long criminal careers are now ended.”
But that would not be the case for Big Bill LaTrasse. In 1945, using a ladder fashioned from mop handles and adhesive tape, the notorious convict fell approximately 20 feet when the light rope ladder broke just as he started down the outside of the prison’s 16-foot wall, which was topped by a wire fence.
Cold, hungry and wanting “a bed and some sleep,” LaTrasse, 63 years-old, said as he returned voluntarily to the shelter of Lansing three days later.
“I’m too old. It’s not worth it,” LaTrasse told the warden, after three days of freedom with nothing to eat or drink.
LaTrasse said that he “had been lying in weeds beside roads” in the vicinity of the prison since his escape.
An unidentified motorist told prison officials that the stooped and gray convict stepped out in the middle of a road a mile west of the prison, identified himself and asked to be taken to the prison.
The motorist drove to the prison, where the warden and a guard helped LaTrasse inside.
The warden described the escapee as being in “bad physical shape.” He also had injured his right side in the trip over the wall and both eyes were black and blue. Following an examination and finding no broken bones, LaTrasse was put to bed in the prison hospital.
When asked by the warden why he made the escape, LaTrasse shook his said and said nothing.
Kansas Governor Andrew Schoeppel completed an investigation into the escape of LaTrasse and advised that no further action would be taken. One guard was removed shortly after the escape because of negligence, according to the governor.
Big Bill provided a six-page detailed statement for the governor and said that he had expected the guards to start shooting at him but that he intended “to go on matter how thick the bullets flew.” He also said that he had hoped to get to Kansas City, where he could obtain money, get a job that wouldn’t attract attention and “stay out as long as possible.”
The escape was the last bad mark on his record.
LaTrasse turned 76 on Valentine’s Day, 1958. He spent it like many other birthdays - behind bars.
A reporter with a Missouri paper wrote of Big Bill’s legendary life and referred to him as “the last of the train robbers.” Along with the two concurrent life terms for murder, the report listed his sentences to prisons in three states and many escapes from behind bars, but it also mentioned his three years of meritorious service in the French Foreign Legion in World War I.
It seemed LaTrasse had mellowed and had made a name for himself in prison for the last 10 years by being a nurse in the tuberculosis ward at the prison hospital. The warden said of that service, “He’s doing a good job in the hospital as a nurse. He’s helping the inmates and he is helping the institution.”
The quiet, stooped, white-haired LaTrasse spoke of his first crime, the holdup of a bar in 1904. He shared that it was in order to “raise some money for my folks who lost heavily in the 1903 flood in Kansas City, Kan.”
A free man
After spending more than half his life in prison, Bill LaTrasse died a free man on March 16, 1959 at the age of 77.
Released from the Kansas Penitentiary in December, 1958, he went to Denver to live with his sister. He entered the hospital with a kidney ailment a few days before his death. He was buried near his parents’ graves in Mount Saint Mary’s Cemetery near Kansas City, Mo.
It is not known what became of his wife. Hazel was not mentioned in the report of his death.
Sources: The San Bernardino County Sun, Aug. 10, 1931; Great Bend Tribune, Feb. 9, 1958; AP, March 17, 1959; Joplin News Herald, March 19, 1959.