No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
The Young Family ‘Triumvirate’
This is still one of the worst incidents of line of duty deaths in the history of law enforcement, and recent events only prove how real this kind of situation is still a true possibility for officers everywhere. However, this story deserves some context, and so we will begin with some background of those involved.
First, the Young brothers, Paul, Jennings, and Harry. The Young’s were three of eleven children in their family, and lived on a farm outside of Brookline, Missouri, a small community near Springfield in the Ozarks. They grew up in the depression, and though they came from a family that was stoutly religious, the three brothers were different from the rest. They were involved in petty crime all through their childhood and had a penchant for getting away with it, even though it was glaringly obvious they were responsible. In fact, the Young’s may make an argument for being the catalyst for the modern street gang. The three of them called themselves the “Young Triumvirate,” and much of their crimes involved stolen property.
History of these three men tells us that around 1919 they began actively breaking into businesses. During that time, Paul and Jennings were caught red-handed, and ultimately admitted to their crime, leading to prison sentences. The father of the Young boys was so distraught by this he became broken and ultimately died while they served their sentences.
The mother of the Young boys continued to defend them, many times saying they were innocent. At one point Mrs. Young was a fence for stolen property, and either didn’t know it, or was too involved. When loads of tires and rugs were found in her farmhouse, she was questioned, and about to be arrested, when her son Jennings took responsibility for the crime, ultimately going back to prison. Harry and Paul soon followed, after their own string of burglaries and robberies, which they had picked back up right where they had left off.
The Brookline Massacre
To honor all those involved in the Young Family murders, we must first point out a line of duty death that triggered the entire deadly outcome. On June 2, 1929, Harry Young was traveling recklessly through the town of Republic, a nearby town to Brookline. There is some dispute among sources about whether Jennings was present in the vehicle, but regardless, Town Marshal Mark Noe stopped Harry for drunk driving with the intent of jailing him to sleep off his condition. However, Harry had other plans. Either Harry or Jennings shot Marshal Noe, and he was dragged into the Young’s vehicle, where they shot him several more times, later dumping Noe’s body in a ditch several miles away from town.
Harry was the presumed murderer at the time, and a warrant for his arrest was signed, and many attempts were made to enforce it, but Harry managed to elude capture. By 1931, not only was Harry being sought on State and Federal warrants, but his brothers formally joined him, when they became linked to stolen vehicles they had been transported across State lines. Greene County Sheriff Marcell Hendrix, where both communities are located, had tried to capture the Young brothers several times, as it was known that the three continued to make trips back to the family farm while on the run.
Another year passed without capture, and in a calculated move, Sheriff Hendrix ensured that word got back to the Young Family farm that he believed the three fled for Mexico. Meanwhile, he maintained a regular stake out of the farm, in hopes of getting the Young’s to let their guard down. The investigation into stolen cars continued, linking all three to car thefts in five States around the region, defining the Young's criminal enterprise as one of the most sophisticated seen up to that point.
Finally, on January 2, 1932, there was proof that the Youngs' were at the family farm. Chief Ed Waddle of the Springfield Police fielded the tip, and passed it to Sheriff Hendrix, who put together a posse of 11 deputies and detectives to take in the Young’s once and for all. The officers knocked on all doors and received no response, but thought they heard noises inside. A new plan was formed, which placed a few of the officers at the back of the house, while the remaining spread out across the front of the house. Those in the front would launch a gas canister into the second floor of the house, and the officers in the back would sweep through the back door, flushing the Young’s out through the front door.
Sheriff Hendrix, Deputy Wiley Mashburn, and Detective Virgil Johnson of the Springfield Police Department, SPD, staged at the back door. Tony Oliver, SPD’s Chief of Detectives stood behind a tree outside of a lawn fence, to cover the three, while Detective Ben Bilyeu stood nearby Oliver. Detective Sid Meadows stood behind another tree on the north side of the property, while SPD Officer Charles Houser stood towards the front of the house, also in the open, next to a gate, completing an impromptu flank of the home by the four men, along the west side of the residence.
Detective Owen Brown and Deputy Ollie Crosswhite waited at the northeast corner of the property, where they had a view of windows that looked into the downstairs portion of the home. Detective Frank Pike and a civilian brought along to assist, R.G. Wegman stayed behind the patrol cars, to cover the barn and shed, in case an ambush was in the works by the Young brothers. The house was surrounded, effectively.
Sheriff Hendrix knocked on the door, announcing his presence, along with the presence of multiple officers and that the Youngs' needed to give themselves up. This led to no response by the brothers, at which point Hendrix decided that kicking in the door was the next step in this arrest process. Johnson heaved into the door at the center, with Hendrix and Mashburn crashing in on each side of him. The door opened partway, at which point Mashburn took a step inside while raising his revolver. From the kitchen came a shotgun blast, and striking Mashburn’s face directly, essentially rendering him dead upon entry.
Sheriff Hendrix rushed in past Mashburn, who was falling backwards down the small set of stairs at the backdoor. Hendrix called out to the brothers, as he entered the home, when another blast from the shotgun came, striking Hendrix in his right shoulder, under his collarbone, leading to his chest ripping open. As Hendrix fell to his knees, he tried aiming his revolver at the person who shot him, however, his muscles were so eviscerated that his entire right arm could not function, he crawled towards the kitchen, dying shortly thereafter. Mashburn in the meantime had fallen down, hitting his head on the concrete sidewalk outside the back of the home, leading to another significant injury that only added to his imminent death on the Young Family farm.
Oliver yelled out to the remaining officers on scene that Mashburn and Hendrix had been shot, Johnson ran towards the front door, preparing to shoot another gas canister into the home, but due to operational error, Johnson misfired the canister, and inadvertently shot it wide, landing on the front porch section of roof, where a fire began to smoke. Johnson yelled out that he had no more canisters, at which point Oliver instructed everyone to take cover, get all their firearms loaded, and stage extra ammo. Crosswhite spoke up, stating that someone should run to get long guns. Oliver sent Johnson on the task, and to get reinforcements.
As Johnson backed his car out, Bilyeu and Wegman jumped into the backseat, and the gunmen in the home moved to the front of the house, seeing the car attempting to leave, they opened fire, and managed to injure Johnson. Johnson continued to drive, and made his way to Springfield.
As the gunmen opened fire, Oliver directed the remaining officers to open fire on the downstairs windows. At the same time, Houser began looking for better cover, and spotted a tree in the front yard, which he ran to. But as he slowed down, to look into the front yard to see if he was safe to cross, a bullet sailed, striking him in the forehead, leaving him dead before he hit the ground.
The brothers then made their way back into the kitchen, and were spotted by Crosswhite, who began firing on the brothers until he ran out of bullets. One brother took aim with a rifle, laying down suppressive fire, so that the other brother could exit through the back door, and sneak up on Crosswhite, shooting him at social distance in the back of the head with the shotgun.
Oliver saw that Meadows was exposed at this point, and ordered him to fall back. Meadows yelled out that he was out of ammunition. Before more could be said, the brothers took aim on Meadows’ position, and began splintering the tree with rounds. Oliver yelled for Meadows to fall back again, and as Meadows looked around the tree to time his retreat, he was shot directly above his right eye.
Pike began firing into the home, which subjected him to several shotgun blasts. While most missed him, his left arm sustained several pellet hits from birdshot. Oliver, again trying to avoid more death, ordered Pike and Brown to run for the barn. As Oliver shouted the instruction, he became the next target of the brothers, who began shooting shotgun and rifle in succession at him, first splitting the tree he had taken cover behind, next shooting him as he ran for cover behind his patrol car. They shot him in the chest, on his right side, and finally in the back, as he turned the corner behind his vehicle, where he sprawled forward and died a slow, painful death.
The Young brothers began yelling out for Brown and Pike to surrender and come to the house. The detectives refused to answer, but realizing they were outnumbered and outgunned, they did the only logical thing left, which was to run out of the area immediately. They had made it into the barn during the execution of Oliver, and from there left through the fields, back to Springfield on foot.
Meanwhile, the brothers began pulling as many guns off the dead officers as they could, packing two suitcases, and also stealing Hendrix’ wallet, which contained several hundred dollars in it.
Johnson returned with many other officers, and what he came upon seemed unbelievable, but was all too horrific. Five of the six officers were officially confirmed dead upon the arrival of additional officers. Mashburn had managed to stay alive in his extraordinarily dire condition. He unfortunately passed away later in the night. In the end, and still to this day, this is the deadliest single incident of line of duty deaths in the history of the United States.
The firearms expertise that Harry and Jennings possessed, an unfathomable amount of high ground in both location and time, and the distinct advantage they held with using long guns over officers who had been instructed to maintain only their handguns for the operation, led to their ability to kill so many officers in one incident. The toll left behind by this event is both tragic, and eye-opening for law enforcement. Ill-preparation, and an over-confident sheriff in his abilities to reason with men he knew since they were juveniles also factored into this terrible loss. Sheriff Hendrix was a lawman for a long time in an area that was likely hard to manage. While he did have a reputation of reasoning with others, it’s hard to imagine what he thought he could do going into this particular set of circumstances. In any event, what we are left with is the loss of six men, who paid a price so grave, that the incident was only discussed until it’s conclusion in aftermath, which we will visit in Part Two of this story.
Be safe out there!