The Union Station Massacre
By Clayton Sedler
Imagine the quiet, sleepy little town of Kansas City. A town thought of by the majority of Americans to be a non-eventful cow-town. Contrary to popular belief Kansas City during the 1920’s and 30’s was probably the most corrupt town by today’s standards with the most intricate underworld of gangsters, mobsters, and politicians. During the 1930’s Kansas City was an industrial hub of rising prominence. The small mid-western city had a noticeable cosmopolitan flare about it. Kansas City, during the thirties had become the hottest jazz scene with enough booze joints to intoxicate the masses. It was a city ran by “Big” Tom Pendergast’s political machine whose right hand was Johnny Lazzia, known gangster and mob boss.
For the most part the average citizen had no idea of the magnitude of the city’s criminal population. It is hard to imagine, even by today’s standards that the average Kansas citian could ever be a witness to the seedy underworld of gangland warfare. But, upon the day of June 17th 1933, these ideals changed, the massacre that occurred at the Union Station in Kansas City not only changed a city, but moved a nation as well.
At 7:15 on Saturday morning, on June 17th 1933, a day that seemed as though it was any other, seven lawmen escorted Frank Nash across the Union Station parking lot towards an armored police sedan to take Nash back to Leavenworth prison. Frank the “Jelly” Nash as he came to be glorified in the local news as, was a notorious bank robber and recent prison escapee. Unbeknownst to the lawmen was a plan concocted by local gangsters and Frank Nash’s wife to free the “Jelly.” Just as five of the eight men including Nash began entering the armored police sedan, three men brandishing tommy machine guns made their presence known to the officers. Revealing their strategic positions, a man that would later be identified as Vern Miller yelled, “Up up, get em’ up!” while aiming a machine gun at the two officers remaining outside the sedan. Another gangster glamorized as Frank “Pretty Boy” Floyd realized one of the officers began reaching for his revolver and screamed with glee, “Let em’ have it! Let the bastards have it!” As soon as the bullets began whizzing through the morning air Adam Richetti, “Pretty Boys” partner began slowly driving through the parking lot with a raised .38 caliber waiting for the carnage to end providing an escape for his fellow partners in crime. Amongst the confusion the agent Joe Lackey accidentally misfired his Winchester model 97 disintegrating half of Frank Nash’s head. The two officers, Grooms and Hermanson standing outside the police car were the first to fall. Reed Vetterli, shot in the shoulder crawled to the back of the sedan and sprang out of the car and sprinted toward the front doors of Union Station, barely escaping death, while the rest of his associates were torn to shreds in a hail of gun-fire. Events such as this are unheard of in K.C. today, we can only imagine, gunmen as bold as they were, calmly deciding to trade shots with armed experienced officers of K.C. and the Federal Government in broad daylight, and in a public place where hundreds of people continually gathered.
Nothing more scandalous than the crime itself was the series of events and people invovled. Some of the questions resulting from the crime; why were the machine guns removed that were bolted to the inside of the armored car, how did the mobsters find out about Frank Nash’s escorted trip back to prison? The most important factor of this case was the rise of J. Edgar Hoover the head of the United States Department of Justice Bureau of Investigation and his fledgling federal crime lab.
First of all how did the three gunmen invovled in the masscacre have access to such important information. How did these three hoodlums know where Nash was going to be and what type of armaments the officers were using to ensure safe transfer. It started at the top. For several decades “Boss” Tom Pendergast of K.C. ran a political machine that controlled the city with an iron fist. Pendergast’s tactics of strong-arming, fraud, graft, and murder surpassed any other machine in the country. While national crime syndicates were forming, Pendergast was the only boss allowed by the syndicates to take part in crucial decision making. Under Pendergast was Johnny Lazzia, Kansas Cities number one organized crime member. Pendergast protected Lazzia and vice-versa. In essence the city was ran by criminals and with Lazzia’s fingers now inside the police department he owned the city. Lazzia’s “yes” or “no” was final, only to be shadowed by “Big” Tom Pendergast himself. During a grand jury testimony, it was revealed by an informant upon telephoning the office of the Director of Police and finding his call answered personally by Johnny Lazzia. Knowing these facts it is easy to see how the three gunmen at the Union Station Massacre had access to such vital information.
Two Kansas City detectives were assigned at the last minute to assist Hoovers agents in escorting Nash from the train back to Leavenworth prison. Unfortunately, unknown to the detectives, prior to their departure from the station, Johnny Lazzia, Kansas Cities crime boss called in a favor to some crooked cops to have the machine guns removed from the armor car that the two K.C. detectives were supposed to use to ensure Nash’s transfer. It wasn’t until after the detectives left the station that they realized that the weapons had been removed from the car. If the two detectives were privy to the series of events getting ready to unfold before their eyes they would not have left the station without being fully prepared.
Without the Massacre and all the bloodshed and mayhem it created, the F.B.I. nor its new ambitious crime laboratory would not be what it is today. Before the Massacre, Hoovers fledgling Bureau of Investigations employed only a few hundred people. Prior to the Massacre agents were not allowed to carry guns or make arrests. Hoover’s rise to power and the need to avoid public disgrace by the majority led his Bureau into corruption as well, because, simply, failure was never an option. The stakes were too high; the Massacre case was too big and too important to lose. The identification of one of the gunmen’s fingerprints was praised as an incredible advancement in fighting crime. But all the evidence was tainted and Bureau experts knew it, lies were covered by agent perjury.
The scandals revolving around the Union Station Massacre run deep and shocked an American society. The next time you step foot on Kansas City soil; becareful. If a scandal of this paramount can occur during the thirties imagine the capabilities of today’s modern Kansas City gangsters. We can hope things are better, but you never now when the wool is being pulled over the virgin eye’s of the public. Watch your back though, because you don’t want to be the innocent by-stander to a gangland shoot-out.
 Kirchner, L.R. (Larry). Triple Cross Fire. (New York: Bobb-Merril, 1993), 6
 ibid., 17.
 Clayton, Merle. Union Station Massacre. (New York: Bobb-Merrill, 1975), 126
 Unger, Robert. The Union Station Massacre. (Missouri: Andrews Mcmeel, 1997), 228
 Clayton, Merle. Union Station Massacre. (New York: Bobb_Merrill, 1975), 128
 Kirchner, L.R. (Larry). Triple Cross Fire. (Missouri: Janlar Books, 1993), 20
 ibid., 2
 ibid., 3
 ibid., 3
 Clayton, Merle. Union Station Massacre. (New York: Bobb-Merrill, 1975), 118
 ibid., 119
 Unger, Robert. The Union Station Massacre. (Missouri Station Massacre. (Missouri: Andrews Mcmeel, 1997), 2
 ibid., 2
 ibid., 3