Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Hiding in Plain Sight"-- Within Bonnie & Clyde History, the Case For and Against Joe Bill Francis

Within Bonnie & Clyde History, the story of the Sowers ambush attempt captivates Bonnie & Clyde Historians and aficionados alike.  And for good reason-- as this tale embodies all the elements of a great mystery novel-- heroes, evident regardless of which side of the law you were on-- villains, secret meetings, spying-- even a healthy competition amongst the law, for bragging rights in trying to "take down" the notorious Bonnie & Clyde.

For Dallas Sheriff Richard Allen "Smoot" Schmid-- the release of Dallas FBI file 26-4114, revealed both amusing and perhaps damning revelations.  Was this a man so obsessed with fame for himself and recognition for his Sheriff's Dept-- that he refused to work with other law enforcement agencies in a cooperative effort to catch Bonnie & Clyde??  Apparently so.  But undaunted by this seemingly self-centered effort on "Smoot's" part-- the Feds responded to the Sheriff's lack of cooperation in a most creative way, by garnering intelligence of their own-- through undercover surveillance of the Dallas Sheriff and his right-hand men, reminiscent of the "Spy Vs Spy" adventures from MAD Magazine fame. 

Within file 26-4114, it's documented that based on a well-placed informant who was "closely connected to the Barrows or Parkers"-- the Dallas Sheriff's Dept had spied on 2 clandestine Bonnie & Clyde family get-togethers, in preparation for the Sowers ambush attempt.  Meanwhile-- Federal agents armed with their own informant ("Smoots" friend Red Webster)-- well, they were busy spying on the Dallas Sheriff's Dept spying on Bonnie & Clyde.  Remarkable.  To me-- documentation of family informants including the Sowers informant and Bailey Tynes, who were able to report to the law from within the Barrow household-- is a "fascinating" aspect of the Dallas files.  What a fortunate thing those files (unlike others)-- weren't destroyed as somehow being "useless".

This leads us to that Sheriff's Dept informant-- for like many good mysteries, "betrayal" can become a deadly element of heartache.  For decades, and well before the release of the Dallas FBI files' invaluable & previously unknown law enforcement info-- many realized Sowers must've involved a tip-off-- since the law were laying in wait for Bonnie & Clyde to arrive within their crosshairs, on the evening of November 22nd, 1933.  Someone surely spilled the beans-- but who?? 


Some have reasoned, that since the families seemingly made the "critical error" of meeting 2 nights in a row near the same location-- that dairy farmer Charlie Stovall, must've viewed them near his land the previous night, and notified authorities (namely Dallas Sheriff's Deputy Ed Castor)-- who responded with the speed of a Jackrabbit, thus allowing "Smoot" and the boys to quickly assemble a posse for Bonnie & Clyde's return the following evening.  That was the story Ted Hinton told decades later-- in crediting "good police work". But one would ask-- how would Charlie Stovall, Ed Castor, "Smoot" or anyone else, know Bonnie & Clyde and their families would return to the same spot the night after Cumie's birthday celebration-- when according to the families-- they had been careful not to meet at the same location like that, twice in a row before??

Must've been a stroke of incredible luck-- or a keenly instinctive guess??  In reality it was neither-- for the Dallas FBI Files spell it out in tintype, black & white.  There was a informant close to the families-- and that informant provided useful info to the law well in advance of Sowers-- which allowed for a calculated waylay which almost worked.  So let's give credit where credit is due.  There "was" a stellar effort made by the Dallas Sheriff's office, as witnessed by the Bureau of Investigation-- to end the reign of The Barrow Gang in November of '33.  An effort which nearly paid off.  Beside the files-- thanks are due also to Billie Parker, in describing both her eyewitness account from within the family car being shot at-- and the bloody aftermath for a wounded Bonnie & Clyde, in having escaped-- and then reaching safe harbor and medical attention.  According to Billie-- Bonnie's comment concerning Sowers was-- it was "the closest we ever came to dying."

On a personal note, I often wonder why Ted Hinton told some of the stories he did concerning Bonnie & Clyde happenings.  For as the junior officer present, it seems he may have been kept "out of the loop" regarding certain Bonnie & Clyde events.  Such was the case with the Methvin family meetings in Louisiana-- as neither he nor Manny Gault were noted to have been present. Was Ted off performing his duties elsewhere, and thus unaware of certain realities??-- or did the law exercise some secretive protocol, in protecting their most sensitive info even from one of their own-- when not involving senior officers??  In having a great respect for the Hinton family-- this has been a curiosity of mine.             


With Charlie Stovall surely eliminated from consideration-- then, just who "was" the Sowers informant??  Although we may never know for sure-- 2 possibilities have been floated over the years.  Floyd Hamilton (brother of Raymond)-- thought to have accompanied the families to a number of  Bonnie & Clyde rendezvous-- and Joe Bill Francis, at that point an "almost member" of the Barrow family (reportedly engaged to Marie at the time)-- and who did accompany the families to Sowers that fateful night.  The issue in considering Floyd Hamilton-- is that to my knowledge, no one ever accused Floyd of betrayal concerning Bonnie & Clyde or their families.  However, this was not the case regarding Joe Bill Francis. 

"And" I'll throw one "wild card" into the mix-- the mysterious "Informant B" as mentioned in the Dallas Files, who was said to have met with Bill Decker of the Dallas P.D.  Little seems known about this shadowy figure, who reportedly lived within view of the Barrow filling station and residence.  I do wonder-- with the Barrow place being so small-- whether Joe Bill may have lived in that apartment at the back of the property, and been "Informant B" which could've stood for Bill??  It would be good to know where Joe Bill lived while engaged to Marie.
In sorting this out, 1st things 1st.  There's little doubt, that when info was needed-- lawmen of the 1930's in Texas "could and likely did" resort to harsh techniques to obtain it. Anyone familiar with the "Trinity Valley Confessional" as it was known perhaps even through the 1960's-- knows of what I speak.  There are living former law enforcement officers, who can verify the existence of these techniques-- which included having those from whom they wanted info, stand in the Trinity River while electrodes were attached to their testicles and then to a car battery.  Well, you can imagine the rest.  "Talk or else".  Plus of course, there could've been threats made involving jail time or bodily harm involving loved ones etc.-- or simply the promise of reward, either monetary or goods related in return for information.  But when the law wants info from a "criminal about a criminal", the game changes-- for the law has a unique form of leverage then.  With that established, it's here-- we begin scrutiny of Joe Bill Francis.

Some initial thoughts.  Joe Bill Francis was young, had previous dealings with the law and was involved to the point of engagement with Clyde Barrow's sister Marie.  Did that make him a good candidate for the law to "squeeze" for info??  I would think for most lawmen, he might be the 1st and best choice.  Joe Bill had the trust of the Barrow family-- and was in position to know the upcoming whereabouts of Bonnie & Clyde, when secret family meetings were planned.


Let's 1st lay out the personal accusations made by Barrow and Parker family members who were closest to the betrayal at Sowers.  Quite candidly, Marie Barrow had 2 suspects-- Bonnie's sister Billie and Joe Bill Francis, whom she had been engaged to at the time of Sowers.  Marie later married Joe Bill-- and placed the onus of suspicion on both Joe Bill and Billie in "Marie style" later in life.  Billie Jean on the other hand made no bones of having just one suspect.  Within her unpublished manuscript-- Clint Kelly who wrote the forward for her never published book, said the only man Billie really hates-- is the former friend who drove the car on that windy night near Sowers.  Billie's quote concerning this individual was "that man sold them out for a used car and a few dollars.  His only motive was profit.  He didn't have a son to save like Mr. Methvin did." 
Although Billie doesn't identify this man by name-- in knowing from family members that Joe Bill drove the families that night-- it's clear Billie was referring to Joe Bill Francis.  So although some misgivings between Marie and Billie, may have contributed to Marie's mistrust of Billie-- from the family's viewpoint, both Marie (who knew Joe Bill intimately)-- and Billie who knew Joe Bill as more than just an acquaintance, but as a Barrow family member as well-- finger Joe Bill.  Damning enough evidence??  Perhaps not iron-clad, but quite telling-- in that those who knew Joe Bill "at the time" (very important vs knowing him decades later)-- both accuse him of betrayal.

Concerning Billie-- I don't know anyone connected to the families or who knew Billie personally, who would think Billie could deliberately setup her beloved sister Bonnie for death, as well as place her own mother and the Barrows at risk.  I believe that too long a stretch-- to find Billie a credible suspect as the Sowers Informant.  There seems no logic or objective evidence within this history-- to support Billie being anything other than than "true-blue" to her sister Bonnie and to Clyde.  For she was uniquely trusted by both.  This trust was perhaps never more evident, than concerning Bonnie after Wellington.  There would've been a myriad of chances for Billie to betray Bonnie & Clyde (especially at that most vulnerable moment)-- in having run with them, "and" having participated in numerous joint meetings with them clandestinely.  Marie may not have always seen eye to eye with Billie-- but I don't buy her accusation of Billie Jean.  Thus to me-- that leaves Joe Bill as the prime suspect from the families' perspective.

As an aside-- to me, Billie's recollection of the Sowers Ambush was quite telling-- in also revealing a contradictory assessment of the lawman's firepower and number of officers present that night.  Billie's quote was "The newspapers said the next day that six officers were involved in the ambush.  But when the air cleared, I counted at least 25 cops-- city, county and state.  There never was a time when six cops would attempt to capture Bonnie & Clyde, even from ambush." 


A careful read of Dallas file 26-4114, reveals a wealth of former unknowns concerning this history-- including important revelations concerning Sowers.  But is there a "smoking gun" concerning Joe Bill and the Sowers Ambush??  
I think there is-- so let's take a look.

Although at least one Francis family member feels I invented this-- perhaps they might choose to thank or blame the FBI for preserving this document.  This internal Bureau of Investigation memo dated February 6th, 1934 is from Acting Dallas Special Agent in Charge D. L. McCormack to Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover in Washington.  It concerns the fingerprints of Joe Bill Francis.  My questions, concerning this most remarkable piece of correspondence have always been simple ones.  "Why" all the secrecy concerning Joe Bill Francis"??  "Why" is Hoover himself asked to assure Bureau confidentiality concerning Joe Bill??  To my knowledge-- this element of stealth wasn't employed for "any" other Bonnie & Clyde related person, gang member or associate.  So "why" Joe Bill??  What made him so special in the eyes of the Feds, that he warranted secrecy supported by Hoover himself?? 

I caught flack from some the 1st time I made this point-- but I wholeheartedly make it again.  In terms of Bonnie & Clyde History-- Joe Bill Francis was "not" an important criminal.  His thing was petty crime-- not murder, not extortion, not kidnapping-- none of that.  He was a small-time criminal of little consequence to the law-- especially when the apprehension of Bonnie & Clyde dominated much of the focus of Dallas authorities.  Or was that "exactly" the point concerning him??  If Joe Bill was the family informant situated within the Barrow family circle-- law enforcement would go to extraordinary lengths to protect that knowledge.  "Eureka!!  "That's" why I feel this particular piece of correspondence deserves special scrutiny.  I can think of no other explanation, to justify Hoover's help in assuring confidentiality concerning Joe Bill-- than to protect perhaps law enforcement's best asset, in trying to capture Bonnie & Clyde.  If someone has a better explanation for the law's protection of Joe Bill based on this memo-- let's hear it.  "Why" is the Bureau of Investigation protecting him??-- and even from the Dallas Police??  Why indeed??


Through my research into Bonnie & Clyde History-- I've worked with many family members related to numerous Bonnie & Clyde events.  In most every instance-- these fine folks have been helpful, courteous, generous and wonderfully giving of themselves, their knowledge and family resources-- to aid this challenging history.  Concerning Joe Bill Francis and Sowers, I have been approached by members of the Francis family.  One in particular, David Hale (Joe's grandson)-- was quite kind, in sharing info he knew concerning Joe Bill-- which showed him to be an exemplary father, soldier and grandfather.  More recently, a Francis family member has done her best to curse and fuss her way about the Internet-- badmouthing me and trying without defense, to defend Joe Bill from my "outlandish" accusations. 

But alas, Joe Bill having been the Sowers Informant wasn't my idea.  He's been thought by most knowledgeable Bonnie & Clyde Historians, authors and those closest to Bonnie & Clyde-- to have been the informant for decades.  Fortunately, what people do in their early lives-- doesn't always resemble their seasoned character in later life.  This may have been the case with Joe Bill.  For the record-- in having asked respected Bonnie & Clyde authors who knew and interviewed Marie, Billie and Floyd Hamilton within their Bonnie & Clyde research-- there's little doubt who the Sowers Informant was. 

Also for the record-- I have invited this latest Francis relative (despite her displeasure with me)-- to contact me via e-mail, to please explain her staunch defense of Joe Bill.  I have offered her a forum to do so.  I only ask  that "evidence" not just family pride be presented please-- including any statements known to have been made by Joe Bill concerning Sowers, to help provide a meaningful and just addendum to Bonnie & Clyde History.  Also, that scurrilous trash talk be discontinued-- as a condition of providing a serious forum in Joe Bill's defense.  I'm not sure this devotee of Joe Bill's, understands that crude language without substance won't fly here-- and only hurts the credibility of she who curses with reckless abandon, as if training for the Cursing Olympics. 

A better tact in dealing with me concerning Joe Bill-- would be for polite contact, along with the revelation of previously unknown Joe Bill quotes (as close to 1st hand as possible) or better yet, Joe Bill comments concerning Sowers in written form (maybe he kept a diary??)-- or perhaps home movies or an audio tape exists of a conversation held concerning this,
or even a deathbed confession-- that sort of thing. "Something"-- to explain his position regarding Sowers.  You know, when exploring this history-- sometimes it's remarkable how revelations surface.     

No Bonnie & Clyde Historian or author I am aware of-- knows of any defense ever offered by Joe Bill concerning Sowers.  So what is the case "for" Joe Bill??  Apparently, that he would never do such a thing.  An adequate defense??  Perhaps from a family perspective, without the advantage of knowing Joe Bill as a younger man-- but hardly a viable one from an historical viewpoint. 

Funny thing about Bonnie & Clyde History-- almost no one who lived it, seemed to like recalling it.  For those were bad times, survived by many who felt trapped by The Great Depression and it's untenable consequences.  People then, did things human beings under less pressure would never do.  Some lived those uniquely "hard times" in a manner not befitting conscience.  But once away from those times-- many went on to live fulfilling lives, with some form of path-- to clear their hearts, minds and consciences of that bitter taste left by the Depression years.

The pic above, shows the Google Maps street view of the once  more desolate Sowers ambush location-- (the intersection of Esters Road and Texas Hwy 183) as it is today.  Built in 1939-- this stretch of road serves as the Southern entrance to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.  As Sowers no longer exists-- the ambush spot is now part of Fort Worth. 

Rather than wrap up this post with any sort of recap-- I'd prefer to post the e-mail sent to me by David Hale, to tell those interested in Bonnie & Clyde History-- more about a man who apparently lived his life differently after the '30's than within them.  Differently-- than just a Sowers ambush protagonist within Bonnie & Clyde History.  My sincere thanks to David Hale, for reaching out and providing a refreshing and much needed boost-- to what little is known concerning Joe Bill Francis.  BTW-- there was never a follow-up e-mail concerning that Joe Bill, Bonnie & Clyde info.  Would love to hear from you again David-- if you're so willing.


I will gladly tell you of the man that I knew. He did not tell me much about B & C, I will tell you the few stories that he did relate. He kept most of that time of his life private from me and my family. He once told me that he wasn't very proud of that part of his life. The Joe Francis that I grew up with was a warm, gentle, caring, family man. My Grandmother, Burldene Pepper, was his second wife. They had one child, my mother Jeanine Francis. He later married Marine who he stayed married to untill he died. They had two sons, Michael and Jerry Francis. He has 4 grandchildren including myself. 

Joe served in the Marines in WWII in the south Pacific fighting the Japanese. He kept most of that private as most soldiers of wartime do. His favorite hangout was the VFW. After the war I know he worked as a truck driver for many years. Later in life he worked for his sisters' office and printing supply company. He lived in and around Dallas all of my life. His last residence was in Duncanville. He died of natural causes in his 70's. He is buried in the Laural Land cemetery in Dallas. My time today is short but I will be happy to write more later including what I of his times, although brief, with B&C.

P.S. Feel free to use any info


Cindy said...

Sowers ambush site is part of Irving, not Fort Worth.

Nonetheless, excellent blog. I could spend eternity here. :)

A. Winston Woodward said...

"Many thanks" Cindy.

Melissa Penrod said...

Cursing and trash talk never goes very far to make one appear knowledgeable or even credible. I have read many accounts of the ambush and almost every one of them has named Joe Bill Francis as the culprit. There is no way I would ever believe it was Billie. I read a statement she made once that said if she could have gotten Bonnie away from Clyde she may have set him up to save Bonnie. Although after the wreck she had opportunity and didn't. We know it wasn't the parents. That leaves Marie and Joe Bill(whom she later married). I don't believe Marie would have went along with it but maybe she felt guilty that she brought him in to the fold and married him afterwards and tried to deflect guilt on to Billie.