Frank Stadler was a career criminal with an arrest record stretching back to 1925. On January 21, 1950, he was shot to death in Lebanon as he attempted to escape from a burglary gone bad. My father was there. I want to know what happened on that cold night 62 years ago.
My father’s State Police stories were funny and free of the harsher aspects of the job. They might involve escapades that didn’t quite work out or events that happened on patrol that were strokes of luck or kindnesses received from civilians. He did not tell stories that might have frightened us or caused us to worry, except once — he only told this story one time, when he was over 80 years of age. As best I can remember it, this is what he told me:
He was in a patrol car with two other Troopers. They were part of a team of officers following three members of a burglary ring late at night. His car arrived at a warehouse. He saw a man handcuffed to a telephone pole. A police officer was standing by him with his revolver drawn. He ordered my father and another Trooper to enter the warehouse where one of the thieves was hiding. He and his fellow Trooper drew their revolvers and entered the warehouse. At this point in the story he remarked that this was one of the times he clearly remembered unholstering his weapon and being prepared to use it. I don’t remember clearly if he said that they found the other thief. They searched the warehouse. As they were leaving they heard gunshots, the plural, gunshots. Their sight lines were blocked. They could not see what had happened. When they came out the door, the handcuffed man was shouting,”You son-of-a-bitch, you son-of-a-bitch, you shot him, you shot him.” The officer standing guard over him pistol whipped him with three or four strokes, driving him to his knees. My father looked to his left and saw a man collapsed next to another door, unmoving.
That’s what I remember of the story. I did not include anything I was not certain I had heard. There is one more fragment to this memory though. Something about that night bothered him. I think he felt that something bad had happened. He never said so, but the tone of his telling, the inward looking expression on his face, the sense of doubt he seemed to show … these were not the traits of his regular stories.
The Book has a newspaper clipping describing the story he told me, and a clipping of the photo of the thieves’ revolvers, shotgun and safe cracking tools. Using the information first gleaned from the clipping my father left behind, I’ve gone back into the archives of The Lebanon Daily News and other papers to try and bring back that night and figure out what might have happened. Twelve newspapers in eight states printed versions of this story on January 21 or 22. Police battling safe crackers and killing one of them was a story that attracted attention.
I already know that I will not be able to definitively describe what occurred. Too much time has passed; everyone who was present is either dead or his memory would be suspect because of age. The State Police Archives appear to have nothing on the matter. If reports were written, they are either held privately by The State Police, buried under other reams of reports, or they have crumbled into dust. I feel like someone whose hearing has been damaged and who is trying to listen to an intricate, detailed sequence of events in a complicated story, and then loud noises outside keep interfering with my understanding of the fragments I actually have heard. What to make of pieces of a story?
There’s another problem – even the men who were present might not have been certain about who did what and when and why. The whole affair took place after midnight. The State Police knew that they were tracking three men who might have broken into The Harrisburg Central Market on October 29, 1949 and shot and killed the night watchman. * That fact has to have influenced their actions and their perceptions of actions after they were taken, my father’s perceptions included. If I knew that men who I expected to confront before the end of the night were probably armed and may already have murdered someone, I would be hyper-alert to any potential moves on their part that could signify a threat. How would that hyper-alertness affect what I saw in darkness, in an unfamiliar building? I don’t know. What I do know is that adrenaline, confusion, gunfire, multiple participants doing things out of one’s sight and the possibility of death all contribute to what veterans of combat call ‘the fog of war’.
The fog parts long enough for these facts to emerge. My father was there. I have his story. He is mentioned in two newspaper items. Now, what took place?
This story drew page one coverage and a big headline: Safecracker Slain In Battle With Police/Nab Two Others After Gunfight; Solves Series Of Safecrackings. # A large grainy photo shows a small, bewildered looking man, Earl Firestone, one of the trio of thieves, handcuffed and standing between the DA and a County detective.
Law enforcement agencies coordinated their efforts to stop these men. “Local, State and City and County authorities” followed the suspects for hours “over icy roads” throughout Lebanon County. # “Three State Police automobiles, each equipped with car to car radio communications as well as a relay to the Lebanon State Police sub-station were used in the trail that led from Lebanon to Ephrata and then back tracked to Mt. Gretna, Lawn, and finally resulted in the three cars converging into Elizabethtown where the safecrackers were surprised in the [Breneman’s] feed mill.” **, @
The three cars, containing 13 officers from various agencies, “drove at discreet distances, always keeping their quarry in sight as the cars constantly switched in order to prevent the same car from possibly being spotted….” In constant “radio communication with each other and with … Trooper Francis Bunch, who manned the controls at the State Police headquarters, the radio-equipped cars functioned perfectly to enable the … authorities to keep their quarry in sight at all times.” **
According to this story, the three cars were close to each other at the end when they trapped the three suspects. They had the capability of instant radio communication.
The lead car finally tracked them to an Elizabethtown feed mill at 2 A.M. @@ The three men “forced a side door” * and entered the feed mill. They were “carrying a bag full of burglar tools, including jimmies to be used to “rip” the safe.” * Five minutes later “the police group” which had been following them all along, arrived at the scene. The story reports that the action broke out immediately. Let me quote this in full:
Instead of surrendering the trio made a break for freedom and opened fire with .32 and .45 caliber revolvers with which they were armed, police reported. Police exchanged shots with the fleeing trio who attempted to run from the office through a tunnel annex to the feed mill where hundreds of bags of feed were stored. Stadler was dropped, probably instantly killed with a bullet in his abdomen, while running from the office to the feed mill through the annex, police reported. Detectives Lighty and Hartman ‘caught Firestone in the office, police said, while Lenker struggled with and finally subdued Weber as he attempted to come out of the mill. About a half-dozen shots were exchanged.” *
This story appeared in the evening edition following the events of the previous early morning. If this version is accurate, my father would have arrived after everything had been settled, but remember the ‘fog of war’.
Many men and agencies were involved in this operation. Who spoke for the group as a whole? No one spokesperson seems to have been appointed. Maybe someone from each of the agencies involved had something to say. There are few direct quotes describing the action. The story seems to have been told in background, without being made attributable to one person.
A page one story in The New Castle News on January 21 reported that “the robbers were cornered … in the mill for more than 40 minutes.” Then this: “The robbers did not attempt to shoot their way out of the police trap authorities said.”^ The Chester Times reported that “the raiders said the three men were working around the office safe on the first floor with the aid of a flashlight. When the police broke down the front door, they scattered.” ^^ Stadler was shot, Weber subdued in a struggle and Firestone captured inside the mill.
In The Lebanon Daily News Story of January 23 Detective Sergeant Benjamin Lichty spoke for the record about what had transpired on January 21: “Only six shots were fired” and “although armed, the trio did not fire at police. There was no running gun battle.” Stadler was shot “when he opened the door of the feed mill in a futile effort to escape. Two .32 caliber revolvers, with which the trio were armed, have been recovered from the tunnel and warehouse at the [ ] feed mill …. A number of other Police were also summoned after Stadler was shot and Weber was captured and Firestone was still in the building.” No hail of gunfire. No exchange of shots. Some clarity is restored.
Timing is critical in understanding what happened. The 40 minute wait reported by The New Castle News is not repeated in other newspaper accounts. That waiting period seems inaccurate according to Lichty’s account of January 23 and my father’s account. However, I don’t believe that the other cars were summoned after all the action had finished. In radio communication and facing three dangerous men, I have to believe that everyone was called to the scene as soon as the lead car pulled into the feed mill and those officers saw the suspects’ car.
I am not carrying a brief for Frank Stadler. His shooting matches up to State Police regulations regarding the discharge of a weapon. The State Police Training School Lecture #31 states: He [a Trooper] may use his firearms to stop an escaping felon, providing there is no other way to effect his capture. No Pennsylvania State Policeman should fire his weapon unless he intends to hit.”2#
My father is dead. I cannot go back and ask questions in light of what I have discovered. I am attempting a kind of transubstantiation here, a conversion into my father’s eyes for that night. What did it feel like to drive those icy roads, to be in on the chase, to enter an unfamiliar building knowing that a man with a gun may materialize out of the darkness at any moment? What did he later tell my mother about that evening? One of his best friends, Trooper Anselmi, was with him. What did they talk about privately, away from the higher ups? Who shot Stadler? He would have known. Why were Weber’s injuries so severe that they were first reported as gunshot wounds and his condition at the admitting hospital listed as serious? He would have known. I want the impossible — to know what he knew, to feel what he felt, to have been there and here both.
When he told me his story, was he bothered by the pistol whipping or was there something I can’t get to that he did not reveal that had still gnawed at him decades after the event. For example, is there anything that raises questions in this account: the “arraignment [was] a surprise to the newspapermen. [The defendants] “suddenly decided to plead guilty.” They “drew penitentiary sentences in the semi-privacy of Chambers Court.” ^^^ Weber received a sentence of 8 to 16 years, Firestone, 6 to 12 years.
Facts matter. History matters. The accuracy of stories matters, but after all these years, old newspapers and my father’s story are all that remain, and thus this attempt to reconcile the two is fraught with uncertainty. Joan Didion wrote somewhere that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Sometimes those stories reinforce the ambiguous, and ephemeral nature of the past. I may yearn to know what my father’s experience had been on that January night 33 months before I was even born, but I cannot move close enough. I am left with his discomfort in telling this story. I am left with incongruities. I am left only with a ghostly apprehension.
*The Lebanon Daily News, January 23, 1950, page 1: Earl Firestone Signs Confession.
**I have not been able to track down the newspaper of origin: my father cut away the page number and newspaper heading. The story headline reads: Two-Way Radio Played Key Part In Trailing Safecracking Gang.
#The Lebanon Daily News, January 21, 1950, page 1.
@ My father remembered a warehouse. A feed mill has the same feel and physical properties.
@@ Now renamed The White Oak Mills.
^ The New Castle News, January 21, 1950: Kill Safecracker, Wound Another.
^^ The Chester Times; January 21, 1950, page 2: Ex-Convict Killed By Police During Safe Cracking Job.
2# I accessed this Training Manual at the Pennsylvania State Police Museum.
^^^The Lebanon Daily News, May 27, 1950: Firestone And Weber Get Long Prison Terms As They Plead Guilty To Burglary.