LONG RIDE TO THE RIDGE

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LONG RIDE TO THE RIDGE

by DM Testa

 

On a warm Tuesday in September, a row of eight automobiles sat glittering in the sunlight. Brightly shined, they would make up the funeral procession headed to the east side of town. People had been gathering for this event since Sunday when the funeral home allowed many of them in to view the body. Later that same day, the doors had to be closed because the building couldn’t handle the numbers who showed up. By Tuesday hundreds stood waiting patiently outside. The crowd was made up mostly of curiosity seekers, who pushed and elbowed each other for a quick glance of the dozen or so mourners entering the Purnell Funeral Home. Although temperatures hovered in the high seventies, all of the windows were shut with the shades tightly drawn.

Bored because there was little to see, children began playing tag around the parked cars while vendors did a brisk business despite being caught in the middle of the Depression. Although family and friends tried keeping the burial plans secret, they were getting little cooperation. A cousin had already attempted to claim the body. She announced to the press that the deceased’s family “had shown little interest in him during his life” and declared she would contest their arrangements. Hoping to catch a little of the family drama happening inside, several photographers had already been ejected for trying to sneak past.

Inside the home, a small group grieved quietly, trying to ignore the commotion out on the street. Most in attendance had grown up with the man. His two sisters wept softly as the pastor began the private services. No one could really understand how things ended up this way because Charles Makely had always been a likable person. Granted he had been in and out of trouble most of his adult life but despite public opinion, it seemed to most in the room that his major sin was being an associate of the late John Dillinger.

The connection was ironic. Although he had the reputation of being a smooth talker with a suitcase full of aliases, Charles Makley never really looked the part of the fast-moving Dillinger crowd.

Older than the rest by at least ten years, the short, stocky gangster walked with a slight limp. His time spent in prison hadn’t been kind. Makley aged considerably, developing jowls, and acquiring the dubious nickname, “Fat Charley” from the law. Many wrote him off as just another Dillinger foot soldier. 

But looks can be deceiving. Before meeting up with John Dillinger, Makley had been the leader of his own gang, stealing from banks in Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri. In fact his string of bank robberies was the longest of any member of the Dillinger gang, covering close to ten years. And according to Charley’s calculations, this successful stretch didn’t even include the times he tried to go straight.  

During his short run with Dillinger, Makley operated the way he had in the past; acting the part of a respectable business man just trying to get by. His silver-rimmed reading glasses made the claim all the more believable. However, one of the few temptations, he did indulge in was a nice set of wheels.

His last automobile was a dark blue Studebaker, a medium priced automobile but not the high-powered getaway car of choice for most gangsters. Familiar enough with the reputable Studebaker name, Makley stuck with what he knew; making sure his car wasn’t too flashy so he could still blend in if need be. This was typical of the way he kept up appearances. Others in the gang might take more chances, staying just one step ahead of the law while Makley played it safe.

But the day came when Makley finally forgot his own advice. Instead of staying with the “average Joe” persona that worked so well in the past, he decided to become a rich playboy. When captured by police in Tucson, the freshly minted high stepper was out on a date with a local lounge singer.

Makley’s easy arrest came because he was unarmed. Perhaps he didn’t want to upset his new lady friend by trying to explain just why a playboy needed an automatic tucked away in his pocket. Maybe he should have made the attempt since this rare lapse in judgment left Makley with only his gift for gab when the law arrived. Despite trying to bluff his way out, the cops didn’t buy any of Makley’s lines. So he was summarily whisked away to the local jail. Wearing white flannel trousers and a navy sports coat while being cuffed, Charles Makley didn’t match the image of a bloodthirsty gun-toting outlaw that the press had portrayed.

And that’s how it seemed to be for him, never quite fitting in with other people’s expectations. Although Makley acknowledged some of his criminal activities, there was another side he rarely mentioned, which contradicted his public image.

 The oldest in a family of five from St. Marys, Ohio; Makley was either the step or half-sibling to five brothers and sisters. Oral history suggests that he may have been a foster child. Charles’ stepmother divorced after her last child was born, leaving him to help raise the younger siblings. The added responsibility made school a luxury not a necessity so as the eldest son, he dropped out to work as an apprentice.

Soon he found that city living offered more ways to make money than the family farm ever had. And he didn’t mind that some of these opportunities were outside the law. Makley scheduled petty thievery around working odd jobs. Within several years, business was booming. Criminal activities had taken over much of his life.

However it seems that Makley wasn’t completely satisfied with a life of crime. When he became the prime suspect in the 1919 holdup of the Peoples Savings Bank in New Knoxville, Ohio, Charles Makley got the impetus to try going straight.

Leaving the area, Makley changed his name in attempt to make a new start. When Prohibition started in 1920, he had landed in Chicago with a new wife and new occupation. Now he was known as Charles W. McGray, working as a trainman with an elevated railway company. His wife, Anna, joined the booming post-war work force as well, holding a position as an entry clerk. 

Years later, Makley reminisced to reporters about this period in his life, asserting that he had “decided to quit crime but the bulls wouldn’t let him.”

Whatever the actual reasons were, Charles Makley soon left his wife and Chicago behind. He began roaming the Midwest as a traveling salesman, adding various scams to his bag of tricks. Finally, Makley decided that things had cooled down enough for a return visit to his hometown of St. Marys.  

 In keeping with his habit of having friends and family close by, Charles Makley settled in with his youngest brother’s family. Fred Makley was eleven years younger than Charles. Recently married, he and his wife, Edith, were the parents of a baby girl. Charles arrived shortly after the baby and wasted no time in making himself at home. The change of address did nothing to curtail his ongoing criminal endeavors, which now included some of his old friends from the St. Mary’s area.

Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, Makley put together a new gang, keeping some of his trusted buddies from St. Marys and recruiting others. By the fall of 1925, the outlaws began hitting banks in Missouri. By the following year, they had branched out to Indiana and Ohio. As things began to heat up in Kansas City, the gang relocated to Hammond, Indiana, hometown of one of the members. Charles Makley once more changed his alias, this time becoming Albert Owens.

By now his band of outlaws had expanded to eight men and two women. The first half of 1928 would witness a flurry of robberies as this group terrorized even more banks. Frustrated authorities in Ohio and Indiana were unable to discover the true identities of the slippery thieves. Some officials gave up on ever catching them.

It was a difficult task since the outlaws were careful not to pull any local jobs. Many led double lives. Charles, himself, would still work the occasional odd job just to keep up appearances. And if the robbers’ true identities were deceiving then the most surprising of all had to be that of his sister-in-law.

When Charles Makley set down roots in Hammond, Edith decided to join him, taking her small daughter along with her. She adopted the alias, Edith Owens and became a full-fledged member of Charles’ crew.

The robbery business was going well until a Hammond police detective by the name of Beasley happened to overhear one of the gang members boast of pulling a $25,000.00 stick-up in Kansas City. Beasley began to suspect that there was more to this than simple hot air since one of Hammond’s residents had his car stolen recently. What made things even more interesting was the fact that this stolen auto had been recently used in a bank robbery at Linn Grove in nearby Adams County. Afterwards, the car had been found abandoned forty miles away. Detective Beasley put two and two together. He and the rest of the force suspected that there was a group of bank robbers working out of Hammond. They began tailing some of the gang members.

In the meantime, bank detectives over the past few years guessed that Charles Makley was involved in several of the Ohio robberies. But since he had left St. Marys, they couldn’t track him down.

A break finally came when a distraught Fred Makley told one of the detectives that his wife and daughter had moved out. He explained how Edith still stayed in touch but he thought that she had joined Charles in Indiana. Her next letter to Fred was intercepted. The Ohio bank detectives didn’t waste much time comparing notes with the Hammond police before they decided to act. Edith’s return address was used to round up the entire gang, including the elusive Charles Makley.

Almost as soon as she was arrested, the common-law wife of one of gang members confessed to bank robberies in Ferguson, Fetus and Kansas City, in Missouri; Lynn Grove, and Portland, in Indiana; and Chickasaw, Ansonia, and St Henry, in Ohio. Faced with her detailed testimony, several of the other outlaws also admitted to one or more of the hold-ups. 

Some members stood trial in Ohio while Charles and Edith remained jailed in Indiana. Evidently Makley felt responsible for his sister-in-law’s predicament because he agreed to plead guilty to the Linn Grove, Indiana bank robbery in order to get her charges reduced. The robbery was a serious one.  The court dealt severely with Makley, sending him to the State Penitentiary in Michigan City, Indiana for ten to twenty years.

His admission of guilt turned out to be more of a sacrifice for Makley than he initially realized. Even if paroled early for good behavior at Michigan City, Makley still had the threat of being tried all over again for multiple Ohio jobs hanging over his head. 

Unfortunately for the remaining members in Charles’ now defunct gang, there also wasn’t much of a happy ending. His St. Marys friends, Ed Axe, the brothers Harry and Howard “Sport” Smith, all pled guilty to various Ohio robbery charges. The three were given heavy sentences to be served at the Ohio State Penitentiary.

At the time, the outdated prison at Columbus was one of the worst in the country. Conditions were poor because over 4,500 men were packed into the old building, more than twice the number it was intended to hold. Conditions got much worse on April 21, 1930, when prisoners set the infamous Easter Monday fire as part of an escape attempt.

The candle they left in a pile of oily rags failed to ignite at dinnertime, which was when they had planned to escape. Instead the flame smoldered too long, finally erupting just after the iron gates clanged shut, caging the convicts into a six-story cellblock. The intense heat generated by the fire turned a tower of catwalks and bars into a tangle of twisted metal.

Most of the 322 inmates who died that night, succumbed from poisonous smoke given off from green lumber being used in construction scaffolding on one part of the cellblock. The rows of caskets lined up inside the prison bore silent witness to the tragedy as relatives arrived for the gruesome task of identifying remains. But many of the victims had been burned beyond recognition. Their recovered bodies were buried under anonymous tombstones. To this day, it remains America's worst prison fire.

Charles Makley learned of his friends’ grisly demise while still ensconced within the walls at Michigan City. His plea-bargaining on behalf of Edith had probably saved his own life by keeping him in Indiana. Chances were good that he might not have beaten the Ohio raps and ended up in Columbus along with his buddies. And so Makley counted himself fortunate.

Although Charles’ sister-in-law Edith had waived extradition, eventually returning to Ohio, she was able to avoid a jail term. Instead she and her daughter moved in with her parents. Shortly afterwards, her estranged husband rejoined them. In an attempt to make a fresh start, Edith changed her first name to Ledia. 

This proved to be a futile effort when in 1932, the third Makley brother, George, was accused of stealing a $56.00 barrel of sugar. Although the dollar amount was nominal, the charges were not. George Makley faced accusations of breaking and entering along with larceny.

At his trial, Fred tried to provide an alibi, testifying that George had been with him during the entire time of the robbery. This strategy backfired when George Makley was summarily found guilty. The court threw the book at him with a sentence of seven years at the now infamous Ohio State Penitentiary.         

Back in Indiana, Charles Makley, realizing he might be stuck for the rest of his life behind bars, decided that his only hope was escape. In the penitentiary, Makley kept up the same fašade that had worked so well on the outside. On paper, he looked like a model inmate, with a record of a few minor infractions. But looks could be deceiving since Makley was one of a group of prisoners, including John Dillinger, who were planning to break out. Together they cooked up a scheme, which involved bribery and smuggling guns into the prison.

In late September of 1933, their plan finally came to fruition. Ten convicts, including Charles Makley walked out the gates of Michigan City on a rainy afternoon. Quickly they split up, one group going north while the rest of the escapees including Makley eventually arrived near Cincinnati.

Desperate for money, Makley suggested that the five of them, a group of men soon to be known as the Dillinger Gang, hit the bank in his hometown of St. Marys. Although there may have been some payback involved there was a stronger motive driving the group. They needed more funds than anticipated since their fearless leader sat cooling his heels in a small county jail a little over a hundred miles away.

John Dillinger had been paroled several months before Makley and the rest escaped. Acting as their outside contact, Dillinger made arrangements and funded bribes while his buddies waited anxiously. Without his assistance, they would still be waiting. But as luck would have it, a few days before the convicts escaped, Dillinger managed to get arrested. Grateful for his help, the five escapees were eager to provide his freedom.

However, this eagerness would cause a lapse in Charles Makley’s judgment. He had lived around St. Marys a good part of his adult life. Many of the residents knew him by name. And since his escape a week earlier, a police watch was being kept for his reappearance.

But Makley couldn’t resist the temptation. Late on an October afternoon when an armed trio entered the small St. Marys bank, none bothered wearing masks. Some of the customers remembered Charles Makley, easily identifying him. The robbery went off smoothly enough that Makley decided there was time to renew old ties.

Either on the way in or out of town (depending on whose story you believe), he stopped by his brother’s home to see Fred, Edith and his niece. The visit was short, lasting only ten minutes, but evidently long enough to let Charles know that Edith would no longer be a part of his future plans.

The brazen robbery of his hometown bank would come back to haunt Makley in ways he never imagined. Irritated officials viewed his brief appearance as Makley’s way of thumbing his nose at their community.

During the next four months, Makley went from being a run of the mill bank robber to a notorious member of the Dillinger Gang. By the time of his capture in Tucson, along with John Dillinger, Harry Pierpont and Russell Clark, Makley had become a well-known celebrity courtesy of the press. Scores of reporters were eager to print anything the gangsters said. And Charles Makley, gabbiest of the group, had plenty to say.

When questioned about his past, Makley sadly recounted how he had tried to go straight but the “bulls” forced him to go bad. According to his story, he had held down a job with an elevated railway company in Chicago, managing several thousand dollars of their money without touching a red cent. But the continual “hounding” by authorities, charging him with this or that offense, caused him to return to more illegal pursuits. “I wanted to go straight but they wouldn’t let me,” he concluded with a small catch to his voice.

A few minutes later, Makley forgot his grief when asked if it were true that he had gone through El Paso, Texas a few weeks earlier. “Why, was something missing afterwards?” He laughingly answered.

Makley didn’t realize that his smart mouth would bury him even deeper. A beleaguered justice system didn’t find the man nicknamed “Fat Charley” nearly as entertaining as the general public did.  An outlaw with a sense of humor didn’t fit in with their descriptions of a cold-blooded killer who had eluded justice for so long. And so something was done about it. 

The day after his capture, a witness came forward for the first time, publicly accusing Makley of murder. The event had taken place months before. At the time of the murder, three other men were officially identified as the killers. But now Charles Makley’s newfound celebrity was about to backfire on him.

Charged with murder, he was returned to stand trial in Lima, Ohio.  There, testimony was embellished, facts changed, and some folks downright lied. The officials of Lima seemed determined to railroad Makley straight to the electric chair. Although both sisters and his youngest brother Fred loyally stood by him during the proceedings, it was a lost cause.

Herbert Youngblood, Dillinger’s partner in the Crown Point Prison break, was killed in a police shootout on the Friday of Charles Makley’s trial just as the defense rested. This late-breaking news managed to be leaked to the jury before their deliberations. It was no wonder then that the jury was unanimous on the guilty verdict on the first ballot taken.

But they did decide to sleep over on the question of mercy. The next morning, a second ballot was taken and the recommendation of mercy was turned down. It would be death by electrocution for Charles Makley.

Since this jury deliberated longer than the Pierpont jury, taking three and a half hours before coming to a decision, the length of time probably gave some faint glimmer of hope about what the verdict might be to Charles Makley.

 His two sisters, Florence Naus and Mildred Barthelemy were waiting loyally in the courtroom when guards escorted Charles in. His eyes bleary and watery, Makley sat beside his sisters as the bailiff solemnly took the jury’s verdict. The sisters tried to comfort the prisoner but when the verdict was read, they sobbed aloud and one of them threw her arms around his neck.

When he heard the verdict, Makley turned to his sisters and patted their hands with his own manacled hands. “Don’t worry,” he said, “everything will be alright.”

In Lima, no time could be wasted for a man just found guilty of murder. No comfort from concerned relatives would be allowed to happen. As soon as the verdict had been read, a deputy immediately removed the leg chains from Makley and they started back to his cell, which was by Pierpont’s.

 

What did they give you?” Pierpont inquired.

They gave me everything.” Makley replied.

 

Sentenced to die in the electric chair, Makley was sent to Columbus, Ohio, the same place his friends had perished several years earlier. Desperately, his family started the appeals process, scrambling to find any way out for Makley. These appeals were based on prejudicial events, which happened prior to and during the trials. They claimed the men were prevented from receiving fair trials.

As the Makley and Pierpont legal proceedings meandered through the system, Miss Jessie Levy, the lead defense attorney, continued to emphasize the heavy guard and the barricade around the jail as prejudicial to her clients. She declared during appeals that Pierpont and Makley were chained “to create a spectacle purely for the purpose of prejudicing the jury.” The prosecutor, Ernest Botkin, replied that if the defendants “intended to stay till the end of the trial, the shackling should have made no difference.”

While his attorneys filed their petitions, Charles Makley kept himself busy writing letters and talking to reporters. During an interview in Columbus, when asked if he still believed he would get out of the Ohio prison, Makley replied, “yes sir. That’s a cinch…feet first.” Those words would prove to be prophetic.

 As his appeal trickled through the system, the courts moved much slower than Makley liked. After six months of waiting with little progress, he decided to take matters into his own hands and borrow a page from John Dillinger’s book.

After carving a small gun out of soapstone, Charles Makley and his buddy, Harry Pierpont, attempted to bluff their way out of death row. A few feet from his cell, he was gunned down by a group of guards known as the “headhunters”. Shot in the abdomen, Makley was carried to the prison hospital where he lay untreated, dying within the hour.

Harry Pierpont was left with a bullet lodged above his left kidney. He was nursed back to health in order to take his own walk to the electric chair less than a month later.  

Upon hearing about these events, Miss Jessie Levy commented that the men had given up on appeals even though the process was still ongoing. Instead Levy felt the two men had “chosen suicide”.  

Even in death, Charles Makley never made it back home to St.Marys. Instead he was taken to Leipsic, Ohio. Rumors abounded as to why. Some thought his father wouldn’t allow the return of such a wayward son while others theorized that Makley had expressed a wish to be buried beside one of his friends. Whatever the reason, it only served to fan the public’s interest in the dead man.

For one last time family and friends gathered to show support for the man. For those who did, it was a brave effort. Many had declined making the trip in light of publicity surrounding the funeral.

But sensational headlines did nothing to discourage the throngs who arrived to watch the gangster’s coffin being lowered into the grave. At Sugar Ridge Cemetery, curious onlookers pressed against each other, eager for a glimpse.

Floral sprays lay withering in the hot sun as the brief graveside service was repeatedly delayed by interruptions. When the sermon finally started, it wasn’t based on any grim reminders that crime doesn’t pay, which most had expected to hear. As the pastor’s strong voice carried out over the grave stones to the morbid crowd, his words quieted the noisy spectators. “Tho he sinned here, in heaven the virtue of the man …

The words had a sobering effect as people slowly began to disperse. By the next day, as Makley lay quietly in his unmarked grave, only the grass trampled to dust served as a visible reminder of what had taken place. Over the years, the grass grew back while other events claimed the headlines. The number of visitors making the trip to Sugar Ridge dwindled as the names of the men who were part of the infamous Dillinger Gang faded into the past.

Although there was an official accounting that made reputations larger than life, not everyone forgot what really happened.  Stories told and retold by those who lived through those events, helped keep memories alive. Over time, some of the recollections wore down to a slender thread, yet the tales of men, who in the end were only men, remained.

Even today if you happen to stumble across certain parts of Ohio far removed from the bigger cities, local bad boys like Charles Makley are still remembered somewhat fondly with a smile and shake of the head. And if you’re lucky, the recollection might include a story or two.

If you are interested in reading a detailed account of how Charles Makley was convicted of murdering Sheriff Jesse Sarber but in all likelihood, was innocent of that crime, check out:

A Bank Robber, But No Murderer

 

 

Sources:

Fourteenth Census of the United States 1920 Population, January 3 -5, 1920, Chicago Illinois,

4 Big Bank Robberies Are Cleared, June 5, 1928, Lancaster Daily Eagle, Lancaster, Ohio

Gang of Nine Bank Robbers Confess Crimes, June 17, 1928, Coshocton Tribune, Coshocton, Ohio

Two More Members of Gang That Looted Banks Caught, June 21, 1928, Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio

Two Brothers Reunited in Prison, June 24, 1928, Coshocton Tribune, Coshocton, Ohio

St.Mary’s Woman is Held as Member of Bandit Gang, July 13, 1928, Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio

Fifteenth Census of the United States 1930 Population, January 14-15, 1930, Auglaize County, Ohio

St. Mary’s Man Faces Trial, April 5, 1932, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

Guilty Verdict is Returned by Makley Jury, April 8, 1932, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

St. Mary’s Man Draws Sentence To Prison, April 21, 1932, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

One of Four Bank Bandits is Identified, October 4, 1933, Lima News, Lima Ohio

Bank Robbery Spurs Search For Fugitives, October 4, 1933, Coshocton Tribune, Coshocton, Ohio

Bandits Get $12,050 At St. Marys Bank, October 4, 1933, Morning Republican –Findlay Courier, Findlay, Ohio

Speed Promised in Returning Dillinger; Return to Ohio Sought by Officials, January 27, 1934, Marion Star, Marion, Ohio

Arraignment of Dillinger Gangsters Postponed to Wednesday; Makley Likes Jail Fare, Content to Stay, Febuary 13, 1934, The Republican Courier, Findlay, Ohio

Arraignment of Bandits Postponed Until Today As Technical Flaw Is Found, Febuary 15, 1934, The Republican Courier, Findlay, Ohio

“Bulls” Forced Him to Go Bad Makley Holds, Febuary 15, 1934, The Republican Courier, Findlay, Ohio

Gangsters Plead Not Guilty, Febuary 16, 1934, Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio

Testimony of Fred Makley, March 16, 1934, Charles Makley trial, Lima, Ohio

Dillinger Aids Awaiting Death, Still Defiant July 9, 1934, Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio

Pierpont and Makley Discuss Dillinger, July 9, 1934, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

Sorry to Hear Dillinger’s Dead, July 23, 1934, Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio

Makley Dead, September 23, 1934, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

Makley Funeral Plans, September 24, 1934, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

Burial Plans for Makley Still Secret, September 25, 1934, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

Slain Makley Buried After Leipsic Service, September 26, 1934, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

Makley Appeal Dismissed, September 26, 1934, Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio

Makley Is Buried At Leipsic After Private Services In Mortuary, September 27, 1934, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

Slain Gangster Laid to Rest, September 27, 1934, Chronicle Telegram, Elyria, Ohio

Suicide? Why Should I, Asks Dillinger’s Pal, October 5, 1934, Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio

Three Sentenced From Auglaize-Co Paroled, March 27, 1936, Lima News, Lima, Ohio

Inside the Pen, David Lore, October 28, 1984, Columbus Dispatch, Columbus, Ohio

Bank Robbers used to hang out in Hammond – CALUMET ROOTS with Archibald McKinlay,  nwitimes.com Sunday, July 2001, 12:00AM CDT

Ohio Moments – 322 died in worst US prison fire, April 21, 2003, The Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio

St. Mary’s tied to Dillinger gang Janie Southard, August 29, 2007, The Daily Standard, Celina, Ohio 

Caught by Surprise, Kendall Wright, January 2009, Arizona Highways

 

 

Photo and Illustration Credits for Long Ride To The Ridge

  • Head Shot of Charles Makley, ACME March 12, 1934 (Author’s Collection)
  • 1934 Studebaker Sedan “Dictator” model (Author’s Collection)
  • Peoples Savings Bank, New Knoxville, Ohio, Souvenir of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Founding of New Knoxville, Ohio – July 21, 1936  
  • “Avoid Street Congestion” Arthur A. Johnson, Chicago Rapid Transit Company
  • Ohio State Penitentiary Fire, New York Times, April 29,1930
  • First National Bank, St. Mary’s Ohio, Weixelbaum, (Author’s Collection)
  • Electric Chair, Ohio State Penitentiary, Haenlein Bros. (Author’s Collection)
  • Fake Guns Made by Makley and Pierpont, ACME September 22, 1934  

 

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