“It was pretty hard to have to face people and have them say, ‘Well anyway you have plenty of money.’ I know what they meant,” Lucy Sarber emphatically stated on October 16th, 1934. “It was decent of him to clear up this terrible thing.”
In a surprising turn of events, Lucy Sarber was giving props to Harry Pierpont just a day or so before he was sent to the electric chair for the murder of her husband, Jess Sarber. The compliment was in response to his attempts to address a nasty rumor that had started almost a year before.
The rumor? Although details varied, basically it went along these lines. Sheriff Jess Sarber had accepted money to allow John Dillinger to escape. This escape was supposed to have taken place during Dillinger’s transfer from Dayton to the Allen County jail in Lima, Ohio. When Sarber failed to make good, he was killed for the alleged double-cross two weeks later.
What Started It
It didn’t make sense to many in Lima that Jess Sarber had sent just his young son, Don and Don’s college buddy Herbert Liang along with Julius Callahan, the Allen County probation officer to pick John Dillinger up in Dayton instead of going himself.
Dayton authorities agreed. Appalled by Sarber’s lack of caution, they refused to let the group leave with Dillinger until Jess Sarber agreed to meet them in Piqua which is about halfway between Dayton and Lima.
Why the trepidation? Dayton police were afraid an attempt might be made to free John Dillinger because several suspicious characters had been seen loitering around their jail. They had good reason to be cautious. The escape from Michigan City prison by ten of Dillinger’s acquaintances had occurred just a day or two prior to the transfer.
John Dillinger was suspected of helping with the break-out. Evidence had been found on his person when arrested that indicated Dillinger was directly involved.
After a heated phone call between Dayton and Lima, a compromise was reached. Jess Sarber, along with the Lima Police Chief and four other officers hustled down to meet the group at the halfway point and escorted them back to Lima with no further incident.
But by then the damage was done. Several reporters had gotten wind of the story. It made the front page of the September 28th 1933 issue of the Lima News.
Some found it hard to believe that Jess Sarber would be so careless. People became suspicious when they read the words of Deputy Wilbur Sharp, one of two eyewitnesses who testified at the murder trials of Jess Sarber.
Still in a state of shock, Sharp had given an interview within hours after the attack. It appeared the next day (October 13, 1933) in the Lima News. Fairly straightforward, his description of events is an interesting read for several reasons, some obvious, others more circumspect.
“Why did they kill Sheriff Jess L. Sarber?”
This was the question asked a dozen times at the scene of one of Allen-Co’s major tragedies, as the minutes rolled on towards midnight Thursday ~ after a manhunt. And the question burned brightest in the mind of the loyal deputy who stood by, helpless-with four pistols leveled at his breast-as the chief law enforcement officer of the county was shot down ruthlessly.
The deputy sheriff is W.L. Sharp. The gunman is believed to be Harry Pierpont, one of 10 convicts who recently escaped from Indiana state prison at Michigan City.
“If I could have done anything to save Jess’s life, I would have done it.” Sharp said in quivering tones to a reporter, after he had returned with city and county officials, who had searched thru five counties in an effort to capture the slayers.
“I fully expected to get it as long as they were in the office,” Sharp continued. “I don’t know why they shot Jess. It looked to me like they had their minds made up to do it. It looked like he was a marked man. But why?”
“It wouldn’t have been necessary for them to have killed him. They could have overpowered him. It appeared that he reached for his gun after the big man had him covered with a .38 caliber automatic, but I don’t know.”
“Three of them walked in that door (the east entrance to the in the sheriff’s office at the residence) at 6:30 PM. I was sitting here on the davenport, and Mrs. Sarber was sitting on one side of the desk, to my left, and the sheriff on the other. Both were reading at the time.”
“The trio walked over to the corner of the desk. They were almost past me but they eyed me keenly. One of them – the big man- told the sheriff that he wanted to see one of the prisoners. ‘We’re from Michigan City prison and we want to interview Dillinger.’ He said, finally.”
“Jess asked him for his credentials. The big man stepped back on a line with the other two and drew a pistol ---an automatic. It all happened in a flash.”
“Here’s my credentials,’ the man said.”
“Just then Jess moved forward in his chair, and his right hand was just back of his left side, as tho he was reaching for his gun which was strapped to his side.”
“The big man fired and Jess fell over to his right, between his chair and the wall. I stood up, and then is when I expected to get it.”
“I told them to leave him alone-that they had him down. I can’t understand yet how I escaped the same fate. I almost felt they’d let me have it, especially when the big man’s two confederates turned on me with their guns. By this time they had picked my gun up from the desk where it had lain in front of Mrs. Sarber. She was stupefied for a time – and then she stood and protested.”
“After Jess had been wounded, the big man asked for the keys to the jail.”
“I told them I didn’t have the keys, and didn’t know where they were. I don’t know how they got the keys, whether they forced Mrs. Sarber to get them or whether they found them. But they got them and they unlocked the outside door to the residence office.”
“Before they did this, however, the big man shot toward Jess again, then turned on him and clubbed him over the head with the butt of the automatic.”
FIRES IN JAIL
“After unlocking the big wooden door, the large man, who I think is Pierpont, unlatched the inner iron door of the jail and fired a shot in the jail. He had fired two bullets in the office, one going thru the door into the large living room, and the other thru the floor where Jess lay.”
“As he fired into the jail, the big man ordered the other prisoners back. He said he wanted John, and called for him. I learned later that when Dillinger (John Dillinger) heard voices in the office, he got up from a card game with the other prisoners and grabbed his coat.”
“Looks like a ‘break’ he was quoted by one of the other prisoners, as having said.”
“After John came out, the big man and the other two forced me and Mrs. Sarber into the jail. They locked the inner door, taking that key with them, and then locked the wooden door. As soon as it was closed, I raced to the west end of the cell block, smashed a window, and called for help. I was heard after a few minutes delay and after help arrived, it was found necessary to use a blow torch to open the inner iron door. We were out then and they took him to the hospital. I don’t know how the gangsters left the building.”
Friday, October 13, 1933, The Lima News, Lima, Ohio
By the time Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley and Russell Clark arrived back in Lima, Ohio to stand trial for murder, stories about Sarber’s “double-cross” were flying around town. Sharp’s statement “It looked like he was a marked man,” seemed proof to many that Jess Sarber had been on the take.
And although the general public often has a short attention span, folks compared what Wilbur Sharp had said in that interview to his testimony at the murder trials. Originally, Sharp asserted that the “big man” had been the only one to shoot and strike Sheriff Jess Sarber. During his testimony, five months later, Sharp changed his tune, now accusing a second man, Charles Makley, also of assaulting the sheriff.
At some point Wilbur Sharp had not told the truth. Rumors spread that his contradictions were a cover up for Jess Sarber’s indiscretions.
The gossip picked up a head of steam and kept on percolating throughout that long summer. It didn’t help matters when newspapers asked Don Sarber what he thought about John Dillinger being killed in Chicago. “He deserved it. He got what was coming to him,” Sarber declared in the caption of a photo taken while standing next to the back of a car with the slogan Vote Sarber for Sheriff. Evidently not everyone agreed with his views because Don was defeated in the sheriff election three months later.
In desperation, it was finally decided to consult Harry Pierpont while there was still time. By special permission, he was interviewed by the editor of the Lima News on death row. However the clock was ticking. Only ten minutes was allotted for the questions and answers.
When asked if Jess Sarber had made any sort of arrangement with the Dillinger gang, Pierpont replied, “You may go back and say in your newspaper, that I said that I did not kill Jess Sarber.” He then continued, “But that I know he was not killed because he double-crossed anyone.”
Pierpont was smart enough to appreciate the obvious conundrum his words presented. If you believed what he said about Jess Sarber not being murdered for a double-cross then you should also believe him when he said that he was not the killer.
It wasn’t exactly the statement, the Lima News had been after so the editor pursued the matter a bit further by asking if Pierpont had ever heard John Dillinger speak about Jess Sarber entering into a deal that he had reneged on. Pierpont firmly denied hearing anything of the sort.
He then followed that up with, “From all that I heard about Jess Sarber, he was a pretty square shooter. From what I have heard, I do not think he was the kind of man who would take money from anyone.”
When the editor commented that it was a “pretty decent thing” to clear the name of the sheriff, Harry Pierpont replied that he held no grudges against Lima. “If I hadn’t been framed there, I would have been framed somewhere else. I was an escaped convict.”
As the interview was winding down, the conversation took a hard left, moving on to new territory as the editor asked, “What would you do now, Harry, after all you have been thru, if you were given a pardon and turned loose in the world?”
“What would you do?” Pierpont snapped back.
“I never have been thru what you have,” the editor replied.
Harry Pierpont paused.
“I don’t know,” he finally answered.
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