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Take Five: Bill Lhotka, author of 'Crime Chronicles'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 3, 2009 - "A blended family that didn't meld, adultery, divorce, threats, dueling lawsuits, stealing, and finally a murder, a trial, a plea for mercy, and an execution."

That may sound like a case ripped from the headlines, and in a way it was -- the headlines of 1809, in the case of John Long, the first convicted murderer in St. Louis.

His story is just one of many -- some familiar, some startling, some obscure -- that fill the pages of the new book "St. Louis Crime Chronicles: The First 200 years, 1764-1964," by long-time Post-Dispatch reporter Bill Lhotka.

The tales of murder, mayhem and more -- some just a few paragraphs, others going on for several pages -- include criminals with great nicknames, like Pretty Boy Floyd or the Little Chloroformer. They also include people that you would not expect to see in a book on crime, like Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Hart Benton.

A history buff, Lhotka spent a lot of time researching the book in the microfilm records at the St. Louis County Library headquarters in Frontenac and at the Missouri History Museum. He was familiar with a lot of the more notorious crimes and criminals who have played key roles in local history, but some of the cases surprised him.

What was the favorite case that you put into the book?

Lhotka: My favorite is an unknown case, the arson trust from 1915, which may be the first wiretap in St. Louis history. A group of arsonists were burning down buildings for profit in the downtown area. A white-haired detective named Bart Keaney worked undercover for many years and got to know the front man for the arson ring. He had lunch with him every day; they shot pool together.

The police wondered how to catch these guys and decided to put a wardrobe in the office of Joe C. Christen, who had been approached about burning a building down but was working with the police. They put up a partition next to the wardrobe, and behind there were Keaney, two other detectives, a stenographer and a dictograph machine that could record the conversation. They heard talk about increasing the insurance coverage and how much money they would make.

They set up a sting for a Saturday afternoon in September, and when all the torches rolled in on a wagon, they were arrested on the spot by Keaney and his fellow detectives. They later found out that about 70 percent of all the commercial fires over a two-year period were thought to be done with this ring.

How did the newspaper coverage of crime from back then compare with coverage today?

Lhotka: I found sensationalism increased toward the end of the 19th century, when the writing became more purple. It was harder to separate out the facts then. They would get into political invective.

In the case of John Cockrell, the managing editor of the Post-Dispatch who shot and killed a man in the newsroom in 1882, you had one of the most prominent people in town, if not the most prominent. The Post coverage was exceptionally defensive. I found the Globe-Democrat did it in a very straightforward way. They talked to both sides and it was just the facts, ma'am.

You were personally involved in one of the highest-profile cases in St. Louis County in recent years, where Kenneth Baumruk shot and killed his wife in the courthouse.

Lhotka: In May 1992, I was on the fourth floor covering an assault trial involving Jennings police when I was told by someone outside the courtroom there had been an altercation down on the second floor. I went down on the elevator and saw a man with two guns walking across the hall toward me, stealthily toward the main lobby. I put my arms out to stop anyone else from getting off the elevator, got six steps down the stairwell and heard gunshots. He had wounded a security guard and was then shot and wounded by the police who had been involved in the Jennings trial.

After the shooting, I went into the courtroom and up to the judge's bench. Baumruk's wife was still slumped in her seat, where she had been shot. I went through the file to find out who these people were. I was sitting in Judge Sam Hais' chair and a Clayton police office came up to me and said, "This is really terrible, isn't it, Your Honor?" I just kind of mumbled. Then a security guard came in and told me to get the hell out of there.

I later found out that wasn't the first shooting at the county courthouse; there had been one a century before.

Why did you choose not to include any more recent cases in the book?

Lhotka: It would have been fun to write. I originally planned on doing some of that, but then I decided I would limit it to more historical cases. I covered many of the trials that took place in the past 20 years, either the trials or the cases, and I didn't want to get that involved again emotionally in some of those issues. Also, I did not want to get the people who had gone through all of that emotionally involved either, both the victims and the families of the criminals.

How does it compare to write for a daily newspaper or website and to write a book? Do you think there will be a sequel?

Lhotka: I miss daily journalism -- the daily happenings, covering the courthouse, visiting people throughout the day, dealing with various reporters and editors -- mostly reporters, some editors -- and calling in deadline stories. Fortunately, I was on a deadline with this book, from February to June 1, three and a half months. Without a deadline, I never would have gotten the book written. I missed the deadline by about four days.

I have been thinking about a second book, St. Louis Scandals, about things like the bank fraud of 1819, election frauds of the 1880s, that sort of thing. That would be a possible sequel.