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The Barker clan kills an officer in their fruitless robbery

The Barker clan kills an officer in their fruitless robbery

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The notorious Barker gang robs a Federal Reserve mail truck in Chicago, Illinois, and kills Officer Miles Cunningham. Netting only a bunch of worthless checks, the Barkers soon returned to a crime with which they had more success—kidnapping. A few months later, the Barkers kidnapped wealthy banker Edward Bremer, demanding $200,000 in ransom.

After Kate Clark married George Barker in 1892, she gave birth to four boys: Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Freddie. Ma Barker, as Kate was known, was ostensibly responsible for discipline in the family, but she let her boys run wild. She defended her children no matter what they did, saying, “If the good people of this town don’t like my boys, then the good people know what they can do.”

All the Barker boys became involved in crime during their childhood: In 1922, Lloyd robbed a post office and received a 25-year sentence in federal prison; that same year, Arthur “Doc” Barker got a life sentence in Oklahoma for killing a night watchman, though later it would turn out that he was innocent; Freddie was next to see the insides of a holding cell after robbing a bank. While he was serving time in Kansas, Herman committed suicide in the midst of a heated gunfight with police after robbing a bank in Missouri.

Herman’s death inspired Ma Barker to pressure authorities to release her other sons, and Doc and Freddie were set free. Although popular culture has painted Ma as the gang's mastermind, historians have disputed this. Whether she was behind the gang's nefarious deeds or not, the Barkers were at the center of the Midwest’s burgeoning criminal community. When they tired of bank robberies, the Barkers tried their hand at kidnapping.

Their first victim, William Hamm, earned the gang $100,000 in ransom. Although the Bremer abduction in 1933 produced twice as much, it brought them a lot of heat from federal authorities. With the FBI on their trail, Doc and Freddie attempted plastic surgery. But this half-baked idea left them only with disfiguring scars, and Doc was captured in early 1935.

Doc, who was later killed while attempting to escape from Alcatraz in 1939, refused to talk to authorities, but police found papers in his hideout that led them to Ma and Freddie in Lake Weir, Florida. After a ferocious shootout lasting 45 minutes, the Barkers lay dead from the fusillade, machine guns still at their sides.

Twelve years later, Lloyd Barker was finally paroled. He too met a violent demise, but not at the hands of the police—his wife shot him dead in 1949. Father George Barker, who was never part of the Barker gang, was the family’s sole survivor.

Arthur Barker

Arthur R. Barker (June 4, 1899 – January 13, 1939) was an American criminal, the son of Ma Barker and a member of the Barker-Karpis gang, founded by his brother Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis. Generally known as "Doc", Barker was typically called on for violent action, while Fred and Karpis planned the gang's crimes. He was arrested and convicted of kidnapping in 1935. Sent to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in 1936, he was killed three years later while attempting to escape from the Rock.

Barker is described by one writer as "a dimwit and a drunk", who was little more than a brutal thug. [3] However, fellow Alcatraz inmate Henri Young said of him that he was "determined and ruthless, and that once he started on anything nothing could stop him but death."


Barker was born Arizona Clark in Ash Grove, Missouri, the daughter of John and Emaline (Parker) Clark her family called her "Arrie." In 1892, she married George Barker in Lawrence County, Missouri, and the couple had four sons: Herman (1893–1927), Lloyd (1897–1949), Arthur (1899–1939), and Fred (1901–1935). The 1910 to 1930 censuses and the Tulsa City Directories from 1916 to 1928 show that George Barker worked in a variety of generally low-skilled jobs. From 1916 to 1919, he was at the Crystal Springs Water Co. In the 1920s, he was employed as a farmer, watchman, station engineer, and clerk. An FBI document describes him as "shiftless" and says the Barkers paid no attention to their sons' education, and they were all "more or less illiterate". [1]

Barker's sons committed crimes as early as 1910, when Herman was arrested for highway robbery after running over a child in the getaway car. Over the next few years, Herman and his brothers were repeatedly involved in crimes of increasing seriousness, including robbery and murder. They were inducted into major crime by the Central Park gang. Herman died on August 29, 1927 in Wichita, Kansas, after a robbery and confrontation with police that left one officer dead. He shot the officer at point blank range in the mouth. He killed himself to avoid prosecution when he was seriously wounded after crashing his car. In 1928, Lloyd Barker was incarcerated in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, Arthur "Doc" Barker was in the Oklahoma State Prison, and Fred was in the Kansas State Prison.

George is last listed living with his wife in the 1928 Tulsa city directory. Either she threw him out, as some say, or he left when life became intolerable with his criminal family. According to writer Miriam Allen deFord, George "gave up completely and quietly removed himself from the scene" after Herman's death and the imprisonment of his other sons. [2] The FBI claimed that George left Ma because she had become "loose in her moral life" and was "having outside dates with other men". They noted that George was not a criminal, but he was willing to profit from his sons' crimes after their deaths by claiming their assets as next of kin. [1] However, a family friend recalled that the couple argued about their children's "dissolute life". Arrie "countenanced their wrongdoings" while George refused to accept them. The crunch came when George refused to support Lloyd after his arrest, insisting that he should be punished for his crime. Arrie did everything that she could to get her sons off, no matter what they had done. [3]

From 1928 to 1930, Ma lived in "miserable poverty" in a "dirt-floor shack" with no husband and no job, while all her sons were in jail. This may have been when she became "loose" with local men, as the FBI suggested. [3] By 1930, she was living with a jobless man named Arthur W. Dunlop (sometimes spelled "Dunlap"). She is described as his wife on the 1930 census of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Things improved for her in 1931 after her son Fred was released from jail. He joined former prison-mate Alvin Karpis to form the Barker-Karpis gang. After a series of robberies, Fred and Karpis killed Sheriff C. Roy Kelly in West Plains, Missouri on December 19, 1931, an act that forced them to flee the territory. Ma and Dunlop traveled with them, using various false names during their itinerant crime career. A wanted poster issued at this time offered $100 reward for the capture of "Old Lady Arrie Barker" as an accomplice. [4] After this, she was usually known to gang members as "Kate".

Arthur was released from prison in 1932 and joined Fred and Karpis, and the core gang was supplemented by other criminal associates. The gang moved to Chicago but decided to leave because Karpis did not want to work for Al Capone. Racketeer Jack Peifer suggested that they move to St. Paul, Minnesota which had a reputation at the time as a haven for wanted criminals. [4] The Barker-Karpis gang's most infamous crimes were committed after the move to St. Paul, during their residency in a string of rented houses. The gang operated under the protection of St. Paul's police chief Thomas "Big Tom" Brown, and they went from being bank robbers to kidnappers under his guidance. [5]

Ma's common-law husband Arthur Dunlop was said to be loose-lipped when drunk, and he was not trusted by members of the gang Karpis described him as a "pain in the ass". [6] While at one hideout, a resident identified the gang from photographs in True Detective magazine and told the police, but Chief Brown tipped them off and they escaped. The gang apparently believed that Dunlop's loose lips had given them away, and they murdered him while traveling. His naked body was found near Webster, Wisconsin with a single bullet wound to the head. [6] Chief Brown's involvement in the gang's escape could not be proven, but he was demoted to the rank of detective and was later dismissed from the police force altogether. [7]

The gang relocated to Menomonie, Wisconsin, and Fred Barker hid Ma in a variety of hotels and hideouts during their stay there. The purpose was to keep her from learning much about the gang's crimes, as well as to separate her from their girlfriends, with whom she did not get along. The FBI later claimed that she would try to break up any relationships, so that "other women in the gang" did their best to avoid her. [6] By 1933, most of the gang were back in St. Paul where they carried out two kidnappings of wealthy businessmen. They obtained $100,000 in ransom by abducting William Hamm, then arranged the kidnapping of Edward Bremer which netted them a $200,000 ransom. The FBI first connected the gang to the William Hamm kidnapping by using a new method of latent fingerprint identification. [8] The gang decided to leave St. Paul with the FBI on the case and without Tom Brown supplying information they moved to the Chicago area, renting apartments for Ma while they tried to launder the ransom. [9]

FBI agents discovered the hideout of Barker and her son Fred after Arthur was arrested in Chicago on January 8, 1935. A map found in his possession indicated that other gang members were in Ocklawaha, Florida. The FBI soon located the house where the gang was staying after identifying references to a local restaurant named "Gator Joe", who had a taste for gangsters, but not for cops, mentioned in a letter sent to Doc. They had rented the property under the pseudonym "Blackburn", claiming to be a mother and sons wanting to vacation in a country retreat.

Agents surrounded the house at 13250 East Highway C-25 on the morning of January 16, 1935. The FBI were not aware that Karpis and other gang members had left three days before, leaving only Fred and Ma in the house. The agents ordered them to surrender, but Fred opened fire both he and his mother were killed by federal agents after an intense, hours-long shootout. Allegedly, many local people came to watch the events unfolding, even holding picnics during the gunfire. [10] Gunfire from the house finally stopped, and the FBI ordered local estate handyman Willie Woodbury to enter the house wearing a bulletproof vest. Woodbury reported that there was no one inside alive. [ citation needed ]

Both bodies were found in the same front bedroom. Fred's body was riddled with bullets, but Ma appeared to have died from a single bullet wound. [10] According to the FBI's account, a Tommy gun was found lying in her hands. [11] Other sources say that it was lying between the bodies of Ma and Fred. [12] Their bodies were put on public display, and then stored unclaimed until October 1, 1935, when relatives had them buried at Williams Timberhill Cemetery in Welch, Oklahoma, next to the body of Herman Barker. [13]

The popular image of Ma as the gang's leader and its criminal mastermind is often portrayed in films such as Ma Barker's Killer Brood (1960), Bloody Mama (1970), and Public Enemies (1996). However, this is widely regarded by historians as fictitious, and some have been skeptical that she participated in the shoot-out in which she died. [11] Karpis has suggested that the story was encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover [14] and his fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to justify his agents' killing an old woman. [15] After her death, Hoover claimed that Ma Barker was "the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade". [6] He also claimed that she enjoyed the lifestyle that was the fruit of her sons' crimes and supposedly had a string of lovers. [6]

Ma Barker's children were murderers and their Barker–Karpis gang committed a spree of robberies, kidnappings, and other crimes between 1931 and 1935, but there is no conclusive proof that Ma was their leader. [6] She certainly knew of the gang's activities and even helped them before and after they committed their crimes, and this made her an accomplice, but there is no evidence that she was involved in planning them. Her role was in taking care of gang members, who often sent her to the movies while they committed crimes. [6] According to Claire Bond Potter, "Her age and apparent respectability permitted the gang to hide out 'disguised' as a family. As 'Mrs. Hunter' and 'Mrs. Anderson', she rented houses, paid bills, shopped, and did household errands." [4] Alvin Karpis was probably the real leader of the gang, and he later said that Ma was just "an old-fashioned homebody from the Ozarks… superstitious, gullible, simple, cantankerous and, well, generally law abiding". [6] He concluded:

The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang…. She wasn't a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself. There is not one police photograph of her or set of fingerprints taken while she was alive… she knew we were criminals but her participation in our careers was limited to one function: when we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent? [16]

This view of Ma Barker is corroborated by notorious bank robber Harvey Bailey, who knew the Barkers well. He observed in his autobiography that Ma Barker "couldn't plan breakfast" let alone a criminal enterprise. [6] Writer Tim Mahoney argues that the real force behind the gang was the corrupt St. Paul law-enforcement system, especially under Police Chief Tom Brown. Before they met him, the gang were nothing more than a "bumbling band of hillbilly burglars" who would have been captured or killed long before becoming nationally notorious. "Had the Barker gang never come under Brown's protection, Ma Barker might have died lonesome in the Ozarks, an impoverished obscure widow." [17]

Barker/Karpis Gang

Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and his Barker brother sidekicks robbed banks and trains and engineered two major kidnappings of rich business executives in the 1930s.

The Hamm Kidnapping

On a warm summer evening in 1933, William A. Hamm, Jr., President of the Theodore Hamm Brewing Company, was working at his office in St. Paul, Minnesota. He had just exited the building when he was grabbed by four shadowed figures and pushed into the back of a car. What he didn't know was that he had been kidnapped by members of the Barker/Karpis gang, for a ransom of over $100,000.

Hamm was taken to Wisconsin, where he was forced to sign four ransom notes. Then he was moved to a hideout in Bensenville, Illinois, were he was held prisoner until the kidnappers had been paid. Once the money was handed over, Hamm was released near Wyoming, Minnesota. The plan was perfect and went off without a hitch. almost.

On September 6, 1933, using a then state-of-the-art technology now called latent fingerprint identification, the FBI Laboratory raised incriminating fingerprints from surfaces that couldn't be dusted for prints. Alvin Karpis, "Doc" Barker, Charles Fitzgerald, and the other members of the gang had gotten away, but they'd left their fingerprints behind—all over the ransom notes.

The Silver Nitrate Method and its application in the Hamm Kidnapping was the first time it was used successfully to extract latent prints from forensic evidence. Scientists had just thought to take advantage of the fact that unseen fingerprints contain perspiration, chock full of sodium chloride (common table salt). By painting the evidence, in this case the ransom notes, with a silver nitrate solution, the salty perspiration reacted chemically to form silver chloride—which is white and visible to the naked eye. There they were: hard evidence that the Karpis gang was behind the kidnapping.  

The Bremer Kidnapping

The second kidnapping of the Barker/Karpis gang targeted a wealthy banker named Edward George Bremer, Jr., who was snatched in St. Paul, Minnesota on January 17, 1934. Bremer was released three weeks later after his family paid $200,000 in ransom. Although he couldn’t identify the culprits, Bremer provided many clues. A key break came when the fingerprint of Arthur “Doc” or “Dock” Barker, a known criminal, turned up on an empty gas can found by a local police officer along the kidnapping route. Soon, a number of Barker’s confederates—including his brother Fred, Karpis, Harry Campbell, Fred Goetz, Russell Gibson, Volney Davis, and others—were linked to the crime.

The Barker clan kills an officer in their fruitless robbery - HISTORY

Born Arizona Donnie Clark (October 8, 1873 &ndash January 16, 1935), Kate &ldquoMa&rdquo Barker was the mother of several criminals who ran the Barker gang from the &ldquopublic enemy era&rdquo, when the exploits of gangs of criminals in the U.S. Midwest gripped the American people and press.

Date of birth

Ma Barker is believed to have been born October 8, 1873, in Ash Grove, Missouri, near Springfield, and named Arizona Clark. On September 14, 1892, she married George Elias Barker in Aurora, Lawrence County, Missouri. At that time her age was given as 17. George Barker was the informant on Arizona Barker&rsquos amended death certificate. He gave her date of birth as October 8, 1877.

In 1920 &ldquoArrie&rdquo appears on the Census of Stone County, Missouri, as age 45. In 1930 Arrie appears on the Census of Tulsa County, Oklahoma, as the wife of Arthur W. Dunlop. Her age is there given as 53.

Family life

George and Arizona had four boys named Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred. Arrie did everything she could to protect her boys and to keep them out of jail.

Some accounts claim that George Barker was an alcoholic. It appears from the 1910 to 1930 censuses and the Tulsa City Directories from 1916 to 1928 that he was regularly employed. From 1916 to 1919 he worked for the Crystal Springs Water Co. In the 1920s he was variously employed as a farmer, watchman, station engineer, and clerk. George is last listed with Arrie in the 1928 Tulsa city directory. Whether he was thrown out by Arrie, as some claim, or he left on his own accord when life with her and the family became intolerable, isn&rsquot known, but it is clear that he didn&rsquot desert his family when the boys were young.

(Picture above on the right: George and Ma Barker)

George and Arrie&rsquos son Herman committed suicide on August 29, 1927, in Wichita, Kansas. He shot himself after a shootout with police that lasted hours. In 1928 Lloyd was incarcerated in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, Arthur was in the Oklahoma State Prison, and Fred was in the Kansas State Prison. Miriam Allen deFord, in her 1970 biography titled The Real Ma Barker, wrote, &ldquoThis was the period when George Barker gave up completely and quietly removed himself from the scene.&rdquo


Though her children were undoubtedly criminals and their Barker-Karpis Gang committed a spree of robberies, kidnappings, and other crimes between 1931 and 1935, the popular image of her as the gang&rsquos leader and its criminal mastermind has been found to be fictitious.

Ma Barker certainly knew of the gang&rsquos activities, and even helped them before and after they committed their crimes. This would make her an accomplice, but there is no evidence that she was ever an active participant in any of the crimes themselves or involved in planning them. Her role was in taking care of gang members, who often sent her to the movies while they committed crimes.

Alvin Karpis, the gang&rsquos second most notorious member, later said that:

The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang&hellip She wasn&rsquot a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself. There is not one police photograph of her or set of fingerprints taken while she was alive &hellip she knew we were criminals but her participation in our careers was limited to one function: when we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent?

This view of Ma Barker is corroborated by notorious bank robber Harvey Bailey, who knew the Barkers well. He observed in his autobiography that Ma Barker &ldquocouldn&rsquot plan breakfast&rdquo let alone a criminal enterprise.

Many, including Karpis, have suggested that the myth was encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover and his fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to justify his agency&rsquos killing of an old lady. FBI Agents discovered the hideout of Ma Barker and her son, Fred, after Arthur &ldquoDoc&rdquo Barker was arrested in Chicago on January 8, 1935. A map found in his possession indicated that the other gang members were in Ocklawaha, Florida. Agents surrounded the house at 13250 East Highway C-25 on the morning of January 16, 1935. Ordered to surrender, Fred opened fire both he and his mother were killed by federal agents after an intense, hours-long gun-battle. According to the FBI, a Tommy gun was found lying in the hands of Ma Barker. (It is a common belief that this was a fabrication by the FBI in order to justify her violent death. ) Their bodies were put on public display, and then stored unclaimed, until October 1, 1935, when some relatives had them buried in Welch, Oklahoma, next to the body of Herman Barker.

Summary of Barker sons/gang activities

  • 1910&mdashHerman Barker arrested for highway robbery in Webb City, Missouri.
  • March 5, 1915&mdashHerman Barker arrested for highway robbery in Joplin, Missouri.
  • July 4, 1918&mdashArthur &ldquoDoc&rdquo Barker involved in US automobile theft in Tulsa, Oklahoma arrested <#841>.
  • February 19, 1920&mdashArthur Barker arrested in Joplin, Missouri (#1740) returned to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
  • 1921&mdashLloyd &ldquoRed&rdquo Barker arrested for vagrancy in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
  • January 15, 1921&mdashArthur Barker aka &ldquoClaude Dade&rdquo involved in attempted bank robbery in Muskogee, Oklahoma arrested <#822>.
  • January 30, 1921&mdashArthur Barker aka &ldquoBob Barker&rdquo received at the Oklahoma State Prison (#11059) released June 11, 1921.
  • August 16, 1921&mdashArthur Barker and Volney Davis involved in killing of night watchman Thomas J. Sherrill in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (According to other sources, Thomas J. Sherrill. was a night watchman at St. John&rsquos Hospital in Tulsa.)
  • January 8, 1922&mdashCentral Park Gang involved in attempted burglary in Okmulgee, Oklahoma shootout results in one burglar dead while police Captain Homer R. Spaulding ies of his wounds on January 19, 1922. One gang member is sentenced to life in prison while another had his sentence overturned.
  • January 16, 1922&mdashLloyd Barker received at Leavenworth Prison <#17243>after arrest for robbing mail at Baxter Springs, Kansas and sentenced to 25 years released 1938.
  • February 10, 1922&mdashArthur &ldquoDoc&rdquo Barker received <#11906>at Oklahoma State Prison for the murder of Sherrill.
  • 1926&mdashFred Barker robbed bank in Winfield, Kansas arrested.
  • March 12, 1927&mdashFred Barker admitted to Kansas State Prison.
  • August 1, 1927-Herman Barker cashed stolen bank bonds at the America National Bank in Cheyenne, WY. Sheriff Deputy Arthur Osborn flagged down Barker&rsquos car. Barker picked up a gun from the vehicle&rsquos seat and shot Osborn. Osborn died as a result.
  • August 29, 1927&mdashHerman Barker commits suicide in Wichita, Kansas after being stopped at police roadblock.
  • March 30, 1931&mdashFred Barker released from Kansas State Prison after serving time for burglary met Alvin Karpis in prison.
  • June 10, 1931&mdashFred Barker and Alvin Karpis arrested by Tulsa, Oklahoma Police investigating burglary. Karpis sentenced to 4 years but paroled after restitution made Fred Barker also avoided jail sentence.
  • November 8, 1931&mdashFred Barker killed an Arkansas police chief Manley Jackson.
  • December 19, 1931&mdashFred Barker and Alvin Karpis robbed a store in West Plains, Missouri and involved in the killing of Howell County, Missouri sheriff C. Roy Kelly.
  • January 18, 1932&mdashLloyd Barker received at Leavenworth Prison.
  • April 26, 1932&mdashBody of A.W. Dunlap found at Lake Franstead, Minnesota killed by Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis.
  • June 17, 1932&mdashFred Barker, Karpis and five accomplices robbed Fort Scott, Kansas Bank.
  • July 26, 1932&mdashFred Barker, Karpis (with an augmented gang) robbed Cloud County bank at Concordia, Kansas.
  • August 13, 1932&mdashAttorney J. Earl Smith of Tulsa, Oklahoma found killed at Indian Hills Country Club north of Tulsa he had been retained to defend Harvey Bailey over the Fort Scott bank robbery, but the man was convicted.
  • September 10, 1932&mdashArthur &ldquoDoc&rdquo Barker released from prison.
  • December 16, 1932&mdashFred and Arthur Barker, Alvin Karpis and gang robbed Third Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis, killing policemen Ira Leon Evans and Leo Gorski and one civilian.
  • April 4, 1933&mdashFred and Arthur Barker, Alvin Karpis and gang robbed Fairbury, Nebraska bank.
  • June 1933&mdashWilliam Hamm of the Hamm&rsquos Brewery family kidnapped by Barker-Karpis gang Hamm released June 19, 1933 after ransom paid. It is believed by some that the gang turned over half of the Hamm ransom money to the Chicago Mob under Frank Nitti after Nitti discovered that they were hiding Hamm in suburban Chicago and demanded half the ransom as &ldquorent&rdquo.
  • August 30, 1933&mdashBarker-Karpis Gang robs a payroll at Stockyards National Bank of South St Paul, Minnesota in which one policeman Leo Pavlak is coldly executed and one disabled for life.
  • September 22, 1933&mdashTwo bank messengers held up by five men identified as Barker-Karpis gang Chicago policeman Miles A Cunningham is killed by gang while investigating a nearby traffic accident. .
  • January 17, 1934&mdashGang kidnaps Edward George Bremer Bremer released on February 7, 1934 after ransom paid.
  • January 19, 1934&mdashGang wounds M.C. McCord of Northwest Airways Company, thinking he was a policeman.
  • March 10, 1934&mdashBarker gang member Fred Goetz (also known as &ldquoShotgun George&rdquo Ziegler, a participant in the Bremer kidnapping) killed by fellow gangsters in Cicero, Illinois.
  • July 1934&mdashUnderworld doctor Joseph Moran last seen alive.
  • January 6, 1935&mdashBarker gang member William B. Harrison killed by fellow gangsters at Ontarioville, Illinois.
  • January 8, 1935&mdashArthur &ldquoDoc&rdquo Barker arrested in Chicago Barker gang member Russell Gibson killed and his colleague Byron Bolton captured at another address.
  • January 16, 1935&mdashFred and Ma Barker killed by FBI at Lake Weir, Florida. Ma Barker was discovered by the FBI tracking her letters sent to her other son. She was writing to him to tell him about a large gator that everyone had called &ldquoGator Joe&rdquo, which led to the name of the on-shore restaurant known as &ldquoGator Joe&rsquos.&rdquo
  • September 26, 1935&mdashThe supposed body of underworld doctor Joseph Moran found in Lake Erie believed killed by Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis. (However, Karpis himself said that Moran had been buried.)
  • November 7, 1935&mdashKarpis and five accomplices robbed a Erie Railroad mail train at Garrittsville, Ohio.
  • May 1, 1936&mdashKarpis and accomplice Fred Hunter arrested in New Orleans, Louisiana.
  • January 13, 1939&mdashArthur Barker killed trying to escape from Alcatraz Prison.

(Of Barker-Karpis gang/associates: 18 arrested 3 killed by lawmen 2 killed by gangsters)

  • World War II&mdashLloyd Barker is US Army cook, ironically at POW camp Fort Custer, Michigan receives US Army Good Conduct Medal and Honorable Discharge.
  • March 18, 1949&mdashLloyd Barker killed by his wife he is manager of Denargo Market in Denver Colorado she is sent to Colorado State Insane Asylum.

Popular culture

  • Lurene Tuttle portrayed Ma Barker in the low-budget feature film Ma Barker&rsquos Killer Brood (1960).
  • In the 1966 Batman series, one of the villains in series one was Ma Parker (played by Shelley Winters), a villainous mob boss based on Ma Barker. Ma Parker along with her three sons and one daughter almost managed to defeat the Dynamic Duo in the series.
  • Barker&rsquos story was also adapted in the low budget film Bloody Mama (1970).
  • In 1977, German disco band Boney M. released a hit single titled Ma Baker. The song&rsquos title and lyrics clearly reference Ma Barker.
  • Another retelling of the legend occurred in the 1996 movie Public Enemies starring Theresa Russell.
  • &ldquoMa Barker and Her Boys&rdquo, an episode of The Untouchables, pits Federal Agent Eliot Ness against the Barker clan, and depicts Ness as leading the assault on Ma Barker and her sons at their Florida hide-out. In real life Ness was not a member of the FBI at the time of the shoot-out, and had nothing to do with the Barker/Karpis case.
  • The DuckTales version of Disney&rsquos Beagle Boys, a gang of criminals, is led by their mother Ma Beagle, who is based on Ma Barker. She is absent from the original comics by Carl Barks.
  • The band Maylene And The Sons Of Disaster are named after the group of criminals and their songs are based on the gang&rsquos history.
  • While The Daltons of the Lucky Luke comic book series, were originally based on the real Dalton Gang, their mother Ma Dalton is clearly inspired by Ma Barker. Coincidentally, their gang consists of four instead of three Dalton brothers.
  • Crime author James Hadley Chase based some of the characters in his first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, on Ma Barker and her sons.
  • John Eaton composed an opera, Ma Barker, in 1955.
  • The 1959 movie &ldquoThe FBI Story staring Jimmy Stewart portrays a number of deaths of 1930s-era criminals, including Ma Barker (portrayed by Jane Crowley, though it was uncredited.

Freddie Barker & Arthur "Doc&rdquo Barker"


Early life and Desoto Tiger murder Edit

John Ashley was born and raised in the backwoods country along the Caloosahatchee River in the community of Buckingham, Florida near Fort Myers, Florida. He was one of nine children born to Joe Ashley, a poor Florida woodsman, who made his living by fishing, hunting, and trapping otters. The Ashley family moved from Fort Myers to Pompano in the 1890s where Joe Ashley and his older sons worked on the new railroad being built by industrialist Henry Flagler. [1] In 1911, Joe moved his family to West Palm Beach and briefly served as county sheriff. John Ashley spent much of his youth in the Florida Everglades and, like his father, became a skilled trapper and alligator hunter. [2]

On December 29, 1911, a dredging crew working near Lake Okeechobee discovered the body of Seminole trapper Desoto Tiger. An investigation was held and John Ashley soon came under suspicion. According to fellow Seminole Jimmy Gopher, Ashley had been last seen with Desoto traveling in a canoe together with a boatload of otter hides to sell at a local market. Authorities were later told by fur traders in Miami, the Girtman Brothers, that John Ashley had sold them the hides for $1,200 [1] the previous day he had also been arrested in West Palm Beach on a charge of "recklessly displaying firearms". Two deputies, S.A. Barfield and Bob Hannon, found Ashley camping in a palmetto thicket near Hobe Sound and attempted to take him into custody. However, they were surprised by his brother Bob Ashley and were disarmed at gunpoint. John Ashley then sent the officers back with a message for Sheriff George B. Baker "not to send anymore chicken-hearted men with rifles or they are apt to get hurt". [2] [3] [4]

In his trial for the murder of Desoto Tiger in 1910, despite overwhelming evidence, Ashley was not convicted. In a second trial in 1915, he was sentenced to hang for Tiger's murder, but that conviction was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court. [5] Ashley repeatedly escaped from various local jails and eluded law enforcement until he was gunned down at the Sebastian river bridge at Roseland. [6] Although he was incarcerated for other crimes, Ashley never served any time for the murder of Desoto Tiger. [7]

Formation of the Ashley Gang Edit

When the Seminole Nation raised protest over the murder, the US federal government threatened to intervene. John Ashley fled to New Orleans for a year or two before returning to Florida around 1914. [6] He may have worked as a logger in Seattle and later claimed to have robbed a bank in Canada. Upon his return, he surrendered himself to authorities in West Palm Beach where he was imprisoned until his trial. Ashley may have hoped that a hometown jury might sympathize with him, however the local prosecutor petitioned the judge for a change of venue to Miami. Hearing of the prosecutor's plans, he decided to escape. [1] According to contemporary accounts, Ashley was being escorted to his cell by Sheriff Baker's son, Robert C. Baker, when he suddenly broke away, ran out an unlocked door and climbed a 10-foot fence to freedom. [3] [4]

He and his brothers then became outlaws and, with other occasional partners, formed a criminal gang. In 1915, he and Bob Ashley robbed an FEC passenger train with Chicago mobster Kid Lowe. Their first attempt was less than successful as they failed to agree on who would collect valuables from the passengers and who would rob the mail car. That same year, they stole $45,000 in silver and cash in a daring daylight bank robbery in Stuart, Florida. During their getaway however, Lowe accidentally shot John Ashley in the jaw, costing him the sight in one of his eyes. [6] [8] When Ashley attempted to get medical attention for his eye, he was captured and held in the Dade County jailhouse to await trial. [2] [3] He was taken to Miami to stand trial for the murder of Desoto Tiger. However, the state's attorney believed that that had a better chance of prosecuting Ashley for the Stuart robberies in West Palm Beach. [3] [4]

On June 2, 1915, Bob Ashley attempted to break his brother John out of jail. Entering the jailer's house, Bob Ashley shot Deputy Sheriff Wilber W. Hendrickson at point-blank range [8] [9] and left with his jail keys. He then ran from the house to the garage where gang members had left him a getaway car. When he found he was unable to drive the particular car left for him, he attempted to force several men at gunpoint to drive the car for him. Each of the men claimed to not know how to drive the car either so Bob Ashley jumped on the running board of a passing truck and forced the driver, T.H. Duckett, to take him out of town. A deputy, officer J.R. Riblet, spotted Ashley and gave chase. When the truck suddenly stalled in the middle of the street, a shootout occurred resulting in the deaths of both Bob Ashley and Riblet. [2] [4] [6] [8] [10] Angered by Bob's killing spree, several thousand Miami residents threatened the jailhouse and talked of lynching John Ashley in his cell. It was only after police paraded the body of Bob Ashley through the streets that the mob dispersed. [1] [3]

Kid Lowe, possibly out of guilt for shooting John Ashley, sent a note to Dade County sheriff Dan Hardie demanding the release of Ashley:

Dear Sir,

We were in your city at the time one of our gang, young Bob Ashley, was brutally shot to death by your officers and now your town can expect to feel the result of it any hour. And if John Ashley is not fairly dealt with and given a fair trial and turned loose simply for the life of a God-damn Seminole Indian we expect to shoot up the hole [sic] God-damn town regardless of what the results might be. We expect to make our appearance at an early date.

However, no attack from the Ashley Gang came forth and the town proceeded with the prosecution. On November 23, 1916, John Ashley pleaded guilty to robbery and was sentenced to 17 years in the state penitentiary at Raiford. [1] [3] [4] [6] [8]

Ashley and the Queen of the Everglades Edit

Prior to his arrest, Ashley began a relationship with Laura Upthegrove. Upthegrove acted primarily as the gang's lookout. Whenever she heard authorities were nearing one of Ashley's hideouts, she would drive her car through secret backwoods trails, often without headlights if at night, to warn fellow gang members. Laura also cased banks and served as a getaway driver. While they were together, she became known as "Queen of the Everglades" [8] and she took a central role in the gang while Ashley was incarcerated. [1] [3]

Escape and foray into piracy Edit

Ashley behaved as a model prisoner for two years until escaping from a road camp, with the assistance of fellow bank robber Tom Maddox, on March 31, 1918. [6] With the start of Prohibition, he began moonshining with his gang before his eventual recapture in June 1921. The Ashley gang continued moonshining in his absence, maintaining their many stills in the woods of central Florida, and began hijacking rum runners as well under Clarence Middleton or Roy Matthews. [4] Joe Ashley had several stills in Palm Beach County while John's brothers Ed and Frank Ashley ran liquor from the Bahamas to Jupiter Inlet and Stuart. While John Ashley was still in jail, his brothers disappeared while on a return voyage from Bimini in October 1921. [1] [6] [8]

The circumstances surrounding Ashley's third and final escape remain a mystery, only that he "vanished from his cell", and returned to bank robbery with his gang. In one of their more memorable robberies, the gang managed to rob the Stuart bank a second time in September 1923 after Ashley's teenage nephew Hanford Mobley sneaked into the building disguised as a woman and escaped with several thousand dollars. [6] Shortly after the robbery, Mobley and Middleton were caught in Plant City and Matthews in Georgia, however all escaped and were back together in the woods near Gomez by the end of the year. [1] [4]

In November 1923, the gang robbed $23,000 in cash and securities from a bank in Pompano. Like many of their heists, this was followed by reckless celebrating in the streets. After wrapping the loot in a bedsheet, they slowly drove through the middle of the town in a stolen taxi. They waved a bottle of whiskey to onlookers and shouted "We got it all!". Leaving the town, they crossed a canal and disappeared into the swamp near Clewiston. [2] Ashley supposedly left a bullet with one of the victims to give to Sheriff Baker if he "ever got out to the 'Glades". [1] [6]

The gang leader also tried his hand at piracy, intercepting many rum-runners along the coast of southern Florida. Many chose to pay the Ashleys protection money. In 1924, he and his nephew Hanford Mobley stole a sea skiff and led a raid against rum-runners in the Bahamas' West End leaving with $8,000 from four wholesale liquor warehouses. [8] Hours before the raid, however, an express boat carrying a quarter-million dollars had left for Nassau. [3]

Within a few years of Prohibition, the Ashley Gang was so feared by Florida bootleggers that many began deserting the area looking for safer routes far out of reach of the gang. As a result, the Ashleys' opportunities for liquor piracy dwindled and they eventually returned to bank robbery as their primary activity. [3]

Feud with Sheriff Baker Edit

By this time, Ashley and Sheriff Baker were engaging in a personal feud. The sheriff had received a tip from a local car salesman and had set a trap on the eve of the Bahamas raid. Suspecting that the law might be on to his plans, Ashley changed his route at the last minute and sailed through St. Lucie Inlet, narrowly avoiding capture. [3]

Baker spent months searching the Florida Everglades and came up empty-handed. This was in part the result of help from fellow Florida "crackers" and a "grapevine telegraph of the 'glades". In early 1924, Baker finally got a lead on Ashley's location. Through his informants, Baker learned that Ashley was staying with family members in a moonshiner's cabin hidden in a swamp about 2 miles south of the Ashley family home. The short bushes and palmetto scrub made it very difficult, if not impossible, to approach the cabin, making it an ideal hideout. Baker was determined to capture Ashley and, with weapons from the Florida National Guard and deputized civilians, made plans to surround the cabin and starve him out. On January 10, 1924, he sent eight of his deputies to the house early in the morning they were in position by dawn. [1] [3]

Just as the deputies were about to make their move, Ashley's dog began barking at the lawmen. The deputies fired at the dog, causing Ashley to return fire he killed one of the deputies, the sheriff's cousin Fred Baker, in the resulting gunfight. His father, Joe Ashley, was killed [6] in his bunk while his partner, Albert Miller, and Laura were seriously wounded by buckshot from a deputy's shotgun. Forced to leave his wife behind, Ashley escaped through a secret entrance his wife's screaming caused the deputies to hold their fire, which helped enable the escape. Despite a manhunt involving 200 men, during which the homes of both Joe Ashley and Hanford Mobley were burned (as well as a small grocery owned by Miller), Ashley remained in the area where Laura was being held by police. He hoped to plan a jail break for her, as well as avenge the death of his father, but as more time passed he left for California to lie low. [3]

Death Edit

Ashley returned to Florida and spent several months with his gang planning their revenge. He apparently developed a plot to kill Sheriff Baker at the Jacksonville courthouse following his election in November. [1]

On November 1, 1924, Baker received a tip from an anonymous source, believed to be a gang member's girlfriend (or a disgruntled brother-in-law), [1] that Ashley would be travelling up the coast on the Dixie Highway to rob a bank in Jacksonville. That same day, Baker arranged an ambush at the bridge over the St. Sebastian River, at Roseland, blocking the road with a chain with a red lantern across the bridge. As the bridge was out of his jurisdiction, the actual operation was overseen by the sheriff of St. Lucie County, J.R. Merritt, along with three of Baker's deputies. An hour after the ambush was laid, Ashley's black touring car was spotted. Once it stopped at the bridge, the deputies approached the car from behind and ordered the gang out of the vehicle. According to the official story, the deputies searched the car and found several guns while Ashley, Ray Lynn, Hanford Mobley, and Clarence Middleton were lined up outside the car. John Ashley then pulled out a concealed weapon, causing the deputies to open fire. Ashley and his three partners were killed in the shootout. [2] [6] [8]

There are two alternate versions, however. The first, according to two men who witnessed their arrest, claim they had also been stopped on the bridge and saw the officers approach Ashley's car behind them. When police directed them to leave the scene, both men insisted that Ashley and the others were handcuffed. There were marks that could have been made by handcuffs, however police claimed the marks were the result of the coroner examining the bodies. This explanation was accepted by a coroner's jury. A third theory, one thought to be closer to the truth, was offered in the 1996 book Florida's Ashley Gang by historian Ada Coats Williams: an unidentified deputy claimed that, while in handcuffs, Ashley made a sudden move forward and dropped his hands, causing officers to fire. He had told Williams this during the 1950s on the promise that she not reveal this information until all the deputies had died. [6] At the time of Ashley's death, however, it was widely believed among poor "crackers" that he had been executed by the police as a form of frontier justice. [4]

Aftermath Edit

After her husband's death, Laura Upthegrove lived under an assumed name in western Florida for a time. In the next two years, she was arrested on several occasions before eventually opening a gas station at Canal Point on Lake Okeechobee. She later moved in with her mother in Upthegrove Beach. On August 6, 1927, she died during an argument with a man trying to buy moonshine from her. In the heat of the moment, she swallowed a bottle of disinfectant and died within minutes. It is unclear whether it was an accident, as some claim she mistook it for a bottle of gin, but it was widely reported that she had committed suicide. She was 30 years old. [1] [2] [4]

A few members of the Ashley gang still remained, although they were eventually killed, captured, or fled the state within a few years. Only $32,000 of the gang's fortune was ever recovered it was found only with the help of ex-gang member Joe Tracy. A reported $110,000 and other Everglades stashes have never been reported as found. [1]

Ashley, Mobley, and Lynn (Middleton was buried in Jacksonville) were buried in a family cemetery, the Little Ashley Cemetery, outside Gomez, where the Ashley family home once stood. Six members of the Ashley clan were buried there, all having died a violent death with the exception of an infant grandchild. The cemetery eventually became part of an exclusive residential neighborhood, Mariner Sands, and it is rumored that some unrecovered loot is buried somewhere on this property. A state historical marker was placed at Sebastian Inlet but disappeared when a new bridge was built over the river. [2]


FIRST VOLLEY OF GUN fire crackled across Lake Weir before dawn that cool January morning. It didnt stop for four hours. The law finally had caught up to Ma Barker thanks in part to a three-legged Florida alligator named Old Joe.

Revisionists claim Arizona Donnie Kate Barker was just an old hillbilly woman who couldnt plan breakfast let alone one of the nations most brutal crime sprees. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover begged to differ, calling her a vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal. The sons and associates she doted on just called her Ma.

From 1931 to 1935, the gang of outlaws led by Mas young son Fred and Alvin Creepy Karpis rampaged through middle America. In their wake they left murders, burglaries, train, mail and bank heists. But some of their biggest scores, and national attention, came from a newfound criminal cottage industry: kidnapping.

Since the abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergs baby, kidnappings had become a federal offense. In January of 1934, The Barker gang collected a $200,000 ransom for St. Paul, Minn., banker Edward Bremer. But they got sloppy and left behind important clues, like fingerprints on gas cans and a flashlight they dropped at the ransom site.

Now the FBI was on the case, and photos of gang members began appearing on FBI Most Wanted posters and in national magazines like True Detective.

So in March, Fred and Karpis took a page from the John Dillinger playbook, and enlisted the help of a Chicago plastic surgeon they hoped could alter their faces and change their fingerprints. Freds brother, Arthur Doc Barker, also submitted to the operation.

The procedure produced little more than ugly, painful scars. Even worse, the surgeon was a drunk who bragged to a local bordello madam that he had the Barker-Karpis gang, in the palm of his hand.

So Fred Barker and Karpis shot the surgeon to death and dumped his body in a lime-filled hole.

The next month, a gang associate named Eddie Green was gunned down by the FBI in St. Paul. Before he died, Green gave the feds their first concrete knowledge of the Barker gang including the old woman who provided a cover for them by posing as their mother.

Ma Barker was born in the Ozarks and as a child remembered seeing Jesse James riding through town after a holdup. She idolized the James clan, telling friends that the outlaws death when she was just 10 broke her heart.

She married George Barker, a common laborer, and had four wild sons Herman, Lloyd, Arthur and Fred. The boys never went to school and at a young age were picked up for theft, fighting and damaging property. When authorities, neighbors and fellow churchgoers came to the Barker home asking for an explanation, George would say, Youll have to talk with Mother. She handles the boys.

Ma Barker had raised her boys to be criminals, to view robbery as a glamorous, adventurous occupation. She never believed they were rotten to the core. The police were persecuting them, she swore, and she was not above throwing tirades at police stations until weary officers let the boys go. When her sons finally got locked up for bank robbery, Ma Barker wrote countless letters to governors urging parole. She got it.

As the gang gained more and more national attention, reporters and the FBI painted Ma as the evil genius who masterminded the familys criminal enterprise. She was said to have paid off high-level banking and police officials to give her intelligence on their operations.

On July 25, 1932, the Barker clan robbed the Cloud County Bank in Concordia, Kan., and got away with an amazing $250,000. Press accounts said Ma had cased the bank weeks before the heist, posing as a wealthy woman who was planning to move to town. She said shed be depositing large sums in the bank and asked to see the security. The bank manager eagerly obliged. When the Barker clan robbed the place, the boys knew exactly where the guards were stationed and how the alarm system worked.

On Jan. 8, 1935, the FBI caught up with Doc Barker in Chicago. Shocked to find him unarmed, an agent asked where his gun was. Home, Doc said. And aint that a hell of a place for it.

Inside Docs apartment, FBI agents found a Florida map with the Ocala region circled. In the fireplace, a post card, in Fred Barkers handwriting, told of hunting a three-legged alligator named Old Joe.

Ma and the boys were on the run. And Hoover and his G-men were on the hunt.


northern lady named J.C. Blackburn and her sons were paying him a whopping $20 dollars a week to be their handyman. It was hard for a black man to find such high-paying work that included free room and board. In December of 1934, Woodbury and his wife moved into a guest house next to a grand vacation home on the shores of Lake Weir in Ocklawaha.

It struck Woodbury that these Yankees did have their eccentricities. Take the time the men wanted to go hunting.

They come parading, each one carrying what looks like a cannon under their arms, Woodbury recalled, and before I can believe it I see they are machine guns, and I say to myself, That sure is mighty strange.

Back in those days it wasnt illegal to carry a submachine gun. But it was pretty unusual to hunt with one. Here they come like they was going to some war, Woodbury remembered. It was mighty strange.

Woodbury took the men hunting in the Ocala National Forest. They instructed him to turn the car around and keep it running in case they needed to get out quick.

Thats how members of the Barker-Karpis gang spent the Christmas season of 1934, hiding out, using fake names and always looking over their shoulders.

Woodbury described how Fred and other gang members liked to take a wooden boat and troll for Old Joe. What a sight they must have been in swimming suits, undershirts and fedoras.

Ma Barker used a number of middle men to rent the vacation home from a prosperous Miami developer named Carson Bradford. The two-story wooden home facing Lake Weir came with fine furnishings handed down through generations of the Bradford family. Perhaps the most prized possession was the glass-front china cabinet Bradford had brought up from Miami in 1933.

As J.C. Blackburn, Ma Barker came to be known as a friendly older lady who attended church in Ocklawaha. Before the B&W Rexall store in Leesburg closed in 1990, longtime employee Genene Hill told stories of Ma Barker coming in the coffee shop, while her boys kept the motor running in case the cops showed up.

Suspicion about who these northerners really were began to filter out. Hoover had sent FBI agents south to look for the lake where people hunted Old Joe. The agents found Lake Weir, and at 5:30 on the morning of Jan. 16, 1935, federal authorities and local lawmen took their places behind the trees around the vacation home.

This is the FBI. You are surrounded, a voice boomed. Agents threatened to use tear gas if the occupants didnt give up.

From inside the home Ma Barker said, All right, go ahead, triggering what became the longest-running gun battle in FBI history. From outside, lawmen peppered the home with gunfire. The Barkers held them off, blasting away from an upstairs bedroom.

Four hours and more than 2,000 rounds later, FBI agents stopped shooting. They were about to send for more ammo from Jacksonville when they noticed the shooting from inside had also stopped.

Agents werent about to go inside and face a possible ambush, so they forced Willie Woodbury to do it. Terrified, he walked into the home and, seeing no one downstairs, moved slowly up the flight of stairs to the second floor.

In the right upstairs bedroom facing the lake, Willie Woodbury found Ma and Fred dead. The two bodies were seated, facing each other, weapons in hand. Fred had been shot more than a dozen times. Ma was shot once in the chest. Barker family lore has suggested the wound may have been self-inflicted that Ma killed herself rather than be taken alive, just as her bank-robbing son Herman had done years before when cornered by police. By Freds side was a briefcase Mas medicine bag where she carried hypodermics, cotton and bandages as if she were trying to tend to her sons wounds. Ma Barker was 63 years old when she died. Fred was 33.

Yall can come in now, Woodbury shouted to the authorities.

Had the FBI come a day sooner, they could have snared Alvin Karpis and his pregnant girlfriend. They had just left for Miami.

Inside the home, agents found more than $14,000 in cash, two Thompson submachine guns and six other weapons.

The bodies were taken to the Pyles mortuary in Ocala. Even in death, the Barkers caused a stir. In a 1988 interview, employee Harold Martin remembered the crush of people who showed up to view the bodies. We had one big time with people that day and night, they liked to have wrecked the building.

For a few days the bodies remained on display to the public. Then the undertaker sent to Ocklawaha for burial clothes. It was eight months and 15 days before George Barker finally sent for them.

There appears to be little evidence that Ma Barker participated directly in her sons crimes. If shed survived the FBI shootout, she may have served only a short sentence for harboring her sons.

In The Public Enemies Almanac, authors Rick Mattix and William J. Helmer conclude, Ma Barkers troubles seem rooted in her blind devotion to her sons. She was simply unable to see any wrong in anything they did or she tended to excuse their crimes as the result of persecution by the law.

As for other members of the gang, one year later J. Edgar Hoover personally took part in the capture of Alvin Karpis in New Orleans. Karpis spent decades in prison before being deported to his native Spain. In 1979, he overdosed on sleeping pills there.

Doc Barker was shot to death in 1939 as he tried to escape from Alcatraz.

FOR CARSON BRADFORDS FAMILY, the story neither begins nor ends with the killings of Ma and Fred Barker. After their stately vacation home was strafed with bullets, law officers just walked away. The family wanted to know who planned to pay for the damage.

One of the family members on my grandmothers side was a lobbyist in Washington. She was very, very close to the Roosevelt administration. From his downtown Orlando real estate office, Carson Bradfords grandson, Carson Good, talks about how his family spent several years getting the government to pay for shooting up the home on Lake Weir.

The home has remained among Bradfords descendants for six decades since the shootout. It hasnt always been occupied . . . by people. Legend has it that Ma Barkers ghost still haunts the place.

According to Good, a woman nicknamed the white witch of England, held a seance with some other spiritualists at the home in the 1970s. They supposedly exorcised the ghost of Fred Barker, Good explains, but could not convince the ghost of Ma to go on.

The white witch claimed the place was a nether world hangout for ghosts of all kinds of famous gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger.

Credible people lawyers, doctors and other house guests through the years have claimed to hear things: card playing, loud talking, the sound of someone walking up and down the stairs.

The curious come by a good bit, often trying to get into the house. Goods uncle, who lives next door, has been known to fire an occasional shotgun blast in the air to ward off unwelcome intruders.

The home is just past a laundromat and a watering hole called Ma Barkers Hideaway.

Pull down the drive and you catch sight of the freshly painted green and white home. Under a canopy of shade trees, it sits just as it did when J.C. Blackburn moved in at Christmas of 1934.

In the side yard by Willie Woodburys guest house sits the decaying wooden boat Fred Barker used to troll for Old Joe.

Carson Goods brother-in-law, Guy Cockrell, and his wife, Liz, live here now with their three children.

We get people by here quite a bit, Guy says. The folks from A&E just finished filming a segment for a biography on Ma Barker. As he speaks, Guy throws a baseball to his friendly brown dog, who is all too happy to fetch as long as Guy keeps pitching.

The bullet holes in the walls have been patched up, Guy explains. But a lot of stuff is original from the time of the shootout.

To prove his point, Guy retrieves a whitewashed kitchen chair from his old woodshed. There are two bullet holes in the back of it.

Inside the home, a roaring fireplace reflects the warm, if slightly frenzied, family life inside. Guy tries to concentrate on the football game on TV. Liz is trying to string lights for the Christmas tree. The couples children rush by the prized glass-front china cabinet still sitting in the corner. It survived the shootout without a scratch.

Upstairs in the room where Ma and Fred died, theres still the old rocking chair and double bed visible in a picture taken soon after the shootout. The bullet holes in the wall have been patched and painted over, but are certainly visible if you look for them.

If Ma Barkers ghost is still walking up and down the stairs, shes sharing them with a family of five.

To this day you can almost see the scene of 60 some years ago:

Before the brevities of early morning light glint off swaying Spanish moss and the hides of Old Joes descendants, a row of dark sedans cruises slowly and quietly down the dirt road toward the Lake Weir home. Stern-faced government men prepare to have it out with the most-wanted criminals in the country, people who killed like it was just another day at the office.

Here, the G-men found the church-going matron and her favorite son, and shot Ma Barkers gang right through the heart.

Young Kate Barker is brutalized by her father and older brothers, who rape her. Thirty-five years later, the middle-aged Kate 'Ma' Barker, now brutalizes innocent people herself, while indulging her monstrous sexual appetites. She lives by robbing banks with her four sons the pragmatic Arthur, the sadistic Herman, the bisexual Fred, and the loyal, drug-addicted Lloyd. It all begins in the late 1920s when Ma leaves her husband, George, and her Arkansas home and embarks on her own with her four sons on a robbery-murder spree to make her own fortune, while keeping them under a tight leash.

When Herman and Fred are arrested and imprisoned for petty theft charges, Ma takes over the group and leads Arthur and Lloyd on a bank robbery spree to gain enough money to get her sons out of jail. The gang is joined by a gunman, Kevin Dirkman, who was Fred's cellmate during his incarceration (and his strongly implied lover). The group is also joined by a local prostitute, Mona Gibson, whom Herman frequented before his imprisonment. The gang resorts to more violent action and robberies.

While hiding out at a cabin in Kentucky, Lloyd is approached playfully by a young woman named Rembrandt, who swims up to him as he dangles his feet in the lake. The encounter begins flirtatiously, but quickly turns into rape and abduction, after Lloyd shows her the needle marks on his arm. Lloyd tells her he's a Barker, in spite of Ma's warning to use an alias. Not wanting the woman to report their location to the police, the Barkers hold her captive and Ma kills her by drowning her in the bathtub, despite the protests of her sons.

Some time later, the gang arrives in Tennessee where they abduct a wealthy businessman, Sam Pendlebury. Holding him for a $300,000 ransom, the sons, particularly Herman, bond with their captive whom they see as the decent father figure they never had. When Herman and Mona go to collect the ransom, they are chased by a pair of FBI agents and barely escape. The ransom is eventually paid in full, and the plan is to leave Sam untied at the hideout, giving them plenty of time to escape before he can talk to the police. But Herman wants to see Sam's eyes--which when uncovered, remind him of their father. Sam says he can't see any of them (almost certainly true, given his head trauma, and the fact he's always been straight with them, even when it put his life in danger).

Ma still insists Sam be killed, so as to avoid any possibility of his identifying them. He's led into the woods to be shot, but the boys, now seeing Herman as their leader, set him free, lying to Ma about killing him. (There is no indication this leads to the gang's ultimate downfall). Later, to explain why they need to leave the territory immediately, Herman tells Ma of the deception, and knocks her to the ground, saying she's no longer the boss. The trust between them is gone.

The gang hides out in Florida Everglades where Lloyd soon dies from a morphine overdose and Mona leaves Herman and the gang after she reveals that she's pregnant and does not want to be around them anymore out of fear for the safety of her unborn child, which Herman fathered. Her fears are justified when Herman and Kevin give away their hiding place a little later. A local handyman and caretaker, Moses, witnesses them shooting an alligator out on a lake with a Tommy gun and calls the police to report his suspicions. When asked, he says their cars have Tennessee plates, and the authorities quickly deduce these are the Barkers.

At the climax, a large contingent of FBI agents and local police arrive at the Barkers' hideout and a huge shootout ensues between the authorities and the surviving members of the gang. Kevin, Fred, and Arthur are all killed (along with many officers). Herman commits suicide to prevent himself from being sent to prison again. Ma is the last one to fall, firing her Thompson machine gun at the police, screaming in rage and anguish, unable to accept that her boys are dead because of her.

AIP announced Don Peters was writing a script as early as 1967. [5] The gunman named Kevin is patterned after the historical gunman Alvin Karpis. The wealthy businessman character of Sam Pendlebury is a combination of historical kidnap victims William Hamm and Edward Bremer whom the Barker gang kidnapped in 1933 and 1934 respectively.

The film was shot entirely in Arkansas. [6]

Prior to playing Ma Barker in this film, Winters played "Ma Parker", a villain inspired by Barker, in the 1960s Batman TV series.

The film had its premiere on March 24, 1970 in Little Rock, Arkansas and was then released in 350 theaters in the southern United States from Texas to Florida, including 65 theaters in Arkansas. [7] [6]

The film holds a score of 17% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 6 reviews. [8]

Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote that "Miss Winters is plain wonderful" in the film, which although similar to Bonnie and Clyde in subject matter, "happens to be more honest and less pretentious, with no grudging admiration for criminal 'rebels.' What hoists the picture into real substance toward the home stretch is an eerie and fascinating by [sic] credible sequence with the Barker clan holding as captive a blindfolded millionaire, strongly played by Pat Hingle." [9] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote, "Corman's production has the naturalistic look sought, but the occasionally poor looping and uneven color and textural qualities add up to a liability. His direction is passive, unpretentious, unambitious and therefore nearly nonexistent." [10] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 1 star out of 4 and called it "92 minutes of sado-masochism, incest, satyrism and voyeurism woven into a disgraceful screenplay . In fact, the whole treatment might be called embarrassed 'Bonnie and Clyde.'" [11] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times stated, "It is such a close if mocking tribute to a celebrated movie of a couple of years ago that it could be subtitled 'Mommie and Clyde.' It is a sleek, vile exercise . Indeed, 'Bloody Mama' is a piece of pop art from which you emerge feeling depressed, degraded and diminished." [12] Kenneth Turan of The Washington Post wrote, "Its lyrical pastel shades—even the blood blends deftly into the color scheme—show that infinite pains have been taken with the film's visual aspect, a Corman trademark. Unfortunately, another Corman trademark—atrocious acting—is well-represented here, making it hard to recommend the film to people who can hear as well as see." [13]

The film was AIP's highest-grossing film of the year. [1]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

The film was initially banned in France and New Zealand, although these bans were subsequently lifted. [7] The film was initially refused certification by the BBFC in the United Kingdom, but despite this, was screened at the National Film Theatre. [15] Screenwriter Robert Thom's novelization of the film was also banned by New Zealand's Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1971, but 40 years later (in 2012) the ban was overturned by the Tribunal's successor, the Office of Film and Literature Classification. [16] [17]

1. The St. Albans raid and robbery was claimed by the Confederacy to be an act of war

In early October, 1864, former soldiers of the Confederacy who had fled to Canada began to gather in the small town of Saint Albans, Vermont. They were not in uniform and were not connected to any existing command of the Confederate Army, though they were under the ostensible command of Bennett Young, a former member of Morgan&rsquos Raiders who had surrendered with Morgan but escaped to Canada. Young had contacts with Confederate agents in Canada, who authorized the raid on St. Albans, which was actually the simultaneous robbery of the three banks in the town. On October 19 the citizens of the town were held at gunpoint on the town common while the raiders robber the banks, drove off the town&rsquos horses to discourage pursuit, and fled to Canada.

There was some armed resistance from the citizens of the town, and gunfire was exchanged leading to one townsman being killed and another wounded, with one of the raiders wounded as well. After the United States government protested to the British authorities the raiders were arrested in Canada and the money seized. The raiders protested that the action had been a legitimate act of war and the Canadian authorities released them, but returned the money to Saint Albans. Whether the raid was an act of war or a bank robbery has been debated ever since. The most significant result of the St. Albans raid was the shift of public opinion in Canada regarding support for the Confederacy, with the majority turning against the Confederate activity in Canada, and there were no more raids launched across the northern border.

What Jeff Sessions's Role in Prosecuting the Klan Reveals About His Civil-Rights Record

Defenders of Trump’s choice for attorney general have cited an Alabama lynching case as evidence of his commitment to racial equality. The real story is more complicated.

Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of Alabama played a crucial role in ensuring that the lynching of 19-year-old Michael Donald by two members of the Ku Klux Klan was investigated and punished.

That gruesome case has become newly relevant with the nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to run the Department of Justice. Sessions was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District when the Donald case was tried.

In 1986, Session’s nomination for a federal judgeship was rejected after one of his former subordinates, Thomas Figures, alleged that Sessions called him “boy,” made remarks disparaging civil-rights organizations, and made jokes about the KKK, even as his office was investigating the Donald lynching. Civil-rights groups have harshly criticized Sessions’s nomination, arguing that he is hostile to federal anti-discrimination and voting-rights law. Six members of the NAACP, including president Cornell Brooks, were arrested in early January after staging a sit-in at Sessions’s Mobile office.

After Sessions’s nomination was announced, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus whether Sessions’s record suggested he would be hostile to reforming local police agencies accused of racial bias. “Look at this man's life,” Priebus replied, citing the Donald case. “He prosecuted that person … for the murder. He then presided over the execution of this person.”

Other defenders of Sessions have used the Donald case in similar ways. A letter from 23 former assistant attorney generals cited the fact that he had “worked to obtain the successful capital prosecution of the head of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan” as evidence of his “commitment to the rule of law, and to the even-handed administration of justice.” The Wall Street Journal said that Sessions, “won a death-penalty conviction for the head of the state KKK in a capital murder trial,” a case which “broke the Klan in the heart of dixie,” and The New York Post praised him for having “successfully prosecuted the head of the state Ku Klux Klan for murder.” Grant Bosse wrote in the Manchester, New Hampshire, Union Leader wrote that “when local police wrote off the murder as a drug deal gone wrong, Sessions brought in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and brought Hays and the Klan to justice.”

Sessions himself recently listed the case as one of the “ten most significant significant litigated matters” he had “personally handled” on his Senate confirmation questionnaire. And in 2009, Sessions told National Review that there had been a campaign to “smear my record,” whereas in fact, he had “prosecuted the head of the Klan for murdering somebody.”

No one involved in the case disputes that Sessions lent his support to the prosecution. “Not all southern United States attorneys welcomed civil-rights division attorneys into their districts back then,” said Barry Kowalski, a former civil-rights division attorney who was one of the main lawyers on the investigation, and who defended Sessions in his 1986 confirmation hearing. “He did, he cooperated with us completely.”

However, in seeking to defend Sessions from charges of racism, Sessions’s allies, and even Sessions himself, seem to have embellished key details, and to have inflated his actual role in the case, presenting him not merely as a cooperative U.S. attorney who facilitated the prosecution of the two Klansmen, but the driving force behind the prosecution itself. The details of the case don’t support that claim.

ichael Donald’s lifeless body was found strapped to a tree in Mobile with thirteen knots, a “Klan signature,” as author Lawrence Leamer puts it in The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan, his history of the Donald case. He had been beaten savagely, his throat had been slashed, and “his blue jeans and blue jeans jacket were covered in dirt and dried blood.” A cross was burned on the lawn of the Mobile courthouse a few hours before Donald’s body was discovered.

Even so, Leamer wrote, Montgomery police disregarded the possibility that Donald had been lynched. Instead they pursued theories that Donald had been sleeping with a white co-worker at the Mobile Press-Register, where he worked part-time, and had been killed in retaliation. They told reporters that Donald had been murdered in a drug deal gone bad, and arrested three men who were later found to have nothing to do with the case. It had “nothing to do with race,” but rather, “three junkies had killed this lowlife black man who thought he could take drugs from them and not pay.”

When the Donald family’s lawyer, State Senator Michael Figures, suggested that “extremists” were involved, according to a 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times, white people accused him of “stirring up racism.”

When the drug-dealer and affair theories didn’t pan out, police “tried to gather evidence that Donald had led a secret criminal life.” Learner detailed their efforts. “A white transvestite prostitute volunteered that he had slept with Donald and that the teenager was a “hustler.” When the prostitute saw Donald’s photo in the paper, he admitted it did not look like the man he knew, but the police, nonetheless, tried to validate his story. They found someone else who said that Donald was a drug dealer.”

The fact that a prominent Klansman recently owned property across the street was seen as simply more evidence the Klan could not have been responsible. The head detective believed “the Klan would not lynch somebody practically on their own front lawn,” according to Leamer. The cops told the FBI this was a simple street crime, so they lost interest.

It would later become clear that Donald had been lynched because the Klan sought to make an example of any black man it could find. A mistrial had recently been declared in the prosecution of a black man, Josephus Anderson who had killed a white police officer named Gene Ballard. (Anderson was later retried and convicted.)

Witnesses later testified that Bennie Jack Hays, the second-highest-ranking Klansman in Alabama, had said at a KKK meeting after the mistrial, and two days before Donald’s death, “If a black man can kill a white man, a white man should be able to get away with killing a black man.” Hays told the two Klansmen who eventually carried out the lynching that they shouldn’t do it until after he closed on the sale of a pair of properties on the street where they intended to leave the body.

“The police department told me when they looked at it, ‘You’ll never solve that case, it’s just an unsolvable case,’” said Bob Eddy, a former state criminal investigator who worked the Donald case. “You just have to know the climate in those times, most of those guys who were law enforcement, not all of them, but most of those guys, a lot of those guys, they didn’t care if you killed a black guy.”

The Donald family later said that the motivation behind the murder was immediately obvious to them. “Black people don’t hang people,” Donald’s sister Betty Wyatt told Michael Wilson of the Mobile Register in 1997. The black community in Mobile organized protests to express their frustration with authorities and the lack of progress in the case, and civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Joseph Lowery urged them to keep up the fight.

Michael Figures’s brother Thomas, an assistant U.S. attorney then working under Jeff Sessions, and the only black assistant U.S. attorney in the state, watched as the local authorities botched the investigation. According to Leamer, Thomas Figures was “endlessly” persistent in trying to get the civil-rights division in Washington, D.C., to reopen the investigation into Donald’s murder, and worked with an FBI agent named James Bodman to obtain the evidence needed to reopen the case. The New York Times Magazine and the Mobile Register likewise credited Figures as the driving force behind getting the Justice Department to take a second look at the killing.

“Mr. Figures definitely did not want the case to end,” Sessions testified in 1986. By 1983, the FBI had reopened the investigation and managed to get one of the local Klansmen to slip up and implicate one of the murderers. “After hearing a lot of lies and following many unproductive leads, Figures and Bodman uncovered one key fact,” that on the night of the murder, one of the perpetrators had “returned to Bennie Hays's house with blood on his shirt,” the New York Times Magazine reported in 1986. “With this new evidence, the Justice Department convened an investigative grand jury in Mobile.”

By Kowalski’s account, which is backed up by Eddy and others, Sessions played a “supervisory role” and “couldn’t have been more cooperative and helpful in the case.” For instance, Kowalski recalled Sessions allowing them to use his office to interview Klan members, who Kowalski said found the official trappings of a federal prosecutor’s office intimidating.

“Sessions asked what we needed, and I said, in order to get a capital murder conviction, we need these things, and he said that in that regard whatever the federal agents did or the FBI did he would make those things available,” said then-Assistant District Attorney Thomas Harrison, who prosecuted Hays in state court. “He did in fact do that.”

Chris Galanos, the District Attorney and lead prosecutor on the case before he was replaced by Harrison, claims that he and Sessions were the reason the federal investigation into Donald’s murder was reopened. “I believed then, and I believe now,” Galanos said, “that were it not for his assistance, the case would have remained unsolved for an indefinite length of time.” (Most accounts, including that of Leamer, the New York Times Magazine, the Mobile Register, do not describe the investigation this way––the latter two do not even mention Sessions in their lengthy accounts of the case).

Figures recalled a more complicated story as far as Sessions’s involvement is concerned.

In 1986, Figures testified before the Senate that while it was “literally true” that Sessions had not “obstructed the investigation of the murder of Michael Donald,” Sessions had “tried to persuade me to discontinue pursuit of the case.” Figures said that Sessions “remarked, with regard to the investigation, that the case was a waste of time, that it wasn’t going anywhere, that I should spend more time on other things, and that, if the perpetrators were found, I would not be assigned to the case.” Figures told the Senate that after the case went to the grand jury, and it “became increasingly apparent that we were going to break the case, Mr. Sessions attitude changed” and that he supported the prosecution.

Sessions’s statements to the Senate in 1986 about his supervisory role in the case are more modest than what he and his supporters say today, and while his testimony at the time generally did not directly contradict Figures’s account, Sessions insisted that he did not urge Figures to drop the case.

“He asked the FBI to go out and re-interview witnesses, and I concurred in that, or I was aware of it, and they were reinterviewed,” Sessions said. “And I remember distinctly saying, ‘We need to know who did this murder, and we do not have proof now, but we need to go do something about it.’”

In his 2016 Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire, Sessions wrote “When I became the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, I, along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Figures and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, worked to solve the murder.” The questionnaire also accurately identifies Hays as the “son of the local Klan chieftain.”

The federal attorneys were ultimately successful in forcing one of the perpetrators, Tiger Knowles, to testify against his accomplice Henry Hays, Bennie Hays’s son, and to plead guilty to a federal civil rights charge. The evidence they collected gave the state the crucial support it needed to pursue a murder charge against Hays.

Hays was prosecuted in state court by Harrison, a local assistant district attorney. Kidnapping and murder were not capital offenses, so in order to make Hays eligible for the death penalty, state prosecutors argued that Hays’s theft of a dollar from Donald turned the crime into murder in the course of a robbery––a crime punishable by death.

“The amount is not relevant, it’s the fact that he stole, that he took something from somebody holding a gun on him saying, give me whatever’s in your pocket,” explained Harrison. “That constitutes robbery under the laws of the state of Alabama, and was sufficient to bump it up from a murder case to a capital murder case and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted a capital murder conviction of Henry Hays.”

It was a longshot, but the jury, and crucially, the judge, bought it. The jury convicted Hays and recommended life in prison, but the judge overturned the sentence and gave Hays the death penalty.

Hays was not the head of the KKK in Alabama, as Sessions would later claim to National Review––his father, Bennie Hays, was the second-highest-ranking Klansman. According to his brother Raymond, Henry, 27 at the time, committed the crime in part to impress his father, Raymond told the Register. Bennie Hays was later charged in connection with the murder, but he died in 1993 before he could be convicted.

Sessions has suggested that he played a major role in deciding that the case be tried in state court. “I insisted that the case eventually developed against one of the klansmen be sent to state court and tried there, despite our desire to be involved in it, because Alabama had the death penalty or life without parole,” Sessions testified in 1986.

But he had little choice––at the time, there was no way to prosecute a racist murder under federal law. The only option would have been an endlessly convoluted charge of conspiracy to deprive black defendants of a fair trial by intimidating witnesses, a crime in which Donald would not even have been the victim.

“To try to explain that charge to a jury would not be easy, there was a lot more we had to prove than first-degree murder, and secondly our the federal system in this country, we give the primary authority for prosecuting criminal acts to the state,” Kowalski said. “So unless there’s a particular reason not to let a state go forward we normally let the state prosecute.”

That made prosecuting Hays in state court the obvious, if not only possible decision––one Kowalski said both he and Figures recommended to their respective bosses.

After Hays’s conviction and death sentence, Sessions served as Alabama attorney general during his appeal, and opposed ameliorating his sentence. He took that stand against the wishes of civil-rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which arranged for Hays’s representation by Rick Kerger during his appeal.

The author B.J. Hollars wrote in Thirteen Loops that Kerger was initially surprised by the request made by the NAACP LDF, but was told, “we work against the death penalty no matter who it’s directed against.”

That position persists to this day. As Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who gunned down nine black parishoners in a church in South Carolina in 2015 faced trial, NAACP LDF legal director Christina Swarns wrote a New York Times op-ed explaining that ”supporting the death penalty for Mr. Roof means supporting the use of a punishment that will continue to be inflicted on people who are nothing like him.”

s Alabama state prosecutors were trying Henry Hays, the segregationist turned civil-rights activist and Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees was hatching a plan to go after the United Klans of America as a whole, by trying them to the killing and suing them in civil court. The UKA was involved in many of the most infamous racist crimes of the civil-rights era, from the beating of freedom riders, to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, to the assassination of the civil-rights activist Viola Liuzzo.

The idea, Leamer wrote, was that Dees would accuse the UKA of having a mock military structure, meaning that the killing of Michael Donald was an act encouraged by the group’s leader Robert Shelton, making the UKA itself liable. Dees “did not intend to argue that Shelton was directly involved with the murder,” Leamer wrote. “Instead he would allege that the Imperial Wizard headed an organization with a military structure whose custom, practice, and policy was to advance the goal of white supremacy through violence.”

It was a risky legal theory, Leamer wrote––most of Dees’s colleagues at the SPLC didn’t think it would work, and the judge in the case was extraordinarily skeptical at the outset. But as Leamer and Hollars wrote, there were several factors that turned in Dees’s favor. The first was that Beulah Mae Donald, Michael Donald’s mother, who was represented by Thomas Figures’s brother Michael, agreed to allow the case to be filed in her name. Shelton’s attorney, John Mays, did not offer a defense, or seek a directed verdict from the judge. Dees skillfully played the Klan members against one another, obtaining internal UKA documents that would prove to be pivotal during the trial, and he exploited Mays’s failure to take the case seriously.

But the most powerful moment during the trial was the testimony of Tiger Knowles, who stoically recited his role in the murder, apologized to Beulah Mae Donald, and implicated the Klan as an organization in Donald’s death, imploring the jury to find the UKA liable.

“I do hope you decide a judgment against me and everyone else involved. And whatever it is, it may make a hardship,” Knowles told the court. “But I hope you decide on it. Because you people need to understand that this can’t happen.”

The jury returned a $7 million verdict that bankrupted the organization, leaving one of the most dangerous iterations of the KKK fatally weakened. In 1994, Shelton told the Associated Press that ''The Klan is my belief, my religion. But it won't work anymore. The Klan is gone. Forever.''

Richard Cohen, the legal director of the SPLC, and one of the attorneys representing the Donald family, said that “in addition to helping to develop the evidence in the criminal investigation that we used, Sessions’s office was helpful in arranging for an FBI agent to testify for us at the civil trial.”

It was however, the civil case pursued by the SPLC, not the prosecution of Henry Hays, that “broke the Klan in the heart of dixie.” Hays was not the head of the KKK in Alabama, and he was prosecuted by state authorities, not the U.S. attorney’s office. And according to Sessions’s former subordinate Thomas Figures, that prosecution would never have occurred had Sessions had his way.

Figures was later charged with attempting to bribe a witness in a drug case. He was acquitted, and went on to serve as a municipal judge. His supporters argued that the charge was retaliation for his testimony against Sessions, who said he had recused himself from the case. Asked by the New York Times about the allegation, Sessions said "I'm sorry people see it that way. It is a matter I would like to see behind me, and I'm sorry to see it come up again."

essions’s role in investigating the Donald murder has been a go-to rebuttal to the decades-old allegations of racism.

“Those who try to argue that Sessions is a racist have to reckon with his legal track record — a record that included pursuing the ultimate penalty against a Klan killer,” wrote David French in National Review.

While Sessions’s remarks about race are likely what derailed his nomination to a federal judgeship in 1986, civil-rights groups today have focused not just on those remarks, but also on the record on civil rights he has amassed since. Given that many of these groups have consistently opposed the use of the death penalty, Sessions’s support for its use in the Donald case seems more likely to reinforce than to allay their concerns.

It would be out of character for Sessions not to have supported the death penalty in the Donald case––Sessions is such a staunch supporter of the death penalty that in 2002 he publicly opposed the Supreme Court decision ruling that execution of mentally disabled people violated the Constitution. “The Court seemed to say that they had divined, somehow, that the American people had evolved in their thinking and, therefore, the laws their legislatures had passed were not valid anymore that they could not execute people who were retarded,” Sessions said.

Supporters have repeatedly pointed to Sessions’s record to insist that he is in fact a champion of civil rights. But as in the Donald case, those claims have rarely held up to close scrutiny. Despite once claiming to have filed dozens of desegregation cases, Sessions appears to have filed none––instead taking credit for work done by the civil-rights division on which his signature was included merely as a formality. By contrast, one of Sessions’s signature efforts as a prosecutor was an attempt to convict three voting-rights activists on charges of fraud for assisting elderly voters in filling out ballots.

Sessions’s record as a senator has led civil-rights groups, including the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Color of Change, to oppose his nomination and question whether he would fairly administer laws protecting against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. He opposed the decriminalization of homosexual sex, opposed same-sex marriage, blamed school shootings on laws protecting disabled students, and supported the Supreme Court decision striking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act, saying “now if you go to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren't being denied the vote because of the color of their skin." More recently, he was among the first to back Donald Trump’s proposal for a ban on Muslims entering the country, and trivialized the president-elect’s admission of sexual assault.

The Trump transition has urged supporters to highlight Sessions’s “strong civil rights record.” But the more closely that record is examined, the less it looks like the record of a civil-rights advocate of any kind, and the more it appears to be the standard, unremarkable record of a longtime conservative Republican from a Southern state.

Did Brazil’s evangelical superstar have her husband killed?

W hen Flordelis dos Santos de Souza boarded an air force jet from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília on the morning of 1 January 2019, she felt she was witnessing the beginning of a new dawn. Brazil was about to install a far-right religious nationalist, Jair Bolsonaro, as president, and she, a black gospel singer from one of Rio’s most violent and impoverished favelas, had won a seat in parliament, asserting her place among her country’s powerful evangelical elite. At 57, she was a church leader and a social crusader, celebrated for standing up to some of Rio’s most dangerous gangsters and for taking in dozens of children rescued from lives of deprivation and crime. She had devoted her life to building a multimillion-dollar evangelical empire, which had grown to include nine churches. Now she was a politician, too.

At her side was her husband, Anderson do Carmo de Souza, also a preacher, 16 years her junior, who managed her political career. “I want to thank all of you who had faith and gave Flor a place in this movement to change Brazil, isn’t that right love?” Anderson said into a camera as the pair stood on the airport runway, waiting to fly to the capital at the invitation of one of the country’s most powerful politicians, Rodrigo Maia, then speaker of the lower house.

By that time, Flordelis was one of the most famous evangelical figures in Brazil. Thousands would gather each week at her churches – collectively known as the Ministério Flordelis – to sing along as she belted out feelgood anthems with names such as God’s in Control and Justice Will Come. The largest venue – a converted bus depot that regularly held 5,000 worshippers – was called the Cidade do Fogo, or City of Fire. In a gift shop at the entrance you could buy white coffee mugs stamped with Flordelis’s picture and the message: “A miracle awaits you!!”

Flordelis was not just known for her charismatic preaching. Over the previous four decades, she had built an extraordinary family around her. In addition to her three biological children, she had formally and informally adopted dozens more, and taken in others who had turned up at the family home and never left. The precise number of adopted children is unclear, but the most commonly cited number is 55. Her husband had been one of them, joining her household at the age of 15.

A video posted on Flordelis’s official YouTube channel shows her sweeping through congress on the day of Bolsonaro’s investiture, chatting to members of an almost entirely white, male cast of political heavyweights including Bolsonaro’s chief of staff and his senator son, Flávio. In a packed hall, she cheered the new leader’s slogan: “Brazil above everything! God above all!”

“I’ll never forget that day,” Flordelis told me just over two years later, in April 2021, over coffee at her house. Her light brown eyes sparkled as she recounted her first experience of life among Brazil’s ruling class. “I was at the presidential inauguration and all I could think about was the little girl from the favela, you know?” she said. “I was over the moon – happy, happy, happy. I’d achieved things I could never have dreamed of. God went so far beyond my dreams, so very far.”

But just a few months after Flordelis became a congresswoman, everything fell apart. On 16 June 2019, according to her account, she and her husband spent a romantic evening strolling down Rio’s Copacabana beach before pulling over to make love on the bonnet of their car as they drove home.

When they arrived at their gated house in Niterói, a city across the bay from Rio, at around 3am, Flordelis claims she went upstairs, leaving Anderson in the garage, looking at something on his phone. Moments later, he was shot.

Two of her sons drove Anderson to hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Speaking to journalists later that day, Flordelis wept and claimed that her husband had been the victim of a botched robbery and had died defending their family. But within hours of the shooting, police had detained two of the couple’s children – Flordelis’s 38-year-old biological son Flávio, and an adopted son, Lucas, who was 18. Not long after the arrest, Flávio reportedly confessed to shooting Anderson.

In the following days, the Brazilian media carried lurid details about the murder, including claims that the pastor had been found semi-naked, and that he had been shot multiple times in the groin. They also alleged that the couple might have spent part of the evening at a swingers club. Most shocking of all, some speculated that Flordelis herself was behind Anderson’s death.

A year later, in August 2020, police formally charged Flordelis with masterminding her husband’s murder. Several of her children and a granddaughter were also charged. Parliamentary privilege meant that, unlike the other 10 alleged co-conspirators, Flordelis was not sent to prison before the trial. Instead, her movements were restricted and she was ordered to wear an ankle bracelet, which she concealed beneath floor-length dresses when she attended court.

“She’s 100% innocent,” Flordelis’s bear-like lawyer Anderson Rollemberg told me as he muscled his way through a scrum of journalists to one of her first hearings, in late November 2020. The trial was held in a 12th-floor courtroom that looked out on Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue. Despite all the attention and resources that had gone into the investigation, the case remained mysterious. Even within Flordelis’s own household, nothing seemed certain.

T he favela where Flordelis was born, Jacarezinho, is one of the biggest in Rio: a riverside tumble of tin-roofed shacks on the city’s industrial north side. According to local historian Gabriel Rumba, its first inhabitants were runaway slaves, who set up homes on what was then farmland, seeking refuge from slave patrols in the late 19th century. Over the following decades, Jacarezinho developed into a sprawling favela, housing as many as 60,000 people.

In 1961, the year Flordelis was born, two revolutions – one spiritual, the other criminal – were under way, which would reshape the community and Brazil itself. Although Jacarezinho had long been steeped in samba music and Afro-Brazilian faiths such as Umbanda and Candomblé, by the 60s, when Flordelis’s mother, Carmozina, converted to Christianity and joined the Assemblies of God pentecostal church, that was starting to change. The Assemblies of God had been imported into the Brazilian Amazon half a century earlier by two Swedish evangelists. Missionaries from this and other pentecostal churches had found millions of ready converts among the country’s marginal populations, from isolated Amazon settlements to urban slums such as Jacarezinho. “Pentecostalism was just really good at helping people, especially poor people, cope with the problems they faced,” said Amy Erica Smith, an American academic who has studied Brazil’s evangelical boom.

Pastors promised struggling families that they could turn their lives around immediately – getting their children off drugs, their husbands to stop drinking, and helping them save money. The slogan of another pentecostal juggernaut, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which was founded in Rio in 1977, was simply “Pare de Sofrer!” (“Stop Suffering!”). This was an easier message to sell than the immense structural change proposed by Catholic Liberation Theologians, said Smith.

Pentecostalism was more fun too. “People could get up and dance.” In just a few decades, Brazil, a traditionally Catholic nation, would become home to one of the world’s largest evangelical Protestant populations.

In 1976, when Flordelis was 15, her father, Francisco – the accordionist in a Christian group – was killed in a road accident. In their grief, she and her mother threw themselves into religion. Her mother would hold regular prayer sessions for the poor at their family home, a redbrick shack down a tapered Jacarezinho back-alley called Guarani Street, and Flordelis would sing at these meetings.

Flordelis and her mother founded a local storefront church. And as their congregation of factory workers and domestic workers grew, outside in the streets another transformation was taking place. During the 80s, Jacarezinho was already associated with a generation of gangsters whose nicknames – Half-Kilo, Fatty, Stepladder – hinted at their reputations as benevolent, if sometimes violent, rogues. Towards the end of the 80s, cocaine and automatic weapons began flooding Rio’s cinder-block favelas, raising the murder rate to one of the highest in the world. Between 1980 and 1994, violent deaths tripled. At its worst, the body count in Rio was more than 11 a day.

Hélio Luz, who ran Rio’s civil police during the early 90s, told me about the first time he seized an automatic weapon from a teenage boy during a raid on a favela just south of Jacarezinho in the early 80s. “I was like, damn, what’s this bloody kid doing with that?” he said. A few years later, such sights had become normal.

Flordelis and Anderson (in cap) photographed in 2009 with her biological and adopted children. Photograph: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

By the mid-90s, a struggle for control of the favelas was raging between three different drug factions and the police – a conflict that has since claimed thousands of mostly young black lives. Flordelis, then in her early 30s, set out to save young gang members from prison or a violent death. Each Friday at midnight, she and a posse of adolescent followers would set out from her church and trawl the dingy back alleys, on a mission to confront young gangsters and convert them. She called it Evangelismo da Madrugada (Pre-dawn Preaching).

“Nobody did the kind of work we did,” Flordelis told me. “My mum thought I was mad. My family thought I was mad. Everyone thought I was mad. But my desire to do something has always spoken louder than common sense. Flordelis can’t live if she’s not doing something for someone else.” (She often refers to herself in the third person.)

One night, Flordelis recalled, she ran into a drug trafficker called Cocada, who had recently become the local boss. She was surrounded by his heavily armed entourage. “You’re the boss of nothing, not even your own nose,” she scolded him. “Because if my God wants to, he’ll turn you into a leper right now and your nose will fall off and there’ll be nothing you can do.”

“She’s crazy – she’s nuts,” Cocada scoffed, according to Flordelis’s account, and ordered his men to let her pass.

“What others call madness, we evangelicals call the authority of God,” Flordelis said.

For the local boys who Flordelis enlisted to her late-night salvation army, these sorties into drug dens and cocaine-fuelled dance parties in search of lost souls were an unforgettable adventure. “It was such a thrill,” Wagner Andrade Pimenta, one of Flordelis’s first foster sons, told me. “We were in awe of her and felt honoured to be part of that group.” Flordelis had found her following.

W agner was 12 or 13 when he joined Flordelis on her divine mission. He abandoned his family and moved into the first floor of “Mother Flor’s” overcrowded house on Guarani Street, where Flordelis’s three biological children – Simone, Flávio and Adriano – and at least five other local teens were already living. Wagner told me he considered his new mother an instrument of God.

According to Flordelis’s autobiography, published in 2011, the first to arrive had been Carlos, a 19-year-old cocaine addict and low-level drug trafficker whose cousin was one of Jacarezinho’s most notorious killers. At home, Carlos’s task had been to stash weapons – “He even hid grenades under his own mother’s mattress once,” Flordelis wrote – and he had sought shelter with Flordelis in the hope of escaping the drug world. Next came André and Valdemir, who were running from problems at home. Valdemir only stayed briefly, but André, whose brothers were involved in drugs, became a permanent fixture. Then came Luan, a 14-year-old who, according to Flordelis, “had suffered very serious family conflicts”.

Flordelis brushed off my questions about whether it was a good idea for so many young men to be living with a much older woman they hardly knew. “I always say to them that they weren’t invited into my life, they invaded it,” she said.

There was a fifth young man among the residents of Flordelis’s home by the time Wagner arrived, although this detail is omitted from her official biography. His name was Anderson do Carmo de Souza and, according to his family lawyer, Ângelo Máximo, he was a local boy who had briefly dated Flordelis’s daughter, Simone.

Máximo told me Anderson was 15 when he moved into the house on Guarani Street in 1992. Flordelis was 31. By that time, Máximo claims that they were an item. “He fell in love – and off he went … normal teenage behaviour,” Máximo said. (Flordelis maintains they met at her church and did not start a relationship until he was 18.)

Flordelis and some of her children at home in 2009. Photograph: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

By February 1994, at least 10 people appear to have been living at Guarani Street when, according to Flordelis, 37 street children, including 14 babies, appeared on her doorstep. They had allegedly been shot at as they slept near the railway station in Rio’s dilapidated downtown. Somehow the survivors made their way to Flordelis’s house. “I didn’t know anything about child protection laws,” she admitted. “When I saw those children I said, ‘I’m going to keep them’ – and I did. The way I saw things, God had sent me those children. He had sent them to Flor-de-lis,” she said, emphasising the syllables of her name.

Wagner remembered Flordelis’s house – which, by the mid-90s, had almost 50 residents – as a crowded and squalid place. Residents slept on the sitting-room floor or even under the kitchen table. In one bedroom, Wagner claimed, there were a dozen or so babies sharing cots, whom the older boys would feed and bathe. “Anyone who sat on the sofa caught scabies,” said Wagner. “Every time. Just imagine all those people living together.”

But it was also a time of optimism and ambition. “At the start, there was this real feeling of union, of unity. It was all so new, so exciting,” Wagner recalled. “And we scraped by and built this big family.”

B razilian journalists started turning up at the favela to hear the tale of the thirtysomething woman with nearly 50 kids. “It was odd because she was this young, beautiful girl – and there were so many children,” said Priscila Brandão, a reporter from Brazil’s top broadcaster, TV Globo, who was among the first to visit the home, in July 1994.

Brandão’s 70-second report offered a glimpse of life inside Flordelis’s unconventional shelter. In one image, around 10 children and a teenage boy huddle in front of a small television. In another, a scraggly-haired Flordelis holds a small baby in a white bib and pink shorts. Anderson – then 17 and, according to Máximo, already the head of the family – appears leaning against a wall. He has the shy and surly look of a teenager, and has one arm around the shoulder of a much younger girl. “I remember there was this smell of rotten fruit, because stallholders at the market would give her their throwaways, and that was how she’d feed the kids,” said Brandão. “But we didn’t get the impression anything bad was going on.”

Flordelis told me that those early reports brought the attention of child welfare officers whose scrutiny forced her largely undocumented clan to flee Guarani Street and go into hiding in a series of temporary homes. But they also brought some more favourable publicity. In the years that followed, Flordelis and Anderson, who was by then her husband, paraded their family on TV chatshows watched by tens of millions of viewers. They were hailed as heroes. “Flordelis is a real mum – a special mum,” gushed one of Brazil’s most celebrated television presenters, Xuxa Meneghel, as she welcomed Flordelis’s family on to a Mother’s Day special in 2002.

Wealthy and influential benefactors appeared, including Marco Antonio Ferraz, a fashion photographer who made it his mission to help Flordelis. Two weeks after Flordelis’s appearance on Meneghel’s programme, Ferraz travelled to the home where Flordelis and Anderson were raising their family in Jacarepaguá, on the westside of Rio. “They were facing real deprivation. They hardly had any food. No luxuries whatsoever,” he said. “And I decided to fight their corner.”

Ferraz’s first impression of Flordelis was that she was timid. “She hardly looked me in the eye,” he said. “She becomes this hurricane when she picks up the microphone and she has to sing or to preach the gospel – but she’s actually extremely shy.”

Walking around Jacarezinho with Flordelis, Ferraz was bowled over by the scenes of violence and heroism he saw. On one visit he remembers they came across a 13- or 14-year-old boy who was being dragged away by drug traffickers, and Flordelis intervened. “She didn’t allow it. It happened right in front of me. I saw it. It took me a week to get my head back to normal,” he said. On another occasion they ran into the boss of the favela as he and his troops patrolled the area. “She asked him to put down his gun. I remember this clearly,” Ferraz said. “It was a machine gun and he took it off and she prayed for him … For me it was surreal. For her it was normal.” Ferraz remembers gang members shedding tears as Flordelis spoke, telling them to lay down their weapons and surrender to Jesus. “I saw this kind of thing so many times. I saw her do so much good.”

In the following years, Ferraz became one of Flordelis’s most energetic champions and closest friends, using his contacts to secure her donations of food and clothes – including, he says, Dior handbags – and to further her career. “We had this way of introducing her: ‘Look, this is Flordelis, this lady who has 55 adopted children, and we’re going to do projects to try to help her,’” he said.

Ferraz decided to make a film about Flordelis’s activism in the favela, and he recruited Brazilian soap opera stars for the project. “It was wonderful,” Flordelis told me. “When you’re born and raised in the favela you never imagine that one day you’ll get right up close to the people you’re used to seeing on TV … Suddenly they were inside my home. I considered it a miracle.”

In October 2009, the film premiered at Rio’s international film festival, and Flordelis’s family got a red carpet reception. Flordelis blew kisses to the cameras just as she had seen Oscar-nominated actors doing on television. “I felt like a real artist,” she told me. The film was a flop, but for a while it helped Flordelis and Anderson to pay the bills. According to Ferraz, Anderson carried around suitcases of pirate DVD copies that they would sell after church services.

Flordelis in one of her music videos. Photograph: Screengrab/MK Music/Flordelis/YouTube

The film also helped land Flordelis a record deal with one of Brazil’s top gospel labels, MK Music. Over the next decade, Flordelis released five albums, featuring songs of redemption and self-help that are sung in pentecostal churches across Brazil to this day. They brought her a huge audience. In 2017, she and Anderson performed for tens of thousands of fans on Copacabana beach at a gospel event called the Louvorzão or Big Worship. They also made her rich. “I earned more than I do now as a congresswoman,” she said. “There were months where I earned more than 150,000 reais (about £20,000) a month,” a vast sum in a country where the minimum monthly wage is 1,100 (£146).

Flordelis and pastor Anderson travelled the world, visiting the US and Europe on numerous occasions. During one trip to New York she remembered her husband falling to his knees in Times Square, throwing open his arms and bellowing: “From the favela to New York, my love! Only God does this!” Flordelis told me they had stood there hugging and crying in disbelief: “I will never, ever, ever forget it.”

A s her fame grew, Flordelis began to believe she had a future in politics. In the four decades since she opened her first church, Brazil’s evangelical community had exploded in size, from less than 7% of the population in 1980 to more than 22% in 2010 – and as much as 30% today. The number of evangelical politicians in the lower house of congress had risen from 21 in 1994 to 69 in 2016. That same year, Bolsonaro, a Catholic congressman and aspiring presidential, flew to Israel to be immersed in the river Jordan, in what many saw as a tactic to win over evangelical voters.

In 2018, Flordelis decided she would try to join the so-called Bible Caucus, embarking on an exhausting marathon of church appearances she hoped would translate into votes. “You’ve no idea how hard I worked,” said Flordelis, who ran for office as part of a joint ticket with her political mentor, the evangelical media mogul and MK Music boss Arolde de Oliveira, and Flávio Bolsonaro, the president’s rightwing senator son. “I’d visit churches morning, noon and night. I’d do three or four services each night.”

Those appearances paid off. On Sunday 7 October 2018, a total of 196,959 voters put their faith in Flordelis, a huge victory that propelled her into the Chamber of Deputies representing Rio de Janeiro. “We won! Thank you to the Lord Jesus Christ, who has always blessed us, to my family and to you!” she tweeted as she prepared to begin her four-year term in congress. “Our work is only just getting started.”

Four months later, in February 2019, Wagner flew to Brasília with his wife, Luana Rangel, to watch Flordelis be sworn in. “We felt so proud,” he said. “It was such an achievement. That whole journey from Jacarezinho – all the persecution, hardship and poverty – and you make it all the way to Brasília.” Wagner’s wife, who he had met while she was working as one of Flordelis’s assistants, remembers sitting in the congressional chambers, munching on nibbles as Flordelis was sworn in. “The pastor [Anderson] was so happy,” she told me. “Like a chick running around in the trash.”

Flordelis in Brazil’s chamber of deputies in October 2020. Photograph: Michel Jesus/Brazilian Chamber of Deputies/AFP/Getty Images

The Bolsonaro administration, whose hardline conservative agenda had been backed by 70% of evangelical voters, welcomed Flordelis with open arms. Brazil’s first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro, invited her to breakfast at the spectacular, marble-clad Alvorada presidential residence on the banks of the Paranoá lake. “Wow! Yet another magical moment in my life! Walking around that house. Having breakfast with the first lady!” Flordelis told me. “It was just wonderful to be there with her!”

Yet Wagner and Luana sensed something was amiss. Flordelis had become “much more haughty” after her election, claimed Luana. “You know: someone who’s never had anything and who suddenly has it all?” She added: “She always thought she was a star – but when she became a congresswoman her tone was like she didn’t need us any more.”

Some feared the couple’s successes had also gone to pastor Anderson’s head. “He wasn’t a saint,” Ferraz, the photographer, told me. He was worried by his friend’s unhealthy affection for the trappings of power and wealth. “He loved this. He loved it.”

One morning during their trip to Brasília, over breakfast at Flordelis’s airy official flat near the congress building, Luana claims to have overheard a strange conversation between Flordelis and her daughter Simone. “I remember Simone said to Flor, almost joking, something like: ‘Mum, now you’re a congresswoman, we don’t need him any more do we?’ And I was like: ‘You don’t need who?’” Wagner, too, recalls disconcerting remarks about Anderson. “He won’t make it through this year,” he claims Flordelis told him in early 2019. “He’s hindering the work of God.”

According to police chief Allan Duarte, the head of the murder investigation, by the time Wagner and Luana claim to have been hearing hints that Anderson’s life was under threat, Flordelis’s plan to murder her husband had long been in the works. “She’s cold. She’s calculating. She’s sly,” Duarte said when we met at his rundown police station in a poor neighbourhood on the edge of Rio. At the station’s front desk, beside copies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine The Watchtower, a list of recently murdered police officers, and an advert for Narcotics Anonymous, investigators had pasted a quotation from Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish conservative often cited by Bolsonaro supporters. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil,” it said, “is for good men to do nothing.”

In nearly a decade working murder cases, Duarte estimates he has been involved in about 1,000 investigations – 90% linked to the ongoing war between drug traffickers, police and the paramilitary gangs who now control swathes of Rio. But Anderson’s murder, which took place just five miles away, was different: “It was the first time I’d come across this kind of situation: an intra-family criminal organisation whose [sole] objective was to snuff out the life of a relative.” Duarte claimed the conspiracy had started a year earlier, and had been led by Flordelis, who allegedly resented Anderson’s insistence on controlling the family finances. “I consider Flordelis a psychopath,” Duarte told me.

Anderson do Carmo de Souza preaching in Rio in 2018, a year before he was shot dead. Photograph: YouTube/Congresso Internacional de Missões

Interviews with witnesses suggested that the plot included at least one attempt to hire a hitman, as well as repeated efforts to kill Anderson by poisoning his food. Police IT experts had discovered that one of Flordelis’s informally adopted daughters, Marzy, had used her phone to search the internet for terms including: “Poison to kill a person that is lethal and easy to buy” and “Where to find a killer”. After those efforts failed, Duarte believes a plan was hatched for Flávio and Lucas, another of the couple’s unofficially adopted sons, to shoot their father. Armed with 8,500 reais (£1,100), they bought a pistol from a contact in the Complexo da Maré, a sprawling slum near Rio’s international airport, and at about 3.30am on Sunday 16 June 2019, Flávio allegedly fired the shots that killed him.

“We were at home sleeping when we were woken up by a call telling us that the pastor had been shot,” Wagner recalled. “When my wife answered the phone we looked at each other and said: ‘They’ve done it.’”

By 4am, Wagner and Luana were outside the local hospital, where Wagner says he saw Flávio crouched on the pavement, and another brother, who had apparently helped bring Anderson in, covered in blood. Flordelis arrived about an hour later, in tears. “We’d lived together for 30 years – so we know each other pretty well,” Wagner told me. “She was acting.”

I n late 2020, as Flordelis and her alleged accomplices went through a series of preliminary hearings, each morning the corridor outside the courtroom would fill with Brazilian reporters, documentary crews, bloggers and even a few foreign correspondents, who would pounce on Flordelis as she emerged from the lift with her entourage. “I’m in search of the truth – all I want is the truth,” she told me one afternoon in mid-December as she walked out of her latest hearing into a sweaty ruck of cameramen.

Inside the courtroom, Flordelis looked diminished, staring mournfully into her lap, scribbling in a notebook or clasping her hands as if in prayer as the details of her alleged crime were recounted. Just behind her sat seven of her children and one grandchild, handcuffed and glum, with whom she was forbidden to communicate. Armed policemen with their blood types sewn on to their grey uniforms patrolled the public gallery.

Occasional flickers of Flordelis’s former glory could be seen. With her immaculate salmon-coloured nails, dresses and black stilettos, she could still look like a gospel superstar. At times her charisma shone through, as she fended off the charges in her preacher’s voice. “I’ve been accused of ordering my husband’s murder for power and money. But what power? What money?” she asked the court one Friday afternoon in December 2020 after a five-hour cross-examination.

It was around this time that I began visiting Jacarezinho in search of people who had known Flordelis. In the 30 years since her midnight preaching missions, the favela has become one of Rio’s most dangerous districts: a stronghold of the Red Command drug faction hidden behind barricades made from steel train tracks and stolen concrete pipes. These days, the graffiti-scrawled streets are patrolled by a ragtag army of young gang members, automatic rifles draped over their shoulders and two-way radios strapped to their belts, while drug dealers call out the prices of their wares. When I mentioned to Duarte that I had been reporting in Jacarezinho, he said air support from armoured helicopters was generally needed for his police colleagues to enter the favela. “We’re at war here,” he said.

Many locals were reluctant to speak openly about their community’s fallen star. But one of my guides, a stocky, gravel-voiced preacher named Norma Bastos, was eager to tell the story of how Flordelis had changed her life. “My God, how that woman fought and how she suffered,” Bastos said one afternoon as we sat on white plastic garden chairs in her small riverside church, a 10-minute hike from Flordelis’s former home. Even three decades later, Bastos said she could remember the first time she saw Flordelis in action, coming to the rescue of a teenager who was living rough further up the favela in an area called Azul. Flordelis couldn’t persuade him to come home with her, so she lay down with him in the dirt, and spent the whole night by his side. “She did such great work here in Jacarezinho,” Bastos said, “and this can’t be forgotten. God hasn’t forgotten.”

Flordelis at a court hearing in December last year. Photograph: Ellan Lustosa/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Bastos was once a gang member, known as Auntie Norma, who would smuggle guns between Jacarezinho and another favela. She had a penchant for Ballantine’s whisky, and used the bar she ran to stash drugs. Then, a decade ago, her life changed for ever. One of her sons, Jeferson, was holding up cars for money when he was gunned down by police. “A single shot through the heart,” Bastos remembered, tears rolling down her cheeks. “There was this giant hole in his back. You could fit your hand into it.”

Today, Bastos, now 58, runs her own church, the Ministry of Cristaline Water, and inspired by Flordelis, she has embarked on a mission to save young men like her son. Bastos said she “feels such love” for Jacarezinho’s teenage gang members. “It’s as if they’re my own children, who came from my own womb.” On one occasion, Bastos said, she rescued a young man who traffickers had wrapped head-to-toe in masking tape and were preparing to kill. “I ripped the tape off with my teeth.”

Although some of Flordelis’s followers still believed in her, Wagner told me he had severed ties with her in the days after the murder. When we met at his father-in-law’s seafront home on a stormy night just before Christmas last year, Wagner told me he had started to see his teenage experiences on Guarani Street in a different and disturbing light. Looking back, he felt he had been sucked into a cult-like organisation in which he and other impressionable teens were brainwashed by a much older authority figure. As rain lashed the elegant, multi-storey residence, he recalled strange rituals in a cramped prayer room where plaster dolls and melons and sugar and honey were used to cast spells on potential benefactors who Flordelis hoped might help the family.

Wagner claimed that as part of their initiation Flordelis would baptise her followers with the names of biblical figures. Anderson became “Niel” after Daniel, the Old Testament exile whose name means “God is my judge”. Wagner became “Misael” after Daniel’s son Meshach, a name he still uses to this day. “From now on Wagner is dead and you are my spiritual child,” he remembered Flordelis telling him.

“Today it all seems like such madness,” said Wagner. “But I believed it back then – that I was an angel sent by God, a heavenly child sent to help her to carry out a mission here on Earth.” He went along with Flordelis’s story for nearly 30 years, becoming one of her most trusted aides and a preacher himself. DVDs sold at the City of Fire show the two standing side by side on stage. But these days, he told me, he was convinced most of her mythology was lies.

Chief Duarte – who named his murder investigation Luke:12 because of that chapter’s focus on hypocrisy and lies – told me that police had found no evidence of the train station shooting that Flordelis used to explain the 37 children who ended up in her care. Months earlier, however, in July 1993, masked gunmen had opened fire on children sleeping outside the Candelaria church in central Rio. Duarte believed Flordelis’s train station shooting was a fabrication, a narrative she could sell to the press in order to secure financial support from NGOs and charities. “The press lives off sad stories and beautiful stories,” the police chief said. “This is a beautiful story that no one ever bothered to check.”

I n February 2021, as Flordelis turned 60, her evangelical empire was on the verge of collapse. It was six months after the murder charges were issued, and in Brasília, a congressional ethics committee was debating whether to strip Flordelis of her parliamentary immunity. In Rio, eight of her nine churches had closed. At Flordelis’s remaining church, the City of Fire, where thousands of worshippers had once let out ecstatic screams as she preached and sang, the mood was sombre as fewer than 100 of her remaining acolytes gathered to celebrate her birthday on a Sunday morning.

Flordelis, wearing a black-and-white polka-dot blouse and a long black skirt that covered the electronic tag on her ankle, put on a defiant face, gripped a microphone studded with fake diamonds, and assured them all was not lost. “If I’m here today it’s because of the power of prayer,” she declared, before belting out a succession of hits including The Dream Isn’t Dead, a song that describes how Joseph’s brothers conspired to murder him by throwing him down a well.

Huge stacks of unused chairs sat next to the stage, and hardly a soul entered the gift shop, where dust-covered DVDs were piled in the window. The church’s green room, which once hosted celebrities, politicians and church leaders, was almost empty. “They don’t talk to her, they don’t call … It’s ridiculous,” said Beatriz Paiva dos Santos, a gospel singer, who was one of the few friends to turn up. As she sank into a sofa opposite a wall covered in Flordelis’s gold discs, Beatriz insisted that her friend was the innocent victim of a media witch hunt. She said she had called Flordelis shortly after Anderson’s murder to assure her: “I know it wasn’t you.” “But even if it was, there would have had to have been a really good reason for you to have done it. Because you wouldn’t kill someone without having a motive,” Beatriz remembered saying.

After the birthday party, I drove to the nearby cemetery where Anderson was buried. There were no flowers and no loving words engraved on the marble plaque: just his name, the dates of his birth and death, and the grave number: “J.855 Hibiscus sector.” “It’s abandoned,” said a gravedigger. Apart from on the day of the funeral, he said had never seen Flordelis or any other family member visit the grave.

I n April, I received a message from Flordelis’s press officer, inviting me to her house. It was part of a media offensive apparently designed to win back public opinion and convince congress not to kick her out. Unfamiliar with the neighbourhood, an affluent enclave of an otherwise down-at-the-heel suburb, I arrived early and found a young man smoking a cigarette at the wooden gates. He introduced himself as Diogo and said he was one of the newest members of Flordelis’s family. Apparently he had come to visit from a neighbouring state a few months earlier and decided to stay.

Inside the property – a cluster of simple, pale yellow houses centred around a small and scummy swimming pool – I found Flordelis surrounded by a gaggle of young children whose precise identities I struggled to establish. She was wearing tight blue jeans and a necklace on which the letters of her name were spelled out on tiny multi-coloured cubes.

“How’s your family?” I asked her as we sat around a table near the kitchen.

“Surviving,” she replied wearily.

For the next three hours, flanked by press officers and aides, Flordelis tried to convince me she was being wronged, repeatedly shedding tears and clasping her hands as she insisted on her innocence. Prosecutors, she said, had failed to find any plausible motive for the crime. “They say it was about power and money. What power?” she demanded, repeating a line I had heard her say in court. “I’m the congresswoman. I’m the gospel singer with thousands of followers … So what power did I seek to steal from my husband? And what money? I was the one who lost the most here – it was me!”

Flordelis described herself as the victim of a misogynistic and racist conspiracy cooked up by powerful foes in the world of religion, politics and the media. “Flordelis from the favela treads on a lot of people’s toes,” she said. “And when they saw the chance to destroy me and push me off the political stage, of course they were going to do it.” Wagner’s allegations that she was leading a cult and had masterminded the murder, she said, were part of his own plot to take over her empire.

Her children had another motive for murder, she said. She had learned that her husband had committed “monstrosities” against her biological daughter, Simone. He had harassed and abused her under their own roof. Her only crime, she confided, was to have loved a man who could do such terrible things. “It’s something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life – that I failed as a mother,” she said.

The accusations of sexual abuse against Anderson had first emerged at a court hearing in January when Simone, 41, told the judge her stepfather had repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances while she was undergoing treatment for cancer in 2012. She had given her stepsister money to make it stop. “There was no plan. I was just desperate,” Simone said, explaining how she gave 5,000 reais (about £675) to Marzy in exchange for “her help”.

At the time, Flordelis’s lawyer, Anderson Rollemberg, seemed elated at Simone’s admission, which he claimed exonerated his client. On the steps outside court he announced: “We now know who the mastermind of the barbarous crime was: the daughter. A mother can’t be blamed for criminal acts her daughter might have committed.”

These accusations against the dead man were a lie, pastor Anderson’s lawyer, Ângelo Máximo, later told me: it was just another plot to help Flordelis escape jail, he claimed. “Everybody who lived in that house was interviewed by police and nobody ever said anything about rape or harassment,” said Máximo. “They killed the pastor for power and money … She [Flordelis] might not have seen the actual crime happen – but she knew and controlled everything that went on.”

A few weeks after my visit to Flordelis, a judge ruled that she would stand trial before a jury for aggravated murder with nine alleged accomplices, including her three biological children, Flávio, Simone and Adriano, her granddaughter Rayane and her adopted daughter Marzy. If convicted, Flordelis could face up to 30 years in jail. This week the congressional ethics committee voted to strip her of her mandate by an overwhelming 16 votes to one – a decision the lower house is almost certain to uphold when it holds the final vote.

It would be a dark end to a story that has fascinated the Brazilian public for years. Wagner told me he now suspected every step of his mother’s humanitarian crusade had been calculated to help her achieve power and fame – but he acknowledged that good had come from the process. “It was a farce – but as part of this farce she did truly help people along the way,” he said.

Whatever her motives, during my visits to Jacarezinho I had met several people whose lives Flordelis had transformed. One informally adopted son, Renato Campos, had faced almost certain death in the early 90s after crossing the favela’s drug bosses, and told me he would be forever grateful that the woman he still called “mum” had convinced them to spare him. Today, Campos is a father and a pastor who runs a vibrant church deep in the favela.

Watch the video: Barker sentenced to life in prison for 2016 Cotton District murder (July 2022).


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