FBI sting brings crime spree to an end

Jul. 13, 2013 @ 07:00 PM


The end came swiftly — and, surprisingly, without a fight — for North Carolina’s most-wanted desperados, Bill Payne and Wash Turner.
On Jan. 3, 1938 — nearly 11 months after their sensational escape from Caledonia Prison Farm with five other dangerous convicts — the longtime partners in crime fell into the clutches of heavily armed G-men in a sting reportedly overseen by the big man himself, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The bandits’ fearful reign of terror throughout the state — which included petty stick-ups, bold bank heists, multiple kidnappings and, ultimately, the slaying of a young highway patrolman — ended peaceably in the front seat of a stolen car, as the two men calmly surrendered with an arsenal of about a dozen submachine guns trained at their heads.
The capture went down in Sanford, in a precisely orchestrated sting operation so smooth and swift that most of the locals in the small Lee County town didn’t even know it had happened.
Around 6:45 p.m., Steele Street in downtown Sanford was unusually deserted, just the way the G-men had planned it. Only three strategically parked cars occupied the street, each of them packed with FBI agents itching to put the squeeze on the elusive outlaws once and for all.
Just as the G-men had been told would happen, Payne and Turner drove up and parked about half a block from the Wilrik Hotel, where they struck up a conversation with an acquaintance named Spud McLeod. The two wily criminals didn’t suspect a thing.
When a lookout agent watching from his room at the Wilrik gave the signal, the three FBI vehicles hastily surrounded the desperados’ car, and federal agents poured out into the street and swarmed Payne and Turner with weapons ready.
“We’ve got you, Payne, so take it easy!” an agent barked.
Despite having two pistols and a shotgun — all loaded — in their car, the two bad guys were so caught off-guard that they could offer no resistance. The G-men apprehended their stunned prey and whisked them away to the FBI office in Charlotte for questioning.
“Most remarkable thing of the capture was that not a single shot was fired,” Special Agent-in-charge Edward Scheidt told the press.
In addition to the pistols and shotgun, the G-men confiscated a cache of ammunition and burglary tools, including everything from sledgehammers and claw hammers to hacksaws, chisels and a crowbar.
According to reports, it was Payne’s bad-news gun moll — a spicy redhead named Joan Murphy — who betrayed him and led FBI agents to Sanford, in exchange for a lighter prison term of her own. Other reports indicated it was a man that blew the outlaws’ cover.
However it happened, the capture ended a wild crime spree that was the talk of the state for nearly 11 months, and newpapers practically gloated in reporting Payne and Turner’s capture.
“BILL PAYNE CAUGHT,” one paper reported in the big, bold letters usually reserved for war headlines. Over Payne’s mug shot, a caption read, “Believe It Or Not — Caught at Last!”
FBI agents grilled the two outlaws all night long, a relentless interview during which Payne revealed he and Turner had planned to knock over one more bank.
“Then we were going to skip the country,” he told investigators. “Maybe we should have left when we pulled the last one.”
A couple of days later, the two were transported to Asheville to face trial for the murder of George Penn. Payne confessed to the crime, just as Turner had done under questioning in Charlotte.
The state wasted no time in prosecuting the two prisoners. The trial began Jan. 25, a mere three weeks after their arrest, with a packed courtroom of curious spectators watching. Among the crowd were Margaret Penn of Carthage — the trooper’s mother, who was dressed in black and wept as she entered the courtroom — and Emma Payne of High Point, Bill Payne’s mother. She, too, wept at various times during the court proceedings.
Over five days, the state methodically laid out its case against Payne and Turner: Their escape from Caledonia and nearly yearlong reign of terror across North Carolina. The running gun battle as they fled from the young state trooper. The shootout near farmer Van Patton’s barn. Their desperate flight from the law again, an odyssey that included multiple car thefts and kidnappings.
The defense, meanwhile, contended the fleeing felons had a right to defend themselves, and further argued the trooper’s slaying did not constitute first-degree murder because it wasn’t premeditated. The state countered that the heavily armed outlaws had vowed to “shoot it out” rather than be captured and return to prison, which therefore constituted premeditation.
After only 95 minutes of deliberations, the jury sided with the state, returning a first-degree murder conviction on the evening of Jan. 29, 1938. The verdict carried an automatic death sentence.
The two defendants, who had remained mostly stone-faced throughout the trial, wept as Judge Felix Alley pronounced the sentence.
“May the great God — who notes even the sparrow’s fall — in His infinite pity, have mercy on your soul,” the judge said.
Shortly after midnight, they were on their way to Central Prison in Raleigh, where they would take up residence in separate cells on Death Row. For the 250-mile drive, they wore leg chains and were handcuffed to heavy leather belts around their wastes, making their escape all but impossible.
Barring a successful appeal, Bill Payne and Wash Turner faced a March 4 date with the gas chamber. Regardless of whether God would have mercy on their souls, they needed a judicial panel or a governor to have mercy on their lives.
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579