High Point gangster leads daring prison break

Jul. 11, 2013 @ 10:43 AM

“Public Enemy No. 1” is a six-part series chronicling the life and crimes of William Andrew “Bill” Payne, a notorious gangster from High Point. During his heyday in the 1930s, Payne was North Carolina’s best-known gangster, and – though he wasn’t as well-known as such nationally recognized outlaws as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson – he became one of the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives of that era. Though written in a narrative style, the series is based on exhaustive research of period newspaper articles from The High Point Enterprise and other publications across the state, and all material is factual.

Chapter Two of the series will be published in Thursday's Enterprise, but will not be posted online until Friday.

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CHAPTER ONE: The Great Escape

Nobody should’ve been surprised when Bill Payne masterminded the most daring prison break in North Carolina history.

After all, the notorious High Point gangster — bank robber, auto thief, highway robber, kidnapper and escapee extraordinaire — had already slipped out of state correctional facilities five times before his bold escape in early 1937. He easily could’ve been dubbed “The Houdini of Cell Block A” if one of his previous partners in crime, the late Otto Wood, hadn’t already earned the nickname years earlier.

Nonetheless, the 40-year-old Payne had established his own sullied reputation pulling bank heists with several other ne’er-do-wells who came to be known as “The Payne Gang.” Payne was so feared, in fact, that bank tellers across the state had taken to memorizing his mug — the stoney face, sunken eyes and dark, receding hairline — so they would recognize him and know when they were about to be robbed.

People knew his face well in these parts, too. Though Payne was born in Forsyth County in 1896, his family moved to High Point when he was still a youth, and he called High Point home the rest of his life, even during his years on the lam as the state’s best-known — and most feared — desperado.

Over the period of roughly a decade — from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s — Payne’s notoriety grew as he delved deeper and deeper into a life of crime. Newshounds across the state clamored to keep up with his trail of trouble, describing Payne as everything from a gang leader, outlaw and safecracker to a bandit, bank robber and, as one prison warden called him, a “bad egg.”

The great prison break of 1937, though, made national headlines for its boldness and for the danger it posed to citizens. It also marked the beginning of Payne’s most infamous flight from the law, a nearly yearlong, helter-skelter dash back and forth across the state, during which his list of crimes grew ever longer — and the fear he inspired ever more rampant — as the massive manhunt continued. Before it all finally ended, a young man would die in a gun battle, and Payne would find himself on FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover’s list of the eight most wanted felons in America.
“Public Enemy No. 1,” declared one state newspaper. And in North Carolina, at least, that’s exactly who Payne was. Of course, prison officials could only blame themselves for Payne’s freedom. After his fifth escape and subsequent recapture in the spring of 1935, he and his closest crooked pal — Wash Turner, of Marion, N.C. — found themselves at Caledonia Prison Farm in Halifax County, a lightweight penitentiary that, shall we say, wasn’t exactly Alcatraz. It was just a matter of time until the two jailbirds flew this coop.

On the night of Feb. 14, 1937 — Valentine’s Day — they finalized a scheme to break the prison superintendent’s heart. The next morning, they busted out. Payne, Turner and five other inmates — including three men serving murder sentences — escaped after kidnapping two prison employees, using a revolver that apparently had been smuggled into the pen. They forced the two men to lead them to the prison’s weapon supply room, where they absconded with enough guns and ammo to start a small war. Then they held up another guard and took his rifle, too. They swapped their state-issued stripes for less-conspicuous civilian clothes, sliced all of the prison’s telephone wires, commandeered a prison laundry truck and roared toward freedom, still holding the two prison officials hostage.

As the escaped cons raced away from Caledonia, a prison guard found another vehicle and drove to the nearest phone — a 12-mile trek to Halifax — and notified the state highway patrol. The scent was still fairly fresh, but the escapees had enough of a head start to make finding them difficult. By nightfall, hundreds of officers were scouring eastern North Carolina — even airplanes had joined the search — but all of their efforts, and all of the public’s tips, proved fruitless.

Meanwhile, the felons had switched vehicles to cover their trail. At a Halifax County filling station, they carjacked another hostage, 19-year-old Walter Willard. When Payne jabbed a gun in the kid’s side, Willard offered the men his money. “To hell with your money — the car’s what we want,” one of the escapees replied.

Off they went at breakneck speed, with the seven cons and three hostages crammed into one vehicle. Much to the escapees’ delight, Willard’s car had a radio that allowed them to hear frequent bulletins about the statewide dragnet. At one point, the men laughed out loud at a report that officers believed they had the felons cornered near Bailey; at the time, they were actually on the other side of Fayetteville, some 100 miles from Bailey.

As for the hostages, five of the seven escapees wanted to kill them. Payne, however, convinced the others that doing so could land them all in the electric chair if they were ever caught, so they released the hostages that night — shaken, but uninjured — in the Moore County town of Vass.
The next morning, High Point police discovered Payne and his crooked pals had visited overnight. Officers found the sedan the men had carjacked stuck in the mud just outside of town, then received a report of another vehicle the cons stole while here. Heavily armed officers swarmed all over the city in hopes of nabbing the escapees, but they came up empty.

Coming up empty would become a common theme in the weeks and months ahead for North Carolina law enforcement officers. They eventually would nab five of the seven henchmen, but Bill Payne and Wash Turner would prove too slippery for their dragnet. Every time a sighting was reported, it seemed, the two would vanish just before cops made the scene.
Barring a major slip-up, it looked as if escape artist Bill Payne might never have to break out of prison again.

jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579