Trooper chases down Payne and Turner

Jul. 11, 2013 @ 07:00 PM

Chapter Two: Life on the Lam

For six months after their daring prison break at Caledonia, following the twisting trail of Bill Payne and Wash Turner was like chasing the wind.
Law enforcement officers knew the wily criminals were moving around — frequent sightings of the dastardly duo kept popping up all over the state — but officers could never get close enough, or get there quickly enough, to nab the infamous desperados.
Newspapers, clearly enamored with Payne and Turner’s gritty flight from the law, breathlessly reported every alleged sighting, punctuating each story with the news that, alas, it wasn’t really them, or they had already vanished again.
One such disappointment happened in High Point — Payne’s home turf — where seven heavily armed officers staked out a house they had been told Payne would visit one night. He never showed.
Then the escapees were spotted near Madison, where they drank whiskey and ate sardines and crackers in a farmer’s barn, then hightailed it out of there before the cops arrived.
Other hot tips followed — Red Springs, Burlington, Moncure — but they all fizzled, too. After a supposed sighting in Greensboro came up empty, one exasperated officer muttered with a sigh, “Somebody has been seeing things.”
In early March 1937, less than a month after their prison break, Payne and Turner apparently ran out of money, so they held up the Bank of Montgomery in the small town of Troy. While Payne waltzed in the front door and pretended to need change for a $10 bill, his accomplice — believed to be Turner — came in a side door brandishing a gun. They made off with nearly $3,400 and, as always, disappeared before the coppers showed up.
Life on the lam was a pretty good gig. Payne and Turner bounced from town to town, sometimes getting cover from lowlifes they’d met during their lives of crime, other times holing up in motels or tourist camps. When cash ran low, they’d find a bank or some other business to knock off. As long as they laid low enough to steer clear of the law, they had it made.
That all changed on Aug. 22, 1937, when Payne and Turner got too close to the heat — a slip they nearly paid for with their lives.
The boys were in Asheville, where they’d been hanging out at a local tourist camp. They had been in the area for weeks without being detected, so they felt comfortable enough to go to a nearby diner that evening to grab a bite to eat.
On the way, they came upon a weigh-station checkpoint being manned by the N.C. Highway Patrol. In a panic, Turner whipped their car around and bolted in the other direction.
That was all Trooper George Penn needed to arouse his suspicions.
“Halt! Halt!” he yelled at the fleeing car, to no avail.
The young patrolman scrambled to his patrol car and took off after the felons’ blue sedan, his siren blaring, not knowing he was chasing the two most-wanted men in North Carolina.
For some 20 miles, Penn pursued the two desperados through the Buncombe County countryside in a dramatic, pedal-to-the-metal chase that forced other vehicles to swerve off the road. The chase evolved into a high-speed gun battle, as well, as Payne crawled into the back seat and began firing at the trooper, just like a scene from an old gangster movie. Penn crouched as low as he could and swerved his patrol car back and forth to make himself a moving target, still managing to keep the vehicle under control. He stuck his gun out the window and returned fire when he could.
Eventually, the felons’ car careened onto a country road in the Fairview township, with Penn still hot on their trail. The dirt road dead-ended at a farmhouse, where Payne and Turner’s car kicked up dust and rocks as it screeched into the driveway and barreled up the drive to a barn. Seconds later, the patrol car — its siren still screaming — slid to a stop about 50 yards behind the cons, cornering them in the driveway.
Van Patton, who owned the farmhouse, cowered on his front porch as he watched a surreal gunfight unfold in his yard — Payne and Turner crouching for cover behind their vehicle, and the uniformed patrolman behind his. Patton’s heart thumped madly as gunfire echoed all around him.
The elderly farmer had no idea who the two criminals were or why the trooper was chasing them, but one thing seemed abundantly clear — these two bad guys were determined they would get away.
Or they would die trying.
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579