Payne and pal gun down trooper, kidnap hostages

Jul. 12, 2013 @ 07:00 PM

CHAPTER THREE: DESPERATE DECISIONS


Bill Payne and Wash Turner had vowed not to be taken alive.
Now, outside an Asheville-area farmhouse on a dead-end road — where a long high-speed chase had come to an abrupt halt — that vow was being played out. Either the two escaped felons would go down with guns blazing, or their adversary — 23-year-old highway patrolman George Penn — would die in defense of justice.
The gunfight hardly seemed fair — two hardened criminals, one with a sawed-off shotgun and the other with a rifle, against one young trooper with a service revolver. Penn had scarcely jumped from his patrol car and fired a shot at the two thugs before a bullet to the head took him down. The owner of the farmhouse, Van Patton, watched the cold-blooded killing in horror from his porch but did not move, numbed by fear.
“We got him!” Turner yelled. “Come on, let’s get outta here!”
Knowing backup officers could show up at any moment, Payne and Turner scrambled back into their sedan — now riddled with bullet holes — but Penn’s patrol car still blocked the narrow dirt road. They tried steering around the vehicle, but got stuck in a ditch, inadvertently striking Penn’s lifeless body in the process. With a chain they found in the patrol car, they tied the two vehicles together, then used the officer’s car to pull theirs from the ditch. Turner snatched up the officer’s pistol, and they took off down the dirt road again, making their getaway before more officers arrived.
Ironically for Penn, he was in the last week of his employment with the N.C. Highway Patrol, having turned in his resignation with plans to begin a new career. The young patrolman, a native of Carthage, would die en route to the hospital.
Penn’s death triggered a massive manhunt for his two assailants, whom authorities determined to be Payne and Turner after finding their blue sedan the next day where they had ditched it behind an Asheville hotel; fingerprints found on the car implicated the two desperados, who were no longer mere bank robbers but killers — and cop-killers, at that.
As searchers combed the mountains of western North Carolina, the director of the state’s penal division warned citizens that Turner was “a trigger man — a dangerous criminal,” and Payne was “smart, relying more on brains than violence.”
Now, though, with the heat on the two fugitives hotter than ever, there was a new adjective used to describe them — desperate.
A few days after Penn’s death, Payne — temporarily having split from Turner to be less conspicuous — kidnapped two teenagers in Asheville and forced them at gunpoint to drive him through the night to Thomasville.
“He told us that he had been out in the rain for two days and that he hadn’t had anything to eat for over a week,” one of the teens told detectives, “and he certainly did look it.”
The teens said Payne treated them kindly, under the circumstances. When they reached Thomasville, he pulled out a large roll of bills and gave the young couple $25 to catch a bus back to Asheville.
That night Payne struck again, when he and two heavily armed henchmen — one of whom was believed to be Turner — kidnapped a cotton mill worker near Greensboro. After draping a hood over his head, they drove him to Siler City, where they robbed him of $20, removed the hood and turned him loose.
“I was told not to look back,” V.C. Blount, of Lexington, told a reporter. “Believe me, I left at a fast trot, plenty glad to get my feet on the ground again, even if a bullet might be aimed for my back.”
After running about a hundred yards, though, Blount risked a quick glance behind him. His car was engulfed in flames, and the three men were riding away in another vehicle.
“It seems like a nightmare,” Blount said, “but I don’t need any pinching to know that it was no dream.”
Once again, the elusive Payne — whom newspapers took to calling North Carolina’s “will-o’-the-wisp” — vanished, only to turn up again in sightings all over the state: From Raleigh to Denton. From Charlotte to Shallotte. From Durham to Hendersonville. He broke open safes in Greensboro and Salisbury. Held up a filling station attendant in Shelby.
On Sept. 28, 1937, he and Turner pulled off their boldest heist in months, robbing the Bank of Candor in broad daylight. With Turner brandishing a submachine gun, Payne barked at a bank official, “Make it snappy, pal. I’ve come to clean you out. Where’ve you got the money?”
They made off with about $2,500, though in their haste to leave they overlooked a stash of an additional $6,000.
The most significant development in Payne and Turner’s saga, though, was when another law enforcement agency joined the massive manhunt for the two fugitives — the vaunted G-men of the FBI.
The agency’s famous “Ten Most Wanted” list didn’t exist at the time, but J. Edgar Hoover himself — the FBI’s revered director — had his own list of “public enemies,” as he called them, and Payne and Turner became numbers seven and eight on the list.
When asked about Payne specifically, an FBI agent in Charlotte confirmed, “Yeah, we’re after him.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579