Barker Gang and the Murder of Sheriff Kelly
Over the next few weeks, Karpis and Fred Barker pulled off a string of crimes in the area, including the burglary of McCallon’s clothing store in West Plains on Thursday night, December 17. On Saturday morning the 19th, Karpis pulled his 1931 blue De Soto into Davidson’s garage in West Plains to have two flat tires repaired, with Fred Barker riding shotgun. The car matched the description of a vehicle seen near McCallon’s store on the night of the burglary, and garage owner Carac Davidson immediately relayed his suspicions to Howell County sheriff C.R. “Roy” Kelly. Still seated in the car when the sheriff showed up to investigate, Barker and Karpis immediately gunned the lawman down when he walked up to the driver’s side door of the De Soto. Accounts of the murder differ, but the best evidence suggests that Barker opened fire first with a .45 caliber automatic pistol and fired the fatal shots. He then jumped out of the vehicle and ran around to the other side to continue shooting as Kelly fell, while Karpis chimed in with a .38 caliber revolver.
After the shooting, Karpis roared out of the garage in the De Soto, and Barker escaped on foot through the streets of West Plains. Bloodhounds were put on Barker’s trail but to no avail. The De Soto was found later on Saturday a mile or so east of Thayer, where Karpis had abandoned it, and the gang was soon traced to the nearby McClelland farmhouse. Described as a four-room cottage on a high knoll back away from the road, the house reportedly offered a view of the surrounding countryside for miles around, and by the time authorities arrived, the birds had flown. In their haste to escape, the renters had left behind papers definitely identifying them as the Barker-Karpis gang, and photographs of most of the gang members, including Kate Barker, were also discovered. Much of the merchandise taken in the burglary of the McCallon store was recovered as well.
Funeral services for Sheriff Kelly were held on Monday, December 21. Shortly afterwards, his widow, Lulu Kelly, was selected to fill his unexpired term as sheriff of Howell County. One of her first actions was to offer, jointly with the West Plains police chief, rewards for the arrest and conviction of the Barker-Karpis gang members, including $100 for “Old Lady Arrie Barker, mother of Fred Barker.” This was apparently the first official notice by law enforcement of Ma Barker, who would go on to become infamous as a reputed leader of the gang, although she was, in fact, mostly just an overindulgent mother who felt her villainous sons could do no wrong.
Sources: FBI files, Howell County Gazette, West Plains Journal.