The lawmen and their prisoner paused briefly when they emerged from the depot into bright sunshine; Frank brought his manacled hands up to shade his eyes. Seeing nothing that aroused their suspicions, they moved gingerly toward a new 1933 Chevrolet and a 1932’s Dodge sedan that were parked directly in front of the east entrance of Union Station. The Chevy was owned by Agent Caffrey. He opened the right front passenger door and shoved Frank inside. Lackey, Reed, and Smith settled into the backseat while Vetterli, Grooms, and Hermanson waited between the Chevy and the Dodge—it was their intention to use the Dodge to escort the Chevy to the prison. Caffrey circled the car and had set his hand on the driver’s door latch when a booming voice shouted, “Up! Up! Get ’em up!”
Two men carrying machine guns were sprinting toward the Chevy from behind. Three others, similarly armed, appeared in front. The one who had shouted, a heavyset man, was standing on the running board of a green Plymouth. He was aiming his chopper at the lawmen standing between the Chevy and the Dodge. The identities of most of the gunmen would be debated for decades—especially that of the heavyset man standing on the running board—but the identity of at least one remains indisputable: Verne Miller.
Frank grinned and shook his head with wonder at the sight of him. The last time he had seen him, Miller bawled Frank out for his excessive drinking. Miller was like that, a teetotaling, nonsmoking nongambler who simply would not abide profanity in his presence. He and Frank had become fast friends largely because of the sensibilities they shared. Both were unfailingly polite even during the course of a robbery, both respected women, both were notoriously meticulous when planning and executing their spectacular crimes, and neither tolerated gratuitous violence. If there was a difference, it was this: Verne Miller was one of the most proficient and sought-after hit men of his era, working with the Purple Gang in Detroit, Capone’s syndicate in Chicago, and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter’s Murder Incorporated on the East Coast.
It must have seemed to Frank at that moment that he would escape this disaster just as he had so many others in the past. Then the fragile peace that existed for an instant when the gunmen first faced the officers was broken when Red Grooms jerked his pistol out and squeezed off two rounds at the heavyset man, hitting him in the arm. “Let ’em have it!” the man shouted even as he opened up on the lawmen. His companions did the same.
Grooms and Hermanson were killed instantly.
Vetterli was shot in the arm. He dropped to the pavement and slid under a car for cover.
Caffrey was shot in the head; he was dead before he fell.
Inside the car, Chief Reed took a chest full of slugs and died while reaching for his gun.
Lackey was shot three times in the spine—but did not die. He slumped on top of Smith. Only Smith would escape the massacre unscathed.
Frank was appalled by the slaughter around him. “Verne, have you gone crazy?” he shouted. The shooting continued. Machine-gun rounds splattered the Chevy. Frank began frantically waving his cuffed hands at the gunmen. “For God’s sake, don’t shoot me.”
A moment later, much of his head was blown away.
Watching it all, Lottie West began screaming, “They’re killing everyone.”
Officer Mike Fanning, who patrolled Union Station for the Kansas City Police Department, came running. He saw the gunfight but didn’t know who was shooting at whom or why.
“Shoot the fat man, Mike,” Lottie shouted. “Shoot the fat man. It’s Pretty Boy Floyd.”
Fanning aimed at the heavyset man and fired. The man whirled and fell to the ground, but he got up and continued firing, and Fanning didn’t know if he hit him or if the fat man merely dove to avoid being shot.
One of the gunmen ran to the Chevy and peered inside. “They’re all dead,” he announced. The killers began running, all except Verne Miller, who stood in front of the Chevy, apparently transfixed by the shattered windshield his friend had been sitting behind. One of the gunmen grabbed his arm and pulled him away. “Let’s get out of here,” he cried. The gunmen piled into the Plymouth and a light-colored Oldsmobile and raced out of the parking lot, heading west on Broadway.
It would astonish Lottie West later when she learned that the entire Kansas City Massacre, as the shooting would soon be infamously dubbed, had taken less than thirty seconds. To her it seemed to last forever.