Benny and Stella

(Deb) Welcome back to Around Kansas. I’m Deb Bisel. You know the 1920’s and 30’s in America were exciting and tragic times. Prohibition, bootlegging, organized crime, the rise of the Federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the Treasury Bureau. Some of our most notorious and colorful criminals come from that era. Folks like Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger and Benny and Stella Dickson. In 1938, this lovely, young couple from Topeka were number one and number two on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. In a 2001 Topeka Capital article, my good friend Steve Fry referred to Stella as drop dead gorgeous. Most folks would agree with him. They would also agree that Benny was a handsome and promising young man with everything in the world going for him. Instead, a couple of teenage crimes landed him in the reformatory and he came out a hardened criminal. Benny’s Dad was a respected teacher at Topeka High where Benny had been a student before his young crime spree. Instead of going on to college, he graduated to adult crime. And while he was paroled on a conviction for bank robbery, he punched out a driver’s license examiner in Topeka. Now Stella was only 15 when she met and married Benny. And that began their life of crime. One of the most interesting of their exploits occurred on Thanksgiving in Topeka, Thanksgiving Day 1938. And I’m just going to describe this as Steve Fry described it in the Capital Journal Article. Eight officers from the Topeka Police Department, Shawnee County Sheriff’s Department and Kansas Highway Patrol, filtered into nearby cabins where Benny and Stella were staying over in North Topeka. They were waiting for the two to show themselves. When Benny came out carrying two suitcases, Topeka Police Detective Bill Dowling told him to throw up his hands, according to Joe Zimmer. Joe Zimmer was a local historian who passed away last year and he was the retired Assistant Police Chief when Steve interviewed him. Benny just looked around and grinned said Joe. He set down the suitcases and instantly dashed in there and started that Pontiac and revved it up. There was a momentary lapse, then the officers poured gunfire into the car. Officers fired 48 shots, grazing Benny on the head, perforating his clothes and riddling the car as Benny drove it from the motel according to news articles. Meanwhile Estelle simply escaped on foot. They were so concentrated on Benny that Estelle just disappeared said Joe, who became a police officer in 1950 and spent 35 years as an officer. I knew Mr. Zimmer and had the pleasure to visit with him about Benny and Stella a couple of times myself. Now Benny died in a hail of gunfire in 1939. Stella went to prison and after a few years in prison she came back to the Kansas City area where she clerked in a grocery store. Had a pretty sad life actually. She got married a couple of times but never had a love like she had loved Benny. My good friend Michelle Martin, who’s been my co-author on a couple of projects we’ve worked on a lot of things together, actually dressed up as Stella one time. And my good friend Randy Austin dressed up like Benny for an affair in Topeka. And Michelle got interested and did a lot of research and found out that of all people, Stella was pardoned by President Nixon. Can you make that stuff up? And Nixon actually commented that Stella should have been pardoned a lot earlier because she was obviously very young and under Benny’s influence when she had committed these crimes. And Stella was also a crack shot. A witness who was called to testify against her, a police officer, commented that Stella who was shooting back at a police car and shot out all four tires, was such a crack shot that she was not intending to kill them. If she’d been intending to kill them, she would have done so. But no, she intended to shoot out the tires, so they wouldn’t follow ’em. And he wound up being a witness kind of in her favor when it all shook out. Just one more colorful story from Kansas. We’ll be right back.