The Keys to the Car

It’s November 22, 1946. The New York-Telegram carried a half-page story by Ed Wallace on John Wesley Hardin. Hardin, arguably the most famous of the frontier outlaws, did time in the Texas State Penitentiary at the Huntsville “Walls” prison. Despite spending long periods of time in the solitary cell of the prison’s East Wing, Hardin finished his law degree while incarcerated there. After serving 17 years, he was released and practiced law in El Paso. John Wesley Hardin was shot in the back and murdered in 1895.

While many were reading the article about a long-ago outlaw, two convicts at the “Walls” Unit down in Huntsville, Texas were acting out their own outlaw tale. Fred Wren, 23, was five feet, five and one-half inches tall and 134 pounds. He was serving two years for burglary out of Deaf Smith County. Twenty-six year old Ralph Dunlap had brought his five feet, nine-inch, 164-pound frame all the way from Shelby, Ohio to wind up in the Texas Prison System. Dunlap was given 2 years for burglary by a Coryell County jury.

Both convicts worked as telephone linemen at the prison. Both were sent with Guard Ben LaRue to repair a telephone in one of the prison-owned houses across the street from the prison. The occupant of the house was on duty at the prison and no one else was home at the time.

At about 3:30 p.m. the convict housekeeper returned from the prison to his job at the house and surprised the two convicts who were changing into some free-world clothes that they found in the closet. The guard lay on the floor unconscious and groaning. Near his body was a bloody mechanic’s hammer with strands of hair stuck to it. He was terribly beaten around the head, face, and shoulders. The outlaws threatened to kill the housekeeper with the guard’s .38 caliber pistol but changed their minds. Instead, they tied his hands and feet with neckties from the closet. After struggling for about a half hour, the housekeeper was able to partially free himself from the cloth shackles and crawl to the front door and began yelling for help. His shouting attracted the attention of a picket guard who notified Warden A. C. Turner. Guard Ben LaRue was taken to the “Walls” hospital where he died shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, the escaped convicts gained access to Taxi Cab 400, a new maroon Chevrolet, driven by John Hubbard. They forced him to drive on the back roads to a deserted area near Kurten, between Bryan and North Zulch. The two desperadoes then forced the driver out of the car and made him remove his clothes and replace them with the bloodstained clothing they said were those of the guard who had been beaten. After they sped away, Hubbard walked about two miles where he flagged a state highway patrol car and told the officers his story. The patrolmen were part of a large manhunt team (Bryan Night Chief of Police, W. A. Wickham, reported that about a thousand men were in a posse in the vicinity) and radioed all other cars. The search immediately went into high alert but somehow the fugitives managed to elude the net.

The next day, six days before Thanksgiving, 1946, the two desperate convicts met a most unlikely match. In need of a less noticeable vehicle, they stopped a schoolteacher “for a ride” and then took his car at gunpoint. The teacher broke free in Calvert and notified authorities. Local officers, state highway patrol, Texas Rangers and even officers in an airplane were in hot pursuit, yet the elusive convicts managed again to outdistance their chasers. Their car got stuck in heavy mud near Rosebud. They stopped a boy on a tractor and asked him to pull them out, but it too became stuck.

Wren walked to the nearby home of Mr. and Mrs. T. A. Burch. Mr. Burch was a mild-mannered, 72-year old, retired farmer. He had a slight build of five-feet ten inches and 140 pounds. He was reading the paper about a bank robbery that occurred the previous day at Mount Calm, in the Rosebud area of Texas. His wife noticed that someone was approaching the door of the house on foot. Mr. Burch got up to see what the man wanted but before he could do so the man entered the room. Wren demanded the keys to the car, which was parked in the yard. He pointed a gun at Mr. Burch and repeated the demand. Ms. Burch, who was standing nearby, grabbed the man’s hand and pushed the gun aside. The convict shoved her against the bed and onto the floor and the gun discharged, the shot going through the mattress. Mr. Burch attacked the intruder with his fists. The convict tried to shoot Mr. Burch but could not get the gun in position and it went off again, this time shooting a hole the ceiling. Convict Wren then turned to run out of the house but Burch was still flaying away at him with his fists. As they neared the outer door the other convict, Dunlap, ran up and shouted for Wren to toss him the gun. As the first fugitive attempted to pass the gun to the newcomer the gun discharged again and the second man fell. Burch now had a firm hold on the Wren’s collar from behind. Wren attempted to shoot Burch but the shot went through his own neck instead. Authorities arrived at about this time to find Mr. Burch astride Wren.

One of the wounded convicts, Fred Wren, died shortly after the fight and the other, Ralph Dunlap, was critically wounded. Dunlap recovered and later was given a life sentence for his role in Guard Ben LaRue’s murder.

T. A. Burch told a reporter later that day, “All I had was my bare fists, but Mister I used ‘em.” Mr. Burch also revealed this interesting piece of information: He said that the convicts were wounded simply because they tried to make him give them the keys to his car… and the keys were in the car all of the time.

Sources of information

  • The New York World-Telegram ,November 22, 1946 (H. Bailey, “Texas Collection”, Volume 50, Number 3, Southwestern Historical Quarterly Online)
  • Texas Department of Criminal Justice records.
  • San Antonio Express, AP, November 23, 1946.
  • Houston Post, November 24, 1946.

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