Former safecracker may be able to unlock mystery of the Shelton Gang
Editor's note: The Shelton Gang, which terrorized Peoria for years, came to a violent end when several members were shot to death. The murders have never been solved. In a two-part series, Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano explores the case and talks to a former safecracker who may know the answer.
In the end, Bernie Shelton learned that fast fists and a tough reputation can't stop the determination of a bullet - or long-boiling revenge.
Sixty summers ago, the crack of a rifle ended the brawny gangster's life and triggered Peoria's most enduring criminal riddle: Who killed Bernie Shelton?
But the demise of the beefy bruiser isn't the only lingering mystery regarding the infamous Shelton Gang. The year before, brother Carl Shelton, after purportedly retiring from the Peoria underworld, was rubbed out by a phantom gunman near the family homestead in deep southern Illinois. That killing remains unsolved, as does the attempted murder of the third ringleader of the gang, "Big Earl" Shelton.
Another brother, Roy Shelton - who, though not a member of the gang, maintained a criminal career of his own - was gunned down by persons unknown. Other members of the family were shot at and terrorized by gunplay of unknown origin. Eventually, the surviving Sheltons had to flee Illinois for their safety.
Through the years, a good many investigators, researchers, reporters and crime buffs have bandied theories about the source of the Shelton bloodshed. Some blame rival gangs. Some blame the syndicate. Some blame rogue authorities worried about dark secrets becoming public.
Often, one name - a Shelton ally turned foe - has popped up regarding some of the shootings. But he never was convicted of any wrongdoing regarding the Sheltons.
And he went to his grave having never admitted anything of the sort - except one known time, to one man.
And that one man now is willing to share what he knows: Just one gunman rained down all that pain on the Sheltons, after patiently waiting years to mete out vengeance over a perceived gangland slight.
But before getting to that revelation, the story must rewind. The tale must begin by explaining how a colorful Peoria safecracker earned the confidence and confession of the man who single-handedly accomplished what no one else, not even law enforcement, dare try: dismantling the most notorious gang in the history of downstate Illinois.
For a man with a most unremarkable name, John A. Smith boasts a memorable nickname:
Pecker - or Peck, for short.
Mention the name Pecker Smith in some quarters in and around Peoria, especially those with cheap draft beers and old worn floors, the cognoscenti will offer a sly smile and a reply something along the lines of, "You mean the old safecracker?"
That would be Peck Smith, 78, who neither glorifies nor shuns his former means of making ends meet. He's just about as lean and wiry as in his youth, though a tad slower, but his eyes still sparkle with a jester's mirth, while his mind continues to crackle with nimbleness and wit.
Smith was born on the North End of Peoria, but his family bounced around town quite a bit.
"I grew up during the Depression," he says. "When the rent was due, you moved."
His parents split during his childhood, leaving his mom to raise six kids. At age 10, he saw his first Woody Woodpecker cartoon and started doing impressions of the character's distinctive chortle. Further, Smith has red hair and prominent proboscis, just like Woody, so kids started calling him Pecker.
At age 16, a year after World War II had ended, Smith lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. After a couple of years in the service overseas, he headed to Ohio, where an acquaintance got him a job laying marble.
After a year or so of that, Smith grew tired of working with marble. In fact, he grew tired of working, period.
He came back to Peoria and started loitering about town, shooting the bull with friends, some of whom did not carry a savory reputation. Police often would roust such gatherings, in part, perhaps, because the once-wild town had become more buttoned-down. Still, to this day, Smith doesn't understand why cops made such a fuss.
"Back in the day, there were some hoodlums whose biggest crime was standing around the street corners," he says. "(Police) got sick of looking at you, so they'd send you to Vandalia (Correctional Center) for three months or six months."
So, in 1949, Smith made his first trip to prison. He spent six months at Vandalia for vagrancy.
While stewing there, Smith did something of a risk-reward analysis of his time in the pokey. If he were going to get locked up again, he might as well make it worth his while - that is, if the cops could catch up to him.
"It was just a game to me," he says. "I've been accused of a lot of things." Pause. "I deny them all."
Smith spent most of 1950 and '51 in motion, always a step ahead of the law.
"Me and a buddy of mine went on a crime spree across the country," he says matter-of-factly.
Their modus operandi was hardly ingenious: steal cars, stick up stores and split town.
"We'd steal a white Chevrolet, rob a place and get a green Ford," he says. "They'd still be looking for a white Chevrolet."
They would head out to the a new town, ditch the hot car and live it up as long as the money - and women and cocktails - lasted. Out of dough, they'd pull the same scheme, again and again in one town after another, from California to New York.
"You couldn't do what we did, today," he says. "There's too much (police) communication."
Eventually, the FBI got a bead on the pair - in Peoria, of all places - and arrested them in a stolen car. An interrogating agent tried to get Smith to confess outright, saying, "We caught you in a stolen car, with bank bags and notes in the trunk. What do you say about that?"
Smith knew he couldn't explain away the pilfered auto. So he offered the best excuse he could: "I stole a bank robber's car."
Nice try. His federal charges included bank robbery, plus a count of attempted escape while trying to break out of the Peoria County Jail right after his arrest. After a quick conviction, he spent seven years in federal pens in multiple states. But the time wasn't so bad, he says.
"You would go in there and mind your own business - no problem," he says. "But that was in my day. Today, you got gangs."
After getting out in 1957, Smith decided to head back to Peoria. He still was looking to challenge authority, but this time he decided to depend not on fast cars but his quick mind.
Smith got the notion to become a safecracker. He talked to some friends with on-the-job experience in that field, and he soon picked up the necessary tools and skills.
"It's not hard to figure out," he says. "Locks are made for honest people."
Sometimes, he wasn't so subtle. First, he'd slip into a business and try to fiddle with the tumblers. If that didn't work, he'd use a sledgehammer and pry bar to loosen the safe. Then he and an accomplice or two would abscond with the safe to a rural area, then blow it open with dynamite.
"We drove the city crazy," he says. "We were breaking into too many places and getting too many safes."
Eventually, local law enforcers called in the Illinois State Police to beef up patrols. Smith had to cool his capers, but he had stockpiled a good amount of cash. However, he couldn't keep it around long, what with women and nightspots clamoring for his attention.
"When you steal money, it's like Monopoly money," he says. "It's not like working for money."
When the cabbage vanished, Smith pegged Peoria as too hot with cops to continue with safecracking. So he and three other fellows - including brother Bucky Smith - found a new target: Edgar County, in eastern Illinois. The lure was the office of the Rural Electrification Association, in the county seat of Paris.
Locals would pay power bills in person at the office, so the safe there often bulged with cash. In fact, Smith had read about burglars making off with thousands of dollars from the office. So, Smith & Co. thought they could pull a repeat job, quick and easy.
But after the earlier heist, the utility had rigged a crude security system: Small speakers hidden within the building were wired right into the county sheriff's office. So when Smith and his band of thieves burst in, deputies heard the intrusion and surprised the criminal quartet just minutes after arrival.
"They had cops all around us," Smith said, still incredulous after all these years. "We were surrounded."
Still, Smith leaped out a window to try to escape, but cops caught up to him in a flash. Meanwhile, officers arrested his brother inside. But the two other accomplices made a clean getaway, and the brothers Smith never squealed.
Their lack of cooperation helped land them a stiff sentence: eight to 20 years at Menard Correctional Center. There, the likeable Smith was entrusted as head of the commissary, a position of privilege and favors. Though he was not above making under-the-table dealings, the experience gave him a sense of responsibility - so much so that he decided to go straight.
"I finally got smart," he says.
In 1967, he was paroled after serving only seven years. He headed back to Peoria, where he worked various labor jobs. He eventually went into business for himself, as a contractor. In fact, he once even got subcontracted work to help move one of Peoria's Downtown banks, in charge not only of the workers but also police on hand to reroute traffic and secure the assets.
"That," he says in amused understatement, "was a bit of a mystery, because I had been accused to robbing banks."
His professional life flourished, though his private life often has not. Smith has been married four times, lastly in 1992. He has eight children and stepchildren, ranging in age from 20 to 49. Some talk to him often; others do not.
"They have their own lives," he says quietly. "I stay out of their way."
Over the years, Smith, who now lives in East Peoria, was smart enough to sock away his legitimate money.
"I have enough income so I don't have to steal," he says. He grins, then adds, "Unless the economy gets worse. Then I might have to steal."
Actually, he is content to spend many a day chatting with friends at water holes, hashing over current events and local politics. Get him on a roll and put a beer in front of him, and the jabbering flows endlessly.
Yet there's one story he rarely has repeated to anyone. For years, he was afraid to mention anything about it. He feared that loose lips could cost him his life.
But Smith figures enough time has past. The story's central figure has passed on. Smith doesn't think he is endangered anymore.
He figures, what the heck? It's time to name the man who confessed to killing Bernie and Carl Shelton and drove the rest of the clan out of Illinois.
Tomorrow: The confession.
Phil Luciano can be reached at email@example.com or (309) 686-3155.