By James Murray
Posted May 14, 2022
(A text like this must remain in the arena of “informal history.” There are traditional sources – a few pages in this book or that one, newspaper and magazine articles, law-enforcement reports, etc., but not nearly as many as one might expect considering the sensational nature of some of the events. There is also an oral history,.. From its peak – powerful and feared – respected by organized crime organizations across the country – the Dixie Mob has receded into a shadowy Oklahoma legend.)
“Stories of crime and corruption yes it’s true
Greed and fixed elections, guns and drugs and whores and booze..”
-Drive By Truckers
Alcohol prohibition did not end in Oklahoma until 1959, but of course there had never been a shortage of strong drink in Oklahoma. Bootlegger organizations and independent moonshine cooks and beer brewers had operated with varying degrees of openness and semi-official protection since before statehood. Everyone in a small Oklahoma town knew who the local bootleggers were, they handed out business cards and operated with regular ‘business hours,’ and made home deliveries. In Tulsa, a city flush with post-war oil, aerospace and manufacturing money, there were some bootleggers who grew rich and well-respected for their “honesty,” and business ethics. Such a popular product as alcohol, distributed illegally on a large scale, had to attract the attention of law-enforcement. And certainly it did, but police officers and Sheriff’s and District Attorneys liked to drink too. The “Good ol boy,” system prevailed. A local alcohol distributor, ‘playing by the rules,’ and willing to make donations to Sheriffs and District Attorney re-election campaigns, and willing to hand out a few bottles of, “Good stuff,” to police officers and deputies ran very little chance of ever being arrested. If church leaders or business executives started raising a fuss there could be a “Seizure,” arranged – perhaps a stolen car or truck loaded with illegal booze would be located. A newspaper article accompanied by photos would praise the intrepid police work that took hundreds of bottles, “off the streets.” For the bootleggers it was just part of the cost of doing business. This system of corruption held sway for decades.
The atmosphere of pervasive corruption in Oklahoma law-enforcement was cited as a rationale by progressive lawmakers to legalize alcohol. If Oklahoma was going to be a modern state, fully integrated into the industrial economy the local police in cities and towns had to be professionalized. And that could not happen as long as the vast majority of them were looking the other way to avoid seeing alcohol distribution or even actively involved in such trafficking.
By several accounts over one thousand bootleggers became unemployed the day the liquor laws changed. Often they had gotten used to living tax and guilt free. Many entered the legitimate world of workaday concern, but some did not. More than a few had seen the end of prohibition coming and had already started venturing into new gray or black market enterprises. Multiple sources report the network of bootleggers around the Tulsa area began morphing into a multi-faceted organized crime organization almost immediately after the end of prohibition. I would expect they had begun branching out into prostitution rings and gambling enterprises long before 1959, and obviously they had been cooperating with individuals in law-enforcement for decades. But in 1960 the first “crime crews” associated with what would come to be known as the “Dixie Mafia,” were being formed. These crews lacked formality, sometimes overlapping and sharing members, sometimes combining forces and then splitting apart into individual criminal activity and operating independently for months or even years at a time. In Tulsa, a “sphere of influence” that included the surrounding area, especially Sapulpa and Tahlequah , some of the names associated with these crews were Albert McDonald, Donald “Two Jumps” Sparks, Leroy MacManaman, Rubie Jenkins, “Fat Jerry” James, Wayne Padgett, Thomas Lester Pugh and others. Their hangouts were bars on Old Sapulpa Road, a ‘private club’ in Sperry and “dope dens” on Tulsa’s north side. The FBI noticed a string of seemingly professional, unusually lucrative bank robberies began occurring all over Oklahoma. Burglary was noticed to be becoming professional and organized, and between 1959 to 1961 property crime losses doubled in Tulsa County. Arkansas and Louisiana also experienced suspicious large increases in robbery and theft and Kansas was struck especially hard. The McManahan Gang, or “Northside crew,” stole untold hundreds of vehicles out of Kansas as well as tractors, implements and farm and oil field equipment. Simultaneously Kansas experienced a bank robbery surge that was unprecedented. In the midst of a cyclical agricultural boom Kansas farmers were buying new equipment and vehicles and putting money in their local banks. According to FBI reports the “Tulsa related” bank robberies were characterized by the use of such exotica as submachine guns, walky-talkys, and souped up modified vehicles. Inevitably the robbers would disregard the cash in the teller drawers and go directly to the safe. Small banks in isolated prairie towns were easy and safe pickings. Sometimes local police would be distracted by arsons or bombings.The investigations languished, unsolved, as previously rare jewelry store heists and safecracking crimes began proliferating in Oklahoma and bordering states.
It is widely suspected the Italian mafia families in Kansas City and St. Louis were utilized to ‘fence,’ all this stolen merchandise and that these families soon began employing these Oklahoma outlaws for “off the books,” contract murders. As an intimidation tactic for shaking down bars or recalitarant drug dealers or maybe as a method of impressing an overly ethical District Attorney, or even as a murder weapon, the bomb became a Dixie Mafia signature. Other Tulsa mobsters were gunsmiths, building functional submachine guns out of parts kits as well as firearms suppressors. When car bombs and suppressors began being used in Chicago and New Orleans mafia murders it was assumed the Okies were either there, working personally or had sold the munitions to those cities traditional mafia families.
All this activity did not go unnoticed. Kansas law-enforcement officials would press on the FBI for answers and learn that gangs were proliferating in Tulsa, but their close-knit and shadowy culture made gathering evidence difficult. Vernon Glenn, who worked as an OSBI agent in those years, later stated his office began seeing activity that was new to Tulsa and Oklahoma. It was not just that specific crimes had significantly increased. There were obvious patterns. And such patterns indicated organization. Of course there had always been burglary and robbery teams in Tulsa, as well as prostitution rings, gambling and drug dealing. But the OSBI and FBI began seeing signs of organized criminal racketeering – a group or group seeking to gain a monopoly on the drug trade, or local prostitution or gambling. Deciding who could steal what, when and where. This was how the traditional mafia families in New York and the east coast operated. It was something new to Tulsa. Agent Glenn and his peers could tell ‘something new was happening,’ But It took years to figure out who was who in the new Tulsa underground. They were trying to play catch up and the crime crews were moving very fast
According to numerous sources, rumors of a major murder contract began circulating in 1964. The target would be Martin Luther King and the price was said to be one hundred thousand dollars. This offer was brought to Tulsa and at least some of the locals began taking it seriously. Others were skeptical as no one seemed to know who was guaranteeing the money, and however hated and feared he might be – King was considered a civilian in the criminal underworld and a very high-visibility target. Reflecting their social background in Oklahoma agriculture or the oil fields almost all these professional criminals were “blue dog” southern Democrats. If for no other reason than it was commonly believed Democratic politicians were easier to bribe or make a deal with. The Republican party in Oklahoma was more associated with the urban managerial and banking elite. In other words, their social betters and traditional antagonists. One notable exception was Donald “Two Jumps” Sparks, a former rodeo bronc rider, he was a vocal follower of the John Birch Society and an extreme anti-communist Republican. One associate remembered Sparks, “Looked like a cowboy, he smelled like a cowboy, he was very polite unless drinking. He was a killer.” Sparks was attracted to the idea of killing King and he and Leroy MacManaman packed a variety of weapons into the trunk of a Cadillac and drove to the southeastern states to stalk the civil rights icon, They spent more than a month trying to locate and get close to their target but to no avail. King’s movements were unpredictable, the informal security around him was wary and fairly efficient. The would-be assassins were not familiar with the southern cities and had no connections in the local police departments. Unbeknownst to the pair, they were being quietly shadowed by FBI agents, who assumed they were scouting banks to rob. While staying at a hotel in Mobile, Alabama, Sparks and MacManahan were visited by a man claiming to be a representative of a Klu Klux Klan sect. They told him they were planning to abandon the attempt on King’s life and he offered them a thirteen thousand dollar “front,” to continue the effort. They declined the offer and drove back to Oklahoma. Decades later records would be declassified that showed the hotel room had been bugged by the FBI and KKK leader’s conversation with the Tulsans was recorded but never used in any prosecution.
The robberies, murders and rackateering continued apace for years. Between 1960 and 1970 property and violent crime rates grew six times faster than the population in Tulsa and surrounding counties. A comprehensive list of “Tulsa Dixie Mob,” activity is of course impossible to compile, but examples can be gleaned from local newspapers and OSBI/FBI reports – An old-time bootlegger turned heroin dealer was found in a shallow grave in Chelsea,OK, an FBI informant fingered “Two Jumps” Sparks but there was not evidence. Bars were blown apart by explosions in Bartlesville and Tahlequah. When the Tahlequah newspaper reported “organized crime” was active in the area the newspaper building was bombed. A triple murder in New Orleans was said to be linked to “Tulsa area criminals,” but that investigation, like so many others, went no where. A bar in Dewey was bombed. An associate of the northside crew was found in a ditch with a bullet in his head. It was believed he was talking too much. Independent burglars and small-time drug dealers began “disappearing.” Well-known old-school Tulsa thief and writer Bobby Bluejacket said of these racketeers, “They changed the rules overnight. If you didn’t like it, you could be in trouble. People were dying.” Bluejacket and other veteran Tulsa criminals just left town. An auto dealership office was bombed. Federal drug agents reported the quality of heroin and dexedrine had increased and the availability of these drugs was consistent on Tulsa streets.
The looting of cars and agricultural machinery out of Kansas never ended. Cattle were also being rustled, on an industrial scale of unknown thousands per year. Frustrated by his state’s inability to successfully investigate the usual Tulsa suspects, the Kansas Attorney General commissioned a report in 1970 based on FBI files and intelligence reports. Titled “The Dixie Mafia Intelligence Report,” it explained how “A loose confederation of professional criminals operated in cities scattered throughout the south.” This report explained there seemed to be no formal hierarchy or even membership yet the organization functioned, “Controlling vice rackets, murder for hire and robbery, in a manner most similar to the more familar traditional Italian mafia families.” The report named Biloxi, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas and Tulsa, Oklahoma as the cities with the most active and dangerous organizations and where large-scale racketeering was ongoing. This report received regional and national news coverage. The Report was mostly a compendium of sensational crimes, and figures showing how bank robbery and commercial theft had gained year over year in 1960s Kansas. The invention of the “Dixie Mafia,” label apparently begins here. In Tulsa, crime crews were named after their leader, “The James Gang,” or “McDonald’s Guys,” or were referred to using geography, “The Northside Crew,” or “Westside Guys.” No one had ever heard of the Dixie Mafia. But local outlaws read the newspapers like everyone else and were happy to adopt the usage. It was (and is) usually slightly modified in Tulsa street language to “Lil Dixie Mafia,” or “Dixie Mob.” There seemed to be an apparent paradox – is a non hierarchical organization an organization at all? How could a loose network conduct large-scale racketeering operations? It was not explained in the report and it has never been explained since. Yet by all accounts that is what was happening. By 1970, the bootleggers forced out of business in 1959 had reinvented themselves and the Tulsa underworld. They were controlling the narcotics traffic, the sex trade and gambling. They had a national reputation for producing contract killers. They had severely compromised the Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa Sheriff’s Office. If and when apparent members were arrested it seemed to have no effect on the organization (or lack thereof) at all. With no head to decapitate, the FBI did not know a successful method of attack. Groups of individuals with familial or friendship ties going back decades are very hard to infiltrate.
In downtown Tulsa a de facto “Red Light District,” was flourishing. Brothels stood side by side in red brick buildings along East First Street, anchored by the decade’s old “Mays Room” on the corner. Operated by Pauline Lambert, she had apparently negotiated an “arrangement,” with the Dixie Mob, and her place was more luxurious and expensive than those the “good ol boys” owned. A newsstand and coffee shop on ground floors provided a discreet place to buy marijuana, benzedrine or heroin. Other retail drug outlets existed at Greenwood and Archer and scattered throughout the city, sometimes these spaces would also have a card room with games going twenty-four hours a day. All operated quietly but without any fear of police interference. A joke stated the only time you would see a police car on East First Street was when one of the department’s administrators was looking to enjoy a long lunch.
Once known as “The Queen of Tulsa Bootleggers,” Cleo Epps had provided alcohol to the “best families,” in Tulsa for decades. She counted oil-money heirs and politicians (and police officers) as personal friends. When prohibition ended she purchased a motor court on the west side of Tulsa and cooled her heels on a large ranch illegal booze had purchased for her. By some accounts she did a bit of fencing of women’s clothing and accessories and bought and sold stolen jewelry, but mostly she was retired. The Dixie Mob was a boy’s club and she was an older woman. Reportedly she was troubled by her former associates’ activity. She knew they were trafficking narcotics and ‘involved with the Italians’ and killing people and she didn’t want anything to do with all that.
Epps might have faded into obscurity, quietly disapproving of the new era of Tulsa racketeering, but on August 25, 1970 a tremendous explosion rocked an exclusive midtown neighborhood. District Judge Nelson started his car to go to work and the vehicle blew up around him. He was shattered and disemboweled but miraculously still alive. The city was shocked. Who would bomb a district judge? Well, okay, there was only one possible non organizational candidate. But why? Where was the motive? Nelson had just announced his candidacy for District Attorney, and his opponent was to be a well known criminal defense lawyer and Dixie Mob fixer named Charles Pope. Was the attempted murder just to assure the “Dixie Mob connected” candidate, (a Democrat of course), won? It seemed painfully obvious. Except the Democratic nominee almost always won anyway. Was a District Attorney election worth a high-profile attempted murder? Conspiracists said the Dixie Mob had been into Nelson for years and he had tried to renege on a deal. Some wags said Albert McDonald had a new bomb reciepe he wanted to test and one Republican politican was as good as any other for that purpose. Nelson would live, barely. But his career was finished.
Cleo Epps was thinking the same thing a lot of people were thinking – this had gone too far. She had been friendly with the Nelson family for years. She had been in their home. Attempting to assassinate a district judge in broad daylight in front of his wife and kids? She was mortified. People who would do that would do anything. Epps knew a grand jury was convening downtown to investigate local organized crime. There was one convened every few years and nothing ever came of it. She called an old friend, a Tulsa Police detective and told him she would be willing to testify in front of the grand jury. She wanted to keep it as secret as possible though. Weeks later she entered the grand jury chambers wearing a wig and ridiculous disguise. Half the people in the room knew her personally. It was a pitiful farcical attempt. Several Dixie Mob figures were in the room and when she entered and they got up and walked out. Perhaps as much out of sadness as disgust. It was widely assumed she had just signed her own death warrant. It would be a case of suicide by Dixie Mob. On the witness stand she told a barely credible tale about seeing Albert McDonald and Lester Pugh stealing dynamite out of a shack on her property. She explained she kept dynamite to blow stumps out of the ground. Many minds were sceptical, Surely Dixie Mobsters had better sources for explosives than stealing an old woman’s landscaping stash. And still no motive was established. FBI agents and newspaper reporters in the Grand Jury room were almost as disappointed as the mobsters who had walked out of the room. Epps was testifying under oath, why hadn’t the D.A. asked her about this murky “Dixie Mafia,” organization? If anyone knew the players she did, but the D.A. had limited his questions to a dynamite theft. Was there a reason?
The job was offered to two brothers, cowboys from Sperry, but they were hesitant to murder an old woman in cold blood. But Albert McDonald and Tom Pugh had no such qualms. McDonald had known Epps since he was a teenager and thought she would trust him enough to meet up. Amazingly Epps somehow believed that her disguise had worked, that her testimony in downtown Tulsa would not leave the room. That despite Dixie Mobsters, newspaper reporters and concerned citizens in the grand jury room hearing her implicate McDonald and Pugh that such information would not get back to them. McDonald called Epps saying he had a shipment of untaxed whiskey to get rid of. They arranged to meet in a parking lot off 51st Street. When she pulled up to McDonald’s Cadillac Pugh got out of the passenger side of the vehicle and held the door open for her to sit in the front next to McDonald. She settled into the seat and Pugh opened the car’s back passenger side door and slid in behind her. She was shot in the back of the head with a suppressed .22 and they leaned her body over in the seat and wrapped a blanket around her head to hold in the blood. With the warm corpse in the front seat they drove out to the country to hide the evidence. A few weeks later McDonald and Pugh were indicted for bombing Judge Nelson. But there was no evidence, and the only ‘witness,’ (to dynamite possession) was missing and presumed dead. The charges were dropped.
Nineteen-seventy turned to 1971 with indications that a “Dixie Mob offensive” was underway. An associate of the Kansas City Civella Crime Family was found in a field by the Tulsa airport with a bullet in his head. A bar on the west side was bombed. The District Attorney in Tahlequah was crippled in a car bomb blast. A previously bombed bar in Sapulpa had been rebuilt and was bombed again. Days later its co-owner was shotgunned to death in his driveway. In February 1971 the Tahlequah Police Chief’s wife asked to borrow his personal car to run errands. When she turned the key the vehicle was blown to pieces. Parts of her body were found on the rooftops of houses down the block from the blast site. Tulsa newspapers reported and editorialized in shocked tones of outrage. They were murdering Police Chief’s wives now, something had to be done. FBI agents flew into the city to bolster the local field office and investigate the multitudinous crimes and a special FBI team was pulled out of the east coast and sent to Tulsa to set up shop with the latest in eavesdropping technology. They soon learned the Tulsa Police Department and Tulsa County Sheriff’s office were none too cooperative. The FBI surmised, (almost certainly correct) that both organizations were severely compromised.
Albert McDonald was thrown out of a bar in Bartlesville and (as the tale is told) went back after closing time and leveled the building with a bomb. Minutes after the explosion he was pulled over and arrested for drunk driving. The FBI rushed to search and vehicle and it was covered inside and out with bomb making residue but he wouldn’t confess, inisisting the residue must be left over from the vehicle’s previous owner. The search warrrant obtained for his residence was more useful – no bombs were found but evidence indicated his ownership of numerous “Chop shops,” in north and west Tulsa where stolen vehicles were broken down into parts. The FBI claimed he had been involved in the theft of, “More than five-hundred cars and trucks out of Kansas.” Eventually he would be indicted for “Interstate Transportation of Stolen Vehicles.” While involved in legal procedings regarding the vehicle theft ring McDonald ( with Pugh as triggerman) apparently murdered Epps. There was no evidence in that case either, But as months dragged by informants were located who would testify that McDonald and Pugh had casually mentioned the murder in conversation. Eventually they would be arrested and charged with that murder and go to trial. Moments before opening statements were to begin on the trial’s first day an unoccupied service station was blown up across the street from the courthouse. Windows were rattled and cracked and people fell out of their seats from shock, fear and the concussion. Pandemonium reigned in the courtroom as one can easily imagine. The next day a car bomb went off down the street from the courthouse. Downtown Tulsa was placed under a security blanket of police, Sheriff’s Deputies and federal agents the likes of which had never been seen before. A few days into the trial a bomb threat was called into the courthouse and the entire building was evacuated and searched. No bombs were found and local wise acres said it was a juvenile hoax. Everyone knew the Dixie Mob didn’t call in threats. They just set off bombs. Out on bail and on trial for their lives McDonald and Pugh allegedly went on a murder spree of ‘hitting’ those who might provide hearsay testimony next. In short order Tulsa Dixie Mob associates Delbert “Big’n” Self, and Martin “Boots,” Edwards would die via gunshots. Eventually McDonald and Pugh would be convicted of the Epps murder on the basis of circumstantial and hearsay evidence.
The corruption-busting District Attorney Buddy Fallis had made known while campaigning he would indict corrupt cops and deputies and ‘Fight serious crime!’ And he coyly admitted he was willing to ‘Bend the rules,’ to do that. Charismatic with a rich sense of humor Fallis would go on to have a long career as Tulsa District Attorney. Initially unloved and referred to as ‘Little Caeser,’ (and much worse) in the courthouse and police department, Fallis would wear a bulletproof vest everywhere he went, for years. By 1978 the de facto “red light district,” along East First Street would be shut down. Organized crime cannot thrive without law-enforcement collusion and Fallis would keep his campaign promise by showing no queasiness about charging police officers and Sheriff’s deputies with felonies and misdemeanors. By 1980 the heydey of the Dixie Mob was over. Prostitution was driven completly underground and biker gangs were cutting in on their narcotics traffic. Tulsa was too small a city and Kansas too small a state to make a long career in robbery and commercial theft. The participants began dying, going to prison, retiring or drifting away to greener, more populous pastures. Two (very nonItalian) Tulsa mobsters joined the “Chicago Outfit,” as formal Cosa Nostra “associates.” Others permanently relocated to Los Angeles. Buddy Fallis spoke of several suspected “Murder for Hire,” homicides with probable Dixie Mob participation circa 1979/1980, including one at the then prestigous high-rise University Club apartments. These murders remain unsolved. As late as the mid-90s relatively large-scale bookmaking enterprises still existed in Tulsa, and debts could be settled in the traditional manner. And “Money was on the street,” in the form of unofficial, no-paperwork, high-interest “vig loans.” These relatively gentlemanly forms of criminal racketeering were probably the last examples of organized Dixie Mob activity in Tulsa.