Ira Cooper Unravels Money Order Theft
On February 22, 1924, unknown suspects took $20,000.00 in American Express Company money orders from the Mercantile Trust Company in Downtown St. Louis. Initially, the American Bankers Association hired private detectives. After the detectives were unable to discover any serious leads, the association turned the case over to the St. Louis Police Department.
When the bank association turned over the case, Chief Hoagland called on his most talented detective, Sgt. Ira L. Cooper. Cooper, the first African-American Sergeant in the St. Louis Police Department, normally handled cases in St. Louis’ black neighborhoods. Several of the suspect in the case were African-American, so Chief Hoagland asked Cooper to look into the theft.
Cooper eliminated many of the bank employees as suspects but a bank porter named James Reed piqued his interest. Police had previously arrested Reed, so Cooper decided to have him shadowed. Cooper’s team reported Reed frequently visited the home of Everett Lane in the 4400 block of West Belle Place.
Cooper discovered Lane had a gambling problem. Cooper sent one of his detectives to “get in” with Lane. The detective quickly won him over. The detective reported to Cooper that Lane was known as the “Crap Shootin’ Fool”. Lane also recently purchased a diamond ring and opened a bank account.
Cooper received a report of the money orders being cashed in Chicago, Illinois. When he discovered Lane was regularly communicating with Chicago by telegram, Cooper intercepted the telegrams before they were transmitted. Unraveling the plot, Cooper ordered the arrest of three men in Chicago. Sgt. Cooper and Detective Henry Sanders arrested Reed and Lane.
Cooper and Sanders arrested Reed at his home in the 4300 block of Finney Avenue. However, they couldn’t initially find Lane. True to form, they found him on his knees with dice in his hand.
After trying to find him most of the night, Cooper and Sanders found him in an unnamed woman’s house. As the detectives entered, Lane was throwing dice in the parlor. “Come on, Joe. Little Joe from way down south. Rise and shine.” Cooper replied, “Seven, the loser. You’re pinched.”
Lane quickly confessed to the crime. Reed and Lane initially stole the money orders. The men passed the money orders to Reed’s cousin, Lawson Reed, and another confederate, C. J. Johnson, in Chicago. George Pitts, who had been a chauffeur for the President of Mercantile Trust, acted as the courier between St. Louis and Chicago. Chicago Police arrested Lawson Reed, Johnson and Pitts.
Cooper and his detectives weren’t able to recover the money orders. $6,000.00 worth of the money orders were cashed. When they thought the police were on to them, the men burnt the remaining $14,000.00 in money orders.
Sgt. Cooper’s compiled an exemplary record as a St. Louis Detective often breaking cases other officers couldn’t. The Mercantile Trust Theft is one of these cases.
Sources: The St. Louis Star-Times, March 24, 1924 edition, p. 1