What many Bee County residents may not know is that one of those notorious shootouts actually happened right here, just south of Pettus, and resulted in the wounding of two local lawmen.
Pat Martin, a Beeville resident whose grandfather was the chief of the Beeville Police Department in 1938, tells the story, and he has the magazine article to prove it. The grandfather, also named Pat Martin, was shot in the chest with a .45-caliber revolver by a criminal known as Harry Wells.
The bullet glanced off some bone and lodged in Martin’s shoulder, but the grandson said the victim never really recovered.
The shooter was a fugitive who had been running from lawmen all over Texas when he was finally cornered near Pettus by Martin and Bee County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy R.J. Ball.
In the ensuing shootout, Ball also was wounded in both legs by shotgun blasts fired by the fugitive.
The assailant, Selvie Winfield Wells, went by a number of aliases at the time, including Harry Wells, Monroe Lang, Harry Northcutt, Nolan Wells and Harry Northfleet. But the name by which he was best known was Harry Wells.
Born on Oct. 14, 1912, in Caldwell County, Wells stared getting into trouble at the age of 15. His first stint behind bars was at the juvenile facility at Gatesville. But eight months later, he was back on the streets and looking for trouble again.
By 1930, Wells was serving time in a federal reformatory in Colorado for violating the Dwyer Act.
The law, passed in 1919 to combat vehicle theft, made it a federal crime to transport a stolen vehicle across state lines.
Later, he was sent to another federal institution in Washington State before returning to Gladewater, Texas, in 1932.
According to an article in Sheriff’s Association of Texas publication titled “How the Law Got Harry Wells,” the fugitive escaped from an Arkansas State prison while serving a 15-year sentence on a kidnapping and robbery charge. He had kidnapped a doctor, robbed him of $300 and had taken his car to make his escape.
He then fled south, pulling armed robberies along the way. The trip took him through Fort Bend, Refugio and Kleberg counties before he stopped for a while in Kingsville.
That was where the story took a strange twist. According to the article in the sheriff’s association publication, Wells met a young Texas A&I student there, Ida Mae Knight of Runge, and later married her in Laredo. At the time, he was going by the name Harry Northcutt.
Wells had told the girl that his father was a rich oil man. But later, while cooling his heels in the Bexar County Jail, Wells told reporters that he felt sorry for the girl because of all the trouble he had caused her.
“I want her to know that I am not what she thought I was,” Wells said.
The incident that led to the shooting of the two Bee County lawmen began on March 5 when an armed man robbed the Citizens’ State Bank in Luling.
The bandit, later identified as Wells, had terrorized two women in the bank and fled with about $2,500. But his getaway had been a good one. No one knew where Wells had gone until around March 10 when a student at what was then Texas A&M College in Bryan got a ride to Austin as he was coming out of Taylor.
The driver told the student his name was Northcutt and he had recently married a girl from Texas A&I.
The passenger, Byron White, said he noticed that the driver had a pistol that he left in the car when they got to Austin.
White said the two walked around Austin for about an hour and “Northcutt” even bought him lunch. White said the driver flashed a roll of large bills and paid for their lunch with a $10 bill.
Wells later drove White to Luling and left him at a “filling station” outside of town.
It was after the two men parted company that White heard a description of the wanted man. When he heard of some tattoos the suspect had on his hands, White said the entire experience fell into place.
The odd thing was that Wells had never seemed nervous the entire time they were together.
It was at about 10 a.m. on March 12 that the story took on a local angle. The sheriff’s office in Karnes City was tipped off by the fugitive’s sister-in-law that Wells “must have been the man who robbed the Luling bank and he was driving southward.”
The description and license number of the car was broadcast to lawmen in the area, and then somebody spotted Wells having breakfast at May’s Cafe in Kenedy.
That was when Martin and Ball sprung into action. They were on their way north when they saw the Chrysler Wells was supposed to be driving.
Ball was driving Bee County Sheriff J.B. Arnold’s car at the time, and he turned around and gave chase. The pursuit continued until the two vehicles reached a spot about five miles north of Beeville near a place called Ku Klux Hill.
That was when Wells first slowed down and waited for Ball to do the same. Then Wells gunned the Chrysler and sped south again. But Ball kept up the chase.
Wells tried the tactic a couple of times before Ball finally got him to stop. Martin was the first one out of the vehicle when the shooting started.
One bullet from Wells’ revolver hit Martin in the chest, glanced off a bone and lodged in the chief’s right shoulder. The wound disabled him.
“Another slug tore through the brim of Martin’s hat about an inch from his head,” the article said.
But Martin still was able to fire a shot from a sawed-off shotgun toward Wells, and the pellets struck the side of the Chrysler, just in front of where the bandit was sitting.
At that point, Ball jumped out of the patrol car and ran around the front to exchange fire with Wells. As he fired across the hood of Arnold’s car, Wells emptied his .45-caliber pistol and grabbed the shotgun Martin was holding as he sat in the driver’s seat, wounded.
Ball ran for the cover of a nearby tree, and Wells fired on him. Buckshot tore into Ball’s leg and knocked him off his feet.
Ball ended up with buckshot wounds in the leg. He also was wounded in the left wrist with what was believed to be a bullet from Wells’ .45.
“Wells then dragged Martin from the officer’s Ford and started to drive away,” the article said. Ball fired again and one slug tore through the back of the sheriff’s car, glanced off the steel top and knocked a cameo ring from Well’s hand.
The fugitive also was wounded in the left foot during the fight.
Later, Ball claimed to have only fired three shots from his revolver. When his gun was examined after the fight, investigators found three fired cartridges and two that had not been fired.
However, when Arnold spoke to Wells later in the jail in San Antonio, the bandit said he believed Ball emptied his gun, reloaded and fired more times as he sped from the scene.
A motorist driving south from San Antonio found the two lawmen wounded on the highway and drove them to Beeville for treatment.
An intensive manhunt was launched between Beeville and Houston after someone reported seeing Wells driving through Victoria.
Wells later told officers that he had his revolver in his hand when Ball caught up with the Chrysler he was driving and he shot Martin before he got out of the car. He said his intention was to shoot both officers.
Arnold was in Dallas at a trial when he heard of the shooting, and he immediately left to join the manhunt.
According to the story, Wells then drove through Beeville on the way to Refugio and then headed to Houston.
But when he got three miles south of El Campo Wells found himself in another shootout. That time, Constable T.W. “Buck” Lane of Wharton and Chief Deputy Sheriff C.R. Siebrecht of Wharton County were involved.
The two lawmen had heard about the shooting of the officers in Beeville, and they knew Wells was headed to Cuero or Wharton.
The two men met Wells on the highway to Victoria, about three miles outside of El Campo. Lane turned his vehicle around and started chasing Wells in the Ford he had taken from Bee County.
One of the lawmen raised the windshield on the sedan they were in and got ready to shoot when their vehicle got within range. But Wells stepped on the gas and tried, unsuccessfully, to shake the officers in El Campo.
Then, as the chase proceeded toward Houston on Highway 12, the officers ended up within about a city block behind the fugitive. Lane was going nearly 100 mph, but he could not gain on Wells.
The bandit was passing cars on the left and right, taking every chance he could to avoid another shootout with the law. A number of cars were forced off the highway as the two vehicles careened east.
One of the officers managed to write a note that they could leave with authorities in Wharton asking them to have a roadblock set up in Rosenberg.
“When we hit the city limits of Wharton, we were traveling approximately 90 mph,” Siebrecht said later. “Wells must have slowed down some for the town, but we did not get within pistol range. Just in the northern city limits, Lane drew his pistol and started to take a shot at Well’s car. I asked him not to shoot but try and get a little closer,” Seibrecht told the Sheriff’s Association writer.
About that time, the officers realized that Wells had pointed a rifle at them but he had not fired the gun.
The chase continued until the officers saw a cloud of smoke and dust rise from the highway. Wells’ vehicle apparently had blown a tire.
The bandit quickly stopped the car at an angle, got out and aimed a rifle right at the police car. Lane tried to stop, but Wells got off two rounds before the officers could get out of the vehicle.
Again, the officers and the bandit exchanged gunshots from about 80 years apart until Lane said he was going to try to run to a nearby house to see if he could get a rifle. As the officer ran to the house, Seibrecht fired his last shotgun shell at Wells. Then he noticed the bandit stepping out from behind the car he was using for protection and taking aim at Lane.
Siebrecht yelled at his fellow officer, and Lane jumped just as Wells fired and missed.
Then Wells ran back to where some cars had stopped on the highway as the shooting began and forced his way into a Chrysler sedan. He turned the vehicle around and headed back toward Rosenberg. Lane and Siebrecht gave chase, but their car had been damaged by gunfire. They did get back to Rosenberg where they met up with a number of other vehicles loaded with Houston police, Highway Patrol troopers and Texas Rangers.
“It was several minutes before we picked up Wells’ trail again, and it gave him a chance to give us the slip,” Siebrecht told the Sheriff’s publication reporter.
A check of the car he and Lane had been in during the shootout revealed bullet holes in the radiator, the front bumper, the carburetor and one engine support.
Wells drove north toward LaGrange, buried the license plate of the Chrysler he was in and drove through Austin, Taylor and Hearne after dark until he reached a point near Marshall, where he ditched the car and got a ride to Gladewater with a friend.
The fugitive hid out in a shack a few miles from town, but lawmen were tipped off to his location, and at about 2 a.m. on March 15, Wells was awakened by car lights aimed at his hideout.
About 20 officers from as far away as Bexar County had surrounded the place. After tossing in some tear gas, Wells came out with his hands in the air.
Officers took Wells to jail in Longview, but he was later transferred to Bexar County by deputies from San Antonio.
His weapons were found in the house where he had been hiding, and he had more than $1,000 in cash on him.
A later account of the capture revealed that, as officers surrounded the house where Wells was hiding, they had managed to throw two tear gas canisters into the house before the fugitive knew they were there.
One officer said he saw Wells grab a shotgun and immediately start coughing. The man who had shot it out with officers three times the previous day asked, “Are you going to shoot?”
Federal and state authorities argued for a while over who would get jurisdiction of the prisoner, and Wells eventually was turned over to Gus Jones, head of the San Antonio office of the FBI.
The article reported that Wells was later indicted by a Refugio County grand jury on a robbery by firearms charge. It said the maximum punishment at the time could have been death but that sentence was unlikely.
The maximum sentence he would have received for shooting at the Beeville deputy and police chief would be 30 years.
The FBI was planning to have Wells indicted by a federal grand jury of four counts in connection with the Luling bank robbery, and he could have been sentenced to 90 years in a federal prison if convicted.
The article did not provide the outcome of any of those cases.
Pat Martin, the grandson, still lives in Beeville. He said his grandfather never did completely recover from his wound and he died in 1942.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.