IONIA — One of the greatest unsolved murder mysteries of all time shares its roots with the southwest corner of Michigan.
On Wednesday, remnants of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre were on hand in the form of the very guns that were used.
Lt. Michael Kline of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office was the guest speaker at the Ionia Rotary Club meeting at Renucci’s Tavern in Ionia.
The sheriff’s office possesses the two Thompson submachine guns that were used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on Feb. 14, 1929, and Kline brought the guns with him, along with his knowledge on the subject.
“I’m not a gun nut, I’m not a gun collector, I’m a historian,” he said. “I love history and I love this period in time — the roaring ‘20s. I never dreamed in any of my earliest days in life that I’d be standing in front of people in a brown uniform talking about any of this.”
Kline had on display for members of the Rotary Club the two machine guns, bullet casings, 50-round ammo drums and other items associated with the massacre from 84 years ago. Klein said organized crime spiked in the 1920s after prohibition took effect, making the purchase of alcohol illegal.
“This is one of the longest unsolved murder mysteries in American history,” he said of the St. Valentine’s Day event. “No one was ever tried and convicted for the massacre. No one ever went to jail and no one ever ratted anybody out or told the complete story.”
Various historians spend their lives studying the St. Valentine’s Day event and creating their own theories of what happened more than eight decades ago when seven people were killed in a garage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago’s North Side.
On Wednesday, Klein provided his own theory.
“Two guys went in the front dressed as police officers,” he explained. “The guys inside thought they were just going to be shook down by the officers, they got rousted all the time.”
According to Klein, not long after, the two men dressed as officers killed seven men inside.
According to Klein, the massacre likely stemmed from a gang war between notorious mob bosses Al Capone and Bugs Moran.
“Those two mob bosses separated the city of Chicago right down the middle,” he said.
According to Wikipedia, the deceased were Moran’s second-in-command man Albert Kachellek (aka James Clark), brothers (and enforcers for Moran) Peter Gusenberg and Frank Gusenberg, Moran’s bookeeper and business manager Adam Heyer, Moran associate Reinhardt Schwimmer, Moran associate Albert Weinshank and Moran associate John May.
“It was done execution-style,” Klein said. “They didn’t see it coming. The guys had bullet holes in the front, back and side. They were like whirling dervishes when they went down.”
Klein said 70 shell casings from the two guns were collected at the scene of the murder.
The two submachine guns are owned by the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office because they were originally discovered in Berrien County.
The guns were discovered in the home of Fred Burke, an associate of Capone and a killer himself.
According to Klein, Capone and his associates treated the St. Joseph and Berrien County areas as a summer retreat. They owned houses and rented out entire floors of many of the local establishments when they visited, spending large amounts of money in the process.
“They were welcomed with open arms in Michigan,” Klein said. “It was a playground for them them and times were tough economically. They spent lots of money.”
The guns were discovered after Burke shot and killed St. Joseph Police Officer Charles Skelly on Dec. 14, 1929, at a stop light. Burke was arrested in St. Joseph, Mo., after a boy recognized him from his picture.
The guns were linked to the massacre by Calvin Goddard, who Kline called “the godfather of CSI.”
According to Klein, Goddard discovered that guns have unique fingerprints by leaving microscopic marks on the bullets. Using Goddard’s techniques, the guns were successfully tied to the Valentine’s Day Massacre thanks to their connection to the shell casings and bullets that were found at the scene.
Klein was brought in as a guest on Wednesday, thanks to Rotary member and Ionia County Prosecutor Ron Schafer.
“I find it all fascinating,” Schafer said. “It’s interesting to me, because of the connection to modern day forensics. It’s interesting to see the history behind it all.”
Nathan Wolff, who works as branch manager at First Bank in Belding, was a guest of the Rotary Club during the presentation and said he was very engaged in the topic.
“The presentation was very enjoyable, I learned a lot,” he said. “I’ve watched many documentaries about the massacre on TV, but it was nice to see all of this in person. It was very informative.”