It was the tail end of the summer in 1937 when these men were arrested in St. Louis, Missouri. They were suspects in a murder that had taken place a few days earlier in Chicago. The photo was taken with a flash, which adds to the film noir flavor of the image. Note that the photographer kept his camera low enough to get the handcuffs in the photo.
A witness — a vagrant named James Murphy — will identify Leonard Doxey, the man on the right, as one of a pair of men he saw in the wee hours of the morning when Robert Burns was shot and killed in Grant Park. Murphy will claim he saw one of the men shoot Burns while the other man slapped the young woman who was with him.
As it turned out, Lawrence Dixon, the guy with the black eye, played no role in the events, despite looking like a thug from Central Casting. The woman on the left was a girlfriend (of the paid variety) of Doxey’s. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both were held briefly and released.
What puzzled the police was the motive for the murder. Apparently Burns was carrying cash and a valuable diamond ring when he was shot and those items were missing. But his companion, Lucille Buehler, wasn’t robbed. And why slap her?
A deeper dive into the background of the victim and his escort would provide crucial clues.
For starters his name wasn’t Robert Burns. (Sorry poetry fans). His name was Herbert Wesley Lee. Born in Bay City, Michigan in 1897, Lee was 40 years old when he was murdered.
Ten years earlier Lee deserted his wife and three sons in Detroit. He moved to Evanston, a suburb a few miles north of Chicago, changed his name to Robert Francis Burns and became a part owner in a butcher shop. He started a relationship with a widow named Theresa Weichbrodt, and although they never married, they lived together as “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Burns.”
Lately the couple’s relationship was on the rocks and Lee was spending his evenings in the bars and clubs in downtown Chicago. In one of the clubs he met a 21-year-old nightclub hostess named Lucille Buehler. Lucille was blond and beautiful. Smitten with her, Lee became her “steady boyfriend,” spending lavishly on her.
Then he made his big mistake: he asked Lucille for her hand in marriage. (It would have been bigamy, but Lucille didn’t know Lee was married). Lucille wanted to marry Lee, but she had commitments elsewhere. A sex worker since the age of 14, she was a call girl in the stable of Leonard Doxey. When Lee asked her to marry him, he overstepped the bounds, threatening Doxey’s livelihood. Doxey decided to take his revenge.
Doxey confessed to being present at the shooting, but he put two other men, Albert “Rags” Minella and Anthony “Sappy” Sapienza, in the frame for the murder. The cops arrested Minella in Chicago. He insisted “Sappy” was the shooter. The police chased “Sappy” through Pennsylvania and New York and finally located him working at a fair in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Sapienza made a confession to the police:
I met Lenny on the night of the shooting. Lenny said he had seen an old girlfriend of his and that she had a fellow with her who carried money.
A stickup would be easy, Lenny said. The guy can’t beef.
We figured it would be a strong arm job, not a gun stickup, but when we got to the park Lenny gave us guns. Minella said ‘We don’t need them,’ but Lenny said ‘You better carry ‘em.’
We found Lee and the girl making love. I said ‘This is a stickup.’ We started to wrestle and Minella fell down. I tried to hit Lee with a gun and then I don’t remember what happened.
All three men pleaded guilty to Lee’s murder. Minella got 30 years and Sapienza, who was a married with a young son, got a 99-year sentence.
Despite having planned the robbery and possibly Lee’s murder, Leonard Doxey cooperated with the police, so he got the shortest sentence: 14 years.
The moral of the story: Don’t be the last man caught.