Tag Archive for St. Louis

We Buried That Man This Morning!

Albert Paglino registered at the St. Louis Tourist Court motel just outside St. Louis, Missouri, on U.S. Route 66 around midnight on April 5, 1954. He was assigned to Cabin 5, part of a duplex cabin at the motel. Paglino parked his 1950 Nash outside the cabin.
The manager of the motel took Paglino to the cabin and turned on the lights to reveal a room that had not been used “for quite a few nights.” After leaving Paglino — who appeared to be alone — the manager retired for the evening, but not before turning off the main butane gas feed into the cabins.
About 1:45 a.m., a teenager, James F. Baumgardner, was driving toward St. Louis on Route 66 when he observed a “sudden burst of flames…like an explosion or something.”
“I see it all at once,” he later told authorities. “I didn’t know if it was an explosion or what. It caught my eye all at once, and it was burning and had a pretty good size flame when I seen it.”
Baumgardner drove to the motel and found cabin 5 engulfed in flames. About 10 minutes after he summoned the manager, the Affton volunteer fire department arrived and spent about 35 minutes extinguishing the blaze.
While breaking down the smoldering remains of Cabin 5, firefighters found the badly charred remains of a man. The corpse was taken to the St. Louis morgue where pathologist Dr. John Pfaff examined the remains. Based on the condition of the remains he made no attempt to identify the body, later testifying that the remains so badly charred that to positively identify the victim would have been “miraculous.”
A blood test revealed .41 grams percent of ethyl alcohol which indicated intoxication to “a major degree” and that the person was “approaching unconsciousness if not comatose,” Pfaff reported.
At the time, Pfaff, who was not an expert in arson but who had seen his share of fire deaths, felt that the condition of the remains was a strong indicator that some kind of fuel had helped the fire destroy the body. In his opinion a fire resulting from the burning of the building without the aid of some inflammable substance “could” cause such burning of a body “but it would be unlikely.”
Despite Pfaff’s concerns, investigators were unable to confirm that arson was the cause of the fire. The fire marshal said that the structure itself, with the tar paper roof and siding, was highly inflammable. He returned after daylight the next morning and again examined the cabin in an effort to determine whether the fire was caused by incendiary means.
“We couldn’t determine whether it was arson or not,” he said later.
Based on the circumstantial evidence: Paglino checked in alone, he was not observed to leave by any other residents, his car remained parked in front of the motel, and the inability to determine the cause of the fire, the investigation was closed and he remains were turned over to Paglino’s family.
A funeral was held on April 9, and the body was laid to rest in Resurrection Cemetery in St. Louis.
So imagine the surprise of one of the women who attended the funeral when Paglino, looking a little worse for the wear but obviously quite alive, walked into the Biltmoor Lounge South Kingshighway Boulevard about 12 hours after he was buried in Resurrection Cemetery. The woman was a friend of Paglino’s first wife, Betty, and she was familiar with Paglino, so she knew she wasn’t mistaking someone else for the man everyone thought was dead.
“Ed, my God,” she told the tavern owner. “we buried that man this morning!”
The owner, Ed Bishop, watched Paglino make a telephone call from the bar’s pay phone and after Paglino ended the call, Bishop engaged him in conversation.
“I asked him to sit down and have a beer,” Bishop said. “He sat down and I gave him one glass of beer and he hadn’t taken but very little of that, and I am talking to him and I asked him his name and he gave me the name of Lewis. I asked him where he lived and he said, ‘Around Dresden and Eichelberger,’ – I was trying to hold him until possibly the police would come in.”
No police did come in and Paglino left after about 15 minutes, saying he had an appointment.
The man Pagino had an appointment with wasn’t sure if he was the victim of a prank or if he was about to be visited by a ghost. James McCormick, manager of a Clark gas station down Kingshighway Boulevard, was sure that he had served as a pall bearer that morning for his good friend and co-worker.
Understandably, he was shocked and leery when he received a phone call from “his friend Al.”
“He said he ‘would be up,’” McCormick said later. “I thought somebody was faking.”
A few minutes after the phone call, McCormick saw Paglino lurking behind the service station.
“I’m proud to be here,” Paglino said. “I have a fantastic story. I don’t know whether it will hold or not, but I hope so.”
McCormick and Paglino then went to the Warwick Hotel in downtown St. Louis, where Paglino had registered on the night of April 5 as “Albert Lewis.” Paglino retrieved some clothes and checked out. The hotel register indicated that as Lewis, Paglino rented his room before going to the St. Louis Tourist Court motel.
The two friends then went to McCormick’s home where Paglino told his “fantastic story.”
On April 2, 1954, Paglino went to the Clark station and purchased gasoline for his car. At that time, McCormick would later state, he also filled up a five-gallon gas can that he placed in the trunk of his Nash.
Paglino told McCormick that he was headed to a local radio store and he drove away. It would be the last time McCormick saw him until April 10, when Paglino showed up at the service station.
From the radio store, Paglino went to a local White Castle for a cup of coffee and saw “two fellows” hitchhiking on the corner. He stopped and offered them a ride to the edge of town. However, Paglino recounted, when they reached the city limits, one of the men pulled out a .45 and forced Paglino to drive to central Oklahoma. They stopped for gas in Oklahoma, Paglino said, “and there was one fellow at the station we stopped at which would verify I was there.”
From there, the two men and their hostage drove to Amarillo, Texas, where they forced him out of the car. Paglino said he was allowed to retrieve his suitcase, and hitchhiked back to St. Louis, where he booked a room at the Warwick Hotel.
While he was in Springfield, Missouri, Paglino learned of his “death” and subsequent funeral.
“Why didn’t you go to the police?” McCormick asked.
“I was afraid to go to the police in St. Louis because they would charge me with first degree murder and I wanted to notify my lawyer. But first, I would like to see my wife.”
Paglino’s wife was actually an ex-wife, and she was in Illinois with friends. While Paglino waited at McCormick’s house, his friend drove to Illinois and picked up Betty.
When she arrived at McCormick’s home, Betty and Paglino stayed there for three days until they left, they said, to see a lawyer.
Paglino left McCormick’s house in his Nash, which had been retrieved from the police impound lot by his father. After the fire the car was inspected by police. The only thing of interest they found was the gasoline can that was nearly empty.
When it became public knowledge that Paglino was alive, the police began to revisit their conclusion that he had died in an accidental — yet suspicious — fire. Searching the rubble of Cabin 5 at the St. Louis Tourist Motel, authorities found an important clue that had been overlooked: the badly burned wallet of a man named Willie Burchett that contained his Social Security card and two photographs of children later identified as his niece and nephew.
Willie’s sister, from Ecorse, Michigan, identified the photographs and told police that she had not seen Willie for more than six years. The last communication she had had from him was a postcard shortly before he disappeared, and she did not remember where the card was postmarked. It had been more than a year and a half since she had had a letter from Willie and that letter, enclosing a police photograph, came from a jail in Wichita, Kansas. No one, so far as appears, ever saw Willie in St. Louis or knew that he was there and it does not appear that he ever saw or was acquainted with Paglino or that Paglino ever saw Willie.
Authorities exhumed the body in Paglino’s grave on April 16, 1954 and conducted a full autopsy.
Dr. John P. Wyatt performed the autopsy. An examination of blood samples revealed 80.2 per cent carbon monoxide saturation, and Dr. Wyatt stated that this level of carbon monoxide was a “lethal or fatal concentration.” Because of cherry red coloration caused by carbon monoxide within the muscles and blood and because carbon particles were found in the windpipe and the back of the throat, it was the opinion of the pathologists that “respiration had occurred after the fire started” and that Willie was alive at that time. It was also the opinion of the pathologists that the cause of death was the concentration of carbon monoxide resulting from the fire and from the severe thermal injury received in the fire.
As he predicted, Paglino was charged with first degree murder.
Authorities went back to the fire scene and found a wallet positively identified as belonging to a drifter named Willie Burkett.
The investigation by police uncovered a strong motive for Paglino to want to vanish. Paglino and his wife, Betty Ann, divorced in 1950, but Paglino failed to pay child support. By 1954, he owed her more than $3,000 in back child support. He also owed a local credit union $320, a furniture store an additional $320, and an investment company $290.
Betty Ann had already begun garnishment proceedings but had, as of the date he disappeared, recovered just $30.
When Paglino was interviewed by police, he told them that he was working at the Clark station under the assumed name of Albert Lewis to avoid his ex-wife’s garnishment efforts. The registration books of the Warwick Hotel, where Paglino checked in on April 5 as Lewis, and the St. Louis Travel Court, the location of the fire, and where Paglino used his real name, were compared by handwriting experts to cancelled checks and other documents that Paglino wrote. The experts determined that the same person had written in both registers.
Paglino’s murder trial was set to begin in October, but he was released on bond. Having failed at trying to substitute another person in his place, Paglino decided to try a different way to fake his death.
A little over a month before his trial, Paglino bought a pair of black suits from a local haberdasher using the name “Frank Reck.” The clerk remembered him because Paglino told him his brother was a priest and the suits were for him. Then, like before, he vanished.
It was four days after Paglino bought the suits that a 1941 Plymouth sedan was found submerged in the Mississippi River at the foot of Carr Street in St. Louis. When the vehicle was recovered, authorities found a billfold containing a driver’s license issued to Albert Paglino.
Fool me once, the police thought, and they discounted Paglino’s second “death.” On October 18, 1954, when Paglino failed to show for his trial, a warrant was issued for his arrest. He managed to stay hidden for six months, but in February 1955, a routine fingerprint check alerted El Centro, California authorities that the man they had booked in their jail as Frank Beck, was actually Albert Paglino.
The sheriff of St. Louis County and his chief deputy headed west and interviewed “Beck.” The inmate told Sheriff Moseley from St. Louis County that he had never been there and was not Albert Paglino. However, after a search of “Beck’s” hotel room uncovered one of the two black suits purchased from a St. Louis clothier, Paglino admitted his identity. He waived extradition back to Missouri to stand trial. Why Paglino was in jail in California was never brought up at his trial.
(For those familiar with St. Louis County, although the county now has a County Police Department headed by a chief of police, that was not implemented until later in 1955.)
The case against Paglino was far from cut-and-dried.
Under Missouri law, the crime of arson is an “incendiary and therefore wilful burning of property.” The State has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the fire was caused by a criminal agency and the identity of the person charged as responsible for the fire; if the State can’t prove these essentials, the defendant is entitled, of course, to an acquittal as a matter of law.
Circumstantial evidence can be used to achieve a conviction in many cases, including murder, but, at the time under Missouri law, such evidence was not sufficient to establish the crime of arson.
Furthermore, where a homicide is charged to have been committed in the perpetration of arson the corpus delicti is not proved by a showing only of a fire and a death resulting from the fire because on such showing alone the fact of the criminal agency causing the death is not made to appear; “there must be evidence tending to prove that the fire which caused the death of the person charged to have been murdered was of incendiary origin,” the Missouri Supreme Court wrote.
At Paglino’s trial, the State argued that Paglino’s use of an assumed name for employment purposes and at the Warwick Hotel and the burning of Willie’s body and the cabin at the St. Louis Tourist Court demonstrated his motive for creating the illusion of his death and disappearance.
The State went on to prove that Paglino had the opportunity to commit the crime. The State’s theory regarding his opportunity was that Paglino had checked into the motel and either had Willie with him in a stupor caused by heavy drinking, or met him shortly after checking into the motel. Obviously, because Willie was found dead in Paglino’s room, the jury could infer that the two men met at sometime or another.
Prosecutors argued that at the Warwick, “if Paglino had gone with his shoes off, he might have been able to go from his room on the third floor of the hotel, down the stairway to the second floor and out through the sample room thereon located and from there down the incline to the alley, in the rear of the hotel, without being detected by the night clerk of the hotel.”
The prosecution struggled, however, in its attempt to prove that the fatal fire was incendiary in origin — incendiary being defined as intentionally starting or setting the fire. An accidental fire is not considered incendiary under the law.
On the stand, the fire marshal could not definitively state that the fire was incendiary in origin. The cabin had a tar paper roof and imitation brick siding that was also made of tar paper. This made the structure, in the words of the fire marshal, “highly inflammable.”
“We couldn’t determine whether it was arson or not,” he testified.
The State pointed out that McCormick saw Paglino fill a five-gallon gas can, and when that gas can was recovered by police, it was nearly empty.
On cross-examination., the fire marshal was asked what accelerants were found at the site. Particularly, Paglino’s counsel wanted to know if gasoline was detected. The fire marshal testified that no gasoline was found at the fire scene.
“No, you wouldn’t be able to tell if gasoline was in there or not, as old as the building was,” he answered.
Despite this testimony, the jury found Paglino guilty of arson and murder, and the judge sentenced him to life in prison. Paglino appealed the verdict and sentence, and the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial.
“The evidence as to the nature of the fire, the manner in which it burned and all the circumstances do not support the necessary inference that the fire was intentionally set or started or that any human agency was connected with the burning,” the Court’s opinion states. “In short, ‘There is good reason for saying the proof of the corpus delicti failed to measure up to the standards set by law.’”
Normally, a retrial favors the defense because the State has already demonstrated its strategy. The defense, therefore, can plan its case knowing the cards held by the prosecution.
However, in Paglino’s retrial, prosecutors for the State knew that they had to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the fire was intentionally set and that Paglino was the one who set it.
The weak spot in its case at the first trial was the fire marshal’s (rightful) reluctance to say under oath that the fire was arson. The fire marshal, however, was a volunteer firefighter, and, while familiar with fire investigation, was not an expert. To overcome this deficiency, the State engaged Detective Captain Thomas Moran, head of the St. Louis Police Department’s Bomb and Arson Squad, and Lamont Heidinger, special agent for the National Board of Fire Underwriters, to re-examine the fire scene evidence in more detail.
Captain Moran testified that, in his opinion, the fire in the cabin “did not originate in a normal manner and was incendiary in origin.”
Using crime scene photographs, he pointed out the jury that “those joists show very deep alligatoring, indicating that there had been extensive, deep burning at that particular point,” and that the “intense burning that is indicated in this picture indicates that there had been some inflammable substance in this particular spot.”
Heidinger confirmed Moran’s testimony. “The burning…could not have been caused by the materials of which the building was constructed or the contents,” he said. “The intense and complete destruction of the floor in one small area while the linoleum immediately around it was not burned indicates that there burned in that completely burned out area some highly inflammable substance or liquid.”
Moran and Heidinger both testified that the butane heater in the room could not have caused the burn pattern, and that it was very likely some sort of inflammable liquid was responsible.
When the prosecution rested, Paglino requested a directed verdict, arguing that the State had not met the burden of proof. The court declined to issue that order to the jury and the trial continued with the defense presenting its case.
Paglino’s fire expert responded by pointing out no accelerant was ever found in the cabin or on Willie’s wallet. The defense expert echoed the testimony of the fire marshal from the first trial that it was impossible to determine the cause of the blaze.
Again, the jury convicted Paglino of arson and murder and again he appealed the verdict. This time, however, the appellate court was unconvinced by his argument and upheld the verdict and life sentence.
“In this second trial there was introduced new and material evidence, in addition to that introduced at the first trial, on the issues of the incendiary nature of the fire and appellant’s criminal agency therefor,” the court wrote. “The evidence, while either circumstantial or an expert’s opinion, was sufficient to support a finding that the fire and damages to the building was caused by the presence of some highly flammable substance and that defendant was responsible for the fire.”
Paglino served most of his sentence and was subsequently paroled. He died in Missouri in 2003 at the age of 77.