The Queen of Toledo's Crime of the Century
Whatever Happened to Wanda Urbaytis?
Shortly after midnight on February 17, 1921, two postal employees pulled their mail truck onto the 14th Street loading dock at Toledo’s Central Post Office to unload parcels they had just picked up from Union Station. Suddenly, four armed men burst out of a car that had followed the truck from the train station. After forcing the postal employees to the ground, the bandits snatched six locked pouches and four mail bags from the mail truck. They quickly piled back into their waiting car and their getaway driver sped them away via Madison Avenue. And just like that, Toledo had experienced the biggest heist in city history.
The next morning the robbers' car, a Studebaker stolen two-days earlier from a parking garage on Collingwood Avenue, was found abandoned on Bates Road. There were no signs of the crooks or the mail bags. The government's loss was about $900,000 in Liberty Bonds, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of new currency and other loot. Toledo’s “Million Dollar” robbery made national headlines.
A few days later, police caught up with most of the robbers on a train headed to Chicago. The leader of the gang, Joe Urbaytis was captured along with his brother and a few others in Elkhart, Indiana. However, Joe’s sister Wanda, who the New York Times called the “Queen of the $1,000,000 robbery gang,” got away. She ended up in Chicago where she met up with Father Anthony Gorek, the former priest at Toledo’s St. Hedwig’s Church. Wanda asked the priest to hold on to a black bag containing over $80,000 in Liberty Bonds. Are you following all of this? It was a simple crime by simple crooks who were caught pretty quickly but Wanda makes the story so much more interesting.
Although money from the holdup was found in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Toledo, most of the key players were captured within weeks of the crime and by April of the same year, twenty-five people, including Wanda, were indicted in two cases, one for conspiracy and the other for the robbery; six as principals, and the rest as confederates, either before or after the fact. In May, a trial was held for many of those who had already been apprehended, including, four of the six principals (to add more drama to our story, Joe Urbaytis and Charles “Split Lip” Schultz had escaped from the Lucas County Jail, they were eventually captured, convicted and paid their dues). As for Wanda, things went south when the priest that she swore she never met became a witness for the government and she was convicted and sentenced to seven years and three months in the penitentiary at Moundsville, West Virginia.
Some like to play this crime up as a brilliant criminal plot planned by Joe Urbaytis. I disagree. While certainly Joe and his gang took the big risk to physically rob the mail truck, I believe it was Wanda who contributed most to the strategy behind the scenes. I believe she was the brains behind the Toledo post office heist.
Wanda Urbaytis was born in Toledo in August of 1898 to immigrant parents. Her father Frank arrived in the U.S. from Lithuania in 1884. Her mother Anna was born in Poland and arrived here in 1882. Frank and Anna married in 1890 and raised the Urbaytis family in Toledo’s Eastern Polish neighborhood on the 2900 block of Lagrange Street. Unfortunately, Frank died in 1909 at the age of 44, leaving Anna with six children; three girls: Wanda, Helen, Marion Evelyn (born two days after her father’s death) and three boys: Joe, Chester and Frank. It was not an easy life for Anna or the children. Joe and Frank grew up on the streets and turned to petty crimes. Joe's first documented arrest came at age 18 for throwing pepper in a man’s eyes and robbing him of $150. Wanda, who trained as a telephone operator, worked at Toledo's largest brewery. Here’s where things get interesting and you can begin to see why I think Wanda was the brains behind the Urbaytis family crime operation.
Three years before the post office robbery, Joe Urbaytis was arrested in connection with the robbery of $37,000 from the Huebner Brewing Company’s paymaster. The crime was very similar to the post office robbery: a stolen getaway car, multiple bandits, payroll money and a quick and easy money grab. The one major difference between this crime and the post office heist was the fact that the brewery's paymaster was beaten severely by the robbers. Wanda was employed at the brewery as a telephone operator at the time of the crime. After her brother was arrested, police caught up with her and it was reported that "without a trace of remorse," she confessed her part in planning the robbery based on the knowledge she learned as an operator. She even admitted that she left work the day of the robbery to try to catch up with the robbers to ask them to hold off on the robbery since she thought the paymaster would be carrying more money the next day.
Some say the 1921 post office robbery was also a result of Wanda’s background as a telephone operator. A February 23, 1921 wire story on the mail holdup states, “The police today began investigation of a report that Wanda, who is a telephone operator, may have been conversant through her work with the system of handling the mails and at what time important shipments arrived at various times.” The story goes on to point out her connection to the 1917 brewery paymaster robbery. When you piece it all together, having the intelligence gathered from an operator's headset was key to both crimes. So there you have my premise for why Wanda Urbaytis was the brains behind Toledo's biggest heist!
So what happened to Wanda? A March 12, 1927 newspaper article describes Wanda’s return to Toledo after serving her prison term in West Virginia. She is described as “visiting her widowed mother here” with “plans to make her home in Detroit.” However, the 1930 census shows her single and living with her mother at 2926 Lagrange Street, the same address listed for the family in the 1900 census. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to turn up anything about Wanda since the 1930 census. I assume she either married or changed her name.
One last item I want to clear up from this story. Over the years I've read several newspaper articles and blog entries where Joe Urbaytis is given credit for breaking out of Atlanta Penitentiary. It's just not true. While Joe did attempt to escape with fellow prisoner (and notorious California mail robber and "King of the Escape Artists") Roy Gardner on July 19, 1927, their plan failed. Although they successfully smuggled two pistols, ammunition and nitroglycerin into the prison, their plan was thwarted when a tower guard stopped them from using a ladder placed against a stockade wall. As a result of this attempted escape, it was Joe's second try to break out of Atlanta, he was placed in isolation for thirty-one months. When he was released back into the general population, a guard was assigned to accompany him whenever he moved about the prison. In 1934, it was discovered that Joe was working on another escape plan that involved smuggled guns and he was transferred to the newly opened maximum security federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, located in San Francisco Bay. On November 16, 1934, he arrived at "The Rock" with a note in his file: "He is a gangster and bandit leader and exerts a bad influence...for this reason he is unsafe to mingle and mix with other prisoners."
I'll share more about Joe Urbaytis later, I promise!