A lot of folks are probably wondering why we would dig up dirt on our father. We never set out to; we only wanted to help Melissa determine if we were siblings. After Melissa’s email, we met her in Florida early 2002. She had moved there after her adoptive parents had passed. Melissa told us she came into a sum of money. On her way to bingo one day, she was struck by a drunk driver while crossing a street. After that accident, she moved back to West Virginia and oddly every time we went on a research trip to Wheeling, we ran into her. We hope she is doing well and takes inspiration from us to tell her own story.
After our initial research, we realized there was far more to our father than we knew. We obtained his visitor’s list and lengthy arrest record dating back to 1938. The deeper we dug, the more interesting his life became to us. Then curiosity took over. Using his arrest records, we accumulated over one hundred news articles detailing his life of crime. We spent countless hours at the Library of Congress combing through city newspapers. Every individual mentioned in the articles were contacted, bad guys as well as good, for any tidbit they might recall. Other than the ones who died, all were surprised to hear from us. A few individuals were so well hidden they were shocked to be found. Most were interested in our story and eager to share. A few wanted nothing to do with us. When we found the Wheeling get-away driver, he yelped, “That was over sixty years ago.” Surprisingly, judges and federal agents had high opinions of Bim commenting on his intelligence and good looks.
On one of our Wheeling trips, we wanted to meet Lips, the kidnapped victim. After two or three drive-bys, we finally stopped at his residence. It took a lot of courage. We did not know what to expect thinking he might own a gun now. With great trepidation, we knocked on his door. But when he answered, we chickened out and instead flashed our Library of Congress badges and asked if he knew of the Wheelchair Gang from the 1940s. He said his father was a bail bondsman during that time. To get rid of us, he suggested we check out Wheeling Island for gambling on the Ohio River. It took another year before we contacted him again. This time, by letter, we told him we were Bim’s daughters and wanted to apologize for our deceased father’s actions. He agreed to meet us. To our delight, at our first meeting in Wheeling, he brought along his cousin and one of the 1967 arresting officers. Lips told us he knew who we were the day we stopped by. Before our meeting ended, we referred to a 1943 newspaper clipping and asked if they knew any of the victims named in the article. We were surprised to learn one was still alive. In fact, we were staying at the hotel he owned. They knew him well and called while we were there to set up a lunch meeting the next day at his hotel restaurant. He never showed but got word to us he took ill. We have developed a bittersweet relationship with Lips. He even encouraged us to write a book.
We befriended two guards who worked at the prison during our father’s incarceration. One gave us a tour of the Moundsville Penitentiary. We wanted to see how he lived for 9,288 days of his life. They told us one of Bim’s fellow inmates was still in prison. He was now a lifer because he broke out and committed a triple murder. Due to his ailing health, he refused to grant us an interview but answered a list of questions that we faxed to the guard. The inmate said he cooked special meals for our dad because of his ulcers. They were friends. Our father taught him the upholstery trade and gave him his tools when he got transferred to Atlanta. While we stayed overnight at the prison on a ghost hunting tour, we viewed MTV’s Fear episode filmed at the prison. We were surprised to see the convict being interviewed about the history of the prison. He looked pretty darn healthy to us.
Just about any public document can be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. However, it was very difficult to deal with the records department in Wheeling. They were always giving us the run around. It took years for them to grant us access to their historical records. But through our persistence, we hit the jackpot with statements and confessions we discovered on microfiche while they were looking at Avon books.
Most of our father’s attorneys are now deceased. However, Attorney Kahle, who spent over 250 hours on Bim’s case, had a son who took over his practice in Wheeling. He was still in possession of his father’s files. He finally agreed to let us view our father’s case files and we spent a few hours in his conference room. Surprisingly, we learned valuable family medical information. We think he was intrigued by us and impressed the apples fell far from the tree.
We learned the head of the Wheelchair Gang, James J. O’Connor wrote a book entitled Double Immunity. O’Connor passed away long before we began our search. We believe he gloatingly wrote about the legal system’s failure to keep a cripple in jail during the 1930s. After an extensive search to locate his book, we found only one copy in Pittsburgh. A woman we contacted who was the young widowed wife of one of the Wheelchair Gang members said she had a copy of the book in her attic. In our initial telephone conversation, she was very talkative and promised to lend us the book. But when we visited her home in Pittsburgh, she appeared nervous. She lied and said she was not who we were looking for. By the way, we are still looking for the book.
Some information was easier to obtain. How fortunate for us that Pennsylvania’s Huntingdon County Historical Society still had a box of Commander Pennington’s belongings from the 1930’s and 1940’s. There were his personal files, newspaper clippings and contents from his desk. They allowed us to review it. From this, we learned about one of our father’s first authority figures and the reformatory he was sent to. A lot of history was in that box.
We contacted a few of our father’s high school classmates. They provided his class picture and school newspapers which displayed his artwork. His class voted him most persuasive. One classmate and neighbor, now in his eighties, told us he was forbidden to hang around with our dad.
We think our father felt no remorse for his actions, just sorry he got caught and we are convinced he felt more at home in prison. Because of our government jobs, we thought if we talked about him, others might think less of us. Writing this book is finally closure and we can speak openly about our father now.
Our journey together has been unlike any adventure two sisters might share filled with jaw-dropping moments. It was our own personal history lesson. Not only did we have to deal with our findings, we had to relive our childhood. It is a story too fascinating to keep to ourselves.
Our mother always told us our father was a character, how ironic that he is now a character in our book.