DEAD-EYE AND THE GHOST RIDERS GANG
It was a cool Tuesday evening in mid-March, 1948. Already one could feel that spring was fast approaching, but as dusk settled over the small Oklahoma town of Ripley, the shadowy figure wore a jacket to ward of the chill created by a mild breeze. He stepped onto the porch at the home of local horse trader, Cliff Cantrell. Quickly and quietly he pushed a tack with a note attached to one of the porch columns next to the front door. He moved swiftly back into the street and disappeared in the darkness. Thus began the short-lived crime spree of the Ripley Ghost Riders Gang.
There were four of them, none with criminal records. The note they left demanded the horse trader deliver seven horses to the bridge that crossed the Cimarron River just outside town. If, by dusk the next evening, the horses weren’t there, he wouldn’t see his son again. Of course, the Cantrell’s son wasn’t missing, which was a flaw in the Gang’s plan. Jake, Otis Ted, and my brother, known within the gang as ‘Dead-eye,’ a nickname well-suited for a member of a ruthless gang of kidnappers, had dipped their collective toes into the cold waters of a criminal adventure.
Ripley was a peaceful community with virtually no crime. Those who saw the note questioned whether it might be just a prank, but the Sheriff was notified and the investigation began. A surveillance team staked out the road and the small, steep hills or bluffs that ran alongside the meandering, red clay tinted waters of the Cimarron. After hours of quietly waiting for the gang to appear, the deputies tired of swatting mosquitoes and called off the stake-out.
There were questions to consider. Did the gang get word of the surveillance? Would they make further demands? Was the Cantrell boy safe? A deputy sheriff by the name of Ralph White came up with a theory which he tested the next day.
When the Ripley Public School bell rang, signaling the start of the day’s classes, Deputy White asked the school principal to call all the boys into his office, one by one, to give handwriting samples. Word spread quickly through the halls that the kidnappers might be students and the Lawman was there to ferret out the guilty parties. This heavy-handed abuse of police powers worked before the Deputy had time to make the first comparison. The Ghost Riders Gang, ages 12 to 15, walked together to the principal’s office and confessed their crime.
Ted, the ringleader of the Gang, was reported in the local paper to have commented, “We really didn’t even want the horses and didn’t go to the bridge to see if they had been delivered. It seemed like it would be fun, but now it doesn’t seem so much. It just didn’t turn out like the cowboy movies.”
Deputy White reported that he gave all the boys a stern lecture and no charges would be filed. “The Ghost Riders,” he said, “had been dehorned once and for all.” He was right; none of the four continued lives of crime.
‘Dead-eye’ Virgil Watts went on to become an accomplished steel guitar player. In a recent interview, he said that he and Otis were only involved in listening to Ted lay out the plan. They didn’t help write or deliver the note, but took their lecture along with their buddies. Ted had thought it would be a lot of fun and carried out the prank.
‘Dead-eye’ admitted that he might have had at least one other brush with the law. In the mid-1950s he was playing music at the Knickerbocker Inn, a working-class bar, reputed to be owned by a member of the Chicago Mob.
One night shortly after he arrived in Chicago and before he’d even unpacked his car bearing out-of-state license plates, he was stopped by a policeman. Now ‘Dead-eye’ says he’s sure he looked a little suspicious, what with the back seat full of clothes, guitars, amplifiers, and other assorted musical instruments.
Upon questioning, he told the officer he was new in town and playing music at the Knickerbocker. The officer, apparently suspicious of the story, told him to drive to the club so he could verify it. Once there, ‘Dead-eye’ was instructed to stand by the door as the officer walked to the bar and talked with the owner. After a short conversation, his boss pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and gave a ten to the cop who left, ignoring ‘Dead-eye’ on his way out.
Once the officer was gone, his boss said, “When they stop you, just wrap a fiver around your driver’s license or lay it on the seat beside you. Don’t look at it. When he gives you back the license, the fiver’ll be gone. You won’t get a ticket and I won’t have to waste my time talkin’ to a copper.”
The advice worked and the boss was happy that he didn’t have to bail ‘Dead-eye’ out again. But it turned out that Dead-eye had to find other ways to get to work. Seems the officer recognized a regular source of extra income and stopped ‘Dead-eye’ every time he saw him.
All these years later, Dead-eye Virgil Watts still plays the steel guitar and will be inducted into the Western Swing Hall of Fame next year. If Deputy White was still around, he would likely take pleasure knowing that his compassionate approach to law enforcement with four young miscreants was a success. His lecture to the members of the Ripley Ghost Riders Gang and letting them slide on criminal charges was the right way to handle this prank that could also have been a crime.