The search for Bo Diddley didn’t last long. Four days after Bertha’s murder on South Ridgeway, the Houston, Texas Police called and told us that Charles Gastrum had been arrested in the process of burglarizing a home in their city. Parked on the driveway of the home was Bertha’s car.
In a few short months Charles Gastrum was convicted of burglary and since it was his third felony conviction in Texas, he was determined to be a habitual felony offender, under Texas’s “three strikes” law. His sentence was mandatory: life in prison.
While this solved Texas’s problem with Bo Diddley it didn’t help our situation in Chicago. Homicides are cleared when the offender is arrested and charged. With Bo in Texas State Prison for life our only hope in clearing the Bertha Tidwell homicide from our books was to extradite Bo back to Illinois to face charges here. We had a very strong circumstantial case and when lab results further tied Bo Diddley to the crime scene, the Cook County States Attorney’s Office agreed to issue a warrant for Charles Gastrum and formally request his extradition to Illinois.
Bo refused to waive extradition and the case languished for over a year. I had some eighteen months as a homicide detective under my belt now and I was working with a steady partner. The Tidwell homicide had faded from my mind. I was knee deep in cases. Area Four, the murder factory, was averaging five to six homicides per week. I couldn’t concern myself with something that was beyond my control.
Suddenly in late August 1971 the extradition officer from the States Attorney’s office called to notify us that Charles Gastrum was ready for extradition. In a sudden about face, Bo had written the governor of Illinois requesting immediate extradition. He was ready to return to Illinois and face murder charges in the death of his aunt.
Detective James Quincy Vurpell III, AKA Jimmy the Turd, unit secretary and ogre of the office, raised his ugly head again and assigned the extradition trip to the original team that had written the half page note on the “natural death” of Bertha Tidwell. Bill Felston pulled me aside.
“Look,” he said, “The rules are that the first team to list the offender as “wanted” gets the extradition trip. The Turd is trying to screw you again. Do you want to go to Houston with me? You and I filed the format report that pegged Gastrum as the offender.”
“Absolutely!” I said. Extraditions were few and far between and a welcome break from ghetto murder cases. This would be my first. Felston had a few words with the Turd, something about breaking knees, and the pipsqueak quickly corrected his “honest error.”
Vurpell called to me across the squad room as though he was doing me some sort of favor: “Ya gotta extradition, kid.”
Bill Feltston and I were scheduled to go to Texas to pick up Bo Diddley. It was early September 1971, hurricane season for the southern states.
Charles Gastrum was in the Huntsville State Prison. We were to fly to Houston, rent a car and stop off at the Houston Homicide unit to get reports of Gastrum’s original statements to Houston Homicide regarding Aunt Bertha’s death, then drive to Huntsville to pick him up. It would be a quick two-day trip. On the flight down Bill found a newspaper article charting the course of a tropical depression, heading for the gulf coast, making landfall this very day at the Mississippi/Louisiana border. We reckoned it was far enough east not to be cause for concern.
We boarded our flight and settled in for the trip to Houston. Hijackings were rampant at that time and air passengers were a bit jittery. The airlines welcomed armed officers on board however, requesting only that they identify themselves before boarding. The first fifteen minutes of flight Bill and I knew that our revolvers were not going to work strapped to our belts. The seats were small, we were big and it was roughly akin to sitting on a rock. We unloaded our guns and placed them in a spring top briefcase that housed the extradition papers. We pocketed the bullets and stowed the briefcase with the empty weapons in the overhead directly above us.
As we made our approach to Houston, I retrieved the case from the overhead, pulling it out by one corner. The spring top popped open and my snub nose fell to the carpeted aisle. The lady across from us was the only one paying attention and she nearly fainted when she saw the weapon.
“Police!” I whispered as I grabbed the revolver and returned to my seat. Felston was trying to maintain his composure and look professional but he wasn’t having much success. I pulled a business card from my jacket pocket and handed it to the skeptical woman across the way and gave Bill a hard elbow in the ribs. We landed without incident, unless of course you count dropping a revolver in the aisle of an aircraft an “incident.”
It was late in the day when we picked up our rental car and drove over to the Houston Police Department. We found our way to the Homicide Unit and after a moment’s wait Captain Crowell greeted us from across the room.
“Howdy fellas! I hear tell ya’ll be takin’ a nigga back with ya.”
Even in 1971 that wouldn’t wash in Chicago but nobody in the Houston squad room batted an eyelash. The homicide commander was warm and friendly as a Texan could be. He gave us the original written statement of Gastrum admitting to the murder of his aunt and promised help with anything we might need. Welcome to the South.
We spent the night in Houston. The tropical depression had made landfall as predicted and had stalled inland, about a hundred miles north of New Orleans. Our weather was clear, hot and humid.
The hot sticky weather continued our second day in Texas and it seemed that the rental car’s air conditioning could barely keep up with the heat. We would have a full day with the round trip drive to Huntsville and the flight back to Chicago. At the Texas State Prison in Huntsville we discovered that Charles Gastrum’s paperwork was not in order. It would take a day to correct and that meant an overnight in Huntsville.
The third day of our two day extradition was even hotter. Charles Gastrum was presented to us just inside the gates of the Texas State Prison. He was dressed in prison “release” khakis and was handcuffed and shackled to a chain around his waist. He wore leg irons. Grasped awkwardly in his hands was a paper shopping bag with all of his earthly belongings. He was a huge man, black as coal. Standing about 6′ 4″ his biceps were nearly as large as his waist. We searched Gastrum and his bag and replaced the prison chain and handcuffs with our own. We removed his leg shackles and returned them to the guards. We had not brought any. It was academic anyway. Once we reached the airport, the airlines would not accept a prisoner who was restrained in any way. It might upset other passengers. Bill and I together were clearly no physical match for Charles Gastrum. Our weapon had to be psychological. The life of a Negro prisoner in 1971 Texas was clearly no bed of roses and Bo Diddley was no brain surgeon.
“Bo, you want to go back to Chicago, don’t you?” asked Bill Feltston
“Yassah, ah surely do wants to go back!” he answered.
“Then don’t fuck up, because if you do…” Felston paused looking Gastrum directly in the eyes, “…we’ll kill you.”
“Nossah, I won’t mess up. I promise.”
Bo Diddley shuffled to the car and got into the back seat with Felston . I drove.
The radio reports were ominous. The tropical depression had completely reversed course, backed south, out into the Gulf and was gathering strength over the warm waters. It became a tropical storm and the National Hurricane Center christened it “Fern.” Just as quickly it reached hurricane status and again abruptly changed course. Next target, Galveston and Houston!
We raced south to Houston heading into the first clouds of our trip. They became heavier and blacker with every mile.
“Hey Bo,” said Feltston . “Do you like pizza and beer?”
“Yassuh.” was his puzzled reply.
“That’s good,” continued Feltston . “Because we just may be in some hotel together for the next couple of days.”
I got a mental image of the three of us trapped in a hotel room during a hurricane. How could that ever work? I shuddered at the thought and pushed the accelerator a bit harder. How could my first extradition be going so terribly wrong?
We got to the Houston Airport just as the radio was announcing that it had been closed. I parked at the curb and ran inside while Bill waited with Gastrum. The airport was indeed closed. The airlines had moved all their equipment out of the area well before Fern’s arrival. I raced back to the car in a near panic.
“What now?” I asked, trying to sound much calmer than I was.
“Houston PD.” said Bill, obviously much calmer (and more experienced) than me. “Let’s see if we can find a place for our friend to stay for the next day or two.”
The Houston Police Department was mobilizing for the impending hurricane, but taking Charles Gastrum off our hands would be no problem. Captain Crowell came to the rescue. Yes, a holding cell was available. They made copies of all our paperwork and told us to pick up Gastrum after the hurricane passed. It was that simple.
We found the newest, strongest downtown hotel recommended by the Houston Police and got a room on the third floor. High enough to be above the flood waters but low enough to hopefully avoid the peak winds. The forecasters were estimating Fern’s landfall in about 12 hours so we ventured out of the hotel to see if we could buy some water and flashlights. Houston was in the bull’s eye and it was a ghost town. Everything was closed and boarded up. The only people on the streets were emergency service personnel and two stray homicide dicks from Chicago. These folks took their hurricanes seriously. We had no choice but to return to our hotel, turn on the TV and try to get some sleep.
Sometime during the night our power failed. The hotel had given us candles but of course now we had no TV. An uneasy sleep was the only option.
The fourth day of our two day extradition dawned with heavy winds gusting to 70 mph and torrential rain. The sound alone was unbelievable. But Hurricane Fern turned out to be as much of a dud as she was unpredictable. Just before her second landfall she confounded the forecasters again and took another unexpected turn to the west and proceeded skirting the gulf coast of Texas, heading towards Mexico, steadily losing strength. At her max, she was a Category I hurricane. Never the less her fury, even from a distance, was awesome to these two midwestern cops. Houston had upwards of ten wind-driven inches of rain causing severe but temporary local flooding. Minor wind damage was widespread but no downtown buildings suffered structurally. Mid-day the power returned and people began to venture out into what now were scattered rain showers. By evening, downtown Houston was near normal. The airport would reopen tomorrow.
Day five of our two-day extradition dawned hot and humid once again. In an attempt to comply with newly issued Chicago Police regulations I phoned Delta Airlines to confirm our reservations and officially inform them that we were transporting a prisoner. In the past this had not been required, but the modern day era of flight security was just dawning in the early 70’s. Assigned seats were generally not offered so the major advantage of notifying the airline was having adjoining seats blocked for our use. In addition, we would be first to board and last to deplane. It all made perfect sense… on paper.
Delta’s reservation clerk connected me with a supervisor who seemed to be very familiar with the new procedures.
“Is the prisoner returning voluntarily,” she asked.
“Yes, he’s waived extradition.”
“Will he be handcuffed?”
“No.” I knew the obligatory answer to that question. The airlines would not permit handcuffed prisoners. It tended to unsettle the other passengers. When we arrived in Chicago, Gastrum would be handcuffed before we left the plane but since we would be the last to exit, it wouldn’t matter.
“Everything is in order, officer. Your plane originates in Miami but we’ll have three adjoining seats blocked for your party at the point of origin. Ask for the supervising agent when you check in… and thanks for flying Delta.”
Charles Gastrum, AKA “Bo Diddley”, seemed genuinely happy to see us when we retrieved him from the Houston lockup. The storm had unnerved him and he found the holding cell much less friendly than his home at the state penitentiary. He was a pleasant man to talk with and we chatted amiably. He spent most of his free time weight lifting—they even had sort of a fitness club at the prison gym. His change of heart regarding extradition was motivated by cotton season. Penitentiary prisoners worked the state owned cotton fields each fall. It was long, hot and difficult work that lasted several weeks each year. He figured by waiving extradition he would dodge this year’s cotton season.
He denied killing his Aunt Bertha, but fell silent when we reminded him that he was arrested with her car and had given a written confession to the Houston Homicide Unit. He had cotton season all figured out but the details of his murder case were proving confusing to him. Bo Diddley was a simple man, not too bright, but anxious to please, which probably explained why he had occasionally been assigned to the warden’s office as a trustee.
We retuned our rental car, three days late, and headed for the terminal building. We were early and it was lunch time. The airport restaurant had a great sandwich menu and the corned beef on rye looked especially good.
“Bo, do you get crazy when you drink beer?” asked Bill Feltston .
“Nossuh, I jus gets mostly tired.”
Bo Diddley had two beers with his lunch. Bill and I drank coke.
At the Delta counter I asked for the supervising agent and identified myself as the party that was traveling with a prisoner. She was aware of the arrangements and everything was in order. She confirmed that the prisoner was returning voluntarily and would not be handcuffed. We were set to go.
“Where is he?” asked the agent casually.
“Over there on the bench,” I motioned to where Bill and Bo were sitting chatting.
“What did he do?” asked she asked as very much an afterthought.
“He murdered his aunt,” I answered in a matter-of-fact tone. In an instant I realized I had committed a fatal error!
The supervising agent stifled an involuntary scream and seemed on the verge of collapse before she regained her composure. Delta doesn’t carry violent prisoners. But he’s not violent I argued, motioning to Bill and Bo. But he murdered his aunt she countered. We were kicked off the flight roster and she returned our tickets.
Stranded once again with Bo Diddley, it took Bill and I several moments to collect our thoughts. Houston was a large terminal serving several airlines. Was there another serving Chicago? Yes! Just one, Braniff Airways.
On the far side of the large ticketing area, I sat with Bo while Bill checked flights at the Braniff counter. Yes there was an afternoon flight with seats available. Braniff accepted the Delta tickets and we were booked to leave within the hour. This time no one would know that we were traveling with a prisoner. Department regulations be damned. In fact, it seemed even more brilliant if no one even knew we were traveling with anyone at all.
We walked to within about 50 yards of the Braniff gate. We gave Bo Diddley his ticket with simple instructions… walk to that little counter just ahead, give the man your ticket and go stand by the window and look out at the plane.
Then we repeated our earlier warning: “If you do anything else, we’ll kill you, do you understand?”
Bo understood. This was Texas. We were the police. We would kill him. It was as simple as that, at least to Bo Diddley. We might not have any trouble explaining a dead prisoner to our friend Captain Crowell at Houston Homicide, but we would certainly have hard questions to answer back in Chicago.
Bo walked to the boarding agent, presented his ticket and dutifully marched over to the window and stared in wonderment at the orange plane waiting on the tarmac.
We followed but not too closely. It was a grand scheme!
At the boarding counter we identified ourselves as Chicago Police officers, traveling on business, armed. No problem… the agent examined our identification.
“Braniff has assigned seats on this flight gentlemen, where would you like to sit?” said the man with a smile. There was a moment of stunned silence.
“This flight is a ‘Golden Coach’ non-stop to Chicago. We have assigned seats on this flight.” The friendly Braniff man was speaking more slowly now. “Where – would – you -like – to – sit?” he said, displaying a giant seating chart mounted on the wall behind.
Bill and I glanced over at Bo, standing stock still at the window in his prison release khakis and his paper shopping bag.
“We’d like to sit next to that Negro gentleman standing over there,” I said pointing to Bo Diddley.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Gastrom I believe… let’s see… he asked for a window, 23C, we’ll put you folks in 23A and B. Will there be anything else?”
We shook our heads, unable to look Mr. Braniff in the eye.
Late in the afternoon of our fifth day, the brightly colored Braniff Boeing 727 lifted off the Houston runway and set course for Chicago O’Hare. In seats 23A, B, and C sat two exhausted Chicago homicide detectives and an excited Charles Gastrom on the first plane ride of his life.
The next morning, at the Maxwell Street homicide office, we turned our paperwork into the annoying unit secretary, Detective Vurpell. The Tidwell homicide was officially cleared by arrest.
“Five days! You guys sure know how to milk an extradition,” he peeped.
I looked down at the desk bound detective for the first time with pity, born of experiencing something he could never understand from behind his desk. If he was expecting an explanation, he didn’t get one.
“You’ll never know, Vurpell,” I said. “You’ll never know.”
* * *
Charles Gastrom, AKA: “Bo Diddley” stood trial for the murder of Bertha Tidwell in Cook County Circuit Court. Through a series of tactical errors on the part of the prosecutor his written confession to the Houston homicide detectives was not allowed into evidence. The physical evidence, while it pointed strongly to Gastrom, was not conclusive given the limitations of 1970’s era forensics. The balance of the case was circumstantial and the jury found Charles Gastrom not guilty and he was returned to Texas to resume serving his life sentence. He did get two free plane rides. And oh yes… he spent the 1971 Texas cotton season in the comfort of the Cook County Jail.