Levan Oliver’s photo in the Davenport, Iowa, Quad-City Times; Dec. 3, 1923.
Most Wanted poster for John P. Looney.
La Historia del Rio Abajo
Many of us remember the days when you could visit your local post office and see several “most wanted” posters tacked to the lobby wall. I often wondered how often those posters led to the eventual capture of the accused and how often a capture led to the winning of a handsome reward.
One such most wanted poster did lead to the apprehension of a notorious fugitive right here in Valencia County nearly 100 years ago. The capture and subsequent fate of John Patrick Looney makes interesting reading for those of us who like true crime mysteries, especially those set in the Rio Abajo.
A poster in the post office
A tall, mustached, partially-deaf carpenter named Levan Oliver often came to town to buy supplies and drop by the local post office when it was located at the northwest corner of Dalies Avenue and South Seventh Street in Belen.
As an observant 70 year old, Oliver had the habit of looking at the photos shown on the wanted posters in the post office. He was curious about the fugitives, their faces, their crimes and, most of all, the reward money offered to anyone who could help find, capture and convict the accused.
And so it was that Oliver stopped by the Belen post office on Nov. 28, 1923, and inspected the most wanted posters displayed that Wednesday afternoon. He particularly noticed the photo of a clean-shaven man with dark hair, piercing (some said “beady”) eyes and a clearly twisted nose, undoubtedly broken in one or more bar-room brawls. A second photo showed the man dressed in more dignified attire at a younger age.
Later, as Oliver walked past a local (unspecified) hotel, he spotted a stranger sitting in the hotel lobby. Thinking that the man looked familiar, Oliver returned to the post office to confirm his suspicion that the stranger was, in fact, the man pictured with dark hair, “beady eyes” and a clearly twisted nose. The main difference was that the suspect wore a mustache, perhaps grown as part of a disguise.
In Oliver’s words, “After studying him for a few minutes, I knew that the man was him.”
The man’s name was John Patrick “Paddy John” Looney, wanted for a long list of crimes in far-off Illinois. A $2,000 reward was offered for his apprehension and arrest. ($2,000 in 1923 equals $31,000 today.)
Oliver reported his suspicion to the post master, who suggested that Oliver alert Mayor Manuel Garcia. The mayor notified Belen’s town marshal, Henry T. Jaramillo, who, with Oliver and Garcia at his side, marched in unison to the hotel.
Marshal Jaramillo, Mayor Garcia and Oliver found the suspect eating in the hotel’s dining room. Knowing that this might well be the last meal he would enjoy in peace, Jaramillo let the stranger finish eating before he approached him and quietly ordered him into a back room.
The stranger did not resist as Marshal Jaramillo placed him under arrest and checked to make sure he was not armed. Oliver watched from the background, satisfied that he had helped apprehend a fugitive and increasingly confident that the $2,000 reward would soon be his.
The 57-year-old prisoner was not as cooperative after he was taken into custody and turned over to Sheriff Joseph Tondre in Los Lunas.
When the police attempted to measure the man’s height, he sagged. When they attempted to take his weight, he would not stand still for an accurate reading on a scale. And when Tondre attempted to take his fingerprints, he yelled, “Look at him! He’s hurting my fingers! Ouch! Ouch! Ohhhhhh!”
Tondre sweated (questioned) Looney, but with few results. The prisoner indignantly insisted that his name was Frank Hartman. To prove his identity, the man produced a watch with the initials “FH” engraved on it. He also had a charm with the same initials, supposedly proving his membership in a certain Elks Lodge in California.
Sheriff Tondre was hardly convinced. Sure that the anxious stranger was bluffing, Tondre contacted the Elks Lodge in California to check out Looney’s story. The lodge replied that it had a member with those initials, but his name was not Frank Hartman. Tondre later learned that the initials “FH” actually belonged to Looney’s son-in-law, Frank Hamlin.
Tondre locked Looney in a Los Lunas courthouse cell, ignoring the prisoner’s protests that, “This jail is cold and I’m a sick man and it will kill me to put me in there.”
Sheriff Tondre alerted officials in Illinois that he had their fugitive in custody. A delegation of lawmen left Rock Island, Ill., for New Mexico within hours. They had been searching for John Looney for more than a year, and they were not about to let him slip away again.
Who was John Looney?
Who was John Looney and why was his capture so important to authorities in Illinois?
Looney had been born in poverty, but had worked hard as a telegraph operator, had studied the law and had become a lawyer. Admitted to the bar in 1889 at the age of 23, Looney practiced law in Rock Island, and soon became more and more involved in city politics and political disputes.
Upset by what he considered to be a local newspaper’s political bias, Looney had acquired rival Rock Island News to gain power and influence against his political enemies. He also became corrupt and criminal, running gambling operations and a prostitution ring from the same building that housed his newspaper.
By 1923, he was accused of car theft, attempted murder and the murder of a Rock Island saloon-keeper.
Long before Al Capone became a vice lord in Chicago, John Looney had become a crime boss in Rock Island. Looney controlled not only the crime world in Rock Island, but also the city attorney, the mayor, the chief of police and several members of the police force.
Looney’s criminal activities were eventually exposed, with most of his cohorts, including the mayor and chief of police, escorted off to prison. Somehow, Looney managed to flee Illinois and make his way west to New Mexico, where his daughter, son-in-law and he owned and operated a 20,000-acre ranch near Chama.
Wearing a beard and other disguises to conceal his identity, Looney boldly visited Santa Fe to visit his lawyer and even applied for a permit to explore for oil deposits on his property.
Looney’s neighbors in Rio Arriba County were hardly fooled. They knew all about him, referring to him as “El Gangster,” although they thought he was from Chicago rather than from Rock Island.
El Gangster didn’t bother his neighbors, and his neighbors were wise enough to leave him alone.
The gig’s up
Lawmen continued to search for Looney, without success for more than a year. In fact, a posse had arrived at his ranch just prior to Looney’s appearance and arrest in Belen.
Looney’s daughter, Ursula Hamlin, could honestly state that her father was nowhere on the ranch. Hearing of the approaching posse might well have caused Looney to flee south, perhaps en route to Mexico.
Wherever Looney was headed, he needed money. He had arranged for someone to mail him cash, which was to arrive in a letter addressed to him in Belen. The letter had, in fact, arrived in Belen on the day he was apprehended. He had simply neglected to retrieve his mail until it was too late for it to be of use in his escape.
In another irony, Looney had attempted to hide his identity by scrupulously avoiding having his picture taken for some 20 years. Only one photo had been taken: the mug shot Levan Oliver had recognized at the post office on Nov. 28, 1923.
Facing charges, consequences
John Looney and his Santa Fe lawyer, William J. Barker, fought tooth-and-nail to avoid extradition to Illinois to face state and federal charges. Illinois authorities sent a small army of lawmen and lawyers to do battle in a Santa Fe court, but with no immediate results.
Looney told the court — and any newspaperman who would listen — that he was simply a New Mexican rancher who owned land in Rio Arriba County, and had dutifully voted in state elections like any other law-abiding citizen.
Looney contended that his poor health, not his criminal past, had caused him to move to New Mexico to live out his life. He coughed several times in an hour-long jailhouse interview with a reporter to “prove” that he suffered from tuberculosis.
Looney argued that he was a victim, not a perpetrator of crime. He painted himself to be a political reformer whose enemies had tried to kill him six times and had actually killed his son, John Jr., in a heartless act of revenge.
Looney eventually lost his case and was extradited to Illinois, where a jury found him guilty of murder in December 1925. He received a sentence of 14 years to be served at the Illinois state prison in Joliet.
The former crime boss served just over eight years of his sentence. Made to believe that Looney was at death’s door with a hemorrhaging lung, Illinois state Gov. Henry Horner granted him clemency in April 1934.
Once freed, Looney led a quiet life, apparently living with his daughter and son-in-law in Texas, having sold their ranch in New Mexico to pay off an old debt. He died near Brooks, Texas, in March 1942. He was 75.
Looney is remembered as such a notorious figure that Rock Island still has a tour of his old haunts. “The Road to Perdition,” a 2002 movie starring Tom Cruise and Paul Newman, was largely based on Looney’s life of crime.
What became of Levan Oliver?
And what became of Levan Oliver and his $2,000 reward for helping in the arrest of John Looney? Fairly or not, Marshal Jaramillo and Mayor Garcia claimed that they deserved to split part or all of the reward.
In May 1925, a New Mexico district court judge decided that the reward money should be split, with two-thirds of it going to Oliver and a third going to Jaramillo and Garcia.
While we do not know how Oliver felt about this compromise, we can be pretty sure that he continued to check out wanted posters in Belen and San Antonio, Texas, where he moved.
He died age 76, having done his civic duty and earned some extra cash in his last few years of life.
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society since 1998.
The author wishes to thank Cynthia Shetter and former state historian Robert Torrez for their kind assistance in the writing of this column.
Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the authors’ alone and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)
Richard Melzer, guest columnist
Richard Melzer, Ph.D., is a retired history professor who taught at The University of New Mexico–Valencia campus for more than 35 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Valencia County Historical Society for 30 years; he has served as the society’s president several times.
He has written many books and articles about New Mexico history, including many works on Valencia County, his favorite topic. His newest book, a biography of Casey Luna, was published in the spring of 2021.
Those interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact Dr. Melzer at [email protected].