What Happened to Bonnie and Clyde's Missing Gun?
In which we hear the report of a gun and a secret is revealed
At approximately 9:30 on the morning of Wednesday, May 23, 1934, a bullet fired from the .35-caliber Remington rifle of Louisiana deputy sheriff Prentiss Morel Oakley penetrated the front of the skull of one Clyde Chestnut Barrow, notorious Texas-born bank robber and cop killer. At that same time, approximately, Barrow died.
This is what's known as a coincidence, but it's not a surprising one. In this case – bullet enters brain, the person whose brain it is dies – it's also direct cause and effect. But there are a few other coincidences, of the more eerie kind, tangled up in the violent history of Clyde Barrow and his paramour and crime partner Bonnie Parker. The latest odd coincidence, also involving that Deputy Oakley but a different gun altogether, has a local connection and is being revealed here for the first time.
Kathy Vellard, former Louisiana Tech professor of visual art, is an instructor at the Art School at Laguna Gloria. She's also the great-niece of Prentiss Oakley – but that in itself is hardly worth noting. "It's a small world, after all," as Walt Disney's cryogenically preserved head might wish to remind us. But because it is a small world, and even too-big-for-its-britches Austin is still a small city in many ways, the art teacher happens to be in a book club with former Chronicle graphic designer Shelley Hiam. And when Vellard, provoked by the recent Netflix Bonnie-and-Clyde-based film The Highwaymen, told her monthly gathering of bibliophiles about what happened with Bonnie Parker's own personal gun, Hiam was like "Whoa" and suggested Vellard contact your reporter about it.
"My grandfather was Ernest Thomas Oakley, and his brother was Prentiss Morel Oakley," Vellard tells me over lunch at nearby Sa-Tén. Maybe I should be eating a fried bologna sandwich – Clyde Barrow's last meal, eaten at Canfield's Cafe in Gibsland, La., about 10 minutes before he was killed – but it's not on the menu.
"Prentiss died in 1957," says Vellard. "So, when they made the first movie about Bonnie and Clyde, with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, they called my grandfather – because they wanted to ask him some questions about the details of the events. And my grandfather would talk about the events to our family, too, off and on, over the years – what his brother had told him. And then I was at Louisiana Tech University – I was a professor of art there for 20-something years – and Ed Pinkston was also at Louisiana Tech."
I'm sitting there in the coffee shop, listening to Vellard relate her story. I've done a bit of research in preparation for this interview, have Googled and Wikipedia'd up a whole flotilla of Bonnie and Clyde information, and the name Ed Pinkston isn't ringing any bells.
It'll be the last time those bells remain silent.
"Ed is someone I've known for a long time," says Vellard. "He'd originally taught me, when I was a student at Louisiana Tech. And then, later on, I was hired to teach there and he kind of became my mentor. And one day, because we'd recently driven by Sibley – which is really close to Ruston, where the Bonnie and Clyde museum is, near the site of where they were gunned down – I was talking to Ed, and I said, 'You know that my great-uncle shot Clyde Barrow, right?' And Ed went, 'What?'"
And so Vellard told her friend Pinkston the story that she's telling me, the story that her grandfather had passed down to her family. About how her great-uncle Prentiss, a sharpshooter in his early 20s, was brought in to ambush the gangsters.
"They put him behind a tree as part of the setup," says Vellard. "They'd gotten this friend of Bonnie and Clyde and convinced him to pretend that he had a flat tire, because they knew that Bonnie and Clyde would be going down that road that day and knew they'd stop to help their friend. The police also knew that they couldn't just say 'Halt!' anymore. They'd said that so many times, and Bonnie and Clyde and their gang would just pick up machine guns and mow everybody down. They had guns, like, in their laps. So there'd been too many killings, and the police had come to a decision. It was a hard decision: to not let them know that the police were there, to ambush them."
Vellard sips her coffee, letting the idea of ambush sink in.
"So they placed Prentiss behind a tree with a gun that he'd actually borrowed from a friend," she continues. "And when Bonnie and Clyde drove up, Prentiss shot the first shot – and the second shot, I believe – and it killed Clyde immediately. And Bonnie started screaming, and then everybody went nuts. My grandfather said Prentiss told him that everybody that had come out as part of the enforcement, that were waiting there with guns? They were scared half out of their minds and they were drinking whiskey – because they all thought they were gonna die. Because everybody else that had anything to do with Bonnie and Clyde was dead. So everybody went a little crazy."
I'm wondering about the Ed Pinkston connection here, and I'm about to go a little crazy.
"Well," says Vellard, "when Ed heard that, he goes, 'Listen to this.' And he tells me that his great-grandfather worked in agriculture and would drive around a lot to do his work. And he was driving in a car, that day, on that same road, and the car was identical to the car that Bonnie and Clyde were in: same model, same color. So Ed's grandfather drives up and sees all this smoke. And he just rolls into it, and, because he couldn't really see, he stops – and he was the first outside person to come upon the scene. And my great-uncle Prentiss went over to the car and told him, 'If you had arrived five minutes earlier, you'd be a dead man.' Or something to that effect. And Prentiss said, 'Here's a souvenir for you.' And he handed him a pistol out of Bonnie's purse."
Um ... what?
"Ed's great-grandfather kept the gun," says Vellard, nodding. "But he didn't tell anybody, because he didn't wanna get anybody in trouble. And then his son kept it, and – eventually, Ed got the gun. And we'd heard this story for so long, from my grandfather, but had no idea who the man was, the one that Prentiss had given the gun to. And I'd known Ed for a long time before this ever came out. So we were all shocked – because, what a coincidence."
But, hold on, Prentiss took the gun –
"He took it from Bonnie's purse," says Vellard, nodding. "That's what my grandfather said Prentiss told him. He took it from Bonnie's purse and handed it to Ed's grandfather at the scene. Prentiss was really disturbed by not being able to say 'Halt,' and that he had probably killed a woman. He never got over that; it was a haunting thing. And when they took the car into town – it was covered with bullet holes, the bodies still in there – people went crazy. Bonnie and Clyde were so notorious at the time, people just went crazy. They started grabbin' things out of the car, grabbing at their clothes to tear off a piece."
I've just torn a small chunk off my chicken katsu, and I focus on it for a moment: moist and tender on the end of my fork. "That's, uh, that's incredible," I tell Vellard.
"Anyway," she continues, "a little time goes by, and then Ed contacts me and says, 'We've decided we wanna sell this gun, put it at auction. But we need you to verify it, to document the story that your grandfather told you that Prentiss told him.'"
And Vellard – and her father, Charles E. Amman – documented the story and had those documents notarized and filed in Ouachita Parish, La. And so, in the fullness of time ...
"Ed did in fact sell the gun at auction," says Vellard. "I'm not sure of the amount, but it was somewhere in the $30,000 range, maybe a little over that."
Not bad for a purloined pistol – a 1908 .25-caliber Colt automatic, to be specific – that a very lucky Louisiana man handed down to his son, who kept it in the sock drawer of his bureau for 50 years before his son, Kathy Vellard's friend Ed Pinkston, finally inherited it.
And now, dear reader, you know what happened to Bonnie Parker's gun.