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February 21, 2003

February is a big month for TV stations all across the country. That's when one of those highly prized ratings surveys is conducted to determine how much a local station can charge its advertisers for use of the public airwaves. In Oklahoma City, just as they are everywhere else, local news shows are the keystones in attracting viewers. Bizarre, even weird gimmicks are offered up as the carefully coiffured male and female news anchors strive to lure big numbers to their channels. But let's not spend too much time on that subject. We all understand that those sensational teasers, aired prior to, the actual news shows, are just intended to get us hooked, and they do not necessarily reflect the content of the "news" that is being readied for us.

For example: One of the Oklahoma City channels is telling us that several thousand dollars in ransom money is still missing years after the sensational Charles Urschel kidnapping in 1933. That case rocked the entire U.S. when Mr. Urschel, an oil millionaire living in Oklahoma City, was snatched from his home one night during a bridge game with friends following a sumptuous dinner. He was held for ransom. There is a Perry connection to that story because in 1958, when this brouhaha was revived, the late Paul W. Cress, one of our local attorneys, was the U.S. district attorney for Western Oklahoma. He fought valiantly to prevent the release from prison of some of the perpetrators of the kidnapping. In 2003, this was a "feature" story, not a "news" story.

Mr. Orschel's kidnapping case was brought up again in 1958 in the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City on motions to free two of the surviving kidnappers. They were Kathryn Kelly, 54, one-time gun moll of they late George (Machine Gun) Kelly, and her mother, 71-year-old Mrs. Ora Shannon. They were seeking freedom after serving 25 years of their life sentences. At the time of the kidnapping in 1933, Machine Gun Kelly was one of the most feared criminals in the U.S., ranking along with John Dillinger and a few other notorious badmen, The 1958 hearing attracted national attention because of the underworld characters involved and the fact that the trial was the first under provisions of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case.

According to information provided by Mr. Cress for his family history, Federal Judge W.R. Wallace ordered the FBI to hand over to him the files on the 1933 kidnapping to determine whether defense attorneys had been coerced. It was a temporary victory for Mrs. Kelly and her mother, but not necessarily a defeat for Mr. Cress. He represented the prosecution in the 1958 hearing but he was not involved with the original trial. The government resisted turning over the files, so Judge Wallace gave Mr. Cress, as the U.S. attorney, an ultimatum to produce the FBI reports. Mr. Cress refused to comply on orders from the U.S. attorney general, William Rogers. Judge Wallace attempted to settle the issue when he freed the women on June 16, 1958, pending new trials because the government refused to open the records.

The federal court ruling was appealed by the government and a circuit court reversed it. The women's attorneys took that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices let the reversal stand, vindicating the original action by Mr. Cress and the U.S. attorney general.

So, the next time someone tries to interest you in hearing about the Urschel kidnapping and events which followed, remember that a country attorney from Noble county played a major role in that case.