How Dayton's Bonnie and Clyde led
police on a chase that ended in a shootout
among the tombstones.
By Amelia Robinson
It was like a scene from a 1940s crime drama.
Bandaged and bloodied from a gunfight with police among the tombstones at Calvary Cemetery, a honeymooning trigger-woman exchanges quips with clamoring newspapermen gathered around her Miami Valley Hospital bed.
The 27-year-old woman on the table was four times married Elizabeth “Betty” Epperson.
“Newspaper guy, photographers,” the red-head says, according to a long-gone Dayton Daily News scribe. “Where do you all come from? Gimmie a cigarette and I’m not doing much talking.”
Betty said plenty, according to accounts from those newspapermen.
A photo of her smiling in that bed with a cig in her hands says 1,000 words more.
“Yes, sir,” the North Carolinian told the journalists. “This is some fine wedding present. Whatever they say, Ray didn’t do any shooting. I can’t remember what happened to the money they say we took.”
Betty made a clear impression on the room.
Dan Sammons, one of the Dayton cops she shot in a gun battle following a Bonnie and Clyde-esque crime spree, commented that Betty was a “good looking (so-and-so)” when he passed a framed newspaper front page detailing the shootout and 75-mph car chase through city streets, said Michael Sammons, his son.
Michael was just a 3-year-old at the time.
Like his father, he would serve the community more than 30 years as a Dayton police officer before retiring. Michael’s brother Thomas Sammons also served the department for nearly 40 years.
He said his father had a great sense of humor and worked two jobs to support six kids.
Michael said his dad really didn’t talk about the night he was shot, but it clearly made at least a small impression.
The band leader and his bride
Betty (maiden name Davis) and her husband Ramon Rex “Bus” Epperson, a 30-year-old band leader awaiting retrial in Indiana for a string of armed robberies and kidnappings, had skeletons in their closets long before Saturday, May 24, 1941.
In the very early hours of that morning, the newlyweds robbed 46-year-old Sheesely carnival treasurer Thomas Buchannon of $1,700 during a drunken craps game in Gibbon Hotel (now the Dayton Grand Hotel), according to newspaper accounts.
“The man (Bus) was no problem,” Michael Sammons said, recounting details from the police report of the eventual arrest at Calvary. "She said ‘ain’t that too bad’ and started shooting."
Dan Sammons emptied his gun that morning and reloaded.
“He ended up hitting her upside her head with a gun,” Michael Sammons said.
The salacious stories were detailed in Dayton Daily News articles from the day, and a Complete Detective magazine article called the saga “Gunmoll’s Daring Honeymoon.”
It was not Betty’s first time in a crime magazine.
Just that April, she penned the article “My Wrecked Life Brought Justice” for Crime Confessions under her former married named Betty Austin. As you’ll read below, the bombshell was also in Amazing Detective Cases.
Dayton Police History Foundation founder Stephen Grismer, a retired Dayton police sergeant, and the Dayton Metro Library’s Special Collections Division helped us piece the story together.
Grismer, a contributor to Dayton History Books Online, has given talks about the honeymooners and the police officers who heroically subdued them.
Betty was no damsel in distress.
“She was particularly vicious,” Grismer said. “She is the one who wanted to continue the fight.”
Here’s what you need to know about the case:
Betty before Bus
Betty had a rough life. She first married at age 13 to Pete O’man of Wavery, Ky., who reportedly drank, according to newspaper accounts and the Complete Detective article.
By the time she was 17, Betty was working as a prostitute.
Life didn’t get better from there for the woman who would eventually become Elizabeth O’Man Austin Carroll Epperson by marriage.
Betty’s testimony helped put Jimmy and Sunny Dale away on fraud charges in August 1940, and she was featured in the “Amazing Detective Cases” story “The Harlot who ate like a Horse.”
The Dales preyed on rich North Carolina farmers in a “sensational sex fraud” case. Betty “learned of the badger game they were working” and feared for her life, according to the DDN.
She and her third husband separated that September, and she ended up working in a coffee shop. Betty bought the Colt 32.20 special that would lead to her downfall after fearing for her life and believing she was poisoned.
She moved to Evansville, Ind. and divorced that February.
Bus before Betty
Bus, “a sloe-eyed bandleader” according to Complete Detective, already had an interesting rap sheet before he fell for Betty in Evansville and said “I do” on May 1, 1941 in Birmingham, Ala.
His first arrest was on a burglary charge Feb. 4, 1930, in Phoenix, Ariz. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but escaped six months later on Aug. 4, 1930.
Evansville police caught him on March 9, 1931, and it was back to Arizona state prison for Bus.
A short time after being released, he was arrested again on Aug. 23, 1934, along with an accomplice named Frank Harrion for robbing and gagging at least four cab drivers.
Police in three states were on the lookout for Bus, who was eventually captured in Elkton, Ky.
He was sentenced to life and sent to the Indiana State prison in Michigan City, Ind. It is the same prison that taught John Dillinger to rob banks.
Bus was released from prison on appeal in December 1940. At age 30, Bus was awaiting a new trial when he met and married Betty.
As the story goes, Betty bought a car with money she earned prostituting, and she and Bus eventually made their way to Dayton. They registered in the Gibbons Hotel, located a stone’s throw from the Dayton Daily News original building at Fourth and Ludlow streets and a police station, as Mr. and Mrs. R.R. Epperson of Evansville, Ind.
The last waltz
The two had a grand night in Dayton. They went out to dinner around 9 p.m. on the night of May 23. They danced and drank at a downtown nightclub into the wee hours, leaving only after the band played its last waltz, according to newspaper articles.
On the way back to the hotel, an apparently intoxicated Bus made an illegal left-hand turn and was stopped by police. The police officer issued him a warning, but that wasn’t Bus’ last run-in on the way back to the hotel.
He was stopped again after running a light before pulling up to the hotel. That time he was arrested, and the car was turned over to Betty.
The carnival man
Betty told newspapermen that she was standing in the lobby wondering what to do next when Thomas Buchanon approached her and asked if he could help. But Buchanon told police it was Betty who asked him for help.
Regardless, the pair went to the police station to learn that Bus had already paid his bail and was released.
He was back at the hotel when they returned.
“Indebted” to Buchanon, they invited him up to their room for a drink.
Betty pulled out a set of dice.
The three new friends played games of craps and drank. At some point, the carnival man retrieved his money from the hotel clerk -- 14 hundred dollar bills and $300 in smaller bills.
He went back to the room, and the craps game resumed.
Bus shouted that dice were crooked, pulled a gun in the carnival man’s face and ordered him in a closet.
Betty packed and called the bell boy to come get the bags. Unaware of the man in the closet, the bell boy collected the bags and Betty paid the hotel bill and ordered her car be pulled around.
The closet didn’t lock. By the time Bus and Betty got to their car, the carnival man had called the night clerk, who told the operator to call police.
The night watchman ran to the pavement to stop Bus and Betty. At one point, he grabbed Bus’ arm, only to be met by Bus’ revolver pointed at his head.
Accounts say Betty pulled the gun away from the watchman’s head.
The couple jumped in their car, but were briefly stopped by a cab.
Bus is said to have made a threatening gesture and screamed, “Move that cab!”
The cabbie backed off and the couple sped off.
“21 to dispatch”
Dayton patrolmen Sammons and Walter Hammond arrived at the hotel just as the honeymooners got in their car. Prompted by witnesses, the pair chased the crooks down Ludlow Street and Patterson Boulevard with sirens screaming.
"21 to dispatch! 21 to dispatch,” Hammond says on the radio. “21 pursuing two armed bandits south on Ludlow Street at high rate of speed. Just pulled holdup at Gibbons Hotel. We are now crossing Fifth St. at 70 miles an hour.”
Cars 15, 16, 22 and 31 are dispatched to help Hammond and Sammons. Montgomery County car 7 is sent to the thoroughfare that leads to Dixie Highway.
They would miss the biggest part.
The Eppersons were evidently trying to head to Cincinnati via Dixie Highway, but turned too soon and ended up on a grave-studded hill of Calvary Cemetery.
Trapped and confused, Bus slammed on the brakes, and seconds later the police cruiser stopped and our would-be heroes leaped out with guns ready.
Bus apparently got out of the car without much fight.
The same could not be said for Betty. As Complete Detective tells it, she slid out of the car when Sammons fell to the ground at the back of the car after tripping over Bus’ foot.
‘Bus! Bus! Are you hurt?’
Betty fired with her .32-20 special Colt. As Bus apparently tossed away his revolver, a fierce gun battle broke out “in the dark confines of Calvary Cemetery,” the Dayton Daily News reported.
One bullet struck Sammons in the shoulder. Another went through Hammonds’ cap and grazed his head.
The “attractive feminine gun wielder” fared much worse, according to the passage from Complete Detectives:
“One slug glazed the drink-sodden woman’s skull. Another had lodged in her leg above the knee and four more had opened bloody wounds in her back, yet she dropped to the ground beside her husband and screamed ‘Bus! Bus! Are you hurt?’”
Bus went to jail. His bride spent two weeks in the hospital before being put in the slammer herself.
Cops from Baltimore to North Carolina suspected them of holdups.
For this incident in Dayton, they were each charged with two counts of shooting with the intent to kill and armed robbery and were eventually convicted.
As for the money, the $300 dollars in loose cash was found in their car. The 14 $100 bills were never located.
What happened to Dayton’s “Bonnie and Clyde” after that has been thus far lost to history.