‘Land of opportunity’

ST. LOUIS – Somebody was emptying the poor box at the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel, so the Rev. Father Joseph R. Watson rigged the box, wiring it to an electric buzzer that would sound in his study.

On Feb. 3, 1920, the alarm went off, and Father Watson, accompanied by a nearby store clerk, ran into the church and caught a man who said his name was Vaclav Krejci, a 35-year-old immigrant artist. When police officers searched the suspect, they found tools, skeleton keys and three slugs that Father Watson had placed in the box.

Krejci was sentenced to the City Workhouse for a year, but was paroled less than two months later despite the fact he was facing a separate felony charge of stealing from a different St. Louis church. Police caught up with the newly freed Krejci in Chicago.

the-wallsOur hapless thief was sentenced to 10 years at the Missouri State Penitentiary –  his prison record gives his name as Wenzel A. Krejci – and it’s there he scored a positive headline for a change.

In 1922, an Associated Press story reported the Krejci was painting landscapes – “running brooks and … green meadows” – with the goal of selling his art to support his widowed mother, widowed sister and his sister’s two children. Krejci, who said he studied art in Prague before coming to the United States, said he was earning an average of $12 a month. He said his family didn’t know he was in the pen.

Krejci blamed “a lack of appreciation for art” in the U.S. for his early struggles, and his story prompted some editorial writers, as is their wont, to provide moral instruction based on a slim collection of facts. As the Dayton, Ohio, Herald opined: “But dauber or artist, honest man or thief, the great love of his mother eventually will redeem him, for through it he has learned or will learn that America is only the land of opportunity for those who will be industrious, thrifty and honest.”

Krejci was released from “the Walls” in September 1926. He briefly surfaced in newspaper accounts in 1931, when he was named as a possible suspect in the widely publicized murder and dismemberment of 10-year-old Virginia Brooks of San Diego.

Police were desperately searching for Brooks’ killer, and a Gerald Davidson –  described as about 55 years old – appeared to fit the bill. Davidson, held in Oklahoma City in March 1931 in connection with a garage robbery, had a bloody shirt (he claimed it was the result of an auto accident), a history of arrests for molesting girls, a suitcase that held “a silk slip, underwear and stockings of a small girl,” an extensive criminal history – and he’d been in California.

Turns out “Gerald Davidson” was one of Krejci’s many aliases – a police investigator said fingerprints proved the two were the same man. Bolstering the connection: “Gerald Davidson” – also referred to in contemporaneous news accounts as “Gerald Dorsey,” “Joe Davidson,” “Gerald Dorsie” and “Gerald Dorsei” – reportedly told Tulsa police officers he was a graduate of the University of Prague and worked as an interior decorator and “a teacher of art.”

Despite circumstantial evidence, he was soon cleared of any connection to the Brooks murder by Tulsa police – no explanation was reported or apparently given – though he was still held on auto theft charges. The Brooks murder, one of a several that targeted San Diego area girls and women during the Depression, remains unsolved.

Vaclav KrezciKrejci frequently lied about his name, his age and his whereabouts – police and prison records list about two dozen aliases – but the name Gerald Dorsei stuck with him in his final years. That’s how Inmate 55286 was identified when he was sentenced to Leavenworth in 1939. In a parole progress report in 1940, he was described as a “loveable, delightful old rascal who has been in criminal activities most of his life.”

Gerald Dorsei was released in 1942 because of poor health, died in 1948 and is buried in Wichita. In a telegram to a Wichita mortician, Leavenworth Warden Walter A. Hunter advised that Dorsei’s files listed only one living relative – a son whose whereabouts were unknown. Don’t bother searching for him, though – Hunter said Dorsei “desired no one to be notified in case of death.”

Postscript: Our Lady of Good Counsel, which was located at the southwest corner of 11th and Destrehan streets, was razed in 1950; the parish was moved to Bellefontaine Neighbors in 1951 and closed in 2005. Father Watson died in 1946

 

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