Condemned cop killer faces execution with a smile

A minute before midnight on Nov. 29, 1930, the condemned cop killer finished a letter to his widow-to-be, glanced at the nervous chaplain and asked with a wry smile, “What return address shall I put on this?”

Jess J. Maple was not a career criminal. In fact, the 36-year-old Indiana native had a clean record until the summer of 1930, when he suddenly went on a stick-up spree.

The World War I veteran and his sidekick entered a furniture store in downtown Houston at closing time on Saturday night, September 20. They cleaned out the cash register and two employees’ pockets of $300 and forced one of the victims to take a ride.

After his release a short distance away, the fast-thinking hostage got a good look at the getaway car. In a matter of minutes, the license plate number and a description of the robbers went out over the police telegraph system.

Motorcycle patrolman W.B. Phares spotted the suspects’ parked car a few blocks from the furniture store. He stopped in the middle of the street and was halfway off the two-wheeler, when shots rang out. Bleeding badly from a bullet wound in the abdomen, he emptied his pistol in the general direction of his attacker before crawling into high weeds on the side of the road.

Seconds later Officer E.D. Fitzgerald roared onto the scene. Ignoring his partner’s plea to take cover, the second motorcycle cop was also gunned down by the unseen sniper.

Eyewitnesses loaded the wounded policemen into private vehicles and rushed them to the nearest hospital. Fitzgerald was dead on arrival, and Phares lost his fight for life 11 days later.

A search of the bandit’s car turned up a business card with Jess Maple’s name and address. The house was vacant when police stormed in, so a detective stayed behind just in case someone showed up.

At dawn the next day, Maria Maple returned to pick up a few things. During a two-hour grilling at police headquarters, the German war bride broke down and told interrogators where they could find her husband.

Jess Maple was sitting on the bank of a secluded bayou with his nine-year-old daughter asleep in his arms, when the posse appeared out of nowhere. A loaded .45 automatic lay within reach on the grass, but he made no move for it.

“I guess you know what we want you for,” a detective said matter-of-factly.

“I suppose I do,” calmly answered the cop killer rising to his feet without waking the child.

On the way downtown, Maple made a full confession. The furniture store was the third business he had held up in the past two months. He absolved his accomplice, taken into custody that same day, of any involvement in the fatal shootings.

“I have but one consolation,” Maple told his captors. “I kept up my government insurance and my little girl and my wife will get that when they get through with me up at Huntsville.”

At his murder trial ten days later, Maple dismissed his court-appointed attorney and pleaded guilty. Sentenced to death for the double homicide, he waived his right to an appeal and informed the judge that he wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

Maple awoke on his last day on earth “apparently refreshed and without a trace of fear,” according to a death-row observer. After a tearful visit with his wife and daughter, he settled into the grim routine.

While the condemned ate a hearty last meal – a belated Thanksgiving feast of roast pork, sliced tomatoes, mashed potatoes, celery, cranberry sauce, biscuits, coffee, milk and pie – reporters squeezed into the cramped cell for a final interview.

Maple seemed to enjoy being the center of attention. “You know, boys,” he declared between mouthfuls, “I am going into something more interesting than all of you put together.”

The telephone rang twice in the warden’s office a little before midnight. The first time it was collect from a woman asking to speak to Maple. The operator informed her that he was unavailable and, besides, prisoners could not accept collect calls. The second caller said with a quivering voice, “Tell Jess goodbye. Two Houston friends are calling.”

Maple walked unaided through the infamous green door into the execution chamber. Stopping in front of “Old Sparky,” he could not resist another wisecrack. “Is this the place you want me to sit down?”

Once he was seated, the warden asked, “Is there anything you want to say?”

Maple pondered the question for a moment before replying slowly, “You might send my love back to my wife and baby and all the people.”

At five minutes past midnight, the switch was flipped sending the lethal current through Jess Maple’s body. Eight minutes later, the 65th man to die in Texas’ electric chair was pronounced dead with 296 to follow before the plug was permanently pulled in 1964.

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