ARIZARD-L ArchivesArchiver > ARIZARD > 1999-12 > 0944165659
Subject: [ARIZARD-L] Cleo Epps, "Queen of the Bootleggers"
Date: Thu, 2 Dec 1999 15:14:19 EST
A few weeks ago I saw a post mentioning the name EPPS & Oklahoma. I tossed
out a little information about a murdered Tulsa woman, thinking that she may
have been a member of a listmember's family. I couldn't remember the name,
just that she was an EPPS.
I dug around a little more & found some newspaper articles. Cleo Epps was
born in Arkansas and died in Oklahoma, but not before making her own little
mark in Tulsa's history.
Hoping this helps someone,
Here is one of the articles:
`Queen of Bootleggers' Knew Too Much
By Terrell Lester World Special Writer
Cleo Epps Was Murdered by Accomplice
She was described as a gracious and caring woman, this one-time school
She made a lot of money, and she made a lot of friends.
Her funeral was attended by legislators and judges and men of powerful
She was front-page news in life and in death. She knew the lawmakers and the
She rubbed shoulders with Tulsa's biggest outlaws and ultimately was rubbed
out because she knew too much.
She was Cleo Epps, dubbed the "Queen of the Bootleggers" during the 1940s and
'50s before liquor was legalized in Oklahoma.
At one time, it was said that she controlled the wholesale and retail
moonshine traffic in several eastern Oklahoma counties.
>From her home near the Tulsa-Creek County line between Tulsa and Sapulpa, she
imported truckloads of illegal booze from out of state. She once told a
friend: "When I invest $10,000 in a load of whisky, I'll be doing the driving
After prohibition was repealed in Oklahoma in 1958, Epps apparently washed
her hands of the whisky business, although an acquaintance said, "She'd still
make a dollar on it if she could."
In October 1970, a Tulsa County grand jury was seated to investigate the
attempted assassination of District Judge Fred Nelson.
Nelson's car had been bombed, and he was critically injured.
Among the primary suspects was ex-convict Albert McDonald, who had lived in
Collinsville and in Creek County. His attorney, in fact, conceded that "it is
common knowledge that they are trying to link Al to the Nelson bombing."
Epps and McDonald were close friends -- so close, in fact, that they had
reportedly planned to marry at one time.
Additionally, Epps was said to have given McDonald and his running buddy, Tom
Lester Pugh, some dynamite she had buried on her farm for dynamiting stumps.
A few days later, Nelson's car was bombed.
Still, law enforcement officers were not able to build a case strong enough
to arrest McDonald and Pugh.
Tulsa District Attorney S.M. "Buddy" Fallis Jr. persuaded Epps to appear
before the grand jury. Epps agreed, but only if she could do so anonymously.
"She was very polite, very calm, very soft-spoken," Fallis said later. "She
was very gracious to me."
Wearing a red wig and a long coat, Epps was secretly whisked in and out of
the grand jury room.
The first time he saw her in disguise, Fallis said, "I didn't recognize her."
He said that in 21 years in the District Attorney's Office, he had never seen
or heard of another witness resorting to such camouflage.
She understood that she was risking her life by appearing in court, despite
all the precautions.
"No question about it," Fallis said. "As a matter of fact, she predicted to
me that if she were murdered, that her assassins would be Lester and Albert."
Since leaving the District Attorney's Office in 1981, Fallis has been
practicing law in Tulsa. He is putting the finishing touches on a book that
focuses on the prohibition years and some of the characters of the time,
Although officials shielded Epps at the courthouse, word still leaked out
that she had appeared before the grand jury. Then the rumor reached Pugh and
McDonald that she had fingered them for the bombing.
About three weeks later, on Nov. 12, 1970, Pugh and McDonald apparently
telephoned her and suggested a meeting to discuss a load of stolen whisky.
Her brother, Tom Gilbert, said later: "She wasn't afraid of anybody. She
figured she could hold her own."
A friend said Epps knew that she could never run because it would be an
admission that she had talked.
Epps left her pickup truck in a shopping center parking lot at 51st Street
and Union Avenue. Apparently, she got into a car with McDonald and Pugh.
One of the two shot her in the back of the head. A newspaper account reported
that a witness said that before she died, she opened her eyes and looked at
Pugh and said, "Lester, you killed me. You didn't have to do that."
Her body was later dumped into a septic tank on an isolated farm near 65th
Street and Union Avenue.
It was three months, however, before her body was discovered.
Some say a tipster led Epps' brother to her body. The discovery occurred
while a second Tulsa County grand jury was continuing its investigation into
the Nelson bombing. And three days earlier, the In Court lounge near the
Tulsa County Courthouse was bombed. The proprietor theorized that it was
because grand jury witnesses had been "hanging around" there.
A courthouse source told newspaper reporters at the time, "Someone is trying
to make a point."
Ultimately, McDonald was convicted in the murder of Epps. He received a life
sentence and was himself murdered in 1978 while in prison. Pugh was not
convicted in the Epps murder but was found guilty in the murder of Arlis
Delbert Self, another grand jury witness. Pugh remains in prison in McAlester.
Epps' remains were buried in Sapulpa on Feb. 27, 1971. Among the 150 who
attended the funeral were U.S. Rep. Ed Edmondson, District Court Judge Bill
Hayworth of Muskogee, former state Sen. Everett Collins of Sapulpa, and city
and county law enforcement officials.
Despite her reputation as a lawbreaker who had served time, she maintained a
friendly relationship with several lawmen.
There were reports, after she had been sentenced on a bootlegging charge and
placed in the Tulsa Jail in the '50s, that she never was locked in her cell.
Reports were that she had "the run of the jail" and that she went home at
night and reported back early in the morning.
Born in Arkansas, she moved to Oklahoma in the mid-1920s. She obtained a
college education at a time when most men and women dropped out of school
before high school. She taught school in Wagoner and Creek counties.
Epps married a Tulsa attorney but later divorced him because she believed
that he drank too much. She married a second time, to a bootlegger.
A close friend said Epps "was always strictly against whisky. But when her
husband started selling it, she decided, `to hell with it,' and got in it all
the way. That's the way Cleo was. She was either in or out."
According to Creek County court records after her death, her estate included
13 pieces of rural real estate, more than 1,500 acres, worth almost $250,000,
and 34 mortgages and notes valued at $432,000. Her total estate was listed at
$740,452. She had no children.
On the day her body was discovered, a grand jury witness in the Tulsa
courthouse said: "Anybody who would kill Cleo would have to be crazy. She had
a heart as big as Texas."