It was 90 years ago this month that Toledo became national news. Thanks to a previously obscure small time crook, Joe Urbaytis, and a gang of more than a dozen others who were able to pull off the largest robbery in Toledo history. Not a bank or a store, but the main post office. It was February 17th, 1921, when witnesses said they saw a car swerve onto 14th Street at the rear of what was then the main U.S. Post Office between Jefferson and Madison. The car(later found to be stolen) had five men inside and was tailing a U.S. Postal Service truck which had just loaded up six pouches at Union Station, filled with securities, cash and bank notes. The men knew what they were after and when the truck reached the loading dock, the men in the car emerged with guns and began ordering postal employees to get on the floor. The workers complied and within minutes, the bandits were back in the car, and speeding away from downtown. The take in the robbery was estimated to be at least a million dollars. In today's dollars, according to a CPI inflation guide, that would be worth about 12 million dollars. The biggest heist in Toledo history.
Toledo Police, 90 years later, still have the files from that dusty old case. Although yellowed and brittle, the contents fill in the blanks of the investigation that was carried out by Toledo Police and the FBI as they tried to figure out just who had pulled off this stunning caper. The case was a high priority and the intense pressure eventually lead to the arrests of 18 people, including the "mastermind" of the operation, Joe Urbaytis. A small time criminal with a lengthy rap sheet, born and raised in the Polish neighborhoods of Lagrange Street. The file tells a riveting story of how TPD officers worked for days to find Urbaytis, whom they had suspected from the early start of the case. They had aso suspected he might flee to Chicago along with his other familiar compatriots, George Rogers and Charles Shultz. On the evening of February 22nd, 1921, police and railway detectives found Urbaytis and some of those gang members onboard the Toledo to Chicago train near Elkhart, Indiana.
Urbaytis might have been in custody, but he proved to be an uncooperative captive. After he and about a dozen others were convicted in federal court that summer of 1921 of conspiracy in the case, they were still awaiting trial for the robbery itself. But Urbaytis, Rogers and Shultz had other plans and managed to overpower the turnkey at the Lucas County Jail and made good their escape. They remained at large for years and It wasn't until 1924, that Urbaytis turned up again. This time in Columbus, where he was involved in a dramatic gun battle and was shot. He was seriously wounded but eventually recovered and sent back to Toledo where he and the others faced the legal system and were convicted of robbery and escape charges. He was facing a 60 year sentence and shipped off to federal prison. But once again, the Toledo native, was not to be confined and in 1928, he slipped his bonds again, escaping from federal prison in Atlanta. And once again, he was recaptured, but this time, federal prison officials sent Urbaytis to the "rock", the Alcatraz, federal prison on a remote island in Oakland Bay California where escape was improbable.
The story could have ended there and Urbaytis might have died in prison, but once again he escaped. This time by virtue of a shortened sentence and a second chance at freedom. In 1943, Urbaytis was released and came home to Toledo, but instead of takinga low profile after his new found freedom, the ex-con and notorious crime figure almost flaunted his freedom by opening an nlicensed night club on Woodville Road, near the railroad overpass. But in 1946, Joe's streak of luck ran out. Gunned down inside of his Bon-Aire Supper Club on Woodville, he didn't survive to tell the story. Death had finally come to claim him. His life of crime was over. Toledo Police Chief Ray Allen even wrote a letter to FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover letting him know that Urbaytis had been shot and killed and the FBI could close the books on him for good. Ninety years later, all that's left is a thick and brittle file in the Safety Building, crammed with photos, mug shots, fingerprint cards, police reports and newspaper articles telling the 25 year tale of the robbery and the "brains" behind it and his violent demise. Much of the information will be reprised again for public inspection as part of the Toledo Police History Museum that will be opened later this year at Ottawa Park.