(Editor’s Note: In the late 1920’s a Clay County man went on a crime rampage that included murder, stealing cars, escaping from insane asylum’s and being married to seven women—at the same time. This is the story of Alex Runion aka “The Demon Slayer”.)
Alex Runion grew up in the Laurel Creek area of Clay County. He was a rambunctious teenager that was in and out of minor trouble. Some thought he may have mental issues due to his behavior, little did they know how correct they were.
At 19, he entered World War I where he served with the “Lost Battalion” in the Argonne Forest and was later classified as shell-shocked.
He returned from the war more dangerous than he was before he left.
Runion was on a crime spree in September 1929 and authorities were hot on his trail. Police described the man as having a “mania for escaping from asylums, marrying young women and stealing cars.”
The Laurel Creek man liked the big-city life and high-rollers of Newport, Ky. Newport during that time period was billed as the Atlantic City of the west filled with honky tonks, casinos, prostitution houses and anything else you can imagine.
Police located the wanted man taking a drink from a bottle while sitting in his car. When approached he stepped on the gas and the pursuit began. Hours later he was apprehended. The car he was driving turned out to be stolen from a Covington man. But, during his court date, a judge dismissed that charge. A deputy U.S. Marshal immediately placed Runion under arrest in the courtroom and charged him with transporting a stolen car from Atlanta, Ga. To Newport, Ky. and then to Jonesville, Va.
Runion bragged to the officers about how he recently escaped an insane asylum and how he was currently married to three women.
He made bail on the federal charge and continued his reign of terror in the northern Kentucky area.
The murder of a car salesman
Louis C. Riley, 37, of Erlanger, was a family man. He had a wife and two children. After trying his hand in several careers, Riley entered the business of selling cars to make a way for his family during some hard times. He found it as an occupation he enjoyed, until the day he met the ‘Demon Slayer’.
Riley’s bullet-riddled body was found on the Licking Pike, six miles south of Newport in February 1927. At the time of his death it was thought he was the victim of an ongoing ‘Liquor War’ in Newport and gangsters had taken him on a ride.
A “tip” came in to Newport police that a prisoner serving time in Tennessee on automobile theft charges had information on the case.
In 1928, the investigators made their way to interview Emmett Snyder, 25, of West Virginia, known as “Three Finger”.
For five long hours they grilled Snyder before he finally broke and admitted the plot of the murder. Snyder told the officers of a plot he and Runion had to pretend they were interested in buying the vehicle. On February 1 they entered the J.L. Handley Chrysler Agency where they met Riley and made an appointment to have the car demonstrated to them.
At the appointed time, the men met Riley at the Hotel Gibson side entrance. The men got in the vehicle and went for a ride. When they reached the Licking Pike, Snyder said an argument started between Runion and Riley, who were both in the front seat.
“While arguing Alex fired two shots into the abdomen of the car salesman,” Snyder told the investigators. “When Riley slumped over, he shot him in the head.”
After the shooting, Runion tossed Riley’s body to the side of the road.
He said they got scared after the shooting and abandoned the car. It was later found by police on a street in Newport.
Authorities felt Snyder’s confession was conflicting in many parts, but they had enough to move forward with a warrant for the arrest of Runion.
Police took photos of both Snyder and Runion to the J.L. Handley Chrysler Agency and other salesman identified them as the two men that scheduled the appointment with Riley.
A warrant was immediately issued, and a reward was being offered for the capture of Runion.
Police warned that Runion would be ‘armed and dangerous’ and was a ‘smooth talker’ as he had married several Kentucky girls, two being students in college. He was also wanted on charges of bigamy, automobile thefts and by the Federal Government. They also advised that he was legally insane as he had escaped from the Lakeland, Ky. Asylum on three different occasions. Each time he escaped he married a woman, they said.
A murder warrant was also issued for Snyder.
Headlines read how the “Demon Slayer” had finally been captured in October 1928 in Hamilton, Ohio after 10 months of searching for him.
Officers found Runion on the street attempting to hide his identity by wearing a disguise. He offered no resistance. In a brief case he was carrying he had an automobile tow-rope, that police believed he was using to steal cars.
Runion’s arrest was made possible by his own arrogant hand. Police received tips from the Lakeland Asylum that he was tantalizing the warden of the institution with a constant stream of post cards postmarked from various cities. The last of these had come from Hamilton, Ohio.
His post cards also led to the arrest of a prison guard named Roy Britton that had supplied Runion with saws to aid in his escape.
Police said Runion told them at his arrest he had led an automobile theft ring that included 15 men. He was linked to having connections with “The Diamond King” George Barrett and had played a part in the automobile theft ring Barrett had operating in Clay County.
Runion told police that since his last escape he had spent the majority of his time in Cincinnati, where he resided at the best hotels, staying only one day at each place. He said he often passed officers whom he knew, but they did not recognize him in his disguise.
Jail wasn’t a place that Runion liked to be. With him being legally insane, the confinements of a cell made him even crazier. During his incarceration Runion attempted suicide.
A jail turnkey found him with his throat cut and lying on the floor. He told police that “The Spirit of Shoemaker told him to do it.” Who Shoemaker might be is not known.
About two weeks prior, Runion was found standing over another prisoner with a safety razor blade in his hand, making threats that he would cut off the prisoner’s head. Since then he has been held in solitary confinement.
Hundreds of people crowded the Campbell County Courthouse to watch the trial of the man they had read about in newspapers for so long.
Alex Runion was set to take the stand; it was 1933 and he had been confined to a cell since his arrest.
For nearly two hours Runion spoke on his own behalf and proved himself an interesting and adroit witness.
Runion immediately denied knowing Emmet Snyder, the star witness for the state. He said he had indistinct recollection of having seen Snyder on some previous time but could not tell where.
Snyder had previously told the jury he was with Runion when the murder of Louis Riley occurred.
Runion emphatically denied shooting Riley and being with Snyder that fateful day. He declared he was insane at the time he was charged with the crime.
For a period of 11 years, the accused said, he has no recollection of what transpired in his life except for what he has been told since being restored to sound mind. He also denied having any recollection of his various marriages.
He said he knew he’d been married several times because four of his wives had visited him while being incarcerated.
“I think some of them are just interested in the $90 I draw monthly from the government,” he told the jurors.
Runion also denied remembering he was convicted in 1928 for stealing cars and sentenced to five years in a mental institution.
The prosecutors were getting annoyed by the continued denials. They asked him again if he killed Riley.
“I did not; had I killed a person that recollection would be with me regardless of the condition of my mind at the time,” he said.
Judge D.Y. Lyttle, now a Covington attorney and formerly of Clay County, testified he knew Alex before he enlisted in the army and knew of no mental instability then.
Snyder told jurors how he met Runion and recalled the events surrounding the day of the murder of Riley.
Snyder told jurors how Runion shot Riley and dumped his body on the side of the road. They decided to not keep the car because the seat was covered in blood.
Less than five hours after receiving the case of Alex Runion, a jury returned a not guilty verdict, shocking the crowd and prosecutors.
After deliberating three hours, the jury asked for further instructions, as the members had been unable to agree on a verdict.
A crowd of several hundred spectators remained in the courtroom throughout the afternoon speculating on what the verdict would be.
The issue that hung the jury was the judge’s instructions that the testimony of an accomplice must be corroborated before it can be considered. It was Snyder’s word against Runion’s, and the prosecutors failed to prove anything beyond that fact. He was ordered to be held after the acquittal for federal authorities.
Less than two years after his acquittal, Runion was arrested in London, Ky. a little more than three weeks after he shot his way through a rock quarry trap near Lexington, Ky.
Runion surrendered quietly as he was wanted on charges of leading a band of motor car thieves working southeastern Kentucky and Clay County.
Officers said upon his arrest, that Runion had boasted of stealing cars from every state in America. He had miraculously regained all memory of his former crime spree it seemed.
He was also identified as the man that had stolen a taxi cab in Los Angeles, California.
(Note: Just a year after Runion’s arrest, Governor Ruby Laffoon sent Ky. National Guard troops to Manchester to bust up an organized car theft ring. You can read about that story in the Spring/Summer issue of the Clay County Ancestral News.)