Historical True Crime May 26, 2004 

AIRPLANE BANDITS

If Agatha Christie had written this story, she might have called it "The Case of the Sleepy Night Watchman." It is the tale of two Idaho boys who stole an airplane—probably the first time anyone from Idaho pulled that off that kind of crime

Earl Gilbert, 22, and Roland "Red" Hall could both have been killed, not once, but twice during this escapade. Luckily for them they lived to tell their children about it (but probably not).

On a dark night in May 1938, the young adventurers went down to Ogden, Utah, slipped into the town's municipal airport, wheeled a plane out of its hangar, filled the gas tank, fired up the engine and took off northward for Idaho. When questioned later, the night watchman told police, "I thought I heard something, but I went back to sleep." Some watchman.

Gilbert had taken flying lessons at the Ogden field three years earlier, but was either not much of a pilot or plain unlucky. In trying to land on a farm field near Inkom, Idaho, he hit some trees, flipped over, smashed the wooden propeller and wrecked the engine. If a good landing is any one you can walk away from, this qualifies, but for the two boys the adventure was just beginning. They took off for the hills on foot and an armed posse was soon on their trail. Idaho State Patrolman Bud Bliss and Pocatello Chief of Detectives Jarvis Rubicoux were the first to pick up their tracks, heading east up a canyon, but they were soon joined by five more state patrolmen, two Bannock County deputy sheriffs, a Utah deputy and crowd of citizen volunteers. It was probably the most exciting manhunt in the area since the Butch Cassidy gang robbed the bank at Montpelier.

The identity of the fugitives was known almost at once. W.H. Hall of Inkom, an uncle of the younger plane thief, told authorities he'd find the two himself if they'd pull the police out before somebody got shot. He feared that the boys might be armed and that a shoot-out could result in tragedy. He said he was willing to take the chance that his nephew wouldn't shoot him if he caught up with him and got him to surrender. His offer was rejected.

A blinding snowstorm lashed the mountains east of Inkom, making life miserable for the search parties. Newspapers played up the drama of the chase, recalling that the area was the notorious "Robbers's Roost" where "stagecoach robbers hid out in the early days of the West."

Roland Hall surrendered at his family's home in Preston on May 20, 1938. He suffered from frostbitten hands and feet. Earl Gilbert was arrested for vagrancy in Texas on May 31, but was soon identified as one of the Idaho airplane bandits and returned to Utah authorities.

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