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Forgotten Crimes: Buffalo's last 'Wild West' train robbery

It was just after 3 a.m. Oct. 21, 1920, when five men, revolvers drawn and hats pulled low, stalked toward the rear passenger car of New York Central Railroad Train No. 15 as it sat idle on the tracks during a routine delay near Clinton and Lord streets on Buffalo’s East Side.

Three of the bandits boarded the rear platform of the Pullman car after shooting railroad flagman George Sinclair through the leg for barring their way, while two more held remaining crew members at gunpoint.

The ensuing heist was Buffalo’s last “Wild West”-style train robbery.

These train tracks, overlooking Clinton Street with downtown Buffalo in the distance, were the site of the Oct. 21, 1920, "Wild West" train robbery on Buffalo's East Side. (Kate Shea/Special to The News)

Once aboard, the three crooks traveled coolly from berth to berth.  They fired gunshots to rouse sleeping travelers from their beds, demanding passengers surrender their cash and valuables.

One man “refused to leave his bunk, spread his money alongside him and dared the thieves to touch it,” the Buffalo Evening News reported later that dayThat defiance prompted one of the bandits to fire a round into the man's mattress, leading the man to surrender his valuables.

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The gunmen also shot at 13-year-old Jane Smith after she drew too close to one of the thieves out of “childish curiosity.” The bullet reportedly passed through her hair.

After they’d robbed 19 passengers of their possessions, their haul amounting to a mere $100 and some jewelry, the five bandits fled into the night.

Detectives from the Fillmore Avenue station flooded the crime scene, quickly arresting two young brothers, John and Stanley Depka. The brothers were found hiding “fully clad, even in overcoats, in bed at their home,” on Clinton Street. With little more than circumstantial evidence to hold them, police quickly dropped their charges against the Depka brothers.

Detectives instead focused on two other suspects: 19-year-old William “Chick” Manning, a petty criminal from Buffalo’s First Ward, and 22-year-old Clement Pacyna, a parolee who had recently had a lengthy sentence in Auburn Prison overturned.

William "Chick" Manning, one of the alleged train robbers, in a photo that ran in the Sept. 18, 1923, edition of The Buffalo Evening News.

Manning managed to elude police capture for the next three years by fleeing to Oakland, Calif.

Oakland police eventually arrested Manning in 1923 in connection to another crime on the West Coast. Local authorities then summoned Manning back to Buffalo to stand trial for the train hold-up, earning the alleged bandit a featured photo in the Sept. 18, 1923, edition of The Buffalo Evening News.

Manning was acquitted when prosecutors failed to gather enough witnesses to testify against him.

Pacyna was not as lucky; after his arrest and speedy trial, the court deemed him guilty of the heist.  He was sentenced to 40 years in Auburn Prison: 30 for the train robbery and 10 more for violating the terms of his parole on a prior conviction for first-degree robbery.

According to a Buffalo Courier article from Dec. 28, 1921, Pacyna served only one year of his sentence before being shot and killed by guards during a harrowing attempt to escape from Auburn Prison on Christmas Day, 1921.

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