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The bank robbery few people recall

The following is a historical article, originally printed in the Sunday World-Herald, Magazine of the Midlands, September 18, 1983, written by James Denney. 

When William A. Hollstein rises this morning and peers out the window of his comfortable brick home to see if the sun is shining, his thoughts probably will drift back 53 years to another September 18, 1930-and a bank robbery that most Nebraskans have forgotten.

As an inquisitive 15-year old high school youth, then living in Hay Springs, Nebraska, he witnessed the First National Bank heist, standing in the bank doorway while one of the five holdup men kept a revolver in his ribs.

Hay Springs (with a current population of 628) in northwest Nebraska is a Sheridan County community on Highway 20, just 11 miles west of Rushville, the county seat.

Now 68, Hollstein understands why many wouldn’t remember that robbery. “There were several that week in Nebraska, and one of them involved a lot more money than was stolen in Hay Springs.”

Bank robberies were a statewide topic of conversation because there had been previous holdups within a few days at nearby Merriman, in Central City and in Lincoln.

The Lincoln National Bank, which no longer exists, only the day before had lost an astonishing $2,702,976 in cash and securities, making it the then-largest robbery in the nation.

During the 1930’s, bank stickups were occurring in other parts of the nation as well.

The war against them was led by the U.S. Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Investigation under the direction of the late J. Edgar Hoover.

All five culprits involved in the Hay Springs robbery were later caught and sentenced to the state penitentiary.

Records in the Sheridan County District Court Clerk’s office include these names and their sentences: Harold Domisee, 20 years; Forrest Cook, 20 years; Claude Hendrix, 20 years; Douglas DeWitt, 14 years; and Reed Webb, 10 years.

All five pleaded guilty and four were sentenced by District Judge E.L. Meyer of Alliance. Hendrix was sentenced by District Judge E.F. Carter of Scottsbluff. 

Carter later served as a justice on the Nebraska State Supreme Court.

The records indicate that the men stole about $7,500 in cash, traveler’s checks, bonds and other securities.

For Bill Hollstein, the warm, pre-autumn day began on a happy note. His grandmother, Kay Hollstein of Stanton, Nebraska, had traveled west to visit her son, Will (Hollstein’s father) and family.

“I was a junior in high school,” said Hollstein, “and we didn’t live very far from the high school, so when I got home for lunch, mother sent me to the grocery store for food.”

The bank that still operates at the same corner where the holdup occurred now is called the Northwestern State Bank.

“In those days,” Hollstein said, “Hay Springs had two banks, Northwestern and First National. Later, there was a merging of the two and the new bank became Northwestern.”

Hollstein recalled that on his noontime walk to the store, he saw a tan Buick coming up Main Street en route to the bank. “As it went by,” he added, “I noticed that there was a submachine gun in the back seat.”

He continued, “I was well aware that bank robberies were taking place in Nebraska. Naturally when I saw the submachine gun I wondered if we are going to have one, too?”

After he had bought a sack of groceries, Hollstein came out of the store and immediately saw that the Buick was parked in front of the bank with a driver still at the wheel and tile motor running.

“It’s funny,” said Hollstein, “How you remember little things at a time like this. I recall that two of the grocery items were cantaloupes and they were right on top of the sack. I never dropped them during the whole affair.”

His curiosity caused him to head straight for the bank which, “in retrospect was probably a very foolish act on my part. But you know how kids are, they always want to find out what’s going on in a little town,” he said.

When Hollstein reached the doorway of the bank, he was abruptly stopped by a man he later identified for law enforcement authorities as Hendrix.

“Hendrix was a big, tall guy and the others called him ‘Slim’. He stuck a pistol into my ribs and said, “Sonny, if you don’t run and holler, I won’t hurt you.”

Hollstein added, “Now I was scared.”

He remembered that looking inside the bank and watching the action, he became convinced that Domiseee seemed to be giving orders to the two other men who were putting valuables into a white sack.

“Tom Morrison was the assistant bank cashier and he was the only person on duty during the noon hour,” he said.

While Hollstein was being held at gunpoint, Mary Ann Eberly, a high school acquaintance, walked along the bank and spoke, “Hello, Bill.”

Hollstein apparently didn’t reply, but the driver of the car smiled at Miss Eberly and waved.

“I guess the reason I didn’t respond,” said Hollstein, “is that I was so scared. I just kept staring at Hendrix, and I could feel the gun in my ribs.”

After the men finished loading their sack they put Morrison inside the vault, but the assistant cashier knew of a trick latch that kept the vault from being secured.

After the robbers’ car sped away, Morrison freed himself and even helped the sheriff and deputy in pursuit.

Early reports indicated that an airplane might have been involved in the chase, but these proved to be false.

Hol1stein noticed that the get-away vehicle went a block west and then north. Just after the auto left town, the local fire alarm sounded.

“Then people started gathering at the bank like flies.” Hollstein said. “I was still standing there with my groceries, and the cantaloupe never slipped away.”

Hollstein went home, where he promptly fainted in front of his mother and grandmother.

“When I awoke,” he said, “the two of them were wiping my head with water.”

After a brief lunch, Hollstein returned to school, but his involvement with the bank robbers didn’t end.

He said Sheridan County Sheriff R.M. Bruce and Deputy F.C. Green pursued the Buick, “but eventually the officers ran out of gas in South Dakota.”

Hollstein later learned that the robbers drove to Deadwood, South Dakota, in the northern part of the Black Hills, where they divided the loot.

Their downfall came a few days later when Douglas DeWitt was arrested in Parsons, Kansas. He apparently attempted to spend one of the bills taken in the robbery at a clothing store.

“The currency had the name of the bank imprinted on it,” Hollstein said.

The others were taken in separate arrests in other localities. Domissee was caught in Texas attempting to cross the border into Mexico.

Hollstein said this was nothing like some bank robberies of the period because the characters were not hardened criminals.

“None of them was a Machine Gun Kelly or a Pretty Boy Floyd.” he said.

In fact, he recalled that Domissee had worked for a potato farmer in the Hay Springs vicinity and “probably knew the habits of the bank personnel as well as anyone in town.”

For weeks following the robbery he was often excused from school, driven to Rushville by the Sheriff, and asked to identify a suspect.

One of the suspects he was unable to identify was an uncle of Domissee, who, along with the uncle’s wife, apparently was held for questioning when officers found them eating a watermelon near a railroad underpass between Chadron and Hay Springs shortly after the robbery.

“Why the uncle and his wife were there was never answered as far as I know,” said Hollstein.

Bill Hollstein recalled in vivid detail how he was asked to identify Domissee after the suspect was returned to Texas.

“The sheriff and deputy were certain they had the right man,” he said. “They just wanted me to confirm their findings. I was asked to stand in the window of the county attorney’s office on the second floor of the Sheridan Courthouse, look down below and watch for Domissee when they took him from the jail for a hearing.”

“Domissee wore a baseball cap and just as he approached the courthouse, he pulled it down over his eyes. I couldn’t see enough of his face.”

Later, when Domissee was arraigned in county court, Hollstein stood in the doorway and nodded to the sheriff that this was one of the participants.

“When Domissee left the courtroom and passed me, he pushed a finger ·into my stomach and said, ‘Kid, I’ll get you for this,’” said Hollstein.

The judge had set bond at $25,000. Hollstein asked, “You aren’t going to free him, are you?”

To which the judge responded, “If he raises the money, we’ll just increase the amount.”

Within a few months all five robbers had been sentenced and were in the penitentiary. “I was glad it was over,” Hollstein added.

However, 10 years later, Bill Hollstein, then living in Rushville and part-owner of a meat-packing plant, again met Harold Domissee in a most unexpected way-this time in the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

“After the 1940 football season, some of us in Rushville decided we wanted to see the Nebraska football team play in the Rose Bowl,” he said. “We drove to Lincoln to board a special train for Pasadena. California.”

He and other Rushville fans arrived in Lincoln about two days before the train departure. “We had time on our hands so we called a friend at the penitentiary and asked if we could go on a tour,” he said.

Walking through this facility, Hollstein met Domiaeee again, this time on friendlier terms.

Domissee was a cook and wearing a white coat, recalled Hollstein.

“At first we didn’t recognize each other,” he said. “Finally we did. I said, ‘Domissee, I didn’t know it was you.’

“He asked, ‘Hollstein, what are you doing here?”

“I said, ‘we’re leaving on that special train for the Rose Bowl tomorrow.’

“Domissee replied, ‘I wished I had been a good boy so I could go with you.’”

Hollstein said it was the last time he has ever heard about Domissee or any of the others.

Hollstein and his wife, the former Frances Heaton of nearby Hay Springs, have five children. One of their sons, Steve, was an outstanding athlete at Rushville High School who died after being injured in a freak accident during a basketball game.

Hollstein and his brother, Robert, currently are co-owners of a local packing company.

Asked what he had learned from the experience of witnessing one of many bank robberies in Nebraska during the 1930’s, Hollstein replied with a smile: “To always be honest.”

© Sheridan County Historical Society