Gang Shooting in Dowell, Illinois

Dowell, Illinois is a small town of about 200 people. It sits in Southern Illinois, which is a rural area about 6 hours south of Chicago, and an hour or 2 east of St. Louis. It’s mostly a quiet area, but in the 20’s it was full of bootlegging, speakeasies, and gang war.

The gang activity and war mainly involved two gangs, the Shelby Brothers and Charlie Birger. Charlie Birger was a notorious moonshiner, bootlegger, and gang leader during the 1920’s in Southern Illinois. He was the last man to be hanged in Illinois. This article is an account of a shooting and trial during that time.

On April 19, 1927, Deputy Sheriff William Davis shot Fred Dominick 4 times, in front of Dominick’s pool room, while Mayor William Budds and Chief of Police William Green, held people back to prevent them from helping the victim, according to witnesses, and later court records. Dominick later died of the wounds. The three were arrested and held in jail at Murphysboro, Illinois until their trial in October.

 As I was doing some research at the Du Quoin Library in Du Quoin, Illinois. I ran across an article in the Du Quoin Evening Call of April 20, 1927 describing the event. The papers of the time were full of gang activities and crimes that were associated with gang activities, but this incident jumped out at me because it involved the Mayor of Dowell, his Chief of Police, and a Deputy Sheriff gunning down an unarmed citizen for what appeared to be no reason.

The initial newspaper report had different names and spellings for those involved. The victim was called Fred Staich, which later became Dominick, and the Mayor was named William Butts, which later became Budds. The paper states “Davis, the Mayor and the Chief of Police went to the pool room and tried to get in, but found the place closed. Someone went for the proprietor, who lives about 3 blocks from his place of business, and he came to see what they wanted at that hour. When an argument started Davis drew a gun and eye witnesses are said to have stated that the Mayor and Chief of Police stood the crowd off preventing interference, while Davis pumped lead into Staich.” Davis was later arrested. The Mayor and Chief were also arrested when officers learned of what part they played in the shooting.

The trial for the men began at the end of September, when they started picking a jury. The three were still being held in jail. The states attorney for the case was named Searing, with his assistant Fletcher Lewis. The defense attorneys were Judge Willard F. Ellis of Murphysboro, W.J. Mitchell of West Frankfort, and Fred F. Shuey of Carbondale. Strangely the victims name was changed to Fred Sticca, from Fred Staich in the earlier newspaper report. 

 The Du Quoin Evening Call gave updates on the trial as it progressed, such as this update from October 4, 1927. It states that two eyewitnesses took the stand. One being, “Harry McCauley, Dowell coal miner, told of celebrating an election at the Dominick home the night of the murder when word was brought that three men were trying to break into the pool room. Reaching the pool room they met Budds, Green and Davis, and when he objected to opening the pool room, Davis shot him.” Again, the name of the victim was changed to Fred Dominick, which remains as the actual name of the victim.

The next update on the trial was given in the Du Quoin Evening Call of October 6, 1927 where it was stated that the defense was bringing forth evidence that Dominick was a friend of gangsters, and that the pool room in question was a hangout and even a safe house of Charlie Birger. The paper says “Confirmation of rumors freely whispered around Du Quoin some months ago, that the Birger gang had a hangout at Dowell” The prosecution vehemently objected to the introduction of the evidence.

The defense sought to show that the Mayor, Chief, and Deputy had reason to believe that Charlie Birger would be at the pool room that night. They intended to “prove that Birger remained at Dominick’s for days after the burning of Shady Rest, that he came there after the Thomasson boys, after the Joe Adams murder, and took them away, and that both Sheriff Pritchard of Franklin and Sheriff Coleman of Williamson county would be introduced to testify that they knew the Dominick place as a Birger hang out.”

The prosecution on the other hand was claiming that this was an assassination of Dominick. That Davis, Budds, Green, and unnamed criminal associates, met at the pool room, and enticed Dominick to come to his business, so Davis could shoot him. Budds, and Green were both armed and drunk, at the shooting. The defense however, sought to show that the Mayor, Chief and Deputy “had cause to believe that especial precautions should be taken that night to protect the peace and property of Dowell.” Deputy Davis also testified that he shot Dominick because the man was beating Davis in the head with what he thought was a revolver. He claimed that Dominick was drunk and immediately started beating him, and that he was defending himself.

The trial in Murphysboro ended with the defendants being found guilty, after 9 hours of deliberation by the jury. They were convicted of manslaughter, which carries a sentence of one year to life in prison, the Du Quoin Evening Call of Oct. 8, 1927 states. This means that after one year they will start coming up before the parole board until the board decides to release them, or they die in prison. They would not be released as a group, but each prisoner would stand on their own merit.

This case shows how pervasive the gang influence was during prohibition in Southern Illinois. It reached every level of society, and dragged anyone associated with it into the quagmire. The Birger, Shelton and other gangs had associates and influence in every town of Southern Illinois. The coal miners wanted alcohol, and the gangs provided, along with everything that goes with it.


Du Quoin Evening Call April 20, 1927

Du Quoin Evening Call Sept. 27, 1927

Du Quoin Evening Call Oct. 4 1927

Du Quoin Evening Call Oct 6, 1927

Du Quoin Evening Call Oct. 7, 1927

Du Quoin Evening Call Oct 8, 1927

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