September 2 – EDITOR’S NOTE – This is the first story in a two-part High Point Confidential series.
HIGH POINT — They claimed they were innocent from the start.
In early September 1932, when a quartet of unmasked, armed bandits attacked the Carolina Bank and Trust Co. in Denton and made off with about $6,000, the next day authorities arrested four young High Point men—Sylvan Palmer, Joe Horne, Walter Bridgeman, and Victor “Baby Face” Fowler—and charged them with the crime.
The suspects looked appropriately frowning at their police photos, but they still looked youthful. Horne was 23, Bridgeman was 21, and Fowler and Palmer were only 19.
Not surprisingly, as crime suspects often do, the young men swore they had nothing to do with the robbery.
Although they had attempted to evade police in what The High Point Enterprise called “a spirited chase” prior to their arrest, the four suspects still maintained their innocence. They were on the run for other reasons, they said—acknowledging that they weren’t exactly choirboys—but they insisted it wasn’t because they robbed the bank in Denton.
In fact, they all had alibis indicating they weren’t even in Denton when the robbery happened.
Unfortunately for them, eyewitnesses to the crime still identified the four as the perpetrators. Horne, Bridgeman and Fowler had looted the bank at gunpoint, the witnesses claimed, and Palmer had driven the getaway car.
“I know this is the man,” a witness said, looking at Palmer. “Unless he has a twin brother.”
Which Palmer didn’t.
According to a newspaper report, Palmer even grinned when the witness identified him, prompting a High Point police chief to warn him, “This is no laughing matter.”
Palmer gave another cocky grin and replied, “It will be soon, if not now.”
Unfortunately, three months later – after only three hours of deliberation – a jury convicted the four young men of the infamous crime. They were sentenced to fifteen years in prison and went to the state prison, still professing their innocence.
And probably no more grinning.
But the thing is, they were really innocent. We know this now.
Yes, all four young men had criminal records—they were known to the High Point Police Department—but the job at the Denton bank wasn’t their job. So when they were caught – fifteen years for a crime they didn’t even commit – they were understandably bitter and their future looked bleak.
In May 1934, nearly eighteen months into their sentence, a former High Pointer named Mike Stefanoff made a dramatic confession on death row. As we wrote in High Point Confidential last month, Stefanoff was one of four High Pointers — along with Bascom Green, Lester Green, and Ed Black — convicted of murdering a cashier during a high-profile bank robbery in Taylorsville. He was the first of four to go to the electric chair.
In the final hours before his execution, Stefanoff confessed to participating in the Denton bank robbery, and that the four young men imprisoned for the crime were innocent.
Stefanoff’s confession also included the allegation that several current and former High Point police officers had been complicit in the Denton bank job, either actively participating in the robbery or at least covering up those who did.
In an unusual twist, the confession was made to Nannie Palmer, Sylvan Palmer’s mother, who had worked tirelessly to clear her son’s name.
“I had never seen Stefanoff before I spoke to him in his cell, just a few minutes before it was time for him to die,” she told The Enterprise. “I recorded his statement in shorthand, and when I got to a typewriter I was so overjoyed with what was inside—a confirmation of my findings proving my boy innocent—that I could hardly type.”
Unfortunately, there was a fly in the ointment. Because city police officers were involved in the robbery, the High Point prosecutor had to investigate the confession to see if he could confirm the officers’ role in the crime. After several months, he announced that he had found no evidence to support the charge, exonerating the officers.
Consequently, that finding cast doubt on Stefanoff’s other claim—that the four young men convicted of the crime had been wrongly imprisoned—so their sentences continued.
The story began to change when another of Stefanoff’s conspirators, Lester Green, confessed prior to his execution that he too had taken part in the Denton banking job. Green said unequivocally that the four young men imprisoned for the crime were innocent. He also disputed Stefanoff’s claim that current High Point police officers had played a role in the robbery.
However, Green did say that Ben Lowe – a former High Point motorcycle cop – was the mastermind behind the whole thing. Since leaving the force, Lowe had been associated with a gang of car thieves who reportedly stole as many as a hundred cars, long tarnishing the shine on his badge.
If authorities could somehow prove Lowe’s involvement in the Denton robbery – or if Lowe confessed – perhaps the four innocent High Pointers could be pardoned and released.
For one of the four, however, such a pardon wouldn’t come soon enough.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The conclusion of “Dead Man’s Pardon” will be published Tuesday in the High Point Enterprise.
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