Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Unsolved Murder of Richmond Police Officer John A. Tibbs

I play poker on Friday nights at a house near the James, and among the players is a retired Richmond policeman. I happened to ask him one evening if he was familiar with the murder of a patrolman down on Broad Street in the 1940s. “Sure. Tibbs. Everybody has heard of that.” He looked out the window briefly at the river and turned back to me with a small, rueful smile. “Everybody always said it was another cop that shot him.”

This October marks the 80th anniversary of the murder of Richmond Police Patrolman John A. Tibbs, shot dead in a store on Broad Street on October 20, 1940. Ostensibly, the facts are as stark as the black and white flash photos a police photographer took of the scene: Tibbs lay inside the back door of a vacant store at 721 West Broad Street, his skull fractured from a blow to the back of his head. In the center of his forehead between his eyes was a neat bullet hole surrounded by powder burns. He lay stretched out on his back, his unfired service revolver near one hand and his flashlight beside the other. A loose pile of bricks in the scene seemed to tell a story of burglars, interrupted while trying to dig through the wall into an adjoining store, who were surprised at their work and ambushed the veteran cop.


Patrolman John A. Tibbs, 1903-1940. This portrait hangs with those of other Richmond officers who died in the line of duty at the Richmond Police Academy.


Tibbs’ assignment was, as his title states, to patrol a section of Richmond on foot. In his case, it was an area bordered by Broad Street and Main Street on the north and south, and from Harrison Street on the west to Adams Street on the east – an area largely occupied by the buildings of VCU today. This was not a beat without violence. Only three years before, another patrolman named William Snead was killed with a hammer on the sidewalk in front of 120 East Broad when he interrupted the robbery of a jewelry store. Less than two years after Tibbs’ murder, another patrolman, Marvin Farmer, was stabbed to death on Broad Street. 


Second Police Station at 601 West Marshall Street, where Tibbs’ last patrol began on the afternoon of October 20, 1940, Richmond Times-Dispatch.


It was a cool and cloudy October afternoon and nearing twilight when Tibbs left the Second Police Station on Marshall Street and strode down Grace Street. The last person to see the passing patrolman was the cashier of the Lee Theater (today’s VCU Grace Street Theater) at 934 West Grace Street around 4:45 PM. Part of Tibbs’ routine was to check in at various call boxes at designated times, signaling to his precinct station that all was well. Tibbs didn’t call in as he should have at 5:00, then did not call at 7:00, either. That is when the Captain in charge of Second Station sent out Lieutenant Gray Miller and Sergeant Paul in search of Tibbs. By midnight, thirty policemen and seventy civilians were combing the area, checking backyards, alleys, and doorways for the missing policeman. It wasn’t until after midnight that Tibbs’ fellow patrolmen Hanes and Gorman noticed a door to the alley behind a Broad Street store was ajar. Pushing it open, they found Tibbs’ body. Detective Lieutenant Dan Duling arrived on the scene and carefully picked up Tibbs’ revolver – it was unfired. 


721 West Broad Street today.


Tibbs’s story, cut short at age 37, was one of a hard working cop trying to support a wife and four children in their little home on 1813 North 22rd Street. Known as a “steady man,” Tibbs had an excellent reputation as a policeman, but his salary was only a paltry $150 per month. A great family man, his daughter Jenny Van Volkum recalled 72 years later: “…his idea of a good day off was to pile as many kids as you can in the car and go to the spring and get water or go to a park or something.” Van Volkum also sadly recalled the effect of her father’s murder on his family, saying, “The way it was left with us – I was nine years old, and mother was never able to talk about it and until the day she died – she was 94 and a half when she died in 1998 – she hoped it never opened up again because she could just not deal with it.”


The following day Richmond Police Chief Organ praised his dead officer, calling Tibbs, “…absolutely fearless. In his 14 years of service, he was always on the alert, always on the go,” but had to admit, “Thus far, it is anybody’s guess as to the exact details of just what happened when Tibbs surprised those burglars in that vacant store…”


A crowd of 600 attended the funeral service for Patrolman Tibbs at Woody’s Funeral Home on October 22, 1940, and a group of non-ranking Richmond officers – that is, Tibbs’ fellow patrolmen and colleagues – served as pallbearers when he was buried that afternoon at Oakwood Cemetery. His family returned home to an uncertain future, and their plight was soon recognized by the Richmond public. This family of five were entitled to a pension of only $70.00 per month from the Police Benevolent Association, which was good for only one year, plus $750 in cash, raised by a $3.00 contribution by individual police officers. Readers of the Richmond newspapers, following the story of the destitute family of the slain patrolman, were embarrassed and ashamed of how little compensation and recognition their protectors received. Within days of the shooting, Mrs. Hutson Organ, the Chief of Police’s wife, organized a benefit for the Tibbs family, and contributions from Richmonders were collected at Police Headquarters and turned over to Mrs. Tibbs.


The graves of John Tibbs and his wife at Oakwood Cemetery.


Richmond newspapers were full of breathless accounts of the war in Europe, the bombing of London, and the announcement of lottery numbers for a national draft. Every day brought frightening accounts of German armies sweeping west across the continent.  These headlines quickly drove any news of Tibbs’ killing from the front pages, but the story lived on in small articles which told repeatedly of no real progress. Lieutenant Duling said a picked squad of detectives “delved deeply into the mystery surrounding the murder of their brother officer….” but reported scant progress. There were vague descriptions of a car with Maryland plates parked in the alley behind the store where Tibbs was found, but no further leads. The State and the City government each put up $250 as reward for the people responsible for the murder, but no information as to the culprits was forthcoming. In 1941 in Kansas City, police arrested two men who tunneled through a brick wall to rob a store, and this thin thread was reported as perhaps pertaining to Tibbs’ murder. The same year, Richmond police went to Pittsburgh to retrieve bullets taken from the guns found on a pair of burglars, but nothing more was heard about the results.

And that is the way it has been for 80 years. A world war erupted and changed everything in America the year after Tibbs was killed, and then came another war, and another, and his name was rarely remembered. Only the memorial notices remained, placed in a Richmond newspaper in October for years afterward: “TIBBS – In memory of my husband and our daddy, John A. Tibbs, who was taken from us ...”


The former home of Patrolman Tibbs and his family at 1813 North 23rd. Street


In addition to their inability to find Tibbs’ murderer, odd events swirled around the Richmond Police Department at the time. The same day the Times-Dispatch announced Tibbs’ death, directly below that headline was another detailing how three high-level officers (including Captain Percy Tiller, who was commander of Tibbs’ precinct) were being dismissed with no given reason than “for the good of the service.” The bloody murder of one of their own combined with the sudden loss of two precinct Captains and a Lieutenant further roiled a Police Department whose morale, according to Mayor Ambler, was at a “very low ebb.”

 Among the many unsettling memories from this period of her life, Tibbs’ daughter Jenny recalled: 

But one thing I remember. When he was home one day – I guess in the morning – a car pulled out in front of the house. He looked out and he told Momma they’re coming here and I am going in the bedroom and you tell them I’m not here. Well, two or three men got out and I don’t remember exactly but they had on hats and overcoats, dressed nice, and they came to the door and asked for Daddy and she told them he wasn’t there and they asked when would he be back and she said she didn’t know that he had to go to work or whatever. And after they left Daddy came out of the bedroom and she said, “What was that all about?” And he said, “don’t worry about it. They just want me to do something that I’m not going to do.” Well, that was all I remember about that. See, like I said, I was 9 years old so there could have been a lot going on that I didn’t know.


She also remembered her father’s book, a small memo book he kept with him while on patrol. 

       He had this little book, a little pocket book, that he kept in his pocket with notes and he always told Momma that if anything ever happened that he wanted the Chief to get that book. To make sure he got that book. And I don’t know how long it was but a few days after things settled down this man I was telling you about [a supposed friend of Tibbs] told Momma that the Chief had sent him to get the book and she gave it to him. The next day, somebody else came from the Chief’s office to get the book. Now that is as much as I heard about that. So I don’t know what ever happened about that or what ever happened to that book.

Perhaps most intriguing is the rumor, passed down from generation to generation of Richmond cops, that Tibbs had been killed by another policeman. Years have passed and hundreds of men and women have graduated from the Police Academy, but Tibbs remains like a ghost story told at night around the squad room to rookies, a frightening story that has persisted for 80 years. An intriguing detail from the police photo of Tibbs’ body hints at this kind of treachery, a killing far beyond that of a simple ambush at 721 West Broad Street. This was an era when standard police equipment included a duty belt with cartridge loops where cops carried spare ammunition for their revolvers. A Richmond detective who was studying one of the crime scene photographs taken in 1940 pointed and asked, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Looking closely, it is obvious that Tibbs is missing a bullet from one loop on his belt.


The rear of 721 West Broad Street today. Tibbs’ body was discovered inside this doorway.


This begs the question, who, that October night, needed a spare bullet and would stoop down and slide a cartridge from Tibbs’ belt? It is doubtful that a conscientious, veteran officer like Tibbs would not be wearing a full cartridge belt for inspection at his station before leaving for his shift. Who would need to not come back missing a bullet from his service weapon? The coroner said one of the causes of Tibbs’ death was a fractured skull; he was apparently struck on the head and knocked down. Why was it necessary that the unconscious patrolman be so brutally executed? Had the killer been recognized by Tibbs? What was said and what happened in that time between Tibbs being knocked to the ground and the deafening roar of that pistol in that a small space? Whose hand held that gun, a hand so determined and careful, so precise and cool as to hold a revolver almost touching the fallen officer and shoot him precisely and surgically between the eyes?


Tibbs, described by his Chief as “always on the alert,” was an experienced officer, cautiously approaching a darkened alleyway corner by himself, gun and flashlight in hand. Perhaps he found a welcoming and familiar voice inside, relaxing after the tension of entering a dangerous space and letting down his guard until stunned by a blow to back of his head. Questions abound and the Richmond Police Department is still not telling what they know. In 2012, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article about a service for fallen Richmond officers, an article that described the extensive case file on the Tibbs murder with its forensic evidence - a file signed off on by the F.B.I.’s J. Edgar Hoover himself. In the article, Richmond police Detective Amira Sleem stated, "It has always been believed that patrolman Tibbs was killed by his own firearm, and the evidence at the scene supports that." This is in direct contrast to the examination of the revolver in 1940 by Detective Duling who specified the gun was “unfired.” Detective Sleem was instructed to reorganize that forensic file so it could be “better used to train homicide detectives.” Tibbs, his life, and his sad death have been reduced to a teaching aid for the Richmond Police Department.


The Police Department notice of a reward for information in the Tibbs case, October 1940, City of Richmond Police Department.


A request to see the Tibbs file held by the Richmond Police Department was filed earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act. All that was forthcoming were illegible photocopies of three newspaper articles from 1940 and a copy of the reward notice. All notes, interviews, photographs, and that extensive forensic report were not made available, the Police Department stating that “all other records will not be released because they are part of the criminal investigative file.” In other words, the City of Richmond considers this an “open” investigation, even after 80 years.

The withholding of the Tibbs file seems an intractable situation, with the information as to what happened to this policeman closely held by the Richmond Police Department, but this may change. Virginia State Delegate Chris Hurst recently told the Virginia Freedom of Information Council that the current laws on the books not only stifle news coverage, but also leave victims of crime in the unsettling dark of not knowing what really happened to their loved ones – victims like the surviving members of the Tibbs family. A recent bill to reform policy around police records failed in the recent special legislative session, but sponsors hope to return with another, modified version to present to the legislators which will open police files. “This is really about trying to achieve justice,” noted Delegate Hurst.

There will be no justice and no peace for John Tibbs’s family as the facts about his death remain unknown. As Tibbs’ daughter glumly said of the secrecy that surrounds the truth about her father’s death, “I can’t see the point. If these guys were still on the street killing people it would be different. But they’re all gone. They’re all dead.” 

The peculiar happenings around the Tibbs murder, the patrolman’s missing memo book, the apparent threats to the officer, and the unsolved crime all demand if not resolution than at least the certainty that this was a vicious criminal ambush and nothing more. In the meantime, our city’s police personnel believe that another cop, a hard-working family man just as many are themselves, was once assassinated by a fellow officer. The story persists down through the decades, and with it, a cry still heard across 80 years of Richmond history for justice for Patrolman John A. Tibbs.


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