The Gallows and the Deep

The story of the bloody, high-seas crimes and execution of smuggler Horace Alderman is a yarn worthy of Joseph Conrad. Or Quentin Tarantino.

According to Coatee, Weech said he and Alderman had been thoroughly searched for weapons. Then Weech offered an odd explanation of how Alderman got a pistol in his hand: As Alderman followed Sanderlin aboard the Coast Guard cruiser, he darted back into the cabin of the motorboat, groped around in the engine compartment, and found his own .45 automatic -- all without seven other spectators, or Sanderlin himself, noticing.

In contrast, surviving crew members Frank Lehman, Robinson, and Hal Caudle made no mention of their commanding officer having searched the smugglers -- and, remarkably, neither Jordan nor other members of the board of inquiry ever asked them about it.

Injured crew members Lamby and Hollingsworth were interviewed in the hospital, where they signed brief written statements. (Hollingsworth made a dramatic recovery; Lamby died of complications from surgery on August 11, four days later). Neither man's statement mentions a search.

Only Frank Tuten claimed that his commander, Sanderlin, had conducted a "hurried" frisking. But Tuten made no mention of Alderman returning to the motorboat to retrieve a gun. Decades later, in a 1968 letter to the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, one of Tuten's fellow Coast Guardsmen called him totally untrustworthy. "I can see how distortions of this kind can happen when Frank Tuten, who was there, gave such an inaccurate account of what actually happened," wrote Lehman. In another piece of writing, in 1976, Lehman described himself and his fellow crew members as utterly untrained teenage adventurists, adding: "It is evident that we were lax in handling this situation, or it would not have happened at all."

And yet, despite the murkiness surrounding the search and seizure, the commander of Base 6 concluded that "the prisoners were searched, and after the search Alderman possessed himself of a gun [that] he had hidden in the engine room of the rum boat." His official opinion: Alderman was guilty of murder and piracy on the high seas.

By his own admission, Jordan allowed the Coast Guard inquest to proceed in a manner that today might have gotten him court-martialed.

Instead of separating and sequestering the witnesses, he permitted them to stand on a porch outside the hearing room, smoking cigarettes and comparing notes. He also allowed servicemen from Base 6 who had no direct involvement in the incident to watch the inquest as spectators. "The board determined upon its procedure and decided to sit with open doors," Jordan noted.

Jordan's board of inquiry made an inventory of physical evidence in the case, right down to Sanderlin's cuff links and talcum powder, and a conch shell owned by Hollingsworth. But the most important piece of physical evidence -- Alderman's boat, with the contraband whiskey aboard -- never made it back to land. Jordan professed ignorance of what had happened to it. Others testified later that the boat caught fire and sank while being towed back to Fort Lauderdale.

Subsequent court testimony also revealed that patrol boat 249 was not exactly on routine patrol the morning of August 7. The crew was acting as transport for Secret Service agent Webster, who was on his way to Bimini to investigate the circulation of counterfeit $50 notes among booze smugglers.

The relaxed transportation duty explained why crew members wore T-shirts and dungarees instead of their Coast Guard uniforms. In an account written 49 years after the incident, crew member Caudle revealed that the patrol boat stopped Alderman on the high seas mainly because its commanding officer wanted to treat the out-of-town Secret Service agent to a taste of South Florida intrigue.

Perhaps most significant of all its omissions at Base 6 is the board of inquiry's failure to interview the central character in the drama, Alderman himself. No explanation was given as to why.

Upon reaching land Horace Alderman had been taken to the hospital under heavy guard. The next day he was moved again. "In view of the existing feeling among the rumrunners, and of the fact that several had attempted to gain admittance to the hospital, Alderman was removed to the county jail, all the necessary precautions being taken against any sympathizers," Jordan wrote.

The precautions apparently weren't enough for the Coast Guard. Alderman was placed aboard a government gunboat on the New River and taken by convoy to Jacksonville, where he was held in solitary confinement.

It was nearly half a year later, when he went to trial in January 1928, that Alderman got to tell his side of the story. By then Weech had turned state's evidence against Alderman before a grand jury in Jacksonville. In return for his testimony against Alderman, Weech received a light sentence -- one year in the federal penitentiary -- and vanished before Alderman's hanging.

Weech, the linchpin in Alderman's indictment, remained a shadow player. His grand jury testimony was first sealed, then destroyed by the court decades ago.

Alderman acknowledged he was a killer but denied to his dying day that he was a murderer. Speaking in what was described as a clear, strong voice in a federal courtroom in Miami, he told a rather different version of the high seas bloodbath: In the first minutes of the encounter off Fort Lauderdale, he thought his contraband cargo was being hijacked by rival smugglers. The crew members of CG 249 weren't dressed like Coast Guardsmen, and Alderman said the Coast Guard vessel wasn't readily identifiable as such. Likewise Sanderlin didn't identify himself as a government agent.

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