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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

Carjacking on Center Street

On January 24, 1936 three young men from Joliet saw their chance for a ride home when Louis McBurney, an employee of the Farmer's Creamery on Center Street, stopped his automobile outside Roland's Department Store. Louis was there to pick up his two sisters in law who worked at Rolands. The three men were armed with pistols and forced McBurney back into the car. While the car was still at the curb, McBurney's sister in law, Sarah Alexander, tried to enter the car. A man in the rear seat pushed her away and told her -- "You're in the wrong car." Cool as a cucumber, Louis McBurney turned his head slightly and said "Close the door, Sarah."

The car was driven away with a screech of the tires by one of the carjackers, and Sarah rushed away to report the strange incident to the Bloomington police. The police immediately sent out notice to other law enforcement agencies, and Highway Patrolman Joe Trecker of Odell received the notice at his home while eating dinner. He obtained a car and driver and found the carjacked auto driving on Route 66 to Dwight. He and his driver waited until the auto was in Dwight before they blocked the road with their squad car and made an arrest two hours after the carjacking.

Although the carjackers told McBurney they only wanted a ride, they compelled him to buy the gas for their joyride, making this kidnapping a robbery as well. The men, Charles Keehma, Clarence Callahan and Joe Kosinski were all from Joliet, but had been hanging out near the Big Four rail road station and sleeping at Home Sweet Home mission for several days. Sadly, the Home Sweet Home mission, which had a long history of feeding and sheltering the poor regardless of "creed or color" was criticized for sheltering the three law breakers.

Louis McBurney at the Farmer's Creamery near a very large butter churn.

McBurney, an employee of the Farmer's Creamery at 411 N. Center Street, was unaffected by his experience and was back at work the following day, less the $3 the carjackers obtained from him. His sister-in-law Sarah was more upset and stayed home sick in bed after her close call. His sister in law Viola was photographed during the case and her photo appeared in the paper. I wonder if this photo was taken in Roland's hat department.

Viola Alexander

Charles Keehma was originally from Eureka and had worked for William Werner of East Mulberry Street. Werner had had a good opinion of Keehma prior to his arrest and did not understand how a young man he had trusted could have fallen in with two criminals. Keehma had just written Werner a letter asking for a job, which Werner would have given him, had Keehma's brother not forgotten to mail the letter. Keehma claimed that he participated in the carjacking because he hadn't found a job.

The carjackers were not charged with carjacking, as that crime had not yet been identified in the law books, and since they had not demanded a ransom, it was felt they could not be charged with kidnapping. They were ultimately charged with armed robbery, for requiring McBurney to pay for the gas. While the conviction of the three men could not be found, a short story in 1941 indicated that Charles Keehma was released from Pontiac in 1941. The photo below is of the three thugs who kidnapped McBurney inside the McLean County Jail. This was my first view of the jail interior, with its numbered file boxes on the shelves.

Joe Kosinski, Charles Keehma and Clarence Callahan

Search: "McBurney kidnap case" "Crime"

All photos are from the Pantagraph Negative collection and used with the permission of the McLean County Museum of History.

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