Panama Bandit, killer sought since 1958
At noon, June 24, 1958, Detective Walter Holmes, a sergeant with the New Orleans Police Department, walked into the Amite jail, anxious to interview the suspect Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Deputies had called him about that morning. He had spent the last month exhausting leads in a multi-state search for a murderer—the killer newspapers had begun to call the Panama Bandit.
The manhunt began six weeks earlier when a man in a Panama hat shot a 36-year-old bartender named Thomas Gagliano.
An article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on May 14, 1958, reported that someone shot and killed Gagliano around 3: AM at his bar, the T&M, at 210 North Dorgenois Street in Mid-City. The article described the murder as a botched holdup attempt and detailed an anonymous telephone tip that said the assailant was “a transfer truck driver.”
The prisoner in the Tangipahoa Parish Jail was a truck driver from Pennsylvania named Delbert William Eyer. However, witnesses at the bar described the assailant as approximately 30-years-old. According to the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office, Eyer was only 24-years old.
Holmes had fingerprints from the bar and three slugs from the assailant’s gun. The coroner had removed one of the slugs from Gagliano’s body, and police extracted two others from the bar.
The Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office had slugs from Eyer’s gun, and Holmes had driven to Amite, hoping the evidence matched.
In the weeks prior, he had traveled to Kentucky and North Carolina, where he ruled out truck-driving suspects in both states—and since Gagliano’s death, two other New Orleans bar owners had been robbed by the man in the Panama hat.
The month before Holmes’ trip to Amite, witnesses said Gagliano’s slayer entered his bar shortly after midnight, had a drink and then left. At closing time, he came back, ordered another glass, and pointed a .25 caliber revolver at Gagliano.
Announcing the holdup, he backed away from the bar raising a gun in the air.
When Gagliano laughed, the holdup man fired a slug into the ceiling.
“Okay, okay,” the bartender said, “Don’t get excited.”
Gagliano then walked behind the register, opened a money drawer, and grabbed his own pistol. Outside the view of the holdup man, he tried to cock it, but a penny from the drawer caused his gun to jam.
At that moment, 28-year-old Margie Simmons—Gagliano’s barmaid and common-law wife—screamed. “Please don’t use that gun, Tom.”
And, of course, that’s when the holdup man shot Gagliano.
Gagliano fell forward, knocking the locked cash register to the floor, and the holdup man fled the building.
In addition to Simmons, Barmaid Linda Pertuit, 38, and a customer, Louis Gallo, 41, also witnessed the shooting.
Gagliano was a former cab driver and had operated the bar only seven months.
Police raided his home at 827 St. Charles Street on Valentine’s Day in 1955, arresting Gagliano and charging him with pandering—commonly referred to today as “pimping”—along with six women who also gave their home addresses as 827 St. Charles Street.
Two days after Gagliano’s murder, a police sketch artist interviewed the witnesses and developed a composite drawing later circulated by police, along with the following description:
“He is a white man 25 to 30 years old, 5 feet, 10 inches tall, weighing 160-175 pounds. He has straight dark hair, an olive complexion, and he was wearing a light plaid sports shirt, and blue jeans with spots. He was wearing a Panama hat, was possibly a truck driver, could speak Italian, and he had good teeth.”
Two additional bar holdups occurred in the area in the month that followed. A witness to one of those holdups also described a Panama hat, but at the third holdup, the surviving bartender described the bandit as wearing a wool cap and a stocking mask.
Saloon patrons all over the city began to panic, imagining Panama Hat Bandits in every alley and dark bar corner. That’s when the Slidell robbery made the papers.
Shortly after lunch on June 23, 1958, Stenographer Paula Rivet, 44, attempted to enter a Five and Dime store in Mid-City when a man exiting with a handkerchief over his face and a gun in his hand met her. She said the man told her the store was closed and hurried away.
Rivet screamed for help, and C. A. Strickland, who operated an electrical repair shop, jumped into his truck and began chasing the running gunman. After three blocks, the man ran between two houses.
“I shouted for him to stop,” Strickland said, “and he came back. That’s when I saw the blood on the gun. He pointed it at me and said: ‘Please don’t shoot’ and tossed the gun under one of the houses. At that point, he ran off again.”
In the yard next door, the gunman confronted Mrs. Freda Magee, who was hanging clothes on a line in her yard. He ran past her to a heavy tank truck loaded with rice. Climbing into the cab, he drove away.
Back at the Five and Dime, Paula Rivet found the store’s cash register on the floor with a broken pair of scissors jammed in the locked register drawer. In a corner, she found the body of the part-time cashier, 47-year-old Myrtle Jones Pichon.
Her body had been drug across the store in a trail of blood that measured 45 feet.
Slidell Police Chief Clarence Howze found the rice truck speeding west on Highway 190 and gave chase. The trucker tossed the bloody handkerchief from the cab, while leading Howze and four St. Tammany Parish sheriff’s deputies on a ten-mile chase that lasted over an hour as the trucker weaved in and out of traffic, backtracking several times.
“It was the darndest thing,” Howze said. “He was trying to change clothes as he drove. The way the truck was weaving, it made it awfully dangerous for us to try and head him off.”
Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s deputies stopped the truck at the parish line.
Delbert William Eyer climbed from the cab saying, “I don’t know what you want me for. I don’t know anything about what happened.”
At that point, according to Howze, the man attempted to run again. Howze “bear-hugged” him until the sheriff’s deputies could handcuff him.
Police recovered Eyer’s pistol beneath a house near the crime scene and locked Eyer in the St. Tammany Parish jail. That night, a mob of angry citizens entered the lockup with pistols, shotguns, and a hangman’s noose.
Before sunrise the following day, a judge transferred Delbert William Eyer to the Tangipahoa Parish prison, where sheriff’s deputies called Detective Walter Holmes.
In Amite, Holmes discovered that Eyer had no olive complexion, he did not speak Italian, and he had rotten teeth. Holmes compared the slugs—.22 versus .25 caliber—and he compared Eyer’s fingerprints to those found on an ashtray at Gagliano’s bar.
Holmes ordered a polygraph test. Questioned about the Slidell robbery and homicide, Eyer failed the test, but regarding the New Orleans slaying, he passed.
Disappointed, convinced that Delbert William Eyer was not the Panama Bandit, Holmes packed his things and walked out of the Amite jail frustrated, but in the parking lot, halfway to his car, a man in a Tickfaw Police uniform stopped him.
“Are you Detective Holmes?” The officer asked, unfolding a crumbled newspaper clipping. “You might want to stop in Tickfaw.” The clipping showed the original drawing police had circulated of the Panama Bandit. “I play cards with this man every week. He’s got family in Independence.”
The wildest part of this story runs next week.
“Bayou Justice” is a weekly true crime column featuring exciting or notable crime-related stories often focusing on cold case files in South Louisiana; stories based on interviews with key players, among them: police investigators, lawyers, victims, and their families. If you have information regarding a case, contact Crime Stoppers, the Baton Rouge Police Department, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.