OPINION: It was nothing more than greed

Greed: it brings out the ugliness in us. German psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm once described the craving to accumulate more and more. "Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction."

It's too bad Earl C. Williams fell into that bottomless pit.

It was in the summer of 1937 or thereabouts that the damnable and ugly face of greed made its appearance in the Ozark Missouri town of Noel. The small community that rested alongside Elk River was home to nine-hundred or so folks, but during the summer months, the population swelled to several thousand as tourists from all over came to enjoy the town and the warm, slow-moving waters of the river.

Many of the businesses, cafes, cabins to be rented, and campgrounds were designed to accommodate the needs and desires of those tourists, but like any town, some of the businesses served the needs of the local residents.

The hardware store sold hammers, nails, saws and paint, and the lumber yard had the wood needed to make good use of those tools. The Ozark theatre's marquis advertised the showing of movies, at least on Friday and Saturday nights, that might appeal to the locals. The Bank of Noel, well, everyone in those parts kept their hard-earned money there, and the customers were greeted by name, especially by bank cashier Earl Williams.

Bank of Noel customers had visited the East Main Street building since the doors first opened in 1906. It was then that bank president Charles Gratz and his cohort, a cashier by the name of Clanahan, began satisfying the banking needs of the community. Those two operated the business until 1922. Later, Bert St. Clair and Earl Williams bought controlling interest in the bank.

The bank went through another change in 1933, and it was then that Williams assumed the role of cashier. For years the bank operated just as it should, and the hard-earned money of local farmers, small business owners and retirees was well cared for -- that is, until a problem arose in 1937.

It was "like a bolt out of the sky," said bank president Ed Schifferli. After all, the bank had been examined about ninety days ago, and nothing out of the ordinary had been discovered. However, the records were once again looked at, and after evidence of theft was found, Earl Williams confessed to embezzling bank funds -- the money of his friends and neighbors.

Initially, Williams was charged with, and confessed to, the theft of $500 from the account of one customer. Williams was summarily jailed and found no available means to post the required $5,000 bail. His fate was then in the hands of a federal grand jury that would hear the case that September.

Anyone familiar with small towns and the gossip that could be spread from conversations on the Main Street sidewalks might guess that news of the missing bank funds spread quickly. Rumors about Williams' involvement passed from one person to another as parishioners seated on church pews whispered to one another while waiting for the pastor to deliver the sermon.

Those who knew Earl Williams couldn't believe he had purposely stolen a penny. There must be a mistake, they thought. Others speculated about the amount of money that had been taken. Was it $500, $2,500, or maybe even $10,000? Then there were those, and there were many, who wondered if their entire life savings might be lost forever.

The state auditors were checking and rechecking every bit of paper in the bank. At first, it didn't appear as though more than a few thousand dollars had been taken. As for Williams, well he began to recount details of the crime. He could only estimate the amount of money he had pocketed, but his best guess was around $15,000.

The auditors kept working and the losses to the bank and its customers continued to rise. When asked how long he had been pilfering funds, Williams surprised everyone with his answer. He had been stealing money for the past two years, since 1935.

Arthur P. Smith of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was placed in charge of determining the actual losses to the bank and depositors, and his findings far exceeded the estimate of $15,000 once offered by Williams. The actual figure was approximately $44,000. Smith determined that all the depositors, save two, would be fully compensated for their losses. Those two had deposits of more than $5,000.

The wheels of justice began to move, and Earl Williams would stand trial in a Kansas City Federal Courtroom. There really wasn't much of a defense to be made as the defendant had on several occasions admitted stealing the money, but the process had to run its course.

It appeared that Williams intended to allow his fate to rest in the merciful hands of Federal Judge Albert L. Reeves. In the early fall of 1937, Williams traveled to Kansas City with his attorney, James M. Tatum. Tatum seemed overly candid regarding his client's involvement in the embezzlement, acknowledging that his law partner, Lon Kelley, was the first to hear Williams' confession.

The case against Williams was concluded in November 1937. In remarks during his sentencing, Judge Reeves described the defendant as "just a good man gone wrong." Judge Reeves went on to say, "the government does not want to be vindictive. This man has a good record. He has helped in placing the losses, but it is necessary that I impose a penitentiary sentence." With that said, Judge Reeves sentenced Williams to two years in prison.

Most of the Noel population was relieved that the matter was over; however, not all were satisfied with the end result. The local newspaper editor wrote a scathing article decrying the seemingly light sentence imposed by Judge Reeves, claiming it was little more than an insult to the bank's depositors.

Although everyone agreed there wasn't really a good reason for Williams to purloin the money, some reasons might be better than others. Had there been a serious medical issue requiring expensive treatments? Was there not enough income to pay the monthly bills? Why in the world did he do it?

Williams gave the answer to that question as he stood before Judge Reeves. For two years, Williams had used the money for speculation on the grain market. He was using the stolen money in an attempt to make more money. It was nothing more than just plain old greed.

Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents, who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. The opinions expressed are those of the author.