How would you catch a bootlegger if you were a cop in the 1930s? You’d chase him and if you lost him, you’d call for back up to intercept him, right? Well, that wouldn’t work too well for Norfolk cops, who didn’t get radios installed in their cars until 1941. And searching for a gas station with a phone would often give crooks time to escape. But my late grandfather, John Estes, a Norfolk police officer for 35 years, had a skill that terrified criminals – he could fly.
His flying leaps from his motorcycle to the running boards of fleeing bootleggers became so commonplace that his co-workers nicknamed him “Tom Mix,” after the popular movie star who apprehended bad guys by leaping from his horse to their steed. Strong and agile, my grandfather sustained only minor injuries from his leaps, while his abandoned motorcycle sometimes only cost five dollars to fix.
In the trigger-happy days of Prohibition and beyond, vehicular chases were common, as cops went after criminals who were illegally making and selling unlicensed liquor, commonly known as moonshine or corn whiskey. When asked why he was so intent on capturing them, my grandfather said he “couldn’t see how it was right for a big shot to make so much money illegally when honest people were struggling to get by.” His early job as a milk deliveryman probably only fueled his desire to become a policeman, as he witnessed illegal liquor runs on his milk route.
During the ’30s and ’40s, he regularly made headlines with his heroic feats on the job. But when was he ever off the job? My father recounts how he would abruptly cut into pursuit after a suspect, while en route to church with the family. He wouldn’t call it quits even after coming home from work – he’d fool bootleggers that were watching his house into thinking he was in for the night. He would flip the bathroom light on, wait a few minutes, and then flip it off. He performed the same procedure with his bedroom lights, before sneaking out after them.
His reputation provoked one prominent bootlegger to offer him $75 a week to tell him when he was going to dinner. Naturally he declined the offer. That was a lot of money – he was making only $125 a month at the time.
But his honesty and courage never won him favor with the police brass during promotion time – he never rose above sergeant. He remained a relatively poor cop, when quite a few of his fellow policemen were on the take, receiving bribes from bootleggers. His heroism, however, inspired envy.
Chasing booze-running cars was not his only passion; newspaper headlines tell of him nabbing bank robbers and rescuing drowning men. Stories of his career also got national attention in Look magazine and Reader’s Digest.
His most daring adventure came in March of 1939, when he was working for the feds. While he and his partner were staking out a suspected bootlegger, a shotgun blast from the suspect’s Buick penetrated his windshield, instantly killing his partner. He chased the criminals for miles while bullets continued striking his Ford, within inches of his face. The criminals were caught and charged with murder.
After retiring from the police department, he became a supervisor at Norfolk’s animal control. Handling soft and friendly creatures was quite a change from his police years, but such a sense of purpose emanated from his being that you never forget the tough cop he used to be.
I visited him for the last time in 1996, at a hospital across from his modest apartment. His hand reached out and clenched mine, as he wished me luck. That grip from this seemingly frail 95-year-old had such strength. It was from his trigger hand.