A Killer's Spree: The Weird Crime Binge of a Milwaukee Murderer
Elmer Henry “Al” Pierce had come to Milwaukee to see his niece. Pierce was a career criminal, not long out of the penitentiary after serving 12 years of a 20 year sentence for a series of robberies and auto thefts. Pierce had lived in Milwaukee until he was a young man and was familiar with the city, but had been boarding with a man named Roy Pankin and his family in Wheaton, Illinois since his release. To Patkin, he seemed like a decent man, quiet and polite. Pierce arrived in Milwaukee on January 7, 1947.
His niece was 27-year-old Virginia Szeremet. Pierce had been sending her gifts, $50 worth by his estimate, in an effort to win her favor. He had apparently developed romantic (if you want to call them that) feelings towards his sister’s daughter. She seemed to know his intentions and wanted nothing of it. Already stung by her rejection, Pierce also suspected that she had been talking about him in an unflattering way. After Pierce got into the city, he called Szeremet, pretending to be her boyfriend. He asked her to meet him at 35th and Wells Streets. As she waited at the streetcar stop near her family home, Pierce emerged from the darkness and pressed a .38 caliber revolver against her ribs. “You’re coming with me and I’m going to get what I want,” he told her.
Once on the trolley, Pierce and Szeremet argued quietly, drawing the attention of the other passengers. As the car ran east on Wells Street, Pierce ordered her to get off with him at the 35th Street stop. But as the car neared 37th Street, Szeremet bolted for the door. Pierce fired wildly, hitting Szeremet three times – once in the wrist and twice in the back. Two other passengers were also hit, but not badly injured. Szeremet died the next day.
Pierce leapt off the car and hid out in the basement of a nearby candy factory while one of the biggest manhunts in recent city history commenced. By the next morning, pictures of Pierce were splashed across all of the area’s newspapers and authorities in Illinois were put on high alert. In the midst of all this, Al Pierce proceeded to engage in one of the most brash and baffling crime sprees Milwaukee had ever seen. The day after the murder, Pierce caught a taxi cab at South Kinnickinnic and Lincoln and asked to be taken to an address on South Packard Street. When the cab arrived, Pierce pulled out his .38. “This is a stick-up,” he told the driver, “I’m in trouble. I shot that girl last night and I need money to get out of town.” The driver only had a dollar and a half on him, so Pierce tied him up and shoved him in the back seat. Donning the man’s drivers cap, he drove to a Cudahy filling station, giving the details of his crime to the bound driver along the way. “She was telling stories about me and I shut her mouth for good,” Pierce said. At the filling station, Pierce dragged the driver inside, gun to his head. “I shot that girl and I need money to get out of town,” Pierce repeated to the attendant. He got $20 cash and fled before the police arrived.
Over the next two weeks, this odd scenario would be replayed again and again, both in Wisconsin and Illinois: Pierce committing a petty robbery while declaring who was and what he had done. By the end of the month, he was suspected of more than a half-dozen robberies. Police began getting so many tips on his whereabouts that they were overwhelmed, and additional robberies (those not connected to Pierce) went unsolved in the chaos. Late one night, a man pounded on the door of the Gueder family home on West Cherry Street. When the father answered the door, a disheveled-looking brute announced that he was Pierce and that he wanted coffee. The terrified man did as “Pierce” asked while his daughters secretly called the police. They arrested the man – who was not Pierce – and charged him with a drunk and disorderly. Evidently, the man figured all he needed to do to get his way was pretend to be the man the police couldn’t catch.
On January 24, Pierce pulled a job that drew the attention of the FBI. Wanting to swap one stolen car for another, he pulled into a garage at 770 N. Jackson and stuck up the lone mechanic on duty, a man named Willie Green. When he couldn’t get any cash out of him, his tied his hands and shoved him into the front seat of a car owned by the IRS Alcohol Tax Unit, which had been dropped off early that day for repairs. As he sped west on Wells Street, looking for a place to rob, Pierce pointed out an intersection. “You remember 37th and Wells, Willie?” he asked. “That’s where I shot my niece.”
After he settled on a Wauwatosa grocery store, Pierce tied Green’s hands to the handle of the door and went inside, where he – once again – boasted of shooting his niece and demanded money. During the robbery, Green was able to free himself and ran to the nearest house to try to call for the police. But as he ran from door to door, no one would let him in. Green was African American and still dressed in his mechanics coveralls. Someone did eventually call the police, but only to report a “maniac in his pajamas” terrorizing the neighborhood. By the time the cops came, Pierce had slipped away once again. With a stolen government car now involved, believed to be headed for the state line, the FBI joined in on the hunt for Pierce.
The next day, Pierce arrived back at the home of Roy Patkin, whom he was boarding with before the murder. He invited himself in for dinner and “ate like a horse” while he told of his crimes, including the murder of his niece, to Patkin’s terrified family. Before he left, he warned Patkin not to tell the police and threatened to return and murder the entire family if he did. While Pierce continued his crime spree in Chicago – including at least four armed robberies and the shooting of a cab driver – Patkin sent his family to stay with out-of-state friends. A few weeks later, Pierce called Patkin and asked if he could pick him up at the train station in Westchester. Pierce said that he had a “big deal cooked up” and that he wanted to include his “friend” in the action. Patkin agreed.
On February 19, as it neared 11 pm, Patkin stood tensely as the train pulled up to the Westchester Station. It came to a stop and one man stepped off. He was at first obscured by the shadows, but as he slowly walked into the light, his face became clear. Patkin saw him and tipped his cap.
“Reach!” Yelled a voice from the darkness. Pierce stood baffled for a moment while nine armed officers rushed forward from all sides. His hand darted to his belt as a spray of machine gun fire flashed across his torso. Three blasts from the gun split him open in a spray of gore. He was dead before he hit the ground. Patkin, certain Pierce meant to kill him, had tipped off the police. The nod of his cap was the sign that he had positively identified the man off the train. And so ended one of the most bizarre stories in the annals of Milwaukee crime. For all this troubles and all the bloodshed, Pierce had only $12 on him when he was killed.