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The Baby Bandits: A 1920s crime spree, a shootout in downtown Pueblo and a father’s revenge.

The near-lifeless body lay sprawled at the corner of 5th and Court, near W.H. Holmboe Loans and a Goodrich tire store. Five bullets hit their mark, striking the small frame of a boy. A dozen gawkers, including newspaper carriers on bicycles, stood just a few feet in front of the gruesome discovery, as a photographer snapped the scene for posterity.

Lester Gonce was 14-years old.

Crowds gather at the corner of 5th and Court streets, to view the body of 14-year old Lester Gonce, who local media dubbed “The Baby Bandit.”

The story of Lester Gonce, known by the local media as “The Baby Bandit,” has been told for the past 90 years, and his antics remain as one of the more infamous crime sprees in Colorado history. The tale of Lester, and his then 18-year old brother, Forest, began the previous year, when the two teens allegedly went on a multi-city career of crime, including horse stealing, burglary, and robbery, across Colorado and Kansas. In April 1926 they were captured and sentenced to the state reformatory school in Buena Vista and the Industrial School for Boys in Golden. By the summer of 1926 the Gonce brothers were back in Pueblo, after they managed to escape both facilities.

Their crimes started up again on Aug. 13, when the boys lured Pueblo County Undersheriff F.R. Daniels and Deputy Sheriff C.L. Fiscus to a secluded road. The lawmen were responding to a report of an abandoned car and were immediately met by the Gonce brothers, who held up the officers, took their money, their guns, and their vehicle. News reports indicated they then used the car to hold up a store in Rye and then looted the YMCA camp in the area. Holding authorities at bay, lawmen enlisted the help of bloodhounds and an airplane to pinpoint the pair’s location. On Aug. 19 they stole a get-away car and eluded the posse once again. The two split up, but the now 20-year old Forest Gonce was quickly captured, after a tip from his uncle alerted law enforcement that he was walking across the 8th street bridge, by Fountain Creek. Meeting with the media, after his capture, Forest attempted to downplay his crime spree and admitted that he and his brother only escaped the reform schools after witnessing beatings of inmates by school officials. He was later sentenced, without counsel, to serve 17 years in Cañon City.

Lester’s freedom would meet a violent end.On the morning of Friday, Aug. 20, 1926, Lester Gonce’s own statement indicated that he stood openly in public, at the corner of 5th street and Court, talking to “Federal Officer Funston and Special Officer Morris” about surrendering. According to his statement, Pueblo County Sheriff Sam Thomas and Deputy Sheriff Fiscus spotted him. Fearing for his safety, Gonce admitted that as he approached Thomas and Fiscus, he reached for his gun. Both Thomas and Fiscus then opened fire — the first bullet, shot by Thomas, struck the boy, which caused him to fall at the corner. According to other reports, Fiscus then fired four shots into the suspect, striking the boy as he lay on the ground. W.H. Holmboe, who witnessed the incident in front of his office, admitted that he didn’t see Gonce fire a single shot.

Present day view of the corner of 5th and Court, the scene of the 1926 shooting. (Photo Lisa Wheeler)

On the morning of Friday, Aug. 20, 1926, Lester Gonce’s own statement indicated that he stood openly in public, at the corner of 5th street and Court, talking to “Federal Officer Funston and Special Officer Morris” about surrendering. According to his statement, Pueblo County Sheriff Sam Thomas and Deputy Sheriff Fiscus spotted him. Fearing for his safety, Gonce admitted that as he approached Thomas and Fiscus, he reached for his gun. Both Thomas and Fiscus then opened fire — the first bullet, shot by Thomas, struck the boy, which caused him to fall at the corner. According to other reports, Fiscus then fired four shots into the suspect, striking the boy as he lay on the ground. W.H. Holmboe, who witnessed the incident in front of his office, admitted that he didn’t see Gonce fire a single shot.

Bullets riddled his body, including penetrating his arm and lungs. He was rushed to Parkview Hospital, bleeding and unconscious, and on the verge of death.

The story of a 14-year old boy, shot multiple times by law enforcement officials, made national news. Readers were engrossed with every grisly detail published. Public opinion began to sway in favor of the dying teen, as reporters alleged that Fiscus was upset that the brothers had previously disarmed him and had stolen his vehicle, resulting in the extreme retaliation. According to reports, Deputy Fiscus feared for his own life, as the media sensationalized the incident, and his role in the confrontation. The Colorado Sheriff’s Association came to his aid by quickly adopting a resolution that the law officer acted appropriately, and condemning the “maudlin sentiment created by certain newspapers of the state and nation through misleading information against the peace officers in general, and the sheriff’s office of Pueblo, in particular.”

To the surprise of many, after months in the hospital, Lester survived and turned his life around. For reasons that are unclear, he was not charged with a crime, and later moved in with local plumber Bill Cody, and his wife, and attended Centennial High School, where his notoriety followed him, as noted in the 1928 yearbook:

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“We, Elizabeth Reece, Ethel Reynolds, Elizabeth Sheurer, Gwen Shore, and Manetta Spady freely will unto Lester Gonce, a rattle, some knitting needles and yarn.”

His attempt at normalcy wouldn’t last long. Festering over the loss of his brother, who was serving time after a quick, unrepresented trial, Lester began to hatch a plan to break him out of prison. In 1931 he put together an arrangement to spring him, but the plot was discovered, and Lester found himself in jail. A few weeks later, Forest was granted trusty status for good behavior, and simply walked away while working at a park. The elder brother then picked up where he left off, stole a car, and went on a crime spree through New Mexico and Western Colorado. In October, Forest tried to release his brother from the Saguache County jail by driving to the jail keeper’s home to retrieve the jail cell keys. He held the jailer and his daughter hostage, until they gave him the key. He returned to the prison, only to discover he had the wrong key. He eluded police by making a quick getaway to Ordway, but was quickly surrounded in a hotel. He was arrested, but not before shooting a volunteer searching for the fugitive. Forest was returned to prison to finish his 17-year term.

Six years after his son was gunned down on the streets of Pueblo, Lester Gonce, Sr. had read that Deputy Sheriff Charles Fiscus, the man responsible for pumping four bullets in his son, had retired to his farm, in Baxter, near what is now the Pueblo Memorial Airport. In the evening of Nov. 14, 1932 the elder Gonce knocked on door of the Fiscus homestead and fired three shots from his .45 automatic, killing Fiscus instantly. At his murder trial, held in May the following year, Gonce’s lawyers alleged that their client acted “with temporary insanity” when he shot at the former law enforcement officer, in vengeance for the shooting of his youngest son.

Lester Gonce’s grave marker, St. George Cemetery, Utah. (Courtesy)

On May 5, after almost 22 hours of deliberations, a jury found Lester Gonce, Sr. innocent for killing former-Deputy Fiscus. He served six weeks at the state hospital, and was released. He died in 1957, and is buried, along with his wife Sarah, who died in 1946, in the Olney Springs Cemetery.

Lester was released from prison in 1934, but returned in 1935 on a parole violation, and walked out of prison, for good, in 1936. He would go on to work at KGHF radio, and serve in World War II, before changing his name to Chet, and leaving Pueblo for Las Vegas.

Forest served his entire 17-year prison term, and went on to work in logging. He later moved in with his younger brother, in Nevada. The date of his death is unknown.

Chet Gonce would go on to be a successful keno manager in Las Vegas, and for all intents and purposes, rose above his teenage escapades. His last years were spent in a retirement home in St. George, Utah. He died in 1992, at the age of 80, and is buried in the St. George City Cemetery.
His tombstone reads “Man of Integrity.”

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