EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second story in a three-part series. The first installment of “Public Enemy No. 1” was published in the Wednesday, July 27 Thomasville Times, or you can find it online at www.tvilletimes.com.
You’d think five to seven years in the state pen would be enough to scare an impressionable teenager into going straight and keeping his nose out of trouble.
In the case of Ralph Davis, however, you would be wrong.
Even in prison, the young Davidson County desperado was a magnet for mayhem. Case in point: The incident on Feb. 27, 1931 — about 18 months into Davis’ sentence — in which he killed a fellow convict at the Cary Prison Camp.
Just as Davis had developed a reputation as a troublemaker outside of prison, he earned the same reputation as an inmate, frequently ruffling the feathers of fellow prisoners and once being sent to solitary confinement for allegedly assaulting a prison guard with a glass soda bottle.
The day after he left solitary confinement, fellow convict Thurman Luther, from Cherokee County, accused Davis of being a stool pigeon and telling guards that Luther and other prisoners were planning an escape. Luther approached Davis during a chain gang work assignment, the two exchanged words, and Davis suddenly swung his shovel at Luther, knocking him to the ground. Luther picked up a handful of rocks to throw at Davis, but a guard intervened and ended the fight.
A few hours later, though, as Davis was using a mattock to cut roots away from a tree stump, Luther returned to Davis’ post. It wasn’t clear what he was doing, but Davis didn’t wait for an explanation — he struck Luther in the head with the business end of his mattock. Luther never regained consciousness and died about a week later.
Davis, still only 19, was charged with first-degree murder.
When he went to trial, though, Davis testified Luther had raised his hand as if to hit him, so he swung his mattock in self-defense. Fellow convicts also testified Luther had been bullying Davis for some time, while guards had mostly turned a blind eye. The jury sided with Davis and exonerated him.
Davis returned to the outside world — and, before long, to the headlines — in 1934. By that summer, the notorious ex-con was wanted in connection with a series of highway robberies in Guilford and several other counties, but officers couldn’t seem to catch him.
Never was their frustration more pronounced — or more comical, for that matter — than on July 9, 1934. Operating on a tip they’d received, eight officers descended on the home of Davis’ parents about 12 miles north of Lexington, believing Davis was hiding there.
They were right, but before they could surround the house, Davis — or a family member — saw them coming. Davis frantically kicked out a window screen on the back of the house and took off running.
Fleeing with only the automatic pistol he’d thought to grab on his way out, the “nude bandit” (as one headline described him) jumped two garden fences and sprinted toward the Yadkin River. The eight officers, armed with machine guns, valiantly gave chase — occasionally firing their weapons in Davis’ general vicinity — but they couldn’t keep up.
Bloodhounds were brought in and picked up Davis’ scent, but the trail ended at the Yadkin, where the bare fugitive had apparently swum across and disappeared. Davis’ family members were charged with harboring a fugitive, and Davis was declared a North Carolina outlaw.
The following month, still on the lam, Davis rudely introduced himself to the residents of Statesville and Iredell County.
First, on the evening of Aug. 10, 1934, he carjacked the mayor of Statesville, E.R. Rankin, as he was leaving City Hall. Brandishing a gun, the young desperado jumped onto the running board of Rankin’s new Ford coupe, slid into the passenger’s seat and poked the gun against his ribs. Per Davis’ instructions, Rankin drove a couple of miles out of town, then Davis robbed him of $41, his wristwatch and the car, forcing the mayor to walk back to town.
One week later, on the morning of Aug. 17, the mayor’s car was spotted at a tenant house on a farm in northern Iredell. Sheriff Godfrey Kimball and two deputies went to investigate, hoping they might be able to nab the elusive Davis, but the dangerous mission backfired.
As the officers prepared to storm the house, Davis snuck out back and got the drop on the sheriff, forcing him to put down his weapon and raise his hands. At that moment, Deputy Ralph Gilbert came around back and saw what was happening, but Davis saw Gilbert first and fired a shot, hitting the deputy in the leg. The wounded deputy crawled for cover, then returned fire, and a brief, intense gunfight ensued, with the second deputy also joining the battle.
As the bullets flew, Kimball was struck in the lower abdomen and collapsed to the ground. The 41-year-old sheriff would be rushed to a hospital in Statesville, but would die within a matter of hours.
Meanwhile, despite a hail of bullets riddling the mayor’s stolen car, Davis somehow managed to get behind the wheel and escape, tempting fate — yet again — and getting away with it. Even as the residents of Iredell County grieved the loss of their beloved sheriff, they couldn’t help but wonder about the 23-year-old fugitive who was responsible for Kimball’s death.
Would Ralph Davis be brought to justice and held accountable for the first-degree murder charge now hanging over his head? Or had he slipped away for good this time?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Part three of “Public Enemy No. 1” will be published in the Wednesday, Aug. 3 Thomasville Times.