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120 The Story Doesn’t End with the Ambush on the Sebastian River Bridge I wish I had told this story twenty-five or thirty years ago when these outlaws had relatives and friends living and people who had heard and doubted the way that they were captured. I regret that very much. —OREN B. PADGETT, O. B. Padgett: The Native Son, the Lawman, the Prisoner, the Citizen On November 1, 1924, sheriff’s deputies ambushed John Ashley and three other gang members as they tried to flee the state. The months prior to the gang’s final flight had been marked by increased violence and decreased community support. Before they were captured, the men had intended to drive from southern Florida to Jacksonville, where they hoped to spend the night with one of Ashley’s sisters, and then to continue on to California, where they would start new lives. Things had begun to go badly earlier in the year. In February, a predawn raid surprised Ashley, who was staying at an island camp located about two miles from his parents’ home. With John Ashley that night were Laura Upthegrove, his father Joe, and another man. They slept in three tents set up adjacent to a hundred-gallon copper still. The successful raid was the culmination of several frustrating months of searching by Sheriff Bob Baker’s deputies. In fact, for days prior to the raid, deputies Fred Baker and H. L. Stubbs had searched the swamps on their hands and knees in order to avoid detection as they pinpointed the camp’s exact location. As the deputies crept up to the tents at three in the morning, Laura Upthegrove’s mongrel dog, Old Bob, began to bark. A deputy shot the dog, and a “hail of bullets” followed, as John Ashley described the events to Hix C. Stuart. Joe Ashley (killed while putting on his boots) and Deputy Fred Baker The Story Doesn’t End 121 died in the cross fire. Several rounds of buckshot pierced Laura Upthegrove’s scalp and thighs. Her terrible screams, according to Sheriff Bob Baker, caused the deputies to stop shooting. John Ashley escaped unharmed into the woods. When the deputies approached the camp, they discovered Laura Upthegrove and several women relatives who had heard the shots and come running . The deputies arrested all the women, including John’s mother, two of his grown sisters, a sister-in-law, and a three-year-old child, and took them to jail. Later, John’s brother Bill and his brother-in-law Wesley Mobley were arrested. All the family members were subsequently released, though Laura was held for nearly two months. While the family was in jail, a mob enraged over Fred Baker’s death burned several Ashley family homes, including that of Ashley’s now-widowed mother. John Ashley seemed brazenly nonchalant on the day he attempted to flee the state—particularly for a man who was at the time the target of a ninemonth -long intensive manhunt. That afternoon he was seen strolling the streets of Fort Pierce, having a shave and a haircut, and then playing a game of pool. As night fell, Ashley and his companions—Ray Lynn, Clarence Middleton , and Hanford Mobley, Ashley’s nineteen-year-old nephew—climbed into Ashley’s Ford touring car and headed northward on the Old Dixie Highway . Young Mobley was driving. In all likelihood, Ashley’s party was not surprised to find the Sebastian River bridge chained off, marked with a hanging red lantern. O. B. Padgett, a deputy at the scene, noted in his memoirs that it had been raining for the preceding few days and so the road was washed out in several places between Fort Pierce and the Sebastian River, a distance of twenty-eight miles. Just a few miles earlier that evening, the group had already driven through another short detour, similarly marked with red caution lights, lending further credibility to the roadblock they encountered at the Sebastian River bridge. On the other hand, Ashley may not have had a chance to think at all. Tipped off earlier in the day to the gang’s flight, six deputies and the sheriff of Saint Lucie County lay hidden in the tall grass along the roadbed. As soon as Ashley’s car slowed, the men leapt out and thrust their automatic rifles into the passengers’ faces. What happened next on that dark stretch of road has been the subject of heated speculation for...


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