She was known as the Queen of Bootleggers, but she ended up at the bottom of a septic tank piled under 100lbs of rock and debris.
Cleo Epps started as a school teacher with a big heart. Her students said she was more of a mother than a teacher. Born on a farm in Arkansas, the young Cleo not only finished high school but also finished college. Afterward, she moved to rural Oklahoma and taught school.
Cleo’s first husband had a drinking problem that would eventually lead to divorce.
Cleo never drank alcohol but ended up marrying a man who became a bootlegger. That’s how a compassionate, soft-hearted school marm became a bootlegging queen. It’s also the beginning of the end for Cleo Epps. Although she eventually divorced for a second time, Cleo kept up the business.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Epps ran moonshine and had regular run-ins with law enforcement. Everyone loved her, even the police, and she would always continue business as usual. By April 1966, Epps was indicted on a multi-million dollar moonshine racket. Authorities claimed her business poured over 2,000 gallons of shine into the Tulsa area monthly.
Cleo Epps was making a lot of money, and it seemed no one could touch her. Although Oklahoma was a dry state, society shrugged off the law and continued to have shine delivered to their homes regularly.
By the end of prohibition, Cleo had successfully funneled her illegal income into a legitimate business. Epps became a sort of bank for those people looking to buy a home. She would hold the mortgage and receive the interest payments and principal.
How did she meet such a horrible end?
Cleo Epps had one problem. Although she was a shrewd businesswoman, it seemed she had a problem in the area of relationships. She tended to fall in love with the wrong men, and one of those men would end up plotting her murder.
During her run as the Queen of Bootleggers, Epps had developed many working relationships with various criminals. Some of these men were members of the Dixie Mafia. Thomas Lester Pugh and Albert McDonald were two associates of the moonshine distributor. At one point, Epps had even considered marrying one of them.
On August 25, 1970, a local judge’s car blew up in his driveway in an assassination attempt. The dynamite had been borrowed from Cleo Epps by a man she thought she could trust. When he came by a few days earlier claiming to need dynamite for some tree stump removal projects on his property, she believed him.
Cleo was devastated when she heard the news. Luckily the judge survived, but all Cleo could think about was the judge’s little girl. What if his daughter had gotten in the car to tell her daddy goodbye before he left for work? It was too much for the soft-hearted former bootlegger.
Although she knew her life was at stake, Cleo agreed to testify to a grand jury. She came in complete disguise, and the authorities were supposed to protect her. That didn’t happen.
A short time later, Cleo disappears. Her body was found at the bottom of a septic tank. She had been shot twice in the head and tossed into the tank. Nearly 100lbs of rocks and debris were piled on top of her.
Pugh and McDonald were charged with her murder, but somehow Pugh got off due to lack of evidence.
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