In the Line of Duty: Robert Probst

Officer Robert Probst, Highland Cemetery

I was in Lock Haven’s Highland Cemetery to remember some of the notable people who rest on the hillside overlooking the county seat of Clinton County. I was joined on this trip by Mike, a good friend who was back in the area for a day of catching up and exploration that brought back memories of past journeys. We had already visited a number of baseball players who eternally slumber on the hillside, but I wanted to pay my respects to a man who was killed in the line of duty.

We wandered along the hillside, headed toward the back of the cemetery, near the border of the forest and field of stone. I knew a general area where he was buried and the two of us spread out, carefully scanning the stones in search of a police officer whose life was tragically cut short in the summer of 1934.

Unfortunately, I headed in the wrong direction and after a couple moments into our search, I heard Mike call out he had found the burial location of the fallen officer. I carefully made my way over and stood reverently at the simple stone, a lasting memorial to the only member of Lock Haven’s police department who was killed in August 1934.

Robert William Probst was born February 3, 1898, in Lock Haven. Before becoming a police officer, Probst worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the shops at Renovo. He was described as a loving father and husband who was well liked by those who knew him.

On May 1, 1929, he joined the Lock Haven police department.

In the early morning hours of August 22, 1934, Probst was making his early morning rounds when he paused to talk to night watchman William A. Hager at the intersection of Main Street and Fallon Alley. As the two men stood talking, Probst’s attention was drawn to an unusual noise coming from the dark alley, which ran behind the Simon and Clinton Trust Company Buildings. Probst ordered Hager to go down Main Street, in case the burglar fled through the building and came out the neighboring Simon Building.

As Hager hurried down Main Street, Probst entered Fallon Alley to investigate. Gunfire filled the quiet night air – caught in an ambush, Probst was not able to fire his own weapon in return.

Motorcycle Officer Martin Peters was less than a block away when he heard the fatal shots and the sound of a man screaming. He ran to the entrance of Fallon Alley as an unknown male rushed past him. Peters ordered the man to stop, but the man turned and fired at Peters, who – along with Hager – returned fire at the unidentified man who fled into the darkness of Willard Alley.

Probst managed to stumble out of the alley and into Peters, nearly knocking him down. Probst told the men to get him to a doctor because he had been shot. Hager flagged down Charles Mauger, who was returning home from work, and had him take Probst to the nearby hospital. Sadly, Probst passed from his wounds only a couple minutes after arriving at the hospital. Probst was only thirty-six years old and left behind a wife and daughter.

Investigation the next morning discovered the unidentified man was trying to break into the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company offices when he was heard by Probst.

Police checked out a number of locals who they initially believed might have something to do with the murder. These men were quickly released once it was obvious they had nothing to do with it. Using Peters testimony, it was quickly determined the killer was not from the area – Peters had gotten a good look at the man as they passed in the alleyway and did not recognize him. The city of Lock Haven and the Clinton County government announced a $1000 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the killer.

On December 28, 1934, police arrested Harry Mayo – alias Frank Manning – in Philadelphia and held him at Harrisburg for questioning. Mayo had broken out of the Mifflin County jail in early August where he was being held for seventeen counts of burglary. At the time of his escape from the Lewistown prison, Mayo was also wanted in Texas for burglary charges.

Officer Peters traveled to Harrisburg to interview Mayo and upon seeing the prisoner was positive that Mayo was the man who ran past him in the alley that fatal night. Mayo was arrested and charged for the murder of Robert Probst.

Mayo’s initial confession stated that after breaking out of the Lewistown Prison he fled to Bellwood before heading to Tyrone. There he stole a pistol and a set of clothes from the American Railway Express office. After obtaining new clothes and a weapon, he prowled about town until he discovered a car he was able to steal. From Tyrone, he traveled to Lock Haven where he rented a room from Mrs. Griffin under a false name. Despite being a wanted man, Mayo continued his criminal spree. In the early morning hours of August 22, he snuck out of the house and went in search of a place to rob.

According to Mayo, he was defending himself. He thought Probst was a thief out to rob him, so he opened fire as Probst approached him. But Mayo’s “confession” goes on to state that he did not seek help from the approaching police officer – instead, he decided to shoot at him too.

At his trial in February 1935, Mayo’s defense changed from his shooting of Probst as a means of defending himself to claiming he had been forced by authorities to admit to Probst’s murder. Then on the stand, Mayo changed his story again, saying he was in the alley, but had nothing to do with the murder of Officer Probst.

The one thing Mayo’s lawyers returned to again and again in the trial was that the murder weapon was not found in Mayo’s possession. The prosecution had an expert verify that the fatal bullets could have been fired by the gun stolen in Tyrone.

Note: What happened to the gun used to murder Robert Probst was answered in the October of 1935. Two boys discovered a pistol hidden in the bushes while playing near Lockport. Though the gun was badly rusted and could not be forensically tested, the serial number proved it was the gun stolen from Tyrone the night Mayo stole the clothing and the vehicle.

After nine hours of deliberation, the jury found Mayo guilty of murder in the first degree and he would be sentenced to life at the Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. Even from his jail cell, Mayo claimed his innocence, going as far as claiming an elaborate conspiracy by which another, unknown thief had set him up to take the fall for Probst’s death. Thankfully, not one of his constantly changing stories was believed and his sentence was upheld.

We stood in silence as we finished paying our respects to Officer Robert Probst, remembering the well-liked officer and family man whose life was cut short. In silence, we reverently left the grave of the fallen officer, leaving him to rest within the sacred and historic grounds of Highland Cemetery.

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