KEARNEY — Author Brian James Beerman admires stories without a conclusive ending.
“I had become interested in this big bank robbery that took place in Lincoln in 1930,” he said. “A lot has been written about it. While doing research on that, I stumbled across an article about Maurice Denning being Public Enemy No. 1 in 1936. He was from the Council Bluffs area, which is right across the river from Omaha where I grew up. I got interested in that story.”
During his research, Beerman learned that Denning, the leader of the Ghost Gang, had disappeared after a series of robberies, never to be heard from again.
“That piqued my interest even more,” said Beerman, who now lives in Kansas City.
The author, who attended the University of Nebraska at Kearney in the early 1990s, continued researching the story of Ghost Gang. Two decades later, the History Press published Beerman’s book, “Nebraska’s Missing Public Enemy: The Last of the Ghost Gang,” releasing the book in August.
Denning spent 10 years at the top of the FBI’s list of public enemies. Beerman wanted to look at the life of the criminal to better understand his story.
“I tend to be an empathetic person and I try to put myself in the shoes of other people,” he said. “I realize that people who didn’t have the same advantages that I had, growing up, sometimes go down the wrong path. That doesn’t mean that they are inherently bad.”
Beerman noted that Denning came from a good family.
“They were very well respected,” the author said. “He was the only criminal member of the family. Everybody else — his father, his brothers and his sisters — were hardworking folks for their entire lives. They managed to survive the Depression without robbing people.”
During his research Beerman looked for hints as “where the twig was bent” and why Denning turned to a life of crime.
“He started bootlegging first,” Beerman said. “At the time, bootlegging was seen as a victimless crime. Once Prohibition was repealed, a lot of those people went into legitimate businesses. Denning seemed to have gone further down that criminal path when he got out of prison the first time.”
The Ghost Gang terrorized bankers across Nebraska. Lawmen eventually traced the gang to a Gage County ghost town named Kinney. Authorities detained each member of the gang — except for Denning.
As for Beerman’s theory on what happened to the leader of the Ghost Gang, the author encourages everyone to read the book and look for clues.
“I hope that readers will read the book and draw their own conclusions,” he said. “People can develop their own theories.”
After two decades of researching and writing, Beerman, 45, considers “Nebraska’s Missing Public Enemy” a labor of love.
“I learned a lot about research,” he said of the project. “I was pretty young when I started on the book. I think maybe some people didn’t take me seriously when I tried to get interviews. And at the time, it was impossible to get the FBI files on Denning because you have to be able to prove that someone is dead — or get their permission — in order to get their files. Well, there’s no proof that he’s dead so I had to wait until 2007 to get his files. After 100 years, they are presumed to be dead.”
Something about the hunt for information keeps Beerman looking for clues to put the final chapter on the story of Denning.