On the evening of Tuesday, October 21, 1951, a 19-year-old woman who displayed signs of intoxication was taken into custody from a location near her home by St. Joseph County Deputy Sheriff William J. Locks. “She was higher than a kite, but it wasn’t from whisky, beer or wine,” Locks told reporters.
During questioning, the woman revealed that she was under the influence of powerful narcotics obtained from her affiliation with a large sex, drug and theft gang. The gang involved over a hundred area youths who met secretly in a wooded area northwest of the intersection of Grape Road and U.S. Highway 20 in St. Joseph County, Indiana. Gang members referred to the meeting place as “Hot Rod Heaven” due to the large number of hot rods and motorcycles that assembled there.
The gatherings included youths ranging in age from 14 to 20 who engaged in heavy drinking, drug taking and “sexual indecencies”. Additionally, investigators learned, “young hoodlums who frequented ‘the heaven’ whipped out pistols and engaged in wild shooting exhibitions.” According to reports, “Many of the boys are armed and ‘shoot up’ the ‘heaven’ in the orgies.” Indeed, when Deputy Locks investigated the scene, he found trees “riddled with bullets, torn pistol targets and empty beer cans pierced by gun shot.” Some shocking headlines even reported a pair of “bullet riddled panties” had been discovered at the scene. However, no homicides were known to have occurred at the location.
Participants described how the gang’s leaders instructed the youths on how to steal and supplied information on “easy targets for theft in South Bend, Mishawaka and Niles.” Additionally, the hoodlum gang leaders beat members who failed to successfully complete theft assignments and threatened to kill them if they ever “squawked”. A female participant described “the whipping of youths who had failed on crime missions and told details of two burglaries later confirmed by authorities. Any loot, she added, was ordered turned over to the gang’s leaders.”
Further questioning of the intoxicated 19-year-old female revealed that she had acquired the drugs from an usher at a South Bend movie theater. Following up on the lead, investigators were able to track down the 16-year-old usher who corroborated much of the woman’s story and also provided additional details. The usher admitted giving some capsules to the girl, but did not know what they contained. The usher said he was instructed by a man named “Red” to give the capsules to a girl who would identify herself by giving him a signal. The boy said he complied with Red’s orders because he was afraid of him.
In addition to obtaining capsules from the usher, the 19-year-old woman admitted she had purchased capsules of drugs from Red himself and took them on at least eight occasions. A separate girl claimed to have been injected with “dope” on two occasions, once by Red and another time by herself.
Investigators learned that Red and at least a half dozen other men were responsible for trafficking the narcotics into the area. The men reportedly acquired the drugs in Kentucky and smuggled them in the taillights of cars and motorcycles into the South Bend area. Another 20-year-old man questioned by Locks, admitted that Red gave him money to transport youths in his car from a meeting place in Mishawaka out to the “heaven.” Further testimony by the 19-year-old woman to Deputy Locks and St. Joseph County Prosecutor Graham McGowan revealed that “members of the Plymouth sex orgy gang recently broken by Marshall County authorities attended the sprees in ‘hot rod heaven.’” More on the Plymouth sex orgy gang later.
While investigators were interviewing young people and trying to sort out the illegal activities taking place at Hot Rod Heaven, the state police in Kentucky apprehended a 29-year-old South Bend, Indiana man “on a charge of being under the influence of narcotics on a public highway.” Kentucky State Patrol picked up Gilbert Yish on a highway five miles outside of Paducah, Kentucky after he’d thrown a rock through the window of a moving truck. Yish told authorities he was under the influence of heroin. Although investigators did not confirm Yish to be the man called Red, he was clearly a very troubled individual who may have been involved with the alleged illegal activity taking place at Hot Rod Heaven. Just a few days after his arrest in Kentucky, and after he was turned over to the care of his father, Yish was again arrested, this time by South Bend Police at a local “trailer camp” for fighting with several guests. Subsequent newspaper reports have Yish as a patient at an Indiana mental hospital.
Two days after delivering a wild tale of debauchery involving a hundred youths at a secret clearing in the woods called “Hot Rod Heaven,” the 19-year-old woman arrested for being “higher than a kite” took it all back. “Everything that I told the sheriff’s deputies is untrue,” she said. “I stated that Red gave me some pills and that I did not know what they were for. It was a lie. He (Red) thought I was pregnant and he wanted to get rid of the baby, because I’m married now….I didn’t want my husband to know that I was out with Red.”
The needle girl recanted her story as well. “Everything I said was a lie. My reason for doing this was I thought I would get out of trouble quicker….Red is from Mishawaka. I don’t know his last name. But there is such a person. I haven’t known him very long. I stated that Red was the first one that gave me the shot. This is a lie.”
Among local investigators, reactions were mixed. Some were satisfied that the girls were now telling the truth and nothing really happened, while others vowed to continue the investigation and to interview additional minors implicated in the story. Law enforcement in surrounding cities and towns seemed eager to chalk it up as a hoax, satisfied that none of their community’s youths were involved in such scandalous behavior.
However, even as the two women in custody were now denying most of the events they previously described, they seemed to further affirm that Red was real and that he was indeed a narcotics dealer. Also, one of the girls appeared to have knowledge of at least two burglaries known to police. And what to make of the testimony of the usher and the driver Red recruited to shuttle teens out to Hot Rod Heaven? The usher’s story mostly backs up the girl’s testimony about Red, and while the driver may have been inventing a role for himself in the lore surrounding Hot Rod Heaven, maybe there was some truth to what he and the other youths were describing.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned Plymouth sex orgy gang. On September 20, 1951, just a month before the Hot Rod Heaven revelations surfaced, Ray Freed, 30, of Plymouth, Indiana was sentenced in Marshall County Juvenile Court to six months in the Indiana Penal Farm for contributing to the delinquency of minors. Freed, the night watchman at a Plymouth creamery plant, had taken nude photographs of several teens aged 14-17 engaged in various acts of sexual indecency after hours at the plant. While investigators told reporters other adults were involved, Freed was the only adult named and prosecuted. In what seems a disturbing practice by today’s standards, rather than being treated as victims, 14 of the teens were punished for their participation in the “sex gang.” Two girls were sent to the Indiana Girls’ School and three boys were sent to the Plainfield Boys’ School. Other underage participants were placed on probation.
In addition to being a national story, the Hot Rod Heaven incident was one of many reports at the time of teen sex and drug gangs popping up all over the country. There were so many stories in so many places that one might be inclined to think the nation was in the midst of a moral panic over behavior that was probably not all that uncommon. Famed Indiana University sex researcher Dr. Alfred A. Kinsey was totally unfazed by the Hot Rod Heaven allegations, explaining there is “no evidence of an increase in juvenile sexual activity. It has always existed. The only increase is in the amount of publicity such cases have been getting lately.” Additionally, Kinsey “estimated that there are 420,000 illicit sex experiences in Indiana each week.” Kinsey would be in a position to know. He most likely participated in no small number of those.
In the end, maybe there’s no such thing as a Hot Rod Heaven. Maybe there never was. True, young people have always been fond of finding an out of the way spot to park their cars and engage in illicit activity. But if it was real, the secrets of Hot Rod Heaven were long ago swallowed up by its tall, smothering trees, drowned out by the angry revving of car engines, and carried away on dense clouds of hot rod exhaust. Red and his crew, who may or may not have once strode into the chaos of the ‘heaven’ and commanded the fear and respect of the rowdy throng, and who possibly even ordered youths to steal and peddle narcotics for them, have long ago faded back into the darkness, possibly emerging somewhere else with even more sinister intent and devilish schemes.