When Tampa was a hotbed of organized crime from the late 1800s through mid-1900s, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office charged the Vice Squad with cleaning up what the federal government deemed one of the most corrupt cities in the nation. The Tampa Bay Times has obtained a cache of Vice Squad reports from the 1950s and 1960s, which offer insight into their investigations and what they were up against.
WIMAUMA — Trey Butler has heard stories in passing about what happened on his family’s farm land before they owned it.
An old two-bedroom house there supposedly had bullet holes when his father purchased the 70-acre property in the 1970s.
“We’d heard the farm had something to do with moonshine so figured the bullet holes had something to with that,” said Butler, 37. “I think it was some small operation.”
It was far from small.
When the Hillsborough County Vice Squad shut down the moonshine still on that property in 1958, they declared it the largest such operation in county history.
The still was so big that MacDill Air Force Base had to assist in its demolition.
“That is unbelievable,” Butler said. “That happened on our property?”
The story is told through newspaper archives and one of the Vice Squad reports obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
Moonshine sales peaked during Prohibition, but the illegal liquor made with fermented chicken scratch feed remained popular through the 1950s out of habit.
“Some say it’s like trying to get a man to change from coffee drinking to tea drinking or vice versa,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 1958, adding that annually, at its post-Prohibition peak, more than 38,000 gallons a year was produced in Hillsborough.
On April 12, 1958, the Vice Squad located a still on the Lowe Farm at 16014 Alderman Turner Road in Wimauma. Neither the Vice Squad report nor news archives say why they suspected it would be there.
The still consisted of a 1,500-gallon pot cooker and 4,000 gallons of moonshine ingredients, the report says.
“It was inactive at this time, and we left it for further observation,” Ellis Clifton, head of the Vice Squad, wrote in the report.
They followed tire tracks for less than one mile to a home on the farm. A truck parked there had tires that matched the tracks.
The Vice Squad returned to the farm five days later and observed the house for more than six hours. They heard a gasoline engine start in “the same area where the still was” located, according to the report. “There is nothing else that could have possibly been a motor with this engine.” And they witnessed the same truck driving to the house from the still location.
Clifton snuck up to the house, getting as close as 200 feet, and identified Murray Fulford, alleged in the report as “one of the top 10 moonshiners in the state of Florida.” Fulford was accompanied by Armond Lowe, who owned the farm. The two men cooked and ate dinner, counted a “large sum of money” and went to bed.
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The Vice Squad left to obtain “additional manpower,” says the report, plus a television camera man documenting their work.
At 4:20 a.m., while returning to the farm, the truck from the still drove by them.
“It was agreed by all present that the two men were probably hauling whiskey,” Clifton wrote. “We stopped them. The truck was empty. We let them go.” But the Vice Squad continued to watch the farm and later witnessed the two men loading “something” into the truck, so converged upon the house.
That something in the truck was luggage and cash.
“They might be leaving the still either for a short period of time or a permanent basis,” Clifton wrote.
The Vice Squad found a jacket inside the house that they had previously seen at the still. A five gallon can that smelled like moonshine was in a shed.
Fulford and Lowe were arrested and charged with operating a moonshine still.
The Vice Squad tried to corral a snarling hound dog hiding under the still, but the report said Fulford told the deputies to “leave the dog alone. She won’t leave this still until I come back.”
Neither the Vice Squad report nor newspaper archives mention gunfire.
Typically, the deputies would have broken up the still with sledgehammers, but it was too big. So the military was called in to destroy it with dynamite.
Newspapers estimated that the operation was worth $1.5 million annually. That is nearly $14 million today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s online inflation calculator.
But the Hillsborough County solicitor dropped the charges, telling newspapers that the evidence was “insufficient” due to neither suspect being seen at the still when it was producing moonshine.
Two years later, according to news archives, a federal jury convicted Murray and Lowe of conspiring to conduct moonshine operations. The Wimauma still is cited in the article, but it is not clear if the federal case was connected to the Vice Squad’s investigation.
Butler said his family still owns 20 of the original 70 acres from that farm. The house with bullet holes was razed years ago.
They raise cattle there now and, on occasion, someone brings up the moonshine story.
“It’s just something we know happened,” Butler’s wife, Morgan, said. “It’s cool that this land is part of that history.”
Butler said he understands why such a large still would have been erected on that property. That section of Wimauma is dominated by farms.
“There’s no reason to come here unless you live here and it was probably the same then,” Butler said. “It was probably easy to keep it a secret.”