I’ve already written a blog post about the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba. Time, then, to write about a crime that was discovered in that city: “El Crimen del Expreso de Andalucía.” That is, the Crime of the Andalucía Express.
It was 1924. The Andalucía Express was a train service that ran from Madrid, in the centre of Spain, to Andalucía in the south. Some of the route is now covered by the high-speed AVE service but in 1924 things were vastly different. The train service was slow but important.
The mail car of the train was important in its own right. Spain’s post office had a banking branch and the mail car carried cash and valuables in addition to letters. At each stop of the train’s journey, one of the workers in the carriage would open a door to exchange sacks with a colleague on the platform. This would continue all the way to Córdoba. There, one worker would change trains and continue to Málaga. The other would stay on the original train and finish in Cádiz.
On the evening of 11 April, train 92 left Madrid’s Atocha Station at about 8:20pm. In addition to the mail car there was a locomotive, passenger carriages and a dining car. The mail car was off-limits to everyone but the two postal workers.
It is recorded that on this trip, after Aranjuez Station there was no response at each stop when officials tried knocking on the door of the mail car. Nor were any lights on inside.
Were the men inside drunk? It wouldn’t be the first time. But just in case, at least one of the stations telegrammed ahead to Córdoba remarking on the fact that no response had been received.
The train arrived in Córdoba at 6am. There was again no response to repeated shouting and knocking but action was now unavoidable. Someone broke a window to access the carriage to find out what was going on. And that’s when they discovered that the train had been robbed and both workers murdered.
So what had happened after Aranjuez Station?
The planning and botched execution of a robbery
The idea of robbing the Andalucía Express was the brainchild of 36 year old José María Sánchez Navarrete, an employee of the banking arm of the post office. The son of a lieutenant colonel in the Civil Guard, he was nonetheless something of a black sheep. In the past he’d worked the Andalucía Express and other routes but had taken the opportunity to become involved in tobacco smuggling.
He was also gay, circulated in high society and loved gambling. And he was deeply in debt, owing money to a man named Honorio Sánchez Molina.
Molina likewise circulated in high society and was fond of gambling, but unlike Navarrete he was wealthy in his own right. He owned several properties including a boarding house.
In order to pay off his gambling debts, Navarrete made Molina a suggestion. The mail car of the Andalucía Express would carry cash and jewellery worth 250,000 to 500,000 pesetas. With Molina’s assistance and that of a friend, José Donday, he would rob the train.
The plan was simple. Thanks to his position he had access to the details of all the trains and the personnel working on them. He also knew the security protocols for accessing the mail car. Because it was off limits and there were two civil guards protecting every train, it was widely believed that a robbery was impossible.
However this belief was probably based on a scenario where a train is forced to stop and is then assaulted. The presence of the two civil guards meant that such an attempt would indeed be difficult.
Navarette had a different plan. He knew that the civil guards would ride in a different part of the train. He also knew that any postal worker with a valid permit was allowed to access and ride in the mail car. He was confident that he could get himself and his accomplices inside.
Here he would make use of his friend Donday’s expertise. José Donday was probably his lover, but was also an expert in drugs. He could prepare a bottle of cognac laced with sedative to make both workers fall asleep. Once they were unconscious a robbery would be easy. They could get down at the next stop and make a clean getaway. There would be no need for violence.
Molina agreed to the robbery but soon realised they would need assistance. Donday in particular was a weak link. He was a well-travelled, highly cultured man who spoke English, French and German, and like Molina and Navarrete he mixed in high society. But he was a timid man and no one’s idea of a natural train robber.
As the owner of a boarding house, Molina knew people from all sections of society. To get assistance he therefore invited a career criminal, Antonio Teruel López, aged 35, to participate in the robbery. Teruel in turn recruited Francisco de Dios Piqueras, aged 34. Teruel and Piqueras became the fourth and fifth members of the gang.
Their final, agreed-upon plan was that Teruel, Piqueras and Navarrete would travel to Aranjuez to wait for the train. Navarrate, having full access to crew details, would ensure that one of the postal workers would be someone he recognised. He would ask to be invited in. After gaining entry to the mail car and drugging the workers they would steal all the money and valuables and leave the train when it arrived at the next station, Alcázar de San Juan. There Donday would meet them with a car and they would return to Madrid. Molina, meanwhile, would remain in Madrid and ensure that he had an alibi.
The peculiar stupidity of Navarrete’s plan was that it involved him being recognised and invited into the mail car. How he thought he could get away with it remains a mystery.
The other detail that should be mentioned is that it was left to Donday to provide the car that would pick them up.
The plan having been agreed, Navarrete selected the night of 11/12 April for the robbery.
The mail car that night was staffed by Santos Lozano León, aged 45, and Ángel Ors Pérez, aged 30. The initial part of the plan at Aranjuez Station went as anticipated. Ors recognised Navarrate and was persuaded that he and his companions had permits to travel. They were allowed to enter the mail car and carried with them a suitcase.
One of the men produced the cognac from the suitcase and invited Lozano and Ors to have a drink. Both did so quite readily. Lozano then retreated to his office at the back of the carriage and resumed sorting the mail, his back turned to the office door.
What nobody knew was that Donday had made a mistake in preparing the cognac. It contained morphine, codeine and heroin. Each of these is a painkiller but none induces drowsiness. In other words, there was nothing in it to make Ors or Lozano fall asleep. Donday had never thought to check that his mixture actually worked.
Unaware of this, Navarrete engaged Ors in conversation. Were they carrying much of value?
Ors replied that they weren’t. On this trip they had only 12,000 pesetas.
Hearing this, Navarrete wanted to abort the plan. The amount was hardly worth the effort. However Teruel and Piqueras were both poor men to whom 12,000 pesetas was a lot of money.
Time passed. Neither Ors nor Lozano seemed the slightest bit drowsy. Navarrete’s plan had been that the robbery should not involve violence but it is unclear if this had ever been communicated to Teruel. Growing impatient, Teruel seized a pair of bolt cutters, entered Lozano’s office and struck him on the head. Lozano died almost instantly.
Teruel then turned on Ors. Ors was younger and more athletic than Lozano and had an unusually thick skull, a fact later discovered at post mortem. Repeated blows to his head did not disable him and of course he had been inadvertently given painkillers. He was actually getting the better of the fight with Teruel until Piqueras and Navarrete intervened. Teruel then pulled out a gun and shot him twice, fatally.
To make sure both men were dead, Teruel wrapped ligatures around their necks.
Their plan having gone so catastrophically wrong, the men did not carry out the rest of the robbery efficiently and left some of the more valuable items behind. However they left the train at Alcázar de San Juan Station as planned and remembered to climb down on the side away from the platform. They also had the presence of mind to extinguish the lamps in the carriage as they left.
What they hadn’t counted on was the sheer stupidity of José Donday. It seemingly hadn’t occurred to him to tell his accomplices that he couldn’t drive. Charged with the task of meeting them with a car and getting them back to Madrid, he’d hired a taxi for the purpose. Even more incredibly, his companions got into the taxi with him and none of them made any attempt to harm the driver.
When the crime was discovered it was publicised throughout Spain. Among the people who came forward as witnesses was the taxi driver. How could he forget the four strange men, two clearly wealthy and two clearly not, who’d caught a taxi together from Alcázar de San Juan to Madrid in the early hours of the morning?
It took police six days to visit Teruel’s address. He hid. They arrested his wife and he must have realised that he couldn’t get away with it.
Two days later he shot himself. He left a suicide note confessing to the crime and naming his accomplices.
The remaining four were soon arrested. Navarrete’s father pleaded for his son’s life but this was the era of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera and there would be no mercy. Navarrete, Piqueras and Molina were all executed less than a month after the crime had taken place.
And Donday? A month after the crime he was the sole survivor. He was spared execution but sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. During his time in prison he dedicated himself to translation and it’s still possible to buy his translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”. After his release it is believed that he migrated to a South American country where he died in obscurity.
And that is the story of the murders on the Andalucía Express.
Links about the case (all in Spanish):
- A newspaper article.
- A second newspaper article.
- An excellent radio documentary.
- And an episode of the tv series “La Huella del Crimen.”