Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Dillinger

The New Gang

 

Dillinger poses with some guns, possibly used in  his escape (AP)
Dillinger poses with some guns,
possibly used in his escape (AP)

Dillinger went straight to Chicago so he could form a new gang and get some money quickly. Unlike the original gang in which members were carefully chosen, Dillinger needed men fast. John Hamilton was second in command. They chose Lester Gillis, known as "Baby Face Nelson," to join up with them. Nelson was a mentally unstable, trigger-happy psychopath who killed for the pleasure of it. He was a short, young man with an explosive temper who had been part of the Capone gang. Homer Van Meter, Dillinger's friend from the Pendleton Reformatory and Michigan City was brought in as well. Van Meter brought in two others, Eddie Green, a very experienced bank robber and Tommy Carroll, an expert gunman.

The new gang relocated itself to the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Eddie Green was an excellent "jugmarker," a man who evaluated bank targets and recommended which ones to rob. Green had already selected the first target and on March 6, 1934, a few days after the Crown Point escape, the new Dillinger Gang hit the Security National Bank and Trust in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

While the robbery went off without a hitch, there was one event that bore the signature of the inveterate comic, Homer Van Meter. Jay Robert Nash tells the story of how Tommy Carroll stood in the street outside the bank with a machine gun in his hands. "By the time Dillinger and the others came out of the bank, Carroll had lined up Sioux Falls' entire police force, including the chief.

Thousands of spectators milled around the bank, bemused. The good citizens thought the robbery was part of a film being made. A Hollywood producer had been in town a day previous telling everyone that he intended to make a gangster film there. The "film producer" had been Homer Van Meter.

After dashing off with $49,000, Dillinger got several miles out of town when he stopped the car and sprinkled roofing nails all over the road. "That ought to slow them up," he said. And it did.

This was the first robbery where Dillinger had been the undisputed leader. Ironically, authorities in Sioux Falls did not believe it was Dillinger who robbed the bank.

When Dillinger got his share of the money, he called his lawyer, Louis Piquett, and asked him to use the money to pay Pierpont, Makley and Clark's attorneys. Mary Kinder was to be the courier. Mary called the number that Piquett had given her and arranged to meet Van Meter. Van Meter gave her $2,000 in cash, but wouldn't let her know where Johnnie was.

In March 1934, Harry Pierponts trial began for the murder of Lima, Ohio Sheriff Jess Sarber. With Dillinger now on the loose, the city was in a state of siege as every available law enforcement officer, as well as members of the Ohio National Guard, stood by as rumors were rampant that Dillinger and Hamilton were on their way to spring their three former gang mates.

Lester Gillis, alias: Baby Face Nelson,  wanted poster
Lester Gillis, alias: Baby
Face Nelson, wanted poster

Pierpont's trial was a circus. He was led into the courtroom in shackles and surrounded by machine-gun wielding guards. His mother had testified that the day of Sheriff Sarber's death, her son was home with her on her farm. However, Ed Shouse, the treacherous gang member from Chicago, provided surprise testimony against Pierpont when he took the stand.

Toland tells how the prosecutor accused Harry of engineering $300,000 in bank robberies in the short time he was out of jail. "'I wish I had,' Pierpont told the court. 'Well, at least if I did, I'm not like some bank robbers I didn't get myself elected president of the bank first.'

"The crowd burst into laughter and the judge ordered the last few lines stricken from the record.

"'That's the kind of man you are, isn't it?' prodded [the prosecutor].

"'Yes," retorted the prisoner, encouraged by the audience response. "I'm not the kind of man you are robbing widows and orphans. You'd probably be like me if you had the nerve."

The prosecutor demanded the death penalty. The jury deliberated less than an hour before determining that Harry Pierpont was guilty as charged. There was no recommendation for mercy. In short order both Charles Makley and Russell Clark were tried and found guilty. Pierpont and Makley were sentenced to die in Ohios electric chair, while Clark was given a life sentence.

Back in the Twin Cities, jugmarker Eddie Green sent the gang off again a week later to the First National Bank of Mason City, Iowa. The bank's vault reputedly contained more than $240,000 a veritable fortune in those days. On March 13, 1934, Assistant Cashier Harry Fisher looked up to see who was causing all the commotion. Three well-dressed men Van Meter, Green and Hamilton were waving guns at bank president Willis Bagley. Guard Tom Walters saw what was going on and fired a tear-gas pellet into Eddie Green's back.

Green grabbed a hostage to use as a shield. "I said everybody down!," he yelled and fired a burst of shots over everyone's heads. He also aimed at Tom Walters and hit him.

Hamilton ordered cashier Harry Fisher to pass him money through the locked, barred door. Fisher started with the $1 bills. Hamilton could see the stacks of bills just inside the vault. Hamilton told him to open up the door, but Fisher told him he couldn't because he didn't have the key. He continued to hand him stacks of $1 bills.

Outside Dillinger was lining up hostages on the sidewalk. After five minutes, he yelled to Van Meter to tell the men inside that it was time to leave. Hamilton told Fisher to give him the big bills, but Fisher kept on handing him the little denominations. Van Meter told Hamilton that they were going immediately.

"It's hell to leave all that money back there," he said. Of the $200,000, Fisher had only passed him about $20,000. Hamilton picked up a huge bag of pennies, grabbed a human shield and left the bank. Once inside the getaway car, Dillinger had the hostages lined up on the running boards. Loaded down with human shields, the car could only travel at 15 miles an hour.

Eddie Green
Eddie Green

Suddenly an older woman, Miss Minnie Piehm, who had been hanging on the car desperately, yelled, "Let me out! This is where I live!" Dillinger let her off and the car proceeded slowly forward like a local service bus.

The police followed, but did not get too close, fearful of starting a gun battle in which the hostages on the running boards would be injured. Periodically, Nelson fired his machine gun at them, but eventually the police gave up and stopped following. Some thirteen miles later, they released the hostages, frozen from the cold ride.

The robbery had netted the bandits some $52,000. Hamilton was very upset that he hadn't just killed Fisher the cashier and not let the cashier make such a fool of him with the small bills. The Mason City robbery had not gone smoothly, both Dillinger and Hamilton were hit in the shoulder with bullets, while Nelson wounded an innocent bystander.

Dillinger was making plans to get enough money together to leave the country. He knew that his extraordinary luck could not hold much longer. He did not want to end up like Pierpont, Makley and Clark. Makley, like Harry Pierpont, got the death sentence. Clark got life in prison. There was no chance that Dillinger would be able to spring them this time. The prison was guarded like Fort Knox.

FBI agents in St. Paul got a tip that a man of Dillinger's description and called himself Carl Hellman was living with a woman who looked a lot like Billie Frechette. On the evening of March 31, 1934, two FBI agents knocked at Hellman's door. Billie answered and told the agents that her husband Carl was sleeping. They wouldn't go away, so she went into the bedroom and woke up Dillinger, who quickly dressed and grabbed a machine gun.

While the FBI agents waited, Homer Van Meter came up the stairs. Van Meter told them he was a soap salesman. When the agents wanted proof, Van Meter took one of them downstairs to show him the soap samples he supposedly had in the car. When the two men reached the first floor of the apartment building, Van Meter pulled a pistol on the agent.

"You asked for it, so I'll give it to you now!" Van Meter told him.

The agent ran through the door and Van Meter followed him, shooting. The agent returned fire and Van Meter went back to the apartment building, escaping out the rear to safety. By this time, Dillinger was spraying the upstairs hallway with a machine gun, while the other FBI agent hid in the hallway.

Billie ran out of the apartment house with a suitcase, followed by Dillinger and the machine gun and sped off in a car. In the hallway shootout, Dillinger, who was still recovering from his shoulder wound, was shot in the leg. Van Meter had hijacked a truck and escaped to Eddie Green's apartment in Minneapolis.

Hoover sent one of his best men, Hugh Clegg, to St. Paul to take charge of the Dillinger case. An emergency effort was launched to find any other Dillinger safe houses. They found one in St. Paul and kept it under constant surveillance. Eventually a woman showed up to clean the apartment. When the FBI agents questioned her, she told them that a man was going to her home that night to pay her. Agents waited until Eddie Green showed up and told him to surrender. The unarmed Green didn't surrender until the agents had shot him several times in the head. Green, in terrible pain, gave the FBI the names of the other gang members in exchange for some pain medicine. A week later, he died of infection.

On April 5, Dillinger astonished his father by showing up at the Mooresville farm with Billie. His father warned him about the FBI agents that were lurking around, but Johnnie had taken precautions. Two days later, the couple drove to the Pierpont farm to give Harry's parents some money for legal fees, but the farm was deserted. Then Dillinger went to the offices of an Indianapolis newspaper, brazenly read about his various adventures and ordered some copies to be sent to his father. Dillinger and Billie returned to the Mooresville farm where they attended a family picnic on April 8 under the watchful eye of FBI agents.

Following Dillingers visit to the farm, events would happen fast and furious for the remainder of his short life. Dillinger and Billie returned to Chicago on April 9. Looking to find a safe house to rest up for a few days, Dillinger telephoned a friend who told him to meet him at the State-Austin Inn on North State Street. Unbeknownst to Dillinger, his friend had become an informer and called the FBI. Dillinger drove to the tavern around 8:00 p.m. and sent Billie in to make sure the coast was clear. It wasnt. Armed agents quickly surrounded her. Watching the commotion from across the street, Dillinger simply drove away, seething on the inside. It would be the last time the two lovers would ever see each other.

Dillinger left word for Piquette to handle Billies case. The feisty Billie was taken to the FBI offices in the Bankers Building where she was handcuffed and questioned throughout the night. In an attempt to belittle her captors, she told them that she went to the tavern to meet Dillinger, who after witnessing the arrest, calmly strolled past the eager agents and out the door.

Dillinger quickly hooked up with Van Meter and, on the night of April 12, they robbed the Warsaw, Indiana police station of two revolvers and four bulletproof vests. Between April 13 and April 20 Dillinger and Van Meter were reported in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; South Bend, Elkhart and Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Niles, Michigan. Many believe they returned to Chicago after the Warsaw robbery and never left.

On April 20 the gang did leave Chicago in three cars headed for northern Wisconsin and a resort called Little Bohemia. In 1969 Dillinger historian, Joseph Pinkston, would provide the link between Dillinger and Little Bohemia when he revealed that Louis Piquette was Emil Wanatkas lawyer. There was never any evidence to indicate Wanatka knew Dillinger was coming or that Wanatka knew Piquette was the bank robbers attorney.

Taking refuge at the small resort, the second of the three events that built the Dillinger legend occurred.

 

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