Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Alvin Karpis: Pursuit of the Last Public Enemy

Twilight of the Outlaws

During this time the FBI gained authority to arm its agents and make arrests for federal crimes such as bank robbery, interstate flight, and kidnapping. Rather than wait for agents to reach a weapons proficiency level allowing them to match the Public Enemies, Hoover went for a quick fix and decided to go out west, to states like Texas and Oklahoma and recruit tough, experienced lawmen.

So, the FBI came up with a special group of agents that were called the Flying Squad. This was a 1930s posse formed to run down the Public Enemies.

Among the new agents were two outstanding western officers: William L. Buchanan who was previously the Captain of Detectives for the Waco, Texas police dept; and Clarence Hurt of the Oklahoma City police department where he had been Assistant Chief of Police.

Clarence Hurt, a fifteen-year police veteran in 1934, was granted a leave of absence to go hunting with the FBI. In 1933, he had been in on a gunfight with a notorious Oklahoma outlaw Wilbur Underhill, called the Human Cougar of the Southwest.

Buchanan started out in 1923 as a Waco motorcycle policeman at age twenty-three, rose to a Waco detective in five years, and up to Captain of Detectives six years later in 1934. One month after that promotion, he left Waco and joined the FBI. The FBI documents of the day show that Buchanan became respected by at least one high-ranking agent,E.J. Connelley, who recommended him for important duties.

1934 turned out to be a disastrous year for Public Enemies: John Dillinger was killed in Chicago by the FBI (with Clarence Hurt one of the shooters); Bonnie & Clyde were killed; Baby Face Nelson was killed; so was Pretty Boy Floyd.

Alvin Karpis got the message; of this time he later wrote, The cops were knocking off all the big crooks.

Ma Barker, with friend (CORBIS)
Ma Barker, with friend (CORBIS)

The two Barkers and Karpis (and Ma Barker) exited 1934 alive and free, but there had been some nerve-racking moments. Karpis recounted three of them:

From time to time, to keep us from forgetting just how constant the heat really was, an incident would come along to scare the hell out of us. There was, for instance, the issue of Liberty magazine in the spring of 1934. It ran large pictures of Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Doc Barker, Freddie and me, and it offered a $5,000 reward to any man who brought us in dead. The story called us mad dogs and made a big point of underlining the fact that it would pay no reward if we were taken alive.

Freddie and I took Ma to a movie and a special announcement was flashed on the screen. These men are public enemies, it read. And then came the pictures: John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Doc, Freddie, and me. The punch line was, Remember, one of these men may be sitting beside you. The lights went on in the theatre. The audience looked around and giggled.

We left Cleveland abruptly on the night of the day Freddies girl Paula got drunk in a bar, so drunk that the cops arrested her and started checking into her contacts. It didnt take them long to pin her down and start after Freddie and me. Freddie, Doc, and Harry Campbell (a stickup man from Oklahoma) came knocking on the door of my bungalow in the dead of the night. We decided to clear out immediately, but there were machine guns in the house that Freddie and Paula had been living in and in the rooms Doc and Campbell shared. We decided to scout the house and apartment and rescue the guns if the coast was clear.

We drove to Campbells apartment. It looked safe enough. Freddie, Doc, and Campbell hopped out of the car and started across the street. A light went on in the front room of the apartment. The three guys froze in the street. The light stayed on thirty seconds, and we could see shadows moving. Some dumb cops goof had saved us.... We took another drive past Freddies house and spotted six cars parked in a row outside the building, with four or five men in each one.

That was 1934; then, within the first month of 1935, the Barker-Karpis gang was shattered and destroyed.

 

 

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