Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Baby Face Nelson: Childlike Mug, Psychopathic Soul

The Partnership

"Puritan, hypocrite, criminal dolt — these are paper-thin masks. It is diverting to rip them in the calm of one's study."

—Ben Hecht

Most assuredly, John Dillinger saw his error in partnering with Baby Face Nelson within the first 24 hours of their acquaintance. Their initial meeting, which took place in Lester's hotel room in the St. Francis, was attended by all parties from both gangs. Lester, clearly intimidated by the taller, masculine-framed, moustachioed and handsome Dillinger, chose to open the evening by foregoing all formal introductions to advertise, "Before we go any further, I want you all to know I don't take no orders; I walk into a bank, open fire, kill anything that moves, I grab the money and am outta there! If you don't like it, find yourself another patsy!"

Van Meter, whose ego had been severely bruised by his having to cow-tow to Lester, burst forth with epithets. Both men went for their guns and if not for Dillinger's intervention would have blown each other to hell on the spot. After the outburst idled, Dillinger, not given to rash starts nor to the ravings of a peanut-boy, concluded the session with his own theory of bank robbing. "I've always found one thing works particularly well — cooler heads prevail." And his sharp eye darts at both Lester and Van Meter told them that he was speaking about more than just during robbing banks.

The following morning, Dillinger witnessed the homicidal side of his new recruit. (Dillinger never once saw this Baby Face Nelson as anything more than his recruit.) He and Lester were en route to pick up Van Meter at his hotel across town; Lester was driving and, gabbing, paying little attention to the traffic. Lester ran a stop sign and scraped an oncoming auto's bumper. The driver of that car alighted unhurt, but proceeded to berate the little driver of the assaulting vehicle. Before Dillinger could stop him, Lester drew his .45 calibre from his coat and, unpausing, shot the citizen between his eyes.

Dillinger startled. "You didn't have to do that!"

"Hell, why not?" Lester nodded indifferently, shoved the corpse off the running board and drove off.

Lester as Baby Face Nelson in his prime. (Dr. Horace Naismith Jr.)
Lester as Baby Face
Nelson in his prime.
(Dr. Horace Naismith

"Baby Face's temperament didn't improve," asserts Jay Robert Nash in Bloodletters and Badmen. "On March 6, 1934...Dillinger, with Nelson, Hamilton, Van Meter, Green and Carroll, hit the bank in Sioux Falls, South Dakota...Dillinger was astounded at the insanity Nelson displayed."

Their stolen white Packard drew up in front of the Security National Bank and Trust Company that morning. Tommy Carroll waited at the wheel while the rest of the bandits silently shuffled in through the bank's wide, gothic doors. Once inside, they whipped their Thompson guns from beneath their overcoats and ordered all within to raise their hands. But, someone hit an alarm. 

"Who did that! Which one of you sons of bitches did that?" Lester screamed, poking the barrel of his weapon in the faces of the frightened captives. "I'll find out who did it if I have to kill every damned one of ya'!"

"Forget that!" Dillinger argued. "You're supposed to be the lookout, so shut up and just keep an eye out for the screws!"

Lester threw his partner a nasty glance, then turned toward the window. Grumbling under his breath at the chastisement, he suddenly grew quiet when he spotted a police sedan halting out front. "Ya' want screws, Dillinger — well, here they are!" he gleamed. Straddling a desktop for balance, he opened fire through the plate-glass window at a policeman emerging from the squad. Officer Hale Keith spun and crumpled to the pavement, severely wounded

"I got one of 'em! I got one of the bastards!" Lester cajoled. "That'll teach 'em to interfere!"

The outlaws scrambled as other police cars arrived on the scene. The take was good, some $50,000, but Dillinger was apprehensive over this loony young trigger finger. The former had always gone out of his way not to harm policemen, for reason that it brought hell over one's head. Five minutes into their first professional act together and already Baby Face Nelson had riddled a cop. Most eerie, the little screwball savored the moment as a fisherman catching a prize bass.

Reportedly, Dillinger would have liked to dump Lester, but a deal was a deal. Lester brought the bank jobs as well as the services of Carroll and Green. The great bank robber from Indiana decided to stick it out — against his better judgment.

Eight days after the Sioux Falls robbery, on March 13, the Dillinger/Nelson combine struck again in Mason City, Iowa. Taking no unneeded precautions, Dillinger talked Lester into remaining by the getaway car. Nevertheless, the job proved difficult and, again, Lester's dementia didn't make the going any easier.

Trouble began when First National Bank President Willis Bagley glimpsed the suspicious bunch enter his bank, the steel of their guns flashing under their coats. Even before they announced their intention, he had retreated behind his locked office, taking the keys to the vault with him. Van Meter, who saw his flight, pursued him, but couldn't catch him. Firing several shots of his automatic into the locked door, the door held. Despite threats, Bagley refused to come out.

In the main galley, the gang discovered that the institution, which was considered one of the wealthiest banks in the state, had taken far-reaching precautions to protect its investors' money during this time of roaming bandits. The board of directors had chipped in to install a steel cage over the lobby, large enough for one guard, and complete with scanning holes and a gun port. Now, from inside, guard Tom Walters lobbed a tear-gas shell into the midst of the marauders, striking Eddie Green in the back. Green stumbled, rose, and retorted with submachine gun fire at the cage. His bullets bounced off the impenetrable surface; one missile, however, did ricochet off the edge of the port and scratched Walters inside, slightly wounding him. As lethal gas streamed throughout the shell of the lobby, the bandits threw handkerchiefs over their mouths and continued to clean out the tellers' cages the best they could through stinging eyes.

John Hamilton, behind the front counter and down a corridor, simultaneously had met with yet another ungainly problem. Because the president of the bank had absconded with the vault key, Hamilton was unable to access the main vault area. The best he could do is hold cashier Harry Fisher at gunpoint through the bars, ordering him to hand out the stacks of money visible beyond. Fisher, who had insisted that he could not open the bars without the key, even from inside, complied. But, notes author Nash, "Fisher wisely began handing him stacks of one dollar bills."

While hubbub rampaged within the walls of the bank, Lester paced nervously outside at the curb; he chain smoked, he patted his revolver beneath his jacket, he glanced at his wrist watch. The others were taking too long, he sensed; something went haywire. On the front seat of his sedan lay his faithful Thompson gun, loaded rounds. He was glad it was there, for reassurance. He alarmed when a female bank customer, who happened to have snuck out through a side door, darted from the alley to confront him. Wringing her hands and in tears, she implored, "Mister...mister...get the police...they're being held up!"

Lester guffawed, took her by her wrist and led her to the Buick. Indicating his machine gun, he replied, "Lady, you're telling me?" She stared, twittered nervously, then dashed off down the sidewalk, screaming.

Dillinger, cool and collected. (Jay Robert Nash)
Dillinger, cool and
(Jay Robert Nash)

Seconds later, Dillinger appeared from the bank clammy and coughing, nearly overcome with the gas. Lester, noticing his condition, asked him what was wrong. Before the other could answer, a shot rang out from across the street to clip Dillinger in an elbow. Dillinger spun, managed to remain upright, then ducked behind the Buick alongside Lester. Both bandits reciprocated the sniper fire with shots of their own, but saw no signs of life in any of the windows in the building opposite. "Damn, these interfering john q. publics!" Dillinger huffed, checking the sheared elbow of his new suit coat. "This is a hundred-dollar tailor-made." 

As the two outlaws' eyes continued to scan the façade of the old-fashioned edifice across the street, retired police officer John Shipley crouched below his office window on the third floor, dialing the station house. There was a robbery in progress, he said, and he believed he had nicked one of the intruders who bore a very close resemblance — at least from afar — to that bandit supreme named Dillinger. Cradling the phone, he listened and waited for another chance at he who might be the guy that even the FBI couldn't catch!

"We're scrammin'!" Dillinger insisted, and disappeared back into the foyer of the bank. Lester could hear him ordering the others to hurry. "Bring prisoners! Bring prisoners!" he directed. Lester watched both ends of the street, convinced that at any moment they would be bottlenecked by police. And, meanwhile, he kept one eye alerted for the phantom sniper somewhere in front of him.

As he suspected, the street suddenly livened with a half-dozen squad cars, their clangs piercing. Lester braced for a hell of a battle. However, in a moment of glee, he realized that Dillinger, with one brilliant stroke, incapacitated their usefulness. Dealing the type of ploy that had made him the most famous bank robber in history, Dillinger had commandeered some two dozen hostages within whose circle the gang now shuffled to the getaway car. There was no way the police could open fire without injuring one or two links of the human shield.

"To the wheel!" Dillinger motioned to Lester.

But, in the confusion, they had forgotten about the gunner with the bird's eye view adjacent. While Dillinger and Van Meter strategically lined some of their captives along the running board of their automobile, Officer Shipley overhead had crept back into position. Resting his shotgun on the window ledge and, beading an aim, he cut another shot that caught Dillinger once more in the same arm. Van Meter pushed his boss into the sedan to avoid further harm. Lester, his Stetson blown off his head by the same shot, whirled 'round towards the window. This time he had seen a dark figure in a window and fired. But, again, Shipley had bolted out of sight.

Angered at being a sitting duck, Lester vented on a particular hostage whom he thought wasn't moving in line quickly enough — the bank vice president, an elderly man with a naturally slow gait. "Move, you bastard!" Lester demanded, and as he himself slid behind the wheel of the Buick pulled the old man across his window for cover. The gentleman murmured in pain and cussed this ruffian.

"What the hell did you say?" Lester flustered and shoved his pistol against the man's chest. "You sonuvab—" Someone from behind him knocked the gun loose just as it reported, the bullet firing into the cushion of the car door. Lester tightened on impulse as the wayward weapon responded.

Behind him, Dillinger countered. "No need to kill him, Nelson!" It had been his hand that had sent the gun astray. "Now, leave these people be and do your job and get us the hell outta here — and move out easy!"

Silent, scowling, Lester slid the car into gear. He felt the machine idle forward. Around it, hostages hung on. Effective as armor. Uniformed and plain-clothed police watched helplessly as the auto rolled away, purring like a kitten. "Don't follow us!" warned Dillinger.

Five miles out of town, the prisoners were released unharmed. And Lester hit the floorboard, careening towards the horizon. Fuming.

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