Public Enemy No. 1
Detective Work And Lucky Breaks Helped Police Capture John Dillinger.
By Leo W. Banks
JANUARY 25, 1999: THE ELEGANT stranger stepped from his sedan that night in January 1934, and came sashaying down the sidewalk. He seemed the picture of respectability; just another well-to-do visitor whiling away a lazy Tucson evening.
His destination was 927 N. Second Ave., a house frequented by three of his colleagues. As far as any of the neighbors knew, they were monied tourists, in town for a period of sun and rest.
With surprise on their side, the cops disarmed the unsuspecting stroller and hauled him downtown for fingerprinting. He identified himself as Frank Sullivan of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The name was part of his disguise. So was the mustache that hid a scar on his lip, and the second identifying scar found on his left wrist.
Both were prominently touted in the urgent police bulletins that had flashed across the U.S. in the previous months, and in the newspaper stories of daring bank heists that had turned this Indiana farm boy into a Depression-era folk hero.
No, there could be no mistaking the identity of this elegant stranger. He was John Dillinger.
News of the arrest sent a shiver of excitement across Tucson. Not only had this small-town police force nabbed a notorious criminal, but three members of his gang were also captured in separate incidents the same day.
The tenor of the press coverage was incredulous, and it was set by Dillinger himself when he remarked to the cops:
"My God, how did you know I was in town? I'll be the laughing stock of the country. How could a hick town police force ever suspect us?"
About 2,000 Tucsonans gathered outside the courthouse for the arraignment the morning of January 26, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dillinger and his cronies: Charles Makley, age 50; Russell Clark, age 39; and triggerman Harry Pierpont, age 31.
The scene was chaos. Every move made by the handcuffed bad men was accompanied by the clicking of cameras and exploding flashes.
At least 30 police stood watch inside and immediately outside the courthouse, anticipating that confederates of the gang might try to spring them.
With a once-in-a-lifetime story on their hands, reporters fought apoplexy as they struggled to record every utterance the criminals made.
When Dillinger's name was called, a thrill passed over the packed courtroom and he snapped back: "My name ain't Dillinger. Why should I stand?"
The Tucson Daily Citizen, enthralled with its newfound role as chronicler of the gangster life, even published a list of outlaw slang: "Here are a few words for your vocabulary--make up a greater list at the next party you attend." The list included gat, gun moll, hot-spot, bumped off, erased, scram, take it on the lam, and de woiks.
But the facts justified every hyperventilating inch of press coverage. It truly was a remarkable tale.
THE CAPTURE ACTUALLY began with a fire at the Hotel Congress several days before. With the third floor ablaze, Clark and Makley fled the building, and quickly convinced two firemen, William Benedict and Robert Freeman, to retrieve their bags.
The bags were exceptionally heavy, but the firemen managed to extract them from the smoky mess, and they received a $12 tip for their trouble. Benedict and Freeman appreciated the money, but wondered why the two men appeared so nervous.
The firemen found out the next day when they recognized a photograph of Clark in True Detective magazine, and checked it against the sheriff's records of wanted men.
Investigators then traced the destinations of baggage deliveries from the Hotel Congress, and came upon the address on Second Avenue.
Clark was the first to wear Tucson police handcuffs, but he didn't go down easily.
Officer Chet Sherman went to the front door nervously gripping a slip of paper, as if searching for an address. Another cop, Dallas Ford, was behind him; and two more, Frank Eyman and Kenneth Mullaney, stole up the back steps.
At his first opportunity, Sherman went for his gun, but Clark was ready and a tense struggle for the weapon ensued.
The powerful Clark dragged Sherman into the living room and still farther into an adjoining bedroom. Opal Long, Clark's girlfriend, managed to temporarily disable Ford by slamming the door on his finger and breaking it.
In the meantime, Sherman was about to lose his death struggle with Clark, who had shoved the policeman down on the bed and reached under a pillow for a concealed handgun.
But that was as far as he got. Eyman, Mullaney and finally Ford rushed in and bashed Clark on the head with their own weapons, saving Sherman.
Clark left a trail of blood drops across the bedroom and living room, and along the front walk as he was led to an awaiting squad car.
Other officers had trailed Makley's Studebaker to the Grabe Electric Company store on Congress Street downtown. There, he was peaceably taken into custody, claiming he was a winter visitor from Florida.
In reality, he'd gone to the store to buy a short-wave radio to monitor the police frequency, unaware that the Tucson police had no radio communication system at that time.
The third man taken that day was Harry Pierpont, a vicious gunman wanted for the murder five months before of Sheriff Jess Sarber, killed when Dillinger busted out of jail in Lima, Ohio.
Pierpont's arrest was the result of stellar police work. A motorcycle cop named Earl Nolan recalled a chat he'd had a few nights before with a man whose car bore Florida license plates.
The vehicle driven by Clark and Makley was also registered in that state. But there was another connection--in the back seat, Nolan saw a pile of luggage resembling that seized in the Clark and Makley arrests.
With this information, Eyman, Mullaney, and Officer Jay Smith drove to the tourist court on South Sixth Avenue, where Nolan and the "winter visitor" had met.
As luck would have it, Pierpont and girlfriend Mary Kinder were just driving away when police pulled them over and used a fantastic ruse to convince Pierpont to follow the officers to the station.
Eyman told Pierpont that a city regulation required that all cars bearing out-of-state plates be registered with police.
Pierpont never revealed whether he believed the unlikely lie, or if he accompanied the officers with the intention of finding a more opportune time to blast his way free.
Given The Arizona Daily Star's account of what happened next, the second possibility is more likely:
"At the station, he (Pierpont) walked down the corridor and into Chief Collard's office. Here he whirled and pulled out a pistol from his waist. Eyman thrust his gun in the man's ribs and the man's gun was relinquished. As quick as a flash the man drew another gun from a shoulder holster, but again Eyman was ready--first."
Pierpont was wearing glasses when taken in, and his manner was described as "that of a diffident, retiring scholar."
But after his unsuccessful confrontation with Eyman, the Star wrote that Pierpont's glasses came off and "the expression changed to one of pure, unadulterated venom."
Sneering at the "small town cops" around him, Pierpont coolly said: "I'll remember you--and you--and you. I can get out of any jail. I'll be back, and I'll not forget."
Such bold threats did little to convince the police that Pierpont was what he and others in the gang still claimed to be--winter visitors.
That ruse was made laughable by the arsenal confiscated from the men: four Tommy guns, several pistols and rifles, enough ammo, as the Star described it, "to run three Mexican revolutions," a half-dozen bullet-proof vests, handcuffs, brass knuckles, and nearly $27,000 in cash.
The Front Page
THE COPS TOSSED the four desperadoes in jail, doubled the customary guard, and armed the peace officers with machine guns, pistols and tear gas.
Detectives from the Midwest started for Tucson to escort Dillinger and his gang back to stand trial for their many crimes.
Dillinger alone bragged that he killed 12 cops in his life of mayhem, and his dubious résumé included numerous bank jobs in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
But the Midwestern lawmen wouldn't collect their prey for three more days, allowing the circus atmosphere in Tucson to escalate.
With the gang in safe custody, Tucsonans of all stripes made their opinions on the criminals available to reporters eager for any new morsel of information.
One North Second Avenue neighbor said: "They didn't show their noses and we didn't hear a peep out of them." But a solicitor said he found it odd that "the lady always came to the door first, then the man. The screen door was always locked."
Another visitor said he had spotted two pistols on the icebox and what looked like a sawed-off shotgun behind it.
One salesman, suffering a clear case of retroactive bravery, said: "Yessir, I put 'em down for big racketeers or bootleggers the minute I laid eyes on 'em."
No detail about the gang was too tiny to report. The papers explained that the men had never ventured to a neighbor's door to borrow sugar, or any other household item. The Tucson Citizen even commented on their bags, saying: "The luggage taken in the capture was some of the smartest seen here."
The initial contempt that the gangsters demonstrated of the local constabulary changed to high praise.
Pierpont said Midwestern police were "rats," and the locals were "gentlemen," adding that "Frank Eyman was a swell fella not to shoot me."
Clark was also pleased by the manner of his arrest, expressing gratitude to the police for not beating him unmercifully.
Dillinger, too, thought the sensational roundup was professionally done, particularly taking the men out one at a time.
"If you had gone in that house when Clark and Makley were both there, it would have been too bad. There were guns in the back room. There would have been a fight. Some of us might have been shot, but some of you would have been shot, too."
What got these two gangsters talking, according to the papers, was Dillinger's Boston terrier puppy. Police delivered the little pup to adjoining cells occupied by Dillinger and Pierpont in the hopes of cheering them up.
It worked. The Star wrote: "And the wiggling little puppy cracked the stern silence and scornful taciturnity of the machine gun terrorists as nothing else could."
Dillinger explained the circumstances leading to his capture, saying he left his rented home at 1304 E. Fifth St. at about 9 p.m., with the intention of visiting Clark.
"When I got there I didn't get suspicious when there were no lights in the house because I wasn't sure if I was going to the right house," Dillinger said. "I had never been there before."
He expressed some worry over the fate of the woman who was arrested with him--Evelyn Frechetti, described as his "half-breed Indian sweetheart"--and then he made one prophetic remark: "I may be in jail now, but you can never tell how long I'll stay."
The Final Curtain
LESS THAN TWO months after his successful transfer from Tucson to the Midwest, Dillinger again pulled off a fantastic jail break.
This time he used a wooden pistol that he'd whittled in his cell and covered with boot black to bust out of the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana.
But his freedom was short-lived.
On July 22, 1934, Dillinger was shot down by 15 federal agents as he left Chicago's Biograph Theater, where he had just finished watching Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable and William Powell.
"Dillinger knew what was coming," reported the Associated Press. "He gave a hunted look, reached quickly into his pocket, and the guns roared."
Police found a crumpled photo of Frechetti on the famed criminal's body.
Pierpont, Makley and Clark each faced murder charges for Sheriff Sarber's death, and each paid the price.
Makley, awaiting execution at the Ohio State Penn, was gunned down in a September 22 escape attempt.
In the same effort, Pierpont was badly wounded. He lived long enough to sit in the state's electric chair, where he died on October 17.
Clark got a life term for his part in the Sarber killing.
But the Dillinger boys never really left Tucson. Shortly after his Crown Point escape, reports circulated that he and the gang were back in Arizona, perhaps with the intention of seeking payback for his embarrassment of several months before.
Even after his death, the town continued to crackle with talk of the day that public enemy No. 1 was taken in.
One of the enduring stories involved Rose Silver, a young Tucson lawyer who represented Dillinger, in an attempt by an insurance company to claim that because he had jumped bail the money taken from him belonged to them.
She successfully argued that it did not, and as part of his payment, Dillinger signed over to Silver ownership of his six-passenger, blue Packard.
Silver would often tell interviewers that she used the car for several years to chauffeur her kids around town before selling it.
And as if Dillinger were keeping the story alive from his grave, a subsequent owner later claimed to have discovered Tommy guns concealed behind the Packard's door panels.
In interviews years later, Silver readily recounted her impressions of Dillinger, adding still more detail to the legend that wouldn't die:
"I was very surprised. He was very clean cut, with a shock of dark brown hair. A handsome man--but wearing a cheap suit."
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