3/31/1934 - On a cold, quiet Saturday morning at the Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul, Minnesota, many residents are content to stay in bed and laze their way into the Easter holiday weekend ... at least they are until cops & robbers gunfire breaks out inside and outside the building.
Lincoln Court Apartments - 1934
That the morning calm is shattered with bullet bangs is a direct result of a single busy body (or good citizen depending on your point of view), Daisy S. Coffey, the landlord of the red brick, three-story, U-shaped, thirty-two-unit housing complex on South Lexington Avenue in one of the city's nicest neighborhoods. Feeling that the activities of the renters in Apartment 303 are "suspicious," Coffey has taken her fears to the local office of the FBI and reported that the residents of the unit have frequent guests in, always use the structure's back door, seem to be up and about only at night, keep the window shades down, and refused to allow a caretaker in to replace a bathroom fixture. Seemingly inconsequential information, with his office trying to filter through hundreds of tips trying to bring the Barker-Karpis gang to justice for their recent kidnapping of Edward Bremer, Special Agent In Charge, Werner Hanni, nonetheless decides to assign two of his youngest agents, Rosser L. Nalls and Rufus Coulter, to visit the apartment building.
Driving to the location that evening, the two agents check the neighborhood and watch the apartment for a short time ... the shades are indeed down, but not completely, and inside the unit a man and woman can be seen moving about, but behaving normally as far as can discerned. Too late to interview the occupants, the agents decide to return the next day.
1934 - FBI Badge
Inside the unit are Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hellman, a handsome couple that have been living quietly at the complex since March, 19th, paying $60 to rent the apartment for a month. They dress well, go shopping, have friends over, and take in a movie now and then (Joe Palooka and Fashions of 1933 are two flicks they've recently viewed at the local theater down the block). Doing well and wallet recently filled, Mr. Hellman has just treated himself to a new purchase from Pottoff Motors of St. Paul ... a fast, brand new black Hudson Deluxe 8 sedan with special cream-colored wire wheels. Just a couple of seemingly average citizens, but Coffey's instincts were correct, the pair has a secret ... hiding in plain sight, Mr. Carl Hellman is actually the most wanted criminal in the country, Public Enemy #1, bank robber John Herbert Dillinger.
Expecting a routine interview of no value and wanting to move on to more pressing concerns, the Federal agents arrive in two cars at the apartment building the next day, accompanied by sixty-five-year-old St. Paul police detective, Henry Cummings. Nalls is there first and watches as two women and a man exit the building ... but he does not recognize them as Opal Long (bank robber Russell Clark's former girlfriend), Pat Cherrington (Opal's sister and the girlfriend of thief and killer John Hamilton), and bank robber John "Red" Hamilton. The trio has spent the night in Apartment 303 and are on their way out for breakfast and to buy groceries. As they leave, Coulter and Cummings show up. It is agreed among the men that Nalls will stay outside and keep watch, while the other two go inside and talk to the Hellmans. It is roughly 10:15 in the morning when the pair enter the building. A short time after they do, a green Ford V8 coupe pulls up across from the building and a thin, tall man in light brown gets out. It is outlaw Homer Van Meter, come to show off to his friends the stylish fedora he has just purchased to match his overcoat. He is armed, dangerous, and bullets are about to begin flying!
Inside, the officers knock on the door of Apartment 303. Making sure that the door is chained shut, in her nightie, a groggy Billie answers, forgetting for a moment she is using the alias of Hellman when Cummings and Coulter ask to see her husband Carl. Cobwebs cleared, Billie lies and tells the men her husband is out, and when the men say they'll talk to her instead, she stalls for time and tells them okay, as soon as she gets dressed. Running to the bedroom, she does indeed gets dressed, as does Dillinger in a grey suit, the pair also stuffing a large suitcase with clothes, money, and weapons. Then they wait, minutes ticking by in the hope that gunman John Hamilton will return from his grocery shopping and lend his support to their escape. Instead, in the hallway outside the apartment, trigger happy Homer Van Meter shows up.
Taking the back stairs up to his friend's abode, Van Meter enters the third floor hallway and instantly recognizes trouble in the form of the two men standing in front of Dillinger's door. Acting as if he knows his way around, the bandit walks by the officers and starts down the front stairs. But suspicions up, Coulter asks Van Meter who he is and what he is doing. The glib outlaw answers by claiming he is a soap salesman, which in turn causes Coulter to ask where his samples are. "Down in my car," is Van Meter's quip as he hurries down the stairs. Thinking something is amiss, Coulter decides to follow. Reaching the lobby, the FBI agent is surprised to discover that the salesman is gone ... or so he thinks until he turns around and finds Van Meter in the shadows of the steps to the basement, .45 automatic in hand. "You see this, asshole? You want this? Here it is!" Saving his life though his quick reactions, Coulter jumps away from the stairwell and runs out the front door of the apartment building and across the snow covered lawn with Van Meter, firing his weapon, in close pursuit. Making it around a corner to safety, Coulter pulls his own weapon and begins firing on Van Meter. The outlaw, realizing his prey has now turned hunter and is firing from a better position, flees back into the apartment building and leaves by way of the back door. Recognizing that the gunman is the same individual he watched park just moments before, Nalls responds to the gunfire by taking out Van Meter's mode of transportation, holing the wheels of the Ford with his pistol, then, while Coulter runs to a nearby drug store and calls for reinforcements, he watches the building for more trouble, unaware that more trouble is in the process of vanishing out the rear of the structure.
Upon hearing the gunfire below, Dillinger blindly fires a machine gun through the apartment door, almost hitting his neighbors, a minister and his wife. Magazine emptied, the outlaw quickly reloads, opens the door enough for just the barrel of his weapon to protrude, and sprays the hallway with another dose of .45 slugs. Cummings, valuing his life, hides in a small vestibule, then when the first barrage ends, flees down the front staircase. Reloaded and ready to exit, Dillinger, carrying a machine with each arm, leads the way down the hallway to the back stairs, while Billie follows, using both hands to carry the couple's heavy suitcase.
Good Morning Coppers!
Outside, while Dillinger covers their escape, Billie crosses the alley behind the building, opens up the rented garage where they are keeping their Hudson, throws the suitcase into the vehicle and starts up the new car. A new car which becomes used and abused quickly, as she bashes in its front fenders exiting the garage and then navigating the narrow alley. Foot to the floor at first and then following the speed limit so as not to draw attention their way, the couple heads for the refuge of outlaw Eddie Green's nearby residence, leaving behind a trail of crimson ... a ricochet from Dillinger's own fire has gone through the flesh of the bandit's upper left calf (he will be treated later that night at a nurse's home for $90 by Doctor Clayton E. May, services for which the doctor will eventually serve two years in Leavenworth Prison, while having his medical licensed revoked).
1934 Hudson Sedan
Van Meter's escape is also successful, but not accomplished by means of the latest in luxury transportation. Car crippled and covered by authorities now arriving on the scene, the outlaw takes off west down Lincoln, then jumps into a slow moving trash truck piloted by Bernard Kersten and his brother. Removing his fedora and replacing it with a grungy work cap he "borrows," using his automatic as persuasion, the gunman has the brothers drive him away from the apartment complex. Offering $10 to the brothers for their time and trouble (the men refuse the money), at the Ninth Street viaduct Van Meter takes his leave of the brothers, putting his fedora back on before vanishing into the surrounding residential neighborhood. Thirty minutes later, he is safe at Eddie Green's, telling the tale of his gun battle and trash truck ride to his comrades.
Dillinger - Far Left
At the apartment, unaware of who they have stumbled on, the police miss out on a chance to capture John Hamilton when the bandit returns from his shopping expedition, and bank robber Tommy Carroll when he stops by at 2:00 in the afternoon to visit his criminal pals. Sifting through the mass of evidence left behind, the authorities find a Thompson sub-machine gun packed in a special leather carrying case, a loaded magazine for the weapon, a one-hundred round ammo drum, a .351 automatic rifle, thirteen twenty round magazines for the rifle, a pistol converted into a machine gun, two bullet-proof vests, several silk nightgowns, a blonde wig, over a dozen pairs of female shoes, an assortment of dresses and woman's slacks, men's slacks and shirts, a sheep-skin lined leather jacket, a man's blue silk dressing gown, a large Chinchilla overcoat, a pair of trench coats, a topcoat, and an array of pistols It is believed at first that Bremer kidnappers have been flushed from the apartment (the crime had taken place a few short weeks before only a block away), but a fingerprint on a Listerine bottle and three pictures left in Unit 303 quickly let authorities know who they almost corralled ... a picture of a sad little boy taken after his mother dies, a photo of the same boy at about 11 playing in a tree, and a third shot of the boy now grown into a young man in his Navy whites, all photographs of Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger.
Front page headlines again ... in less than a month's time the bandit has escaped from an "escape proof" jail using a wooden gun, robbed two banks in South Dakota and Iowa, been wounded in the shoulder and leg, and escaped capture by means of a shootout in St. Paul, Minnesota. It is good practice for what is coming for in the equally busy month ahead, the desperado will mourn the ambush death of his friend, Eddie Green, rob a police station of its weapons, attend a family reunion on his father's farm, survive a car crash, see his girlfriend captured in a bar by the FBI, engage in two more gun battles with the authorities (one in Wisconsin and the other in Minnesota), participate in a high speed chase, and help bury his outlaw friend, John Hamilton.
A real life thrill ride, better than anything Hollywood could make up ... it is the stuff from which legends are made!