A QUIET VACATION
Dillinger’s gang had spent seven active weeks that included a jail escape, a jail-arsenal robbery, violent bank robberies, apartment shootouts, and close calls. The gang members decided to go on a secluded vacation at a fishing resort in a pine forest. Dillinger, Hamilton, Van Meter, Tommy Carroll, and their girlfriends were joined by Nelson and his wife at the Little Bohemia Lake Lodge near Mercer in northern Wisconsin. The first floor of the small building was popular with locals for drinking, dancing, and dining. The second floor and the nearby cottage contained sleeping rooms.
Two days after Dillinger and Hamilton said goodbye to his sister, the fugitive guests unpacked at the lodge. Then they announced to the owner-managers that they were the Dillinger gang and displayed their guns. They kept the owner, his wife, 8-year-old son, bartender, and busboy under close watch so they could not notify authorities or inform local customers. The owner said, “They mingled with the other guests as calm and unconcerned as if the whole nation wasn’t hunting for them.” The rest of the time the fugitives played poker, strolled in the woods, and conducted frequent target practices nearby, something the FBI agents should have done more of.35
The owner wrote a note explaining they were prisoners of the nation’s most-hunted man and rolled it up among the cigarettes in a pack. Early the next morning his brother-in-law stopped by from his nearby residence and the owner handed him the pack. The brother-in-law called Chicago’s Federal Building but a guard said no one was in on Sunday. A friend of the brother-in-law was able to reach a U.S. Marshal he knew in Chicago. He contacted the home of SAC Purvis who called the brother-in-law’s friend. Purvis wanted all the glory for the kills so he warned the two men not to tell local authorities and he promised to bring enough armed men for a raid that night. This was a terrible decision that Purvis made solely for self-aggrandizement. This capture was so critical to FBI Director Hoover’s career that he flew his Assistant Director Hugh Clegg to back up Purvis.
The SAC and 20 agents flew into Rhinelander on a chartered plane and drove the 50 miles to the Little Bohemia Lake Lodge. These agents were accountants and attorneys who had no training in strategic assault tactics and little if any experience firing weapons. Even though the agents were totally lacking in field expertise and experience in mortal combat, Purvis failed to contact any local police or residents to learn about the unfamiliar territory they were entering in the dark of night or to determine where the desperadoes were situated. The agents simply drove into the resort’s woods with car lights off and no plan but to rush in shooting machinegun-toting bad guys to death.
Their arrival set the dogs to barking, but since these pets announced every incoming car no one inside was alarmed. As agents walked toward the building three local workers concluding two hours of beer drinking walked out the front door and began to drive out. As the car approached the agents hiding in the dark one called out “government man,” but the car’s radio drowned this out and the surrounding darkness hid the agents’ presence from view. The agents decided the workers were fleeing despite being warned so from three directions machinegun bullets ripped through the car hitting one man in the head and body killing him instantly. The driver jammed on the brakes, jumped out, and ran. A moment later agents riddled his empty seat with bullets. He still got wounded in the right arm and cut in the arms and face by flying glass. The other passenger was shot in the neck, shoulder, arm, and hip but recovered.
The gunfire slaughtering innocent civilians alerted gang members who sprung into action. They grabbed weapons and prepared to jump out the second-floor rear window but agents rounded the corner of the building and opened fire. Dillinger returned a spray of machinegun bullets. The agents ducked and stayed hidden so long the four gangsters were able to jump and disappear into the darkness before the agents looked up again. The fugitives spotted other agents who were standing between them and the garage housing their three cars so they turned and ran through the woods. The agents surrounding the resort building assumed the bank robbers were still cowering inside so Purvis set up an all-night siege as the family with the young boy, employees, and the gangs’ three women inside lay on the floor terrified. At daybreak Purvis launched a tear-gas bomb and machinegun assault against the building as all the unarmed civilians inside screamed out begging not to be shot. Purvis had the advantages of surprise and overwhelming numbers, but his entire haul consisted of a shot up lodge, three terrified girls the gang had left behind, and dead and wounded civilians.
Dillinger, Van Meter, and Hamilton, all toting machineguns ran a mile to another small resort, woke up the residents, and commandeered an employee’s car. They made him drive 40 miles and then left him beside the road in Park Falls, Wisconsin. The resort owner telephoned local police about the kidnapping and the employee’s stolen car number. At a bridge over the Mississippi River 20 miles SE of St. Paul at Hastings, three deputy sheriffs were cruising and observing license numbers for the employee’s car. Upon spotting the car the fugitives had hijacked they took chase and attempted to pull them over, but Dillinger blasted through his vehicle’s back window. A wild high-speed gunfight ensued for the next 17 miles. On a sharp curve, Van Meter made an abrupt right turn onto a dirt road. At that moment a truck entered the highway from a side street and the deputies had to slow down. The lawmen passed the truck but by the time they got to the curve the fugitives were out of view so the deputies continued on. The fugitives waited until the deputies passed them and were out of sight, but they now knew that the St. Paul police were patrolling the city’s entry roads and knew their license number. They drove back to the road, parked it across the lane to block the next car, and forced out the couple and their baby before tearing on toward Chicago. During the high-speed chase Hamilton had been seriously wounded in the lower back and died two days later. Dillinger and Van Meter quietly buried him in an empty parcel of land. Eight months later Van Meter’s girlfriend revealed to authorities for the first time that Hamilton was dead. His body was later dug up for identification to close the case and was then reburied in a more appropriate site.36
While the other fugitives were jumping out the resort’s window, Nelson ran out of the nearby cottage, fired a pistol at Purvis’ feet, and disappeared into the darkness of the woods. His agents gave chase but tripped into ditches and became entangled in a barbed-wire fence. Nelson stumbled through a mile of underbrush in the dark for a half hour until seeing lights from the Birch Lodge cabin. He walked in the unlocked door with his automatic pistol in hand. A neighbor observed the home invasion and reported it to local police. They in turn called a local constable who was at a nearby resort. He had joined up with two FBI agents who were patrolling in search of the fugitives.
The trio of lawmen sped to Birch Lodge and pulled into the driveway behind a car preparing to pull out. It contained Nelson with the couple sitting inside as hostages. The agents yelled for everyone to get out. Nelson leaped out of the passenger’s seat and charged the trio with his machinegun blazing. The lawmen were sitting ducks. The agent in the passenger’s seat was the one who a half-hour earlier had shot to death an unarmed innocent civilian who was heading home from Little Bohemia. This agent had a machinegun in his lap but it appears he was in shellshock and unable to fire after having killed an innocent man. He ducked his head behind the agent in the driver’s seat, and then he jumped out of the car tossing the machinegun as he ran. Nelson shot the unarmed fleeing agent three times in the neck killing him, pumped five slugs into the constable, and dropped the other agent with a bullet that bounced off his skull. Nelson then leaped into the agents’ rental car and drove off to connect up with his fleeing wife. He left the couple badly traumatized but unharmed.37
Along the highway Nelson soon passed an oncoming car with four FBI agents who were arriving somewhat late for the raid. They had made the long drive from St. Paul because they feared flying. As they drove toward Nelson’s oncoming car, the four failed to recognize him. They continued on to their Little Bohemia Lodge destination where the civilians lay frozen in terror on the floor of the perforated building in the eerie silent darkness.
The heartbreaking result of the FBI’s inept and blundering raid was the murders of both an innocent civilian and the agent who killed him, and the serious woundings of two civilians headed home, a constable, and an agent. In their internal summaries agents reported firing on six cars in the vicinity of the Little Bohemia Resort in the night darkness with absolutely no idea who was in them. Not a single car contained a fugitive. Thus if these vigilante agents had known how to aim their guns they would have committed the most horrific slaughter of innocent civilians in history, all without any justification and from an ambush in the cover of darkness.
The most disturbing aspect of this tragedy was that it was totally avoidable. Purvis could have easily guaranteed capture of the fugitives without any risk whatsoever to a single civilian. The only escape routes from the Lodge were over three bridges. Purvis could have solicited the aid of local police departments to put up an impenetrable roadblock near each. A team of agents and policemen could have waited around a curve behind a solid wall of police cars blocking escape. The unsuspecting fugitives would not have seen the barricade until the last moment and then had to screech to a halt. Their retreat would have been prevented by lawmen hiding in ambush behind trees on both sides of the road in back of the fugitives’ three cars.
Hoover may have routinely fired off blistering memos about agents being a minute late for work, but he remained curiously quiet about this disaster. He had hired both of the raid’s leaders, his Assistant Clegg and SAC Purvis. Scapegoating anyone at the top of the command would have ultimately fallen back on him. One of the agents who had followed Clegg and Purvis on that fateful raid, St. Paul Office SAC Werner Hanni, wrote a memo to the Director condemning the handling of the tragedy but never sent it. This memo was found on his desk by Clegg who surprisingly added it to the FBI files while punishing Hanni for putting the truth in writing. Hanni was relocated to Omaha, Nebraska to refrain other agents from criticizing the FBI. Participant Hanni had written, “[There] does not appear to exist any good reason whatsoever for Dillinger and his accomplices making a getaway. It was quite evident that the raid was fully staged with a lack of organization, and lack of knowledge and judgment cannot be concealed. The writer himself and those accompanying him to Bohemia proved to be tripped into a regular death trap. No preparation appeared to have been made, in spite of the fact that a chart of the locality had been furnished prior to proceeding there. Had it not been for the fortunate good treatment accorded the motorist who flashed a spotlight right into the writer’s face, four more agents would, undoubtedly, not be here today.”
On that horrible evening, Purvis lacked any semblance of leadership or planning. Hoover’s FBI could have learned from this SAC’s mistakes but instead of improving they simply copied his blunders in future clashes against the country’s infamous bank robbers. These raids were disorganized and undisciplined, and utilized but one strategy – charge in shooting to kill. They were always done in great haste without bothering to determine whether the target was present at the location or where he might be situated at the site. The safety of innocent civilians and the lawmen was never a consideration. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI became the textbook example of the ultimate in lack of law-enforcement professionalism as it repeatedly produced the most ineffectual arrest and capture raids imaginable.