GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — This week marks 90 years since Grand Haven infamously had a brush with one of Chicago’s most dangerous gangsters. Lester Gillis, also known as “Baby Face” Nelson, led a bank robbery that left five people hurt and put one of his accomplices behind bars.
Gillis grew up in a life of crime. According to the FBI’s profile, Gillis, who was born in 1908, was part of a juvenile gang as an early teenager, earning his moniker because of his youthful appearance. By the time he was 14, he was convicted of stealing cars and sentenced to live at a juvenile facility. He was released after two years but returned less than five months later on similar charges.
Nelson was in and out of jail for most of his young life and quickly made a name for himself around Chicago. Nelson was known for breaking into the homes of some of the city’s richest families and stealing jewelry. He notably mugged Mary “Maysie” Thompson, the wife of Chicago Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson, who had more than a few friends in organized crime.
While already serving a prison sentence for his role in a bank robbery, Nelson was set to be transferred to a different facility in February 1932 for a trial connected to a separate bank robbery. During the transfer, he managed to escape from the prison guards and fled west. That’s when he started to think bigger.
While laying low in California, Nelson decided it was time to take the lead and plot his own bank robberies instead of serving on a crew. He eventually made his way back to the Midwest and settled in Long Beach, Indiana. The FBI believes this is around the time where Nelson met and grew close with fellow gangster John Dillinger.
Nelson put together a crew of six to hit smaller town banks — Earl Doyle, Chuck Fisher, Tommy Carroll and a getaway driver known only as “Freddie.” The sixth member was Eddie Bentz, who helped Nelson figure out which banks to target.
According to a historical review by The Muskegon Chronicle, Bentz played a key role in landing on the target, spending “hours in local public libraries around the Midwest poring over bank records to determine which small-town banks were worth robbing.” Bentz would also visit banks dressed as a businessman contemplating opening up an account while he secretly scouted the bank’s security measures.
THE DAY OF THE ROBBERY
At some point in the summer of 1933, Nelson and Bentz landed on Grand Haven’s People’s Savings Bank. The robbery was set for Aug. 18. The chaos all started shortly before 3 p.m.
According to accounts published by The Grand Haven Daily Tribune, two “sharp-dressed” men first entered the bank at 2:55 p.m. One of them made a simple request: change for a $10 bill. Still, bank teller Arthur Welling, told reporters he felt something was suspicious. His hunch was correct.
As Welling was counting out the change, one of the men pulled a gun and pointed it in his face, telling him to “keep still.” Unbeknownst to the robber, Welling had already positioned his foot to trip the silent alarm under the counter, which sounded alarms at the local police office, the county sheriff’s office and the furniture store next door.
“While the robbers were at work, if one moved a hair, a yell of ‘Lie down, keep still, damn you,’ would soon settle anyone who had visions of watching them too closely,” Welling recalled to the Tribune.
After clearing the tills, the crew called for the cashier to open the vault. F.C. Bolt made his way to the vault but fumbled with it, telling the robbers that he isn’t the one who usually handles the safe.
Eventually, Welling stood up and was forced toward the vault with a gun jabbed in his ribs. Welling said he stalled as best he could but eventually had no choice but to open the vault, which the robbers quickly ransacked.
With the clock ticking, the robbers were ready to leave, using the bank employees as human shields while leaving through a back door. Immediately, they knew they had overstayed their welcome.
“As they got out into the street, they saw there was trouble as Edward Kinkema (from the furniture store) already was out with a gun and the officers had arrived and were coming around the front of the bank,” the Tribune reported.
Shooting started almost immediately. Welling ducked under his car, “being perfectly satisfied to keep under cover.” The getaway driver immediately fled after he saw Kinkema rush out of the furniture store with a shotgun, leaving the rest of the crew to fend for themselves.
Three men stole a car from two women who were parked on Franklin Street and took off. One man, first identified as Harry Harris but eventually discovered to be Doyle, ended up in a wrestling match with Bolt, the bank cashier. According to witness statements, Doyle had the upper hand on Bolt and was ready to shoot him before Kinkema rushed over and, having already fired all of his bullets, hit him with the butt end of his gun. Kinkema was able to disarm Doyle and he was apprehended by officers.
In all, five people were hurt in the shootout, but no one died. Bank customer Peter Van Lopik was hit in the neck and arm. Sgt. Julius Pleinies was shot in the back. Bank cashier John Lindemulder was grazed by a bullet while fleeing the scene. William Pellegrom, from next-door Pellegrom Furniture Company, was shot in the foot. An ambulance rushed Van Lopik and Pleinies to Hatton Hospital for treatment.
Doyle suffered a broken leg as well as wounds to his head, neck and hand. Instead of being brought to the hospital, Doyle was brought to the county jail and a doctor was dispatched to examine him.
SKIPPING TOWN AND BEYOND
Nelson and the remaining members of his crew quickly left Grand Haven in a Chevrolet, taking off southbound down US-31 before stealing yet another car from a family that had stopped at a farm to buy strawberries. This time, the victim of the carjacking, identified by The Grand Haven Daily Tribune as Mrs. Varneau, said there were four men in the car, not three as reported by witnesses at the scene of the bank robbery. Historians don’t know who the fourth man was or when he was picked up while fleeing the scene.
Nelson and his crew used this new car, a Chrysler, to make a break for the state line. The crew nearly made it until the Chrysler got a flat tire on US-127 in Lenawee County. Media reports say the crew stole yet another car and fled westward, eventually making their way into Indiana and out of the reach of Michigan law enforcement. In all, the crew got away with approximately $2,300, losing several bags of cash, bonds and silver as they fled.
The Grand Haven robbery was one of several cases that prompted Congress to pass the National Bank Robbery Act of 1934, which made most bank robberies a federal crime, giving law enforcement more leeway in tracking down criminals and installing harsher penalties.
Doyle was the only member of the crew to face charges in the bank robbery. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
According to the Muskegon Chronicle, Bentz was eventually arrested in New York in 1936 for another robbery and served 12 years at the infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco. Shortly after his release, he was arrested for robbing a feed store in Wisconsin and sentenced to another nine years in prison. Bentz returned to his hometown in Washington and lived the rest of his life as a free man. He died in 1979.
While Bentz’s life as a criminal fizzled out, Nelson’s went out with a bang. Nelson and his criminal associates had several altercations that left a trail of bloodshed, including murders in Minneapolis and Reno, Nevada.
In April 1934, Nelson and his wife vacationed at a lodge in northern Wisconsin alongside several top Chicago gangsters, including Dillinger, Homer Van Meter and his close friend John Paul Chase. The FBI learned of their location and sent a team of agents to the lodge. The raid failed miserably. Nelson killed one FBI agent, another innocent bystander was killed, and four other people were seriously hurt, all while every gangster got away. The only people arrested were three women who had accompanied the men, including Nelson’s wife, Helen Gillis. The three were charged and convicted of harboring a known felon and released on parole.
After Dillinger was gunned down outside of a Chicago theater, the FBI labeled Nelson as “Public Enemy No. 1.” Nelson, his wife and Chase spent several months on the lam, living out west for several months before returning to the Midwest in November. Historians Steven Nickel and William Helmer say the FBI paid close attention to one specific hideout that Nelson was known to frequent, the Lake Como Inn in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Agents had staked out the hotel but were taken by surprise when the trio showed up on Nov. 27.
Nelson, Gillis and Chase were able to speed away, but the agents got the license plate number. The trio was using a stolen black Ford V8 and police all across the region were put on alert. Two FBI agents, Inspector Samuel Cowley and Special Agent Herman Edward Hollis, spotted them and called for reinforcements in the small town of Barrington, Illinois, about 15 miles northwest of Chicago.
According to the FBI’s file on Nelson, two agents were trailing the gangster when he realized he was being followed. Nelson tricked the two agents and was able to pull up behind their car while Chase opened fire. The agents returned fire with one shot hitting the radiator in Nelson’s car.
The trio took off, this time with Cowley and Hollis in pursuit. Realizing his car was compromised, Nelson veered off the highway and jumped out of the car, ambushing the agents with gunfire. The firefight lasted only a few minutes. Hollis was pronounced dead on scene and Cowley was also mortally wounded, dying of his injuries the next day.
Nelson, however, was also critically hurt. Chase stole Cowley’s car and loaded Nelson into it, but there was nothing to be done. Nelson’s body was eventually dumped near a cemetery and an anonymous caller told FBI agents where to find him.
According to a report from the Chicago Tribune, Nelson had nine bullet wounds across his legs and torso. A piece of white bed sheet had been tied around his midsection to try and contain bleeding but was soaked red when his body was found.
Helen Gillis was arrested two days later. Though she hid in a ditch and did not participate in the firefight, she was found guilty of violating her parole and was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, which she served at the Women’s Federal Reformatory in Milan, Michigan.
Chase was caught in California a month later and served more than 30 years in prison.