Auburn Police Chief Martin McCoy holds the Dillinger Tommy gun. / Michelle Pemberton/The Star
AUBURN, Ind. -- It was an incident some people in Auburn might rather forget, but others are resurrecting it with the idea of making money.
Auburn's mayor, Norman Yoder, called it "our Barney Fife moment": Late on the night of Oct. 14, 1933, gangster John Dillinger's men barged through the unlocked front door of the police station in this northern Indiana county seat, reportedly just as one of the officers was preparing to enjoy a bag of popcorn.
Soon, the police were locked up in their own jail cell, and the gangsters were driving away with the department's entire arsenal - three bullet-proof vests, six pistols, two rifles, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and the prize: a Thompson submachine gun. The Thompson, known popularly as a "Tommy gun," a "chopper," a "Chicago typewriter," is one of America's iconic weapons brandished viciously, or carried not that discreetly in a violin case, in gangster movies since the Depression.
In March, 80 years after it was stolen, that very weapon, by now a highly collectible piece of history believed to have been wielded by Dillinger personally (and valued conservatively at $150,000, which is way more than Dillinger ever got from any one bank), was back in the hands of the Auburn Police Department. A high-ranking FBI man handed it over, with ceremony, in the rotunda of the DeKalb County Courthouse, across the street from the police station, which looks a lot like it did in 1933, except now they lock the door.
The guns of famous outlaws hold a special place in collectors' hearts, and their mark-up is pronounced; Dallas-based Heritage Auctions recently sold Dillinger's Derringer for $95,000. In 2012, a snub-nosed .38 special found taped to the thigh of a deceased Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde infamy, was sold for $264,000. In June 2013, a garden-variety revolver owned by Al Capone's older brother Ralph will go on the block, and even that is expected to fetch between $15,000 and $20,000.
It happens that the Auburn Police Department has for some time been trying to raise money privately for a new training center. The facility would have an indoor shooting range and classrooms and would cost $300,000. More than half has been raised, which means they could break ground the moment they sell the Dillinger gun. They've already had an offer of "slightly more than $100,000," said Martin McCoy, police chief. "Guy from Ohio," said Mark Stump, a police captain. "But that gun is part of our history," said McCoy. "Not for sale."
That does not mean the thing can't still generate some cash. McCoy and Yoder are looking at the Dillinger Tommy not as a one-time windfall but as a sort of annuity, or golden goose. If the gun can be made operable at a reasonable cost, they would make it available to members of the public who, in exchange for a donation, would be invited to conjure their inner Dillinger and squeeze off a round or two. "It would be an anomaly, a special thing, and a great way to draw some interest in shooting the gun and in (funding) the training center," Mayor Yoder said.
The town would get the money it needs and still own the gun, which it would display long-term in its acclaimed automobile museum, the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum.
Crime-wise, not much happens in Auburn other than meth production on the outskirts, so Dillinger's raid is still an important part of the town's back story. Most people here know something about it.
Ed McDonald knew everything about it. He was born and raised in Auburn and was a long-time cop here and a fanatic when it came to history. He studied genealogy, collected old newspaper clippings, visited cemeteries. He threw away nothing. His notes, his paperwork, his scrapbooks filled his two-car garage (McDonald never married). "I was working a burglary case once," said Stump, a McDonald colleague, "and Ed recognized the guy's name, and he goes back and finds his notes from a case - from 1976."
After he retired from the police force in 1993, McDonald devoted himself to finding the Dillinger Tommy gun.
"That's what drove Ed," said McCoy. "Once Ed started looking up something," said his sister, Caroline Baughman, "he totally kept right on it. History is all he did."
In his sleuthing, McDonald turned up several vintage Tommy guns, including the one Auburn bought to replace the one Dillinger stole (the department sold it after it became obsolete, in the 1970s). But the Dillinger Tommy remained elusive. Then, one day in 2010, out of the blue, a gun collector and Dillinger buff from California notified Auburn Police that its gun was on display at FBI headquarters in Washington. The collector/buff, who may have been motivated after learning of McDonald's efforts, insisted on anonymity, McCoy said.
The FBI and John Dillinger are forever linked. The bureau was founded in 1908, but it didn't do anything major until it hunted down and killed its "Public Enemy Number One," on July 22, 1934, eight months after the Auburn affair.
Dillinger had lost possession of the Tommy gun earlier that same year, following his arrest in Tucson, Ariz., where he and his gang had gone to lay low after pulling off a flurry of bank robberies in the Midwest.
Several Dillinger gang members stayed at Tucson's Congress Hotel, which (through no fault of their own) caught fire. Firefighters recognized the bank robbers, and the Tucson Police Department arrested them and later their boss. This they did without firing a shot (though, according to a press account of the day, the Tucson policeman who took Dillinger squeezed off the following killer sentence: "Reach for the moon, or I'll cut you in half.").
The outlaws had to hand it to them: "DILLINGER LAUDS TUCSON POLICE," said a headline in the Arizona Daily Star. "Smartest cops we have seen," said Harry Pierpont, one of Dillinger's lieutenants.
In arresting the Dillinger gang, the Tucson Police Department seized their weapons, including the Auburn Tommy gun. The gun still bears a sticker that says "Tucson Police Dept." The TPD disabled the gun and probably used it for ornamentation. Holes drilled into it suggest a wall mount.
In 1966, the TPD made a gift of the gun to longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who'd overseen the Dillinger operation and by then had become one of the nation's most powerful people. The public relations-savvy Hoover displayed the gun at the bureau's widely toured headquarters in Washington.
McDonald and others in Auburn knew four years ago that the gun rightly belonged to the Auburn Police Department, but the FBI made them wait. Stump, who is passionate about guns (he has a collection of his own), became impatient. In an interview, he started to go off a bit on the bureau, but Chief McCoy calmed him with a glance.
"Well, we had to do a lot of research, and that takes time," explained Robert A. Jones, who's in charge of the FBI office in Indianapolis. Guns back in Dillinger's day weren't registered, Jones said, so for proof-positive, Auburn was compelled to reach deep into its records and produce the sales receipt.
The Dillinger Tommy is for now locked in a closet at the Auburn Police Department. But since its return last month, a lot of people have been allowed to handle it, and be photographed handling it, including Mayor Yoder and visiting journalists.
But Ed McDonald never got to. He died in February 2013 of an apparent heart attack at age 74.
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