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Defining Dillinger

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John Dillinger
Scott Swan
/Eyewitness News

When you open the vault of John Dillinger history, you reopen a debate about the Depression-era desperado. The descriptions of him are as different as the guns he used.

"John was more into the thrill of the chase and the adventure than he was committing crime," said Dillinger's great-nephew Jeff Scalf who owns the same home in Mooresville, Indiana where Dillinger grew up.

"Sometimes he would hide out in the attic upstairs in a secret room and there was a cot there," said Scalf, whose grandmother was Dillinger's half sister. However, a woman in St. John, Indiana takes a much different view of the infamous bank robber.

"He was a gangster and in my eyes, a murderer," said Carol Kasper.

Kasper's grandfather was shot and killed during a 1934 bank robbery in East Chicago. Some people believe Dillinger was the gunman. But Scalf's relative believes his great uncle did not kill anyone.

"The killer talk was all done by the authorities because they knew they had to muddy him up because he was just too popular," said Scalf.

One thing is not up for debate. John Dillinger was big, front page news. He was the focus of radio reports and newsreel coverage. Hollywood had a longtime fascination with the Hoosier native, who is arguably one of the most famous criminals in history. Warren Oates played the bank robber on the big screen and so did Mark Harmon. Recently, actor Johnny Depp went to Morgan County to consult with Dillinger's relative before filming began on the Universal Studios movie, "Public Enemies," which is due out in 2009.

"I think Johnny Depp is the type of guy who will capture both the negatives and the positives about John," said Scalf.

Dillinger's great-nephew says Depp was interested in learning about John Dillinger's superstitions.

"He was known to keep a rabbit's foot, but he would only kill a rabbit that was on this farm or on a relative's farm or on a close friend's farm," said Scalf. Depp also wanted to know about the interaction between Dillinger and the other gang members.

The biggest disagreement in defining Dillinger centers on the 1934 robbery of the First National Bank in East Chicago.

"When he robbed the bank in East Chicago, I mean, that was the big story," recalls 87-year-old John Quinn, who was in the eighth grade at the time. "[Officer O'Malley] had his gun with him and pulled his gun out and shot Dillinger, but Dillinger had the vest on," said Quinn. "It just bounced off, I guess."

Police officer William "Patrick" O'Malley was killed.

"In the Irish community, [Dillinger] was branded a cop killer," said Quinn.

"Grandpa shot four times and the bullet proof vest did not let that work," said O'Malley's granddaughter Carol Kasper.

"When [O'Malley] was gunned down, my grandfather and dad walked down with their stretcher and took him back to our place," said James Fife, who owns a local funeral home.

O'Malley's funeral records at Fife's funeral home do not mention Dillinger by name. "Killed by bandits during bank robbery," said James Fife, reading the notes.

O'Malley was married and the father of three girls.

"My grandfather gave his life." said Carol Kasper. "I think he was a hero. I think anytime you have a .38 revolver and you stand up to somebody with a machine gun, you've more than done your duty," said Kasper.

O'Malley's granddaughter is speaking out for the first time, saying the stories she learned over the years point to Dillinger as the gunman.

"[O'Malley] doesn't deserve anything less than the respect that we can give him," said Kasper.

Dillinger's great-nephew says the bank robber's friend, Mary Kinder, told him Dillinger could not have shot O'Malley because he and his gang were in Florida. Scalf says it would have been impossible to travel from Daytona Beach, Florida to East Chicago in an 18-hour time period to rob the East Chicago bank. Scalf says gas stations closed at 7:00 pm and there were no interstates as we know today.

"[Dillinger] would have had to average about 65 miles or 70 miles per hour. Those vehicles weren't that durable. You couldn't do that," said Scalf.

One place to learn about the history is the John Dillinger museum located inside the Lake County, Indiana Welcome Center. The Convention Bureau President/CEO Spero Batistatos says he has more than $1 million invested in the Dillinger museum. Batistatos says the wax figures and memorabilia are not designed to glamorize or glorify Dillinger.

"The overwhelming message we try to leave you with is that crime doesn't pay," said Batistatos.

The museum re-opened in March 2008 after Lake County officials and Dillinger's great-nephew settled a lawsuit out of court. Scalf owns the licensing and publicity rights for Dillinger. Officials now acknowledge on the signage Dillinger was never convicted of murder.

"We've agreed to change that text to remind people that he was still not a convicted felon at that point; that it was an alleged murder," said Batistatos.

Dillinger's criminal career ended in gunfire with authorities outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre in 1934. Dillinger's death left an impact on East Chicago residents like John Quinn.

"[Dillinger's death] avenged O'Malley's death," said Quinn.

Scalf owns the belt Dillinger wore the night he was gunned down. The Dillinger museum has other artifacts including Dillinger's original tombstone and the pants Dillinger wore outside the Biograph Theatre.

"History has its own set of beliefs and I'm not a historian. I run a convention and visitor's bureau," said Batistatos.

"He was clearly one of those iconic figures of his time and will probably always remain so, much like Jessie James and other people of that kind," said Scalf.

"I like how my grandma defined it. Don't romanticize him and don't villainize him," said Scalf. "John was a crook and there is no honor in being a crook."

Related links:

Public Enemies - This is a blog entry about the filming of the movie in Columbus, IN.

Public Enemies clip - This YouTube video shows a scene of the movie being filmed.

FBI: John Dillinger - Get the FBI profile on this famous criminal.

The Crime Library - Why bank robbery wasn't viewed in such a negative light in the 1930s.