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The Stolen John Dillinger Car Comes Home

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It was 87 years ago that a Depression-era outlaw broke out of an Indiana jail and stole a police car for his getaway. Now that car is being returned to the small Indiana town that is forever linked to history. Adam Pinsker of member station WFIU reports.

ADAM PINSKER, BYLINE: It may just be a car, but it received a police escort worthy of a hero or celebrity - a car almost as infamous as the man who stole it. Hundreds of people lined up recently along Main Street in downtown Crown Point, Ind., a town of 30,000 people in the northwest corner of the state, to see what's basically an old car - a 1933 Ford V8 stolen by gangster John Dillinger. Steve Leontaras was eager to see it.

STEVE LEONTARAS: The Dillinger story is big for us here.

PINSKER: The car arrived in nearly the same condition it left town in, its shiny black paint job glistening in the cool spring sun. Local realtor Roger Pace helped organize the vehicle's return.

ROGER PACE: The lights, the siren - the light here is all original to the car.

PINSKER: In the early 1930s, Dillinger, a native Hoosier, was the FBI's public enemy No. 1. Dillinger and his gang were responsible for a dozen bank robberies in Indiana and throughout the Midwest. Jim Emerson is a board member of the Old Lake County Jail and Sheriff's House and is well-versed in John Dillinger history. He says Dillinger's crime spree took place during the Great Depression and was often celebrated by many in the public.

JIM EMERSON: They feel that the banks were, in effect, taking the homes from people, foreclosing on them. And they looked at Dillinger as a Robin Hood.

PINSKER: In January of 1934, while robbing a bank in nearby East Chicago, Ind., Dillinger shot and killed police officer William Patrick O'Malley. Dillinger and his gang escaped to Arizona, where he was arrested and extradited to this county jail in Crown Point.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELL DOOR OPENING)

PINSKER: It's a museum now, but these are the doors to Dillinger's cell block. The jail was touted as escape-proof, but Roger Pace says it wasn't secure enough to hold Dillinger.

PACE: An unscrupulous attorney out of Chicago had a Bible, and he hollowed out the form of a wooden gun and placed it in the Bible, knowing that they wouldn't look at a Bible.

PINSKER: Dillinger used that fake gun to escape. Dillinger's story ended months later, when he was shot and killed by FBI agents in Chicago. But Pace says that was only the beginning of the story about Sheriff Lillian Holley's squad car.

PACE: The car was abandoned in the streets of Chicago. The Chicago Police Department confiscated the car, and then it was auctioned off.

PINSKER: The buyer moved it to Maine, and the car fell into disrepair. Pace and another Dillinger enthusiast were able to track it down and eventually restore it. Now this piece of history has been recovered and will soon be put on permanent display near the jail Dillinger broke out of in Crown Point.

For NPR News, I'm Adam Pinsker.

(SOUNDBITE OF DATA'S "ELECTRIC FEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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