The catchy nicknames coined by law enforcement and the press ring out like sirens from America’s Great Depression of the 1930s. Gangsters, bank robbers and murderers such as “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Kate “Ma” Barker and her sons and “Machine Gun” Kelly made newspaper headlines across the United States as they terrorized small-town banks, mostly in the rural prairie and farmland country of the Midwest. They were hit-and-run bandits who cased joints, used machine guns for intimidating fire power and drove fast automobiles for their getaways. All lived a fugitive lifestyle, always on the run until captured or killed.
Many desperate Americans, particularly those crushed economically by the nation’s massive bank system failure that led to widespread financial loss and bankruptcy among hard-working citizens, initially cheered on the so-called “public enemies” as underdog heroes that targeted “greedy” banks that had foreclosed on home and farm mortgages in America’s heartland. Best-selling books were written about these larger-than-life gangsters and blockbuster Hollywood movies recreated their most notorious holdups and deadly shootouts with law enforcement. The violent chaos led to a rash of wildly popular gangster movies filmed in the 1930s. The genre still reverberates today with villain protagonists in cinema classics such as “The Godfather,” “Scarface,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Goodfellas” and “Public Enemies.”
The name Lester Joseph Gillis may not be as familiar as some of those other high-profile criminals in the early 1930s, but that’s because this trigger-happy killer was primarily known to the public by his media-given nicknames: George Nelson, or most notably, Baby Face Nelson. The gangster used numerous false names in his short life, but Jimmie was the primary moniker he used when laying low to avoid apprehension by relentless government agents working for the FBI. Friends said that Gillis picked the name Jimmie because of his admiration for the energetic American actor James Cagney.
Midwest gangsters in the early 1930s were essentially small bands of audacious criminals who turned to bank robbery during a time when many Americans were suffering in abject poverty and misery. But the frequent brutality and bloodshed that accompanied these increasingly brazen heists drew the ire of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. In his high-profile War on Crime, Hoover deployed an army of G-men to “exterminate” the rebellious cultural icons that he despised. Under the cloak of legal authority, Hoover underhandedly manipulated the media with false and exaggerated propaganda to quash any public support for the FBI’s so-called public enemies and to encourage citizens to “rat the vermin out.” It was Hoover who coined the decree: “The only good criminal is a dead criminal.”
Gillis was born Dec. 6, 1908, in Chicago, Ill., to Belgian immigrants Marie and Joseph. As a child, he was frequently truant from school and at age 12 was sent to a strict boarding school for wayward boys. At age 13, he began palling around with an older crowd involved in bootlegging alcohol and supplying speakeasies, a lucrative business during Prohibition (1920 to 1933).
Gillis does not fit the typical profile of an extremely dangerous and ruthless killer. At just 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighing barely 135 pounds as an adult man, many of his victims mistook him for a youthful teenager. He did not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or chase women. He was loyal to his friends and undeniably devoted to his wife and two children. Gillis started stealing cars in his teens for a chop-shop that dismantled vehicles and sold the parts. He was caught, incarcerated at an Illinois state reform facility and released in June 1926. Two years later, he met 15-year-old Helen Wawrzyniak, a pretty, quiet, Chicago neighborhood girl. Within a few months, Helen was pregnant. The young couple eloped and wed in Indiana — both their ages were enhanced on the marriage certificate
The name Lester Joseph Gillis may not be as familiar as some of those other high-profile criminals in the early 1930s, but that’s because this trigger-happy killer was primarily known to the public by his media-given nicknames: George Nelson, or most notably, Baby Face Nelson.
By 1931, Gillis was participating in bank robberies and armed home invasions. He spent a year in prison for his crimes before escaping in March 1932. Gillis, Helen and their young son Ronnie headed for the West Coast.
Nelson heads West
Their first stop was Reno, Nev., where Nelson contacted William J. “Curly” Graham and his business partner James C. “Red” McKay for help. Curly Graham was a legendary hotel and casino owner who opened the posh Bank Club casino on the day the Nevada Legislature legalized gambling. Despite his outward appearance as a legitimate entrepreneur who schmoozed with prominent Nevada politicians and celebrities such as heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey, it was mostly a front. Graham and McKay controlled an underworld of crime in The Biggest Little City that included illegal gambling, money laundering, prostitution and bootlegging. Among his many properties in Reno, Graham also owned the elegant nine-story, 220-room Cal Neva Lodge on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore. Within two weeks, Nelson and his young family had moved into the safety of a cottage on the property.
The Cal Neva Lake Tahoe straddles the state line of California and Nevada and has a long history of gangland connections. Three decades after Baby Face Nelson hid out there, superstar crooner Frank Sinatra purchased the picturesque Tahoe hotel casino. In 1963, after he was caught harboring Chicago mobster Sam Giancana in one of the same cottages, the Nevada Gaming Control Board revoked Sinatra’s casino license and he was forced to sell the resort.
In April 1932, Graham made telephone calls to his contacts in the San Francisco Bay Area crime scene. Gillis was hired on as an escort driver and gunman, using the alias Jimmie Johnson, for an interstate alcohol-trafficking operation led by Joseph J. Parente. Based in Sausalito, Parente was known as the king of the Pacific Coast rumrunners. Liquor was smuggled in by ship from Canada and distributed throughout California, Lake Tahoe and Reno.
In late October, after seven months in the Bay Area, “True Detective Magazine” published Gillis’s Joliet prison mugshots. The editor described him as an escaped convict and notorious bank robber. Informants notified police that Gillis was around and working for Parente’s outfit.
The jig was up, so Gillis packed his family into the car and drove east on Highway 40 (precursor to Interstate 80) back to Reno, driving through downtown Truckee and timing their arrival for after dark. At the time, Truckee had its own network of bootlegging and illegal moonshine stills hidden in the surrounding forest, so it’s hard to determine if any of the local saloons were Parente’s clients and received shipments from Gillis.
Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition.