Lester Joseph Gillis, better known as Baby Face Nelson, was a young gangster and bank robber from Chicago who was associated with Touhy Gang and John Dillinger. In 1934, he was named Public Enemy #1 and by the end of the year, he would be dead at the age of 25. During his crime spree, Gillis, using the alias George Nelson, was responsible for killing more FBI agents in the line of duty than any other person.
Gillis was born December 6, 1908, in Chicago, Illinois and at the age of seven, he was arrested after accidentally shooting a playmate in the jaw with a pistol he had found. After serving over a year in the state reformatory, he was released and was soon roaming the streets of Chicago with a gang of juvenile hoodlums. At the age of 13, he was arrested again for theft and joyriding and was sent to a penal school for 18 months. After his release, he immediately returned to his hoodlum ways and became an accomplished car thief. He soon became gang-affiliated and was dubbed “Baby Face” due to his youthful appearance and small stature, though his associates just called him Jimmy. His other early criminal activities included stealing tires, running stills, bootlegging, and armed robbery.
In 1928, Nelson was working at a neighborhood Standard Oil station, which became the headquarters for a group of young tire thieves, known as the “strippers.” At this time he became associated with members of the suburban-based Touhy Gang. That year, he met and married a salesgirl named Helen Wawrzyniak and the couple would eventually have two children. She would retain the name Helen Gillis throughout their marriage.
Within two years, Nelson was leading a gang, which was actively involved in armed robbery. On January 6, 1930, the gang forced themselves into the home of magazine-executive Charles M. Richter, tied him up with adhesive tape, and made off with approximately $205,000 worth of jewelry. The hoodlums continued these home invasions at other locations, earning themselves the nickname of “The Tape Bandits.”
On April 21, 1930, Nelson robbed his first bank, making off with approximately $4,000. After another bank robbery in October, he was identified as one of the robbers. Another home invasion just a few days later, one of the attackers was described as: “He had a baby face. He was good looking, hardly more than a boy, had dark hair and was wearing a gray topcoat and a brown felt hat, turned down brim.” The next month, Nelson and his crew were linked to a failed roadhouse robbery in Summit, Illinois where a gunfight erupted and three people were killed and three wounded. Another robbery just a few days later at a tavern resulted in another murder.
Throughout the winter of 1931, most of the Tape Bandits were rounded up, including Nelson. He was sentenced to a prison term of one year to life for a January 1931 bank robbery in Chicago, Illinois.
After a year’s confinement, Nelson was removed from the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois, to stand trial on another bank robbery charge in Wheaton, Illinois. On February 17, 1932, Nelson escaped prison guards while being returned to Joliet. Through his contacts within the Touhy Gang, Nelson fled west to Reno, Nevada. After a brief stay, he moved on to Sausalito, California, where he met John Paul Chase. Chase was involved in a liquor smuggling operation with underworld connections. Nelson soon began to work with Chase as an armed guard for the truck used to illegally transport liquor. The two men became close friends and Nelson was soon joined by his wife.
The next winter, Nelson returned to Reno, where he met Alvin Karpis, who introduced him to Midwestern bank robber Eddie Bentz. Teaming up with Bentz, Nelson returned to the Midwest in May 1933. In Indiana, Nelson met several criminals, including Homer Van Meter, and occasionally accompanied them to San Antonio, Texas. It was during this time that Nelson may have made his original connection with the Dillinger Gang.
On August 18, 1933, Nelson robbed a bank in Grand Haven, Michigan. Afterward, he formed another gang, which included Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll, Eddie Green, and other local thieves. After the gang robbed the First National Bank of Brainerd, Minnesota of $32,000 on October 23, 1933, Nelson wildly sprayed sub-machine gun bullets at bystanders as he made his getaway.
He then collected his wife Helen and four-year-old son and left with his crew for San Antonio, Texas. In December, the San Antonio police were tipped off that “high-powered Northern gangsters” were in the neighborhood. Soon, one of the thieves was cornered by two detectives and opened fire, killing Detective H.C. Perrin and wounding Detective Al Hartman. Afterward, the remaining gang members fled in all directions. Nelson and his wife traveled to California, where he once again hooked up with John Paul Chase.
The two criminals remained together for almost a year, during which time, a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis. The perpetrators were reportedly in an automobile bearing California license plates which were eventually traced to a car owned by Nelson. After a short trip to Bremerton, Washington, Nelson and Chase proceeded to Reno, Nevada. Chase later reported in an interview that Nelson killed a man during an altercation while they were there. The victim was a material witness in a United States Mail Fraud case.
In April 1934, Nelson, Helen Gillis and John Paul Chase went to Chicago, Illinois, where they joined the Dillinger Gang. While Chase remained in Chicago, Nelson and his wife vacationed with the Dillinger Gang at the Little Bohemia Lodge in northern Wisconsin.
When the FBI learned of the gang’s location on April 22, 1934, special agents proceeded to the Little Bohemia Lodge. However, barking dogs alerted the gangsters to the impending raid, and the gangsters escaped in the dark, leaving a few women associates, including Helen Gillis, behind.
Nelson fled to a nearby home and forced his way in with two hostages. Shortly thereafter, Special Agents J. C. Newman and W. Carter Baum arrived at the scene with a local constable. When their car stopped, the diminutive Nelson, who stood only five feet four inches high and weighed 133 pounds, rushed to the car and ordered the occupants to get out. Before they could comply, Nelson shot all three men, instantly killing Special Agent Baum with a series of shots from his automatic pistol.
Within a short time, Chase rejoined Nelson. Helen Gillis, who had been released, met her husband and Chase about a month later. They lived near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for several days. On June 23, 1934, Attorney General Homer S. Cummings offered a reward for Nelson’s capture or information leading to his arrest.
A robbery of the Merchants National Bank, South Bend, Indiana, occurred on June 30, 1934, in which a police officer was shot and killed. “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, and Homer Van Meter participated in the actual robbery. Following the robbery, the gangsters fled to Chicago, Illinois. Later two police officers were shot on Wolf Road, outside Chicago, when Nelson opened fire as they approached the gang’s meeting place.
Notorious gangster leader John Herbert Dillinger was shot and killed on July 22, 1934. Following Dillinger’s death, Nelson, Helen Gillis, and Chase left Chicago for California with two associates. That summer, Nelson and Chase made numerous trips between Chicago and California. On one occasion, they were arrested for speeding in a small town, but after they paid the $5 fine at the police station, they were released. Their car, containing machine guns, rifles, and ammunition, was not searched.
In late August, the group returned to Chicago. Within a month, Nelson went to Nevada and Chase traveled to New York City. Nelson and Chase again joined forces near Minden, Nevada, on October 10, 1934. They proceeded to Chicago, where they stole a car on November 26, 1934, and drove to Wisconsin.
Inspector Samuel P. Cowley of the FBI’s Chicago Office had been assigned to search for Nelson. On November 27, 1934, Cowley received word that Nelson had been seen driving a stolen car. Two Special Agents spotted the vehicle near Barrington, Illinois. Nelson brought his car around behind the agents, and Chase fired five rounds from an automatic rifle into their car. One of the agents returned fire and one shot pierced the radiator of Nelson’s car, partially disabling it.
Inspector Cowley and Special Agent Herman Edward Hollis approached in another automobile and began pursuing Nelson and Chase. Suddenly, Nelson veered off Northwest Highway at the entrance to the North Side Park in Barrington, Illinois, and stopped. Before Cowley and Hollis could get out of their car, Nelson and Chase began firing automatic weapons at them. Special Agent Hollis was killed during the gun battle and Inspector Cowley, who was mortally wounded, died early the next morning.
Nelson, also critically injured, was helped into Cowley’s automobile by Chase. Many guns and other articles were transferred from Nelson’s car to the agents’ car. Helen Gillis had been lying in a field during the battle. She jumped into the government vehicle as Chase was driving it away.
“Baby Face” Nelson died about 8:00 that evening. In response to an anonymous telephone call, FBI Agents found his body the next day near Niles Center, Illinois.
Nelson’s widow was arrested on November 29, 1934. Having violated the terms of her parole, Helen Gillis was sentenced to serve one year and one day in the Women’s Federal Reformatory in Mila, Michigan.
Chase was apprehended later and served a term at Alcatraz.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated January 2020.