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Stateville prison break: J. Edgar Hoover oversaw gang’s capture

Herald-News coverage Touhy gang escape from Stateville as photographed from microfilm Friday Oct. 5 2012 Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

Herald-News coverage of the Touhy gang escape from Stateville as photographed from microfilm Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 15, 2013 4:27PM



Front Page of The Herald-News for Mon. Oct, 12, 1942:

Hunt For Touhy Gang Covers Seven States. Police Running Down All Tips On Whereabouts of Fugitives — Objects of a “shoot to kill” hunt thruout the midwest, Roger “Terrible” Touhy, Basil “The Owl” Banghart, and five other convict desperadoes who escaped from Stateville penitentiary Friday afternoon have been reported “seen” over the week-end in Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Tennessee, and New York, as well as in Illinois.

On Friday, Oct. 9, Touhy, Banghart, James O’Connor, William Stewart, St. Clair McInerney, Edward Darlak and Martlick (Matthew) Nelson used smuggled guns, guards’ hats, white dishrags made to look like guard’s hats, a garbage truck and two prison ladders to go over the wall of Stateville Correctional Center. Stealing the car a tower guard had parked on the other side of the wall, the “Terrible Touhy” gang sped out of sight.

And the moment they were out of sight, they turned off into some nearby trees. With roadblocks being set up throughout Northern Illinois, the gang gambled and spent the night in the woods near the prison, Nelson later would tell the FBI.

The gang waited in their hiding spot another full day before heading out and splitting up. Early Sunday morning, a Villa Park gas station attendant watched as four men parked on the street, walked to another waiting car and headed toward Chicago. The engine still was warm when investigators reached the car that belonged to the Stateville guard.

“The car looked as though it had been slept in,” Warden E.H. Stubblefield told The Herald-News. “Mud had been smeared over the license plate.”

Police found a guard’s cap, the badge from another hat, the shears Touhy used to stab the garbage truck driver and “lots of cigarette stubs.”

“A search is also being conducted for Mae Blalock, described by authorities as Banghart’s sweetheart, who is thought to have been in Chicago recently,” The Herald-News said.

Nelson, a cellmate of Darlack, who’d gone along with the escape, took off for Minnesota, while the rest of the convicts were able to lie low in Chicago for the next two months. But since they hadn’t informed selective service of a change of address, the FBI claimed the escapees had violated a federal law and took over the case.

“The most vicious and dangerous (gang) the country has ever had,” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told The Herald-News.

On Dec. 16, 1942, Nelson was lying on a bed in the Hennepin Hotel when police forced open the door. “He reached for a gun under his pillow, then thought better of it,” the FBI said.

His arrest was kept under wraps and two days later the gang ambushed an armored truck outside a war plant in Melrose Park. As guards brought $20,000 for employees to cash checks, two cars drove up and rifles began firing. The glass that would’ve stopped small-caliber rounds shattered and a guard was struck in the arm. The bandits took the truck and abandoned it a few miles away.

They remained at-large through Christmas but federal agents were closing in — questioning hundreds of landlords while the gang kept switching apartments. By Dec. 29, the gang had been tracked to 1248 Leland Ave. and 5116 Kenmore Ave. where agents rented rooms down the hall to keep them under surveillance. Hoover arrived to observe the raid and take part in what the Encyclopedia of Robberies, Heists and Capers would call “his last personal arrest.”

As the G-Men hit the door of the Leland apartment, O’Connor and McInerney decided to shoot it out, and both were killed. Agents stopped the four in their other apartment before they could get to their “arsenal” across the hall that included a rifle, two shotguns, five pistols and $13,000. Touhy had bills from the armored truck heist in his pocket when he was arrested.

The survivors, all of them already serving life sentences, were returned to Stateville, but Banghart was immediately transferred “with an escort of 18 federal marshals” to Alcatraz. He was brought back to Stateville again in 1959 before he and Touhy finally had their convictions for the bogus 1933 kidnapping overturned.

Author John Tuohy said “The Owl’s sweetheart,” was waiting for him when he got out of prison. The couple left crime to live on an island in Washington on his aunt’s inheritance. Banghart died in 1982.

Roger “Terrible” Touhy walked out of Stateville on Nov. 13, 1959. Twenty-two days later, he and a bodyguard were walking into his sister’s house when two men came up behind them and started blasting with the shotguns they’d had under their coats.

“I’ve been expecting it,” Touhy told a reporter while being taken to the hospital. “The bastards never forget.”

He died an hour later.



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