Crown Point, Indiana – March 3, 1934
Ed Saager didn’t see the three men with guns come into the garage. He was up to his waist in the engine compartment of a Chevy, cursing at the engineers who had decided to put the generator so far in the back. He didn’t want to be working on a Saturday, but he needed the overtime. With the economy in the dumper, any opportunity to earn a few extra bucks was welcomed.
Even if Saager had noticed the armed men enter, he wouldn’t have thought much of it. The Lake County Jail was just a block away. The infamous John Dillinger had been brought in following his arrest in Tucson the week before, and the entire neighborhood was an armed camp. Extra deputies had been put on shift. A Farmers Trust vigilante group roamed the town with hunting rifles and shotguns. Sheriff Holley had even called in the National Guard to help prevent Dillinger’s gang from breaking him out of jail. The guardsmen set up machine guns and sandbags on the front lawn of the jail to repel any rescue attempts. The sight of men toting firearms in downtown Crown Point was not unusual right now.
Sheriff Lillian Holley had plenty of reason to worry about a breakout attempt. Dillinger had already been involved with several successful breakouts. A few months prior, he’d helped arrange a major breakout from the Michigan City pen in Indiana where ten cons had fled into the pouring rain. Shortly after that, he was arrested again, and his gang busted him out of jail in Lima, Ohio, brutally killing Sheriff Jess Sarber in the process.
Dillinger had started his criminal career the way a lot of hard-luck cases do—as a small-town troublemaker who fell in with a bad crowd. In 1924, at age 20, he’d been arrested after he and an associate beat and robbed a grocer in his hometown of Mooresville, Indiana. He was sentenced to ten years at the state pen in Michigan City, despite being promised leniency for pleading guilty.
His experience in prison was essentially an advanced course in felony. He quickly took up with seasoned criminals like Homer Van Meter and Handsome Harry Pierpont, who taught him the finer points of bank robbery. Dillinger was paroled after nine and a half years and immediately set about putting his new criminal knowledge to good use. He conducted a string of robberies throughout Indiana and Ohio. His first major bank robbery was the New Carlisle National Bank in Ohio. During the robbery, he nimbly vaulted over the six-foot-high teller’s cage and made off with ten grand. His clean getaway left the police scratching their heads. For his teller-cage athletics and his speedy getaway, the local paper dubbed him “the Jackrabbit.” The nickname stuck.
At first, the Jackrabbit’s exploits only made the local papers then a few regional ones. But the Lima breakout catapulted the Jackrabbit and his gang into the national spotlight. They increased their notoriety by robbing more banks and even raiding police stations for weapons and bulletproof vests. Eventually, the law caught up with the Jackrabbit and his gang in Tucson. Handsome Harry and two others were sent back to Ohio to stand trial for Sheriff Sarber’s murder. Instead of going to Ohio with the rest of his gang, the Jackrabbit was flown to Indiana to answer for a bank robbery in East Chicago where he’d fatally shot a police officer named O’Malley. Reporters and newsreel crews mobbed him as the police brought him off the plane. It was America’s first media circus.
Crown Point had been in a state of frenzy ever since. At first Ed had found it exciting, but, after a while, the presence of armed men in uniform had become more of a petty annoyance. He hoped that all the fuss would be over soon.
The first thing that made Ed realize something was amiss was the silence. The local postman, Bobby Voss, was in the habit of hanging out at the Main Street Garage and shooting the breeze after finishing his rounds. Bobby was a regular chatterbox, and Ed rarely paid much attention when he was flapping his gums. Bobby had been blathering away about the White Sox, but now he’d gone totally silent.
Wondering what had suddenly turned Bobby mute, Ed looked up and saw the three men standing right by him. One—who looked very nervous—was wearing a sheriff’s deputy uniform. The other two were wearing rain slickers and carrying Thompson submachine guns. One was a huge Negro, and the other was a white guy with a high forehead and slicked-back hair. He looked a little like Humphrey Bogart, the latest Hollywood star.
“Say, pal,” said the Bogart look-alike. “What’s the fastest car in here?”
Ed hooked a thumb at a car in the back of the garage. “I guess it would be that Ford V8 back there.”
The man cracked a crooked grin that twisted up the left side of his face. “You’d better come with us,” he said.
“Look, fellas,” said Ed. “I’m pretty busy here. I don’t have time to join some posse, OK?”
“You’d better do what he says,” said the deputy. “These guys aren’t fooling around.”
The Bogey double pointed his gun at Ed and nodded. The grin crept further up his face. “Deputy Blunk is absolutely right,” he said. “We’re not fooling around. And we’re all going to take a little ride in that hot rod Ford.”
The realization hit Ed like a ten-pound sledgehammer. The man in front of him was the country’s most famous outlaw. The Jackrabbit had broken out of jail—again!
Ed held up his hands. He looked around and saw that Bobby Voss and the rest of the mechanics in the garage were doing the same. “O-OK, OK, sure,” said Ed. “Whatever you want. Do you want me to drive?”
“No, you get in the back with Mr. Youngblood there,” said the Jackrabbit, nodding toward the Negro. “Deputy Blunk is going to drive, and I’ll keep an eye on him.”
Ed led the men back to the Ford. He realized that he should be frightened to death, but the whole thing seemed surreal—like he was having a dream or watching a movie.
They piled into the car and pulled out into the rainy winter morning. Amazingly, the street was empty. The Jackrabbit had broken out of jail and made it past the armed camp in front without attracting any attention whatsoever. They had barely gone half a block before the Jackrabbit said, “Blunk, stop the car. Roll down your window.”
Blunk did as instructed. Over the drumming of the cold rain, the sounds of muffled cries and yells could be heard from the direction of the jail.
“Ha! Ha!” barked the Jackrabbit. “They’re still in there! No one’s come to let them out yet! I must’ve locked up twenty of those mugs—guards, trustees, even the warden! OK, Deputy, let’s blow this town. Drive slow, though; I don’t want to attract any attention.”
The car rolled sedately through the center of Crown Point. As they rolled down Main Street, they passed the First National Bank. The Jackrabbit eyed it with a smile. “Y’know, I oughta just knock over that jug right now,” he said. “That would be a hoot! The Jackrabbit breaks out of the ‘escape-proof’ Crown Point jail and robs the bank on his way out of town. Think of the headlines!”
Deputy Blunk shot him an alarmed look. He missed a red light and almost collided with a produce truck. The Jackrabbit jammed his Tommy gun into the lawman’s side. “God dammit, Blunk!” he snarled. “Watch where you’re going! If you get us into a wreck, you’ll be the first casualty, I guarantee it!”
“OK, sorry, sorry,” stammered Blunk. “I’m just a little nervous, y’know. Where do you want me to go?”
“No need to be nervous,” assured the Jackrabbit. “We’re all friends here. Just some good buddies out for a ride. What road leads west from town?”
“Eightieth Avenue is up ahead,” said Blunk. “It turns into the Lincoln Highway outside of town.”
“No good,” said the Jackrabbit. “Too obvious. There’ll be roadblocks all over it before too long. We’ll find another way. Look, up ahead by those train tracks, there’s a gravel road. Turn left there.”
Following back roads and gravel tracks, the car slowly made its way out of town and through the countryside. Ed cut a glance at Youngblood sitting beside him. He seemed enrapt in the passing scenery. The muzzle of his machine gun sagged toward the floor. Ed started to relax. Maybe he would get out of this alive, after all.
“Hey, you, mechanic,” said the Jackrabbit. “What’s your name?”
“S-saager. Ed Saager.” “Well, Saager Ed Saager, is there anything about this car that would make it stand out? Anything they could use to spot us?”
“Well, there’s a red light on the right front fender.”
The Jackrabbit turned, his eyebrows raised in astonishment. “You mean to tell me this is a cop car?”
“Uh, yeah. Actually, it belongs to Sheriff Holley. She just bought it.”
“Ha! Ha! Oh, that’s rich!” cried the Jackrabbit. “That’s almost as good as knocking over the bank! Making my getaway in the sheriff’s own car! Blunk, pull over.”
The Jackrabbit bounded out and twisted off the telltale police light. He wound up and sailed it way off into the cornfield on the side of the road. It looked to Ed like he could throw a pretty mean fastball.
“Well, that takes care of that,” said the Jackrabbit as he got back into the car. “No distinguishing characteristics. Let’s go.”
They continued through the barren Indiana countryside. There were practically no other cars on the road. Outside of St. John, they approached what looked to be a roadblock, but it turned out to be a road crew. “Just another bunch of WPA loafers!” laughed the Jackrabbit.
A few minutes later, Blunk misjudged a curve, and the car slid off the muddy road into a ditch. “Don’t kill me!” cried the terrified deputy. “It was an accident! Honest!”
“Don’t worry,” said the Jackrabbit. “No one’s going to catch up with us out here.”
They piled out of the car and took a look. The rear wheels were mired in the swampy ditch by the side of the road. “OK, Mr. Mechanic,” said the Jackrabbit. “Glad we brought you along. Now get this car back on the road. I’m sure Mr. Youngblood here will be glad to lend you a hand.”
Ed was grateful to have something to occupy his attention. He was beginning to worry what would happen to him at the end of this ride. The Jackrabbit seemed like a nice guy for a dangerous criminal, but Ed couldn’t help but think of the cop he had allegedly killed in East Chicago. He wondered if he would soon meet the same fate.
“There are some chains in the trunk, I think,” Ed said. “But this might take some time.”
“Not to worry,” said the Jackrabbit. “What’s time to me?”
It seemed like an outlandish statement coming from the man who had just become the most hunted fugitive in the country. The Jackrabbit gazed out over the cold, flat landscape, and whistled “California, Here I Come!” With the aid of a two-by-four, Ed and Youngblood managed to lever up the Ford and get the chains on the rear wheels. The Jackrabbit watched them idly, still whistling. Deputy Blunk stood a few paces behind him, nervously smoking a cigarette.
“Hey, Ed,” said the Jackrabbit. “I’ll bet you’re wondering how I escaped from the escape-proof jail, huh?”
Actually, the question hadn’t occurred to him. He was too busy wondering if he was ever going to see his family again. “Uh, yeah!” he said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “I’m sure everybody’s going to be asking about that soon.”
The Jackrabbit reached into his pocket and pulled out a small wooden object. “Look at this!” he said proudly. “I made it myself!”
In his hand, the Jackrabbit held a small wooden replica of a pistol. It was crudely carved and had the words “Colt 38” scratched into the side. “Carved it out of a bed slat and used shoe polish to darken it,” said the Jackrabbit. “I fooled all those screws with it!”
Behind him, Deputy Blunk snorted.
The Jackrabbit turned to him. “Shut your head, Blunkie! You know I’ve got the real thing now.” He lifted the Thompson toward the deputy, who raised his hands and took a step back.
“I think we can get the car out now,” said Ed, trying to defuse the situation.
“OK,” said the Jackrabbit. “Let’s go!”
They pulled back onto the country road and were soon zipping along at a high rate of speed. “Hey, this thing can really move!” commented the Jackrabbit. “It even has a radio. How about some music?” He turned on the Motorola slung under the dash. Gene Autry was warbling “The Last Roundup.”
“C’mon, fellas, you know the words,” said the Jackrabbit. “Sing along! ‘I’m headin’ for the laaaast roundup . . . gonna saddle Old Paint for the laaaast time and riiiiiiiiide. . . .’”
The fugitive vehicle zoomed through the countryside, a chorus of cowboy music coming from within. “Get along little dogies, get along, get along, get along little dogies, get alonnnng. . . .”
Just outside Kreitzburg, they passed a small wooden sign that said, “Now Entering Illinois. Welcome!”
“Hey, didja see that?” said the Jackrabbit. “We’re out of Indiana. Good riddance, I say! Things are going to start turning around for me now!”
They drove for a few more miles, and then the Jackrabbit told Blunk to slow down. He stuck his head out the window and seemed to be looking for something. “OK, this’ll do,” he said. “There’s no telephone lines. Nobody will be able to report this. Pull over Blunk. Everyone out.”
Ed felt his guts turn to ice. This was the end of the ride. If he was going to be shot, it would happen here.
“Well, fellas,” said the Jackrabbit. “Sorry to do this to you.” He reached into his coat pocket.
“Here it comes,” thought Ed. He felt his knees start to quake and fought to stay upright. If he was going to die, then he meant to die on his feet. He was so focused on keeping from falling over that he didn’t notice the Jackrabbit was waving a pair of dollar bills in his face.
“Here’s a few bucks for carfare,” said the Jackrabbit. “Sorry I can’t spare any more. I took up a collection at the jail before I left, but they were a little tight. Ha! Ha!”
In a daze, Ed took the offered cash. He looked at it idiotically. The Jackrabbit was holding out more money to Blunk, but the deputy just shook his head.
“C’mon, Mr. Youngblood, let’s make tracks,” said the Jackrabbit. “The big city awaits. You’d better hunker down in the back. You kinda stand out, y’know.” The two crooks climbed back into the car, and the Jackrabbit stuck his head out the window. “Thanks again, boys! See you in the funny papers!” The Ford pulled away in a cloud of dust.
“Well, what do we do now?” asked Ed.
“What do you think?” said Blunk sourly. “We start walking.”