Saint Paul, MN

The Final Moments of Former Dillinger Gang Lieutenant Homer Van Meter

Matt Reicher

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Mug shot of gangster Homer Van MeterBaby Face Nelson Journal

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA - When Depression-Era gangster Homer Van Meter took up a life of crime, he understood his “career” path didn’t offer a retirement plan. Those in his line of work usually ended up in either a jail cell or body bag.

The only thing Van Meter hoped for when his time came he didn’t end up dead in a filthy alley.

On Thursday August 23, 1934, at 4:30 pm Van Meter, along with two other men — one of them believed to be St. Paul bank robber Tommy Gannon, arrived at the St. Paul Auto Company, a dealership located on the corner of University Avenue and Marion Street in St. Paul.

Van Meter, a former member of the Dillinger Gang, recently disbanded due to the death of the gang's leader the previous month, felt the heat of the authorities bearing down on him and was looking for a car to leave the area and a place to hide before it was too late.

He walked into the dealership and, after a short conversation with H.H. McGill, the dealership’s sales manager, decided to bring his car back the next day to trade it in toward the purchase of a new one. At 5 PM, as Van Meter was leaving, St. Paul Police Chief Frank Cullen, along with Detectives Tom Brown, Thomas McMahon and Jeff Dittrich all appeared armed with either a machine gun or shotgun.

The officers had been lying in wait for Van Meter near the dealership for up to five hours.

Historically, Van Meter would have engaged in a shoot-out with the authorities, but he quickly realized that against four armed officers, the odds of success were stacked against him. Walking quickly, he made his way toward the dark-colored Chevy he took to the dealership. As he neared the car, still followed by the police, the passenger calmly slid over to the driver’s seat and drove away.

If he hadn’t realized it before, Van Meter must’ve known he’d been set up. He did the only thing he could do — he ran.

Van Meter was likely caught up in a coordinated effort between local police and area criminals. The loud and bombastic gangster, never one to shy away from attention in public, had waited too long to disappear into the shadows. The criminal underworld had grow tired of him. Without John Dillinger to protect him, Van Meter wasn't worth keeping around.

Official police reports and witness testimony vary quite a bit from this point forward. Van Meter was depicted as the armed aggressor by authorities, but witnesses told a different story.

Four witnesses stated Van Meter never pointed his gun at anyone. They reported the gangster held his straw hat in one hand, and his other hand may have been empty. Each described every detail precisely and accurately. The only guns they reported seeing were those help by the police.

Despite pressure from the police, they stuck to their stories.

According to the local police, Van Meter fired two shots before turning and running across University Avenue and south on Marion Street. Detective Brown, allegedly on the payroll of several significant criminals and under investigation by the FBI for police corruption, and the other officers chased after the gangster and returned fire. Van Meter, struck by bullets several times, turned left and ran into a dead-end alley.

When he realized there was no escape, he veered around to make a stand.

Chief Cullen and Detective Brown, sensing the gangster was about the resume shooting, fired their weapons. The twenty-eight-year-old Van Meter was hit multiple times and crumbled to the pavement, dying in a dead-end alley. The exchange had left him with shotgun wounds on his face, chest, and head, as well as missing fingers on both hands. Police discovered a handgun with his fingerprints on it nearby with two bullets missing.

Van Meter's straw hat was picked up off the ground and placed over the dead man's face by one of the officers. Police officials reported recovering $1400 from the body.

Those who knew Van Meter questioned the official statement concerning the money found with him after his death. They figured he carried over $10,000 with him that day — some reporting as much as $18,000. Not the $1400 the police had recovered. Van Meter was getting out of town, and needed as much money as possible to start his new life.

It is believed the four police officers, along with local gangsters Tommy Gannon and Harry Sawyer, split up the money.

Witnesses described the final moments very similarly to police, although they differed significantly in one important detail. Mr. Andrew Stedje says Cullen and Brown fired at Van Meter as he lay motionless on the ground after they reached the alley. She added that Brown riddled the dead man with shotgun blasts as the two men stood over the fallen public enemy.

By all accounts, bullets ripped through Van Meter’s body; he had been hit as many as fifty times. His family was disgusted by the extreme police response, believing Van Meter's body had been used for target practice.

There’s no debating that Homer Van Meter was a bad person who had done terrible things, but it seems odd that the authorities went out of their way to create a narrative about their run in with the gangster — one that didn’t necessarily mesh with what others near the scene saw.

Police likely wanted to try and match the popularity of the ‘woman in red’ used to tip-off police before the Dillinger killing reported that a local waitress had told them where to find Van Meter. This official explanation probably wasn’t correct, and the later reports by an FBI informant that fellow gangster Tommy Gannon sold-out Van Meter seem infinitely more credible.

Over the following weeks, Detective Brown took the hero’s tour, telling his version of the story to any journalist willing to listen. It was a career resurrection for the much-maligned former St. Paul Police Chief, and — at least for a short time — put him back in the good graces of the local law community.

Interestingly, Brown failed to mention his relationship with Van Meter during any of his interviews. Had the gangster survived, he almost certainly would have discussed their meetings at the Green Lantern Saloon, the money he gave to Brown’s election campaign, and the detective’s part in the kidnappings of William Hamm Jr. and Ed Bremer.

It seems Brown’s actions in the alley that day were likely as much to rid himself of a potential problem as rid the United States of a public enemy.

Despite his best efforts, Brown’s crimes eventually caught up to him though. He was fired for the part authorities believed he played in the kidnappings. They couldn’t prove his involvement, so the former lawman never was arrested — but his days with the St. Paul Police were officially over.

The body of Homer Van Meter was taken by train to Indiana and buried away from his family plot. They were ashamed of what he had done in his life and didn’t want his final resting place to be alongside them.

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Sunrise Bank parking lot | A current view from Marion of the approximate location of the dead-end alley Van Meter was killed in.Google Maps

Sources

  • The Bismarck Tribune. "Van Meter's Death Closely Patterned After Chieftain's." August 24, 1934, 1.
  • Blanco, Juan I. "John Dillinger." Murderpedia, the Encyclopedia of Murderers. https://murderpedia.org/male.D/d/dillinger-john.htm.
  • Bodinson, Holt. "A Cop-Killer’s Last Run." American Handgunner. Last modified December 9, 2018. https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:SW4EDMiYPEkJ:https://americanhandgunner.com/the-ayoob-files/a-cop-killers-last-run/+&cd=19&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us.
  • "Homer Virgil Van Meter (1905-1934) - Find A Grave..." Find A Grave - Millions of Cemetery Records. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/10248/homer-virgil-van_meter.
  • Maccabee, Paul. John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936. Minnesota, 1995.
  • Morton, James. The Mammoth Book of Gangs. C & R Crime, 2012.

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