Public Enemy No. 1 And Communications

By Wayne Thalls, KB6KN

Perhaps you have seen the TV movie Dillinger. It tells the story of John Dillinger, one of the most infamous criminals of the century. I was an Indiana schoolboy when the Dillinger gang was terrorizing Midwestern banks--mostly in Indiana, but also in Ohio and Illinois. If I had produced this film, handsome young Mark Harmon probably wouldn't have been my first choice to play the part of this ruthless bank robber and killer--Charles Bronson comes to mind. Even so, the story was largely based on fact.

This was the Depression era. The days before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was created to protect individual bank deposits. It was before the FBI had jurisdiction---bank robbery was not yet a federal offense. The mobility afforded by the automobile had given criminals a tremendous advantage during the first few decades of the century. This was a time when very few law-enforcement agencies had any communication resource other than the telephone. A few big-city police departments had installed radio systems, but these were one-way--that is, the patrol cars had receivers only. "Calling All Cars" was the alert signal used to gain the attention of patrolling officers.

J. Edgar Hoover used Dillinger, and other gangsters of the era, to promote the FBI, and to advance his career as Director. The self-promotion talents of the famed G Man made him a household name and image throughout the country by end of the decade of the thirties. Even today, Hoover is generally given major credit for the demise of John Dillinger. In fact there were many police agencies involved in the pursuit and eventual demise of the Dillinger gang.


The man who arguably played a key role in tracking down Dillinger was Captain Matt Leach, head of the Investigation Division of the newly formed Indiana State Police. The powerful Hoover publicity machine, however, successfully eclipsed Leach. Hoover was busy establishing a legacy of competing with, rather than cooperating with, local agencies. Might cooperative efforts have ended Dillingerís career even earlier?

By the mid thirties Congress gave authority to the FBI for investigating robberies of all federally insured banks. Hoover rapidly became one of the most powerful men in federal government.

The State Police dismissed Leach in 1937, charging him with failing to cooperate with the FBI. Hooverís influence was obviously growing. Captain Leach died in near obscurity in an Indiana Veterans Administration hospital during the fifties.

John Dillinger could well be called the father of the Indiana State Police communications system. Reacting to the threat posed by Dillinger and other gangsters, the Indiana State Bankers Association raised about $50,000, which they turned over to the State Police to construct a radio system. The first equipment included in-house designed and constructed AM base stations.

The first station to be constructed was built on the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. The department Superintendent feared that bandit gangs might seize a state police installation and be able to issue false orders by radio. The station was built as a brick, steel, and concrete redoubt. It featured two-feet thick walls, steel doors, and gun ports. A newspaper observed that the building could have "withstood a siege of trench mortars and aerial bombing".


A single armed radio operator was on duty around the clock, watching over the radio equipment and providing radiotelegraph communications with other ISP posts, and with other states and major cities throughout the country. A teletypewriter link moved messages to and from the headquarters operations center in the Indiana Statehouse located in downtown Indianapolis. The fairgrounds radio building was abandoned and bulldozed in 1954, to make way for more farm machinery display space.

The early patrol cars were equipped with modified automobile broadcast receivers---the tuning capacitors were locked on-frequency with no external tuning control. Transmissions were made on 1634 KHz, which was then just above the broadcast band. The broadcast band now includes those former police frequencies. Crystal controlled fixed-frequency receivers came later. Just imagine listening hour on end to the static emanating from those sets. The receiver squelch circuit, invented in the early thirties by an RCA engineer was added to subsequent designs. In the small world department---in the nineteen sixties I filled an RCA slot created by the retirement of that engineer.

I joined the Indiana State Police department (ISP) as a Communications Officer following World War II military service. In the early nineteen fifties we retired the radio equipment which was a legacy of the Dillinger era. High-powered commercial VHF FM transmitters and receivers replaced it. The ISP was, at that time still providing radio communication service for FBI cars throughout the state. The bureau had their own two-way radio systems in only a few of the largest cities.

I am often struck by the ironies of life. John Dillinger was an aberration. He came from a poor but honest and hard working family. When I joined the ISP, I became acquainted with John's younger half-brother Hubert, an auto mechanic employed in the State Police garage. Hubertís wife, Dorothy, was secretary to the Superintendent of State Police for many years. Both were very fine people.

(C) 1991 From Short Skip, newsletter of the Santa Cruz County Amateur Radio Club.