Dillinger's Dupes
Town Seeks to Preserve a Jail
Yet Escape a Dastardly Deed

John Dillinger (in vest) poses in the Crown Point, Indiana jail in1934.
Sheriff Lillian Holley, far left.
By Anthony DeBartolo

     CROWN POINT, Ind. - No one really cares to talk about it. Not the local chamber of commerce, not the Old Sheriff's House Foundation and especially not 96-year-old Mrs. Lillian Holley, the old sheriff.

     A number of citizens in this Lake County seat, pop. 16,500, are attempting to save and redevelop the 106-year-old former sheriff's residence, along with the original portion of the adjoining jail. Both sit near ruin on Main Street, abandoned by the county more than a decade ago.

     What they don't wish to talk about is that on March 3, 1934, while awaiting trial for the alleged murder of an East Chicago policeman, John Herbert Dillinger, the most notorious outlaw in the nation at the time, reportedly took command of Sheriff Holley's heavily armed jail, using a toy gun whittled from the top of a wooden washboard and coated with black shoe polish. In the process he locked up 33 people, including the warden and a dozen deputies.

Dillinger poses with a toy gun.

Dillinger further embarrassed the town, as well as then-42-year-old Holley, by driving off in her brand new V-8 Ford. The press augmented her chagrin with such headlines as: "Slim woman, mother of twins, controlled Dillinger as sheriff."

     Incensed, Holley declared at the time, "If I ever see John Dillinger again, I'll shoot him dead with my own gun. Don't blame anyone else for this escape. Blame me. I have no political career ahead of me and I don`t care."

     Mrs. Holley, saved the trouble of shooting Dillinger by the FBI four months later during the famed ambush at Chicago's Biograph Theatre, had become county sheriff in January, 1933. She succeeded her husband, Roy Holley, after he was slain in a gun battle 17 days into his second 4-year term.

     Their former home, along with the first 25 feet of the 3-story, approximate 100-cell jail behind the house, deserves salvation, say champions of the planned restoration, solely because of its local historical and architectural significance. The memory of Dillinger's daring escape, romanticized by one reporter as "marked by desperate courage, unhurried precision and an occasional laugh for punctuation," apparently does not.

     Architecturally, the 1882 2-story red- brick house is a rare and striking example of the European Second Empire style, local preservationists contend; historically, the structure represents the first permanent residence used by Lake Country sheriffs and their families. For 76 years, until 1958, county sheriffs were required by law to live next to the jail.

     "Some people are just adamant about not playing it up at all. The majority just don't care about Dillinger," said Donna Gruber, president of the Crown Point Chamber of Commerce and a director of the Old Sheriff's House Foundation.

     "There`s too many other things about Crown Point worth investigation, of finding out about. The Dillinger thing is of interest to tourists, not the townspeople," she said. "I think if the town wants to make a name for itself, it wants to do it without Dillinger."

     John Heidbreder, the president and driving force behind the foundation, more than agrees. Indeed, Heidbreder steadfastly refused to comment for any story written about the old house and jail if Dillinger were even mentioned.

     "We can't be any part of that," he said sharply. "There are those (who have contributed to the foundation) who would not appreciate the attention." (Heidbreder would not reveal whether any member of the Holley family, an old and prominent one in the county, had contributed to the approximate $100,000 restoration project.)

     The town's distinctive lack of interest in the Depression-era desperado's exploits goes beyond one family's sensitivity, it seems. At least two commercial ventures endeavoring to cash in on Dillinger - a man celebrated enough to have lost three tombstones to chiseling souvenir hunters thus far - eventually failed.

     In 1976 the county auctioned off the sheriff's house and jail, together with the old criminal-courts building next door. The court house was built in 1926, along with a major expansion to the jail.

     A press report of the auction suggests that the county had hoped the new owner of the buildings would tear the jail down and with it, its compromised past.

     "Maybe somebody might want it and make a museum piece," a spokesman for the sheriff's office said at the time. "But we want it torn down."

     The buyer, a local private developer, did not oblige. The boiler house of the jail complex was turned into a gangster-motif restaurant and bar. The courthouse basement was converted to a small shopping mall.

     Though the sheriff's house was left untouched, the jail's 1st-floor rear garage was divided into a few more shops.

     A single room in the jail proper housed a modest John Dillinger Museum and the Convict Art Gallery.

     In 1986 the development fell to foreclosure. A new buyer surfaced and rechristened the salvaged venture J.D.'s Speakeasy and the Underworld Shopping Moll. Last March, they too, were foreclosed upon.

     Bank One, based in Merrillville, Ind., currently holds title to the complex and is in the process of individually selling off the court building and boiler house for development, said a bank spokesman.

     By the end of the year, the house and jail are scheduled to be donated to the city, which intends to tear down all but the oldest portion of the prison to create space for a parking lot. The remaining property then will be passed on to the foundation.

     Barring unforeseen delays, the structure`s 5,000 square feet should be ready for retail or professional office use within a year, Gruber said.

     Regardless of the eventual tenant mix, their combined rent should make the building, if not profitable, at least self-sufficient.

     Regarding Mrs. Holley, Gruber had warned: "A lot of reporters have tried to talk to her over the years. She just won't talk to reporters."

     Nevertheless, she was contacted by telephone at her home and asked if she'd like to comment on her stately residence's planned preservation.

     The former sheriff, in a strong, clear voice, replied: "I will help, certainly. But I wish to keep my name out of it."

     "You know," she added with a laugh, "things might get out of hand."

      This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune
 on November 4, 1988

© 1988  Hyde Park Media

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