When Baby Face’s mug was in Douglas County
“If all reports are true, Baby Face Nelson, with several pals, paid Gardnerville a visit several weeks ago. From here, the gang went to Hawthorne, living in the outskirts of that town for several days and then vanished. Federal officers, it is reported, were several days behind the fugitives but hope to apprehend them before many weeks go by.”
— The Record-Courier, Nov. 16, 1934
Nelson did more than pay Gardnerville a visit. The infamous killer actually spent the last month of his life hiding out at Walley’s Hot Springs, local historian Michael Fischer explained during his “Baby Face Nelson” presentation at the Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park.
After mention of Nelson in the Locals column of The Record-Courier, in fact, 11 days would pass before authorities killed Nelson in a gun fight in Wilmett, Ill. on Nov. 27, 1934, just two days before Thanksgiving and less than two weeks before his 26th birthday.
“And that signaled the end of Baby Face Nelson, or Lester Gillis, the only Most Wanted Criminal ever to live in Douglas County as a most wanted criminal,” Fischer informed an audience of more than three dozen on Aug. 13, including visitors from Las Vegas and the Bay Area.
Fischer, a retired dentist and former Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs director, gave his presentation as part of the park’s Ferris Family Speaker Series with assistance of Nevada Humanities.
“Looks like a nice man, doesn’t he?,” Fischer asked as he pointed to a photograph of the youthful-looking Nelson.
Nelson — born Lester Joseph Gillis, and who stood all of 5-foot-4, 135 pounds — spent a considerable amount of time in Nevada from 1932-34 as he tried to stay one step ahead of federal authorities on charges that ranged from armed robbery to murder in the Midwest.
Nelson was actually directed to Reno on a suggestion from the Roger Touhy Gang in Chicago. In Reno, Nelson found protection from Bill Graham and James “Cinch” McKay, whose political and business connections covered almost the entire state.
“Their level of influence was so great that if a federal person was going to come into Reno, they had someone in the Department of Justice who would call the sheriff, who would tell Graham and McKay,” Fischer said. “Before the guy got there, they knew he was coming. It was known as the fastest tip-off system in the West and it extended all the way to the governor’s mansion (then Gov. Fred Balzar).
“If Nelson would get in trouble in one place, say the Midwest, he would go to Reno, then go back to Midwest or later to San Antonio. The bottom line was that whereever they were looking for him, he would try to be some place else.”
Was Nelson a vicious killer and borderline psychopath? Consider one story from an incident when he worked as a chauffeur for Graham and McKay.
“One night he was driving McKay up to the Cal Neva (at Lake Tahoe) from Reno and he got pulled over by a highway patrolman for having a tail light out,” Fischer said. “Anybody have any idea what Nelson’s reaction was to being pulled over? He pulled his gun and he was going to kill the highway patrolman so that he wouldn’t be recognized. McKay starts talking to him and said, ‘Oh, no. I have lots of influence here. Don’t worry; I’ll talk our way out of this. We won’t even get a ticket,’ which turned out to be true. But that set in McKay’s mind that Nelson was way too erratic and way too close to coming unhinged at any moment.”
Nelson is believed to be responsible for the abduction and murder of Roy J. Frisch, a former Reno city councilman and cashier at George Wingfield’s Riverside Bank. Frisch was scheduled to testify as the chief witness in a federal case against McKay and Graham before his disappearance on March 22, 1934. There were reports Frisch was dumped in a mine shaft in Wonder (Churchill County) or possibly in Lake Tahoe, but his body has never been recovered.
Nelson began to run out of hiding places by October 1934, so he took to the roads of rural Nevada and eventually Carson Valley, with its population of about 200.
“They stayed here from October until about mid-November,” Fischer said. “They would go to town. There was a barber shop by the J&T back then that eventually moved to the Minden Inn. Nelson went in and got his hair cut … members of the gang went into town and buy groceries at Glock’s Groceries.”
Fischer said one day a federal agent and assistant U.S. attorney avoided death at Walley’s Hot Springs.
“Nelson, John Paul Chase, Sally Bachman (Chase’s girlfriend) and (Joseph) Fatso Negri were living in one of these cabins which are all still there,” Fischer said.
Nelson had been tipped off the authorities were on their way, and waited on the hillside with a high-powered rifle. Fischer initially didn’t believe the story, until he read a story in one of the crime tabloids and later spoke to the son of agent John T. McLaughlin.
“It’s an assistant U.S. attorney and McLaughlin and they picked up sheriff’s deputies in Carson City,” Fischer said. “Just as they pulled in, the assistant U.S. attorney said, ‘I’ve got a real problem.’ He’s looking at his watch and McLaughlin’s still driving and he goes, ‘What’s the problem?’ He said, ‘My mother-in-law’s coming in on the train at 4 o’clock and if I’m not there, I’m dead meat.’ So McLaughlin flips around without any trouble and goes back to Reno. Nelson had actually waited for them to come so he could get a clear shot … so the mother-in-law saved both those guys’ lives.”