Service honors FBI agent who brought down ‘Baby Face’ Nelson

Special Agent/Inspector Samuel Cowley is being honored in a service Monday in Salt Lake City, composite image | St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Utah Chapter of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI will hold a brief service Monday at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park in Salt Lake City to honor FBI Special Agent/Inspector Samuel Cowley, who died as the result of a shootout with notorious bank robber Lester Gillis, known as “Baby Face” Nelson.

This service marks 82 years since Cowley’s death. On Nov. 27, 1934, Cowley was working at the FBI’s Chicago office when he was notified that Nelson, who was the subject of a nationwide manhunt at the time, had been spotted with his wife and fellow outlaw John Paul Chase in a stolen vehicle.

Coincidentally, car theft is also how Nelson started his criminal career, even though his first “incarceration” was the result of accidentally shooting a friend in the jaw with a pistol when he was just 7 years old. In 1922, at the age of 13, Nelson was placed in a boys’ home for auto theft, according to the FBI. After two years, he was released, but he returned within five months for similar charges.

Mugshot of Lester Gills, AKA "Baby Face" Nelson, circa 1931 | St. George News
Mugshot of Lester Gills, AKA “Baby Face” Nelson, circa 1931 | St. George News

Nelson did his first stint in prison for bank robbery in 1931; however, during a transfer to stand trial for another bank robbery, Nelson escaped and ultimately fled to Sausalito, California, where he met Chase, who was involved in a liquor-smuggling operation at the time.

In 1934, Nelson, his wife and Chase joined John Herbert Dillinger’s gang and were responsible for the death of FBI Special Agent W. Carter Baum following an attempted FBI raid of the Dillinger gang’s hideout in Wisconsin and the death of three police officers following a bank robbery in Indiana.

When FBI agents spotted Nelson in November near Barrington, Illinois, Cowley and Special Agent Herman Hollis gave chase on Northwest Highway, according to the FBI. During the pursuit, Nelson suddenly pulled off the road at the entrance of the North Side Park, and before the agents could get out of their vehicle, Nelson and Chase began shooting at them with automatic weapons.

Hollis was killed during the four- to five-minute shootout. Cowley died from his wounds the next day but not before identifying Nelson, who would also die from a gunshot wound.  Cowley was buried at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park in Salt Lake City.

Monday’s program will pay tribute to Cowley’s service to his country.

It’s a sign of honor that he died in the line of duty for the United States,” Dan Ward, president of the Ex-Agents Association, said.

In addition to the good work Cowley did before his death, Ward said the agent’s actions helped eventually shut down the interstate bank robbery and kidnapping industries.

Cowley was born in Franklin, Idaho, in July 1899. He received degrees from both the Utah Agricultural College in Logan, Utah, as well as the Law School of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.  Five years after entering the FBI, he was promoted from special agent to inspector. Cowley is buried at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park. Several of his relatives are current and former members of the Bureau.

Cowley’s son will speak at Monday’s service, and a small American flag will be placed on his father’s grave. The service will take place at 1 p.m. at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park, 3401 S. Highland Drive, Salt Lake City, and will last approximately 30 minutes.

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1 Comment

  • .... November 28, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    It’s a sad day for America anytime a law enforcement officer goes down in the line of duty. they put their lives on line for us as they leave their families at home. God bless each and every one of them !

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