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Shootout in downtown Willmar

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The morning of July 15, 1930, was warm, sunny and tranquil -- until it erupted in a storm of bullets as a gang of five armed men robbed the Bank of Willmar, making off with thousands of dollars in cash and bonds. As they drove off in their getaway car, they scattered tacks behind them to slow pursuit.

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Except for a few surviving witnesses and local history buffs, the daring robbery and shoot-out in the heart of downtown Willmar has mostly faded from memory.

It's a fate shared by many stories from one of the most colorful and chaotic eras in American history, laments Wisconsin author and researcher Chad Lewis.

"A lot of these are unfortunately like a lot of history -- put on the back burner and forgotten about," he said.

With his new book, "The Minnesota Road Guide to Gangster Hot Spots," Lewis hopes to rekindle interest in the gangster era and the swath that the likes of John Dillinger, George "Baby Face" Nelson and Alvin Karpis cut across Minnesota in the 1930s.

Lewis has a fascination with the strange and unusual. While crisscrossing the Midwest to research for a collection of ghost stories, he kept bumping into gangster tales and encountering locations where some of the more notorious gangsters were said to have hidden out.

Lewis found his interest piqued.

"I was just amazed at the history that was available," he said. "A lot of times people had no idea what had taken place there."

The result is his latest book, a tour guide replete with bad guys, lawlessness and scenes of the crime.

The Bank of Willmar robbery is in there. So are the 1932 hold-up of Citizens State Bank in Redwood Falls and various shoot-outs on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Lewis spent months on research. He pored through old newspapers, traveled to each location and, in some cases, managed to talk to descendants of some of the eyewitnesses.

"For me it was an adventure. I got to experience so many things," he said.

With the passage of time, many of the witnesses have long since died. But they left their stories behind, and Lewis relied on these to add color to his tales.

"Some of my favorite quotes were from eyewitnesses," he said.

The Willmar Tribune reported, for instance, that when the gunmen entered the Bank of Willmar at 10:15 a.m. on July 15, 1930, they ordered everyone to lie down on the floor. One of the employees asked if he should keep his head down, to which a gunman allegedly responded, "Damn you, yes, or I'll fill you with lead."

Lewis discovered the story of the Bank of Willmar robbery while researching the murder of three gangsters whose bodies were found Aug. 13, 1930, in a park in Mahtomedi. One of them was a suspect in the Willmar bank heist which had taken place a month earlier. Contemporary news accounts speculated there was a dispute over how to divide the loot that ended in the three execution-style deaths.

In its day, the Bank of Willmar robbery was considered one of the most daring in state history. Three armed men entered the bank and cleaned out thousands of dollars' worth of cash and bonds. A fourth man stood guard outside with a machine gun and the fifth stayed behind the wheel of the getaway car.

Upon hearing the alarm, three downtown businessmen grabbed their guns and headed over to the bank. They fired several shots at the getaway driver and the lookout man, prompting a spray of machine-gun fire in return. As the rest of the crew exited the bank, using bank employees as human shields, more gunfire was exchanged.

Miraculously, no one was killed, although two women in the crowd were hit by stray bullets and the getaway driver also was apparently injured.

The robbery was never officially solved. Unofficially, however, it's believed the five bandits were Sammy Silverman, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert Steinhardt, Harvey Bailey and Verne Miller.

The Bank of Willmar building now belongs to Christianson and Associates PLLP. John Christianson, the firm's principal partner, knew some of the building's history when he bought it in 2006, and learned many more details from conversations with former Willmar Mayor Richard Hoglund, who was a child when the robbery and shootout took place.

"I spent some time with Richard because he is a great historian of downtown," Christianson said. "He pointed out where the getaway car was and where the shots were fired in the intersection."

Christianson finds the building's history "interesting and intriguing."

"We haven't run into any gangster folklore," he said. "There's probably some people that are not crazy about being downstairs at night."

The building still contains four vaults, including the original vault. Recent remodeling revealed the massive iron trusses that hold up the roof.

"We appreciate the history associated with this building and the history of serving as a financial institution for all these years," Christianson said. "It's really a privilege to be here."

Lewis paid a visit to Willmar while researching his book and managed to see the interior of the former bank building, as well as soak up the downtown atmosphere.

"You can still imagine the men driving up in their big Buick," he said. "I was able to get a tour of the original vault in the basement."

While some Minnesota towns have capitalized on their gangster past, in others it has been forgotten, Lewis said.

He said he hopes his book will spark people's interest in rediscovering this colorful chapter of history.

Movies such as "Miller's Crossing" and "The Untouchables" reflect the enduring appeal of the gangster story, Lewis said. "It was a different lifestyle and a different time. These guys were really the ultimate adventurers back then. They had the ultimate freedom. There is a romance to it... It was just a great time. I wish I could have been a witness."

For more information on how to obtain "The Minnesota Road Guide to Gangster Hot Spots," visit www.unexplainedresearch.com.

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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