Home News Stories 2004 November A Byte Out of History - Last Hours of "Baby Face" Nelson
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A Byte Out of History - Last Hours of "Baby Face" Nelson

A Byte Out of History
Man on the Run: The Last Hours of “Baby Face” Nelson

Car circa 1930s with inset photos of Nelson, Inspector Cowley, Agent Hollis, and John Chase


He was a protege of Alvin Karpis and a partner of John Dillinger.

But Lester Gillis, better known by his alias George “Baby Face” Nelson, was far too ruthless and reckless for even those hardened gangsters. Despite his boyish looks (thus the nickname), Nelson was a callous killer with a violent temper. Eventually even Dillinger refused to rob banks with him. Nelson ended up killing three FBI agents, more than anyone in history.

The FBI’s search for Nelson intensified in July 1934, after Dillinger was killed by Bureau agents. Seventy years ago this past weekend, we closed in. Here’s the story of the outlaw’s last hours...and the ultimate price paid by the two agents who ended his violent career.

November 27, 2:00 p.m.: Two Bureau agents on a stake-out in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (about 60 miles northwest of Chicago), encounter Nelson. Nelson flees but is later spotted nearby by another agent, who gets his license plate number. With Nelson are his wife, Helen Gillis, and John Paul Chase, Nelson’s long-time partner.

Around 2:45 p.m.: Samuel P. Cowley, an FBI agent and Inspector who is in Chicago to spearhead the search for Nelson, learns that “Baby Face” may be heading towards Chicago. Cowley immediately sends agents Bill Ryan and Tom McDade out to look for Nelson’s car on the highway. He then grabs Agent Herman “Ed” Hollis and heads out in a second car.

Circa 3:15 p.m.: Agents Ryan and McDade notice Nelson heading south on the highway; they make a u-turn and pursue him. Nelson sees them and makes two u-turns of his own so that he’s now following the agents. A fire-fight begins. Although outgunned, Agent Ryan pierces the radiator of Nelson’s car. Nelson’s car sputters, and the agents race ahead and pull over.

Moments Later: Agents Cowley and Hollis pass Nelson on the highway. Hollis makes a u-turn and follows. His car disabled, Nelson pulls off the road near a park in Barrington, Illinois. Nelson and Chase get out and take up positions with their weapons. Hollis skids to a stop about 150 feet past the outlaw’s car. Chase and Nelson immediately open fire (see the agents’ bullet-ridden vehicle above). Both agents jump out of their car and return fire. Hollis is killed; Cowley is mortally wounded. Nelson is hurt badly, with 17 gunshot wounds. But he gets in the FBI car with his partners and speeds off.

Around 8:00 p.m.: Nelson dies in Wilmette, 16 miles north of downtown Chicago.

November 28, 2:17 a.m.: Inspector Cowley dies.

Circa 12:30 p.m.: Acting on a tip, police find Nelson’s body in a ditch near a cemetery.

Post Script: Both Chase and Helen Gillis were caught within the month and sent to jail, closing the chapter on the Nelson gang.

For more information on “Baby Face” Nelson, visit our famous cases history page