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Guarding the legacy of a crook

The great-nephew of John Dillinger lies in wait for those who would dare profit from his name, or worse, call the outlaw a killer.

November 08, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter and Times Staff Writer

MOORESVILLE, IND. — When it comes to protecting the memory of his great-uncle, Jeffrey Scalf sees himself as a lone sentinel.

Admittedly, it's not easy to defend the name of John H. Dillinger, a man once referred to as Public Enemy No. 1.

"For good or ill, this is my family's legacy and no one is going to take that away from me," says Scalf, 50, who readily admits his childhood fascination with the infamous outlaw has become a crusade.

He says he has been ripped off by the author and publisher of a Dillinger biography, who refused to pay him licensing fees. He feels burned by restaurateurs who use the 1930s bank robber's name to hawk burgers and beer, and cheated by a California video-game company that used Dillinger's digital likeness in a game about gangsters.

And don't even get Scalf started on civic leaders and festival organizers who stage public events using the notorious thief's name and exploits -- but won't pay him to use the name. It's highway robbery, he says.

By day, Scalf is a marketing executive for the Indiana Pacers basketball team. At night, he is at his computer, searching the Internet for information about Dillinger -- and hunting down those who would either profit from or smear his memory.

There's no disputing that his great-uncle was a mesmerizing figure. Between May 1933 and July 1934, when federal officials shot him outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, Dillinger cleaned out more than a dozen banks and destroyed thousands of mortgage records held in their vaults. Dillinger stole more than $300,000 during that 14-month period at the height of the Great Depression -- the equivalent of nearly $4.8 million in today's economy. The crime wave riveted the nation.

It was a legendary record of robbery, one that Scalf speaks of proudly. He also brags about the three daring jailbreaks, the fact that Dillinger flirted with his female hostages during bank heists and how Humphrey Bogart's big break in Hollywood came from playing a character modeled after the bandit.

When Scalf was a young farm boy growing up poor, it was this glamorized image of his great-uncle that he dreamed about: Dillinger as a man's man, a quick-witted charmer who was part playboy, part rebel.

Today, Scalf is quick to point out physical similarities between himself and Dillinger: At 5-foot-7 Scalf is about Dillinger's height, and photographs of Dillinger show the same dimpled chin, high forehead and receding hairline as Scalf. However, Scalf's cropped hair is more gray now than Dillinger's chestnut brown; Dillinger died at age 31. Also, Scalf is "quite a bit" heavier than his relative was.

Given such pride in their similarities, and a dogged sense of familial loyalty, Scalf can't understand and won't forgive those who call Dillinger a murderer.

He was charged with gunning down Police Officer William Patrick O'Malley during the January 1934 robbery of the First National Bank of East Chicago, Ind. But the case never went to trial. Dillinger was killed before the jury was selected.

Scalf insists the family has proof of his innocence, which he plans to reveal in a biography he's writing. The FBI's own website describes Dillinger as one of the era's pivotal "lurid desperadoes," but doesn't specifically state that Dillinger committed the murder, only that his gang was responsible.

Scalf does acknowledge that his hero had flaws. Dillinger went AWOL from the Navy. Ten men were killed during the robberies -- some accidentally by law enforcement -- and there were those jailhouse escapes. But such darker realities are often overshadowed in Scalf's recollections by Dillinger's more romantic exploits.

Since 2001, Scalf has filed lawsuits or threatened legal action against those who blame his great-uncle for the police officer's killing, including cafe owners, museum organizers, historical societies and rural township officials. He has demanded that anyone using the name sign a waiver promising not to portray the bandit as vicious or mean-spirited.

"John did some bad things. He lived a tragic life," says Scalf. "But he was no killer."

That claim has drawn ridicule from most historians, and those targeted by Scalf say he is the one exploiting Dillinger -- for his own profit and personal glory.

"This isn't about preserving history," says author Dary Matera, whose publisher tangled with Scalf over "John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America's First Celebrity Criminal." "It's about control and money."

Scalf admits that some of his own relatives -- who either declined to be interviewed or could not be reached for comment -- are baffled by his attempts to polish the legacy of the family's black sheep. And some people in Dillinger's adopted hometown of Mooresville, a bedroom community of nearly 9,300, are simply embarrassed by it all.

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