By Wade Coggeshall
INDIANAPOLIS — A piece of history from a historic, and notorious, Indiana figure is now on display at Indianapolis International Airport.
A 1933 Essex Terraplane, which served as a getaway car for bank robber John Dillinger, may now be viewed in the ticketing hall between the American Airlines and US Airways counters at the airport. It will remain on display there until March 2015.
The artifact is on loan from the Crime Museum in Washington, D.C.
"I'm so excited to have it in Indiana," said Janine Vaccarello, the museum's chief operating officer, who was on hand for the car's unveiling at the airport. "It's appropriate because this is the birthplace of John Dillinger."
Carlo Bertolini, the Indianapolis Airport Authority's public information officer, became aware of the car's availability while researching display opportunities.
"We agreed with (the Crime Museum) that it definitely has historical relevancy with its Indiana roots," he said. "It's (displayed) pre-security, so it's pretty accessible. We think people checking in will have their picture snapped with it and just generally appreciate the historical connection."
It's one of two Dillinger cars owned by the Crime Museum. Dillinger bought the Essex in March 1934 from Potthoff Brothers Motor Company in St. Paul, Minn. He and his brother, Hubert, used it until April 7 of that year when they crashed it into a tree in a farm field. On March 31, 1934, Dillinger and his girlfriend, Evelyn Frechette, were involved in a shootout with police at the Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul. Dillinger was shot in his left leg. Two slugs from that shootout can still be seen in the Essex's front cowl panel.
"This car is a big part of our nation's history," said Vaccarello, noting that Dillinger and his gang were instrumental in the government forming the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "The government wanted to capture them so badly. They knew they needed to go beyond the local level to federal."
Walt Smith, a retired Indiana State Police trooper, was on hand for the car's unveiling. He saw the first movie made about Dillinger as a child and has been fascinated with him ever since.
"He continued to be popular and I continued to be interested," Smith said. "He did more things in 13 months than I could in 74 years."
Over the years Smith has visited several of the banks that Dillinger robbed. He also went to Tucson, Ariz., where Dillinger was once arrested, and shot one of the machine guns he used. Smith even went to Dillinger's family home and met his half-sister. Dillinger's half-brother worked for the Indiana State Police and once changed the sparkplugs on Smith's cruiser.
Smith doesn't think Dillinger's crime spree could be duplicated today.
"It was a different era," he said. "There were no police radios. This car was faster than police cars. John had better weapons than they had."
The Crime Museum owns another of Dillinger's cars, as well as his plaster death mask, once a common practice to show proof of quietus for famous people. Their collection dates from colonial times to the modern era.
"It's important people see how this country has evolved," Vaccarello said. "Almost every subject you see - movies, news, TV - is crime-based. It seems appropriate to have a museum dedicated to that."