We still didn’t think we had anything but a crazy drunk and both of us took him out to the car. He was dressed in his underwear and shoes only, with an expensive fur coat over them. I made the crack about being a drugstore cowboy when we were taking him out.
Kast went in to call headquarters and I stayed with DeVol. I figured I would have no trouble in handling him. But just as Kast stepped out, DeVol dove for me in the back seat and got both hands around my throat. I grappled with him and he sank his teeth into my left wrist and hand. I kicked the door open and dragged him out onto the pavement.
We rolled there for a second and then DeVol broke away and started to run across the street. I caught up to him and hit him over the head with the butt of my gun. Kast had heard the commotion and came running out and also hit DeVol.
He didn’t attempt to escape again and in a few minutes several other squads arrived and they found the bank loot and guns in the apartment. It was not until then we realized what sort of criminal we had been fighting with.
— Patrolman George Hammergren, The Minneapolis Star, December 19, 1932
St. Paul Policeman George Hammergren and his partner, Officer Kast, had arrested one of the most wanted criminals of their day. Lawrence DeVol was the look out man during a holdup of the Third Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis by the Barker-Karpis gang on December 16, 1932. The gang escaped with $22,000 in cash and $92,000 in bonds. Lawrence shot and killed two police officers during the getaway.
Holed up in a rented St. Paul apartment with a bandit pal after the heist, Lawrence went out on the evening of December 18, 1932, dressed only in underpants and a coat. (In search of cigs, booze, drugs or all three?) When he returned he got confused and banged on the wrong apartment door, demanding to be let in. The man who lived in the apartment had no idea who he was and told him to “get going.” Lawrence wandered down the hall and returned to the apartment, waving his revolver. Peeking through the safety chain and seeing the gun, the man became alarmed, slammed the door and called police. Meanwhile Lawrence wandered off, found the correct apartment and entered, leaving the door ajar.
Officers Hammergren and Kast arrived at the apartment building for what they thought would be a straightforward nuisance call. They located the open apartment door, went in and found a man getting dressed. They asked him where the man with the “rod” was. He pointed to the bedroom, stating, “He’s been drinking and got a little boisterous, but he hasn’t got a rod of any kind.” Hammergren went into the bedroom and found Lawrence, clad only in his underpants, pointing a gun at him. Hammergren grabbed both Lawrence’s hands but was unable to get the gun from him. He yelled for Kast and the three scuffled, eventually extracting the gun from Lawrence. Figuring him to be “just a crazy drunk” they didn’t bother to handcuff him before taking him outside and putting him in the squad car. Meanwhile the other man escaped.
Born on November 17, 1903 in Belpre, Ohio, Lawrence was the middle of three sons of Helem and Emma (Shanks) DeVol. On his father’s side the family traced their ancestry back to Plymouth Colony and the Mayflower. Helem moved his family to Tulsa, Oklahoma when Lawrence was six. He found work in the oil fields and he died there in 1917.
Lawrence got his start in crime at a tender age and by the time he turned 11, he was labeled “incorrigible” and was sent to reform school in Oklahoma. His brothers, Albert and Clarence, also joined the criminal ranks, but it was Lawrence who evolved into a big-time gangster and garnered most of the headlines. By the time he reached his late twenties, Lawrence had a rap sheet that included numerous convictions for grand larceny and burglary. He’d served multiple prison terms, accumulated 17 aliases and was wanted by police in ten states.
He became acquainted with gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis at the State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1928. Together the pair escaped in 1929 and pulled off several robberies. They were later arrested in Kansas City, where Lawrence was able to post bail and skip town, leaving Creepy behind. He carried out another string of heists that culminated in the fatal shooting a police officer in Kirksville, Missouri. He also managed to escape custody there, but in addition to robbery he was now wanted for murder, and not just any murder, but the murder of a cop.
Lawrence headed to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he hooked up with his old pal, Creepy (who apparently had forgiven him for the earlier ditch), and Creepy’s friends Fred and Arthur “Doc” Barker, along with members of their gang. The men pulled off bank robberies in Minnesota, Kansas and North Dakota before going to Minneapolis for the December 16th robbery.
Hammergen and his partner, Kast, were lucky that when they captured Lawrence that cold December night, he was out of his head with drink. In full control of his senses there’s no doubt he wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot them.
Bleary-eyed, with his face scuffed and still wearing only his fur coat and (presumably) underpants and shoes, his mugshots were taken at the St. Paul police station. Two days later the Minneapolis police photographed a cleaned up and far-from-contrite-looking Lawrence after he’d been charged with bank robbery and murder. He’s still wearing his beloved fur coat, but this time he’s also sporting a suit, tie and hat. On his way into Minneapolis city hall, a news photographer got a double exposure photo of DeVol, who was apparently still edgy after his capture in St. Paul, causing him to jump when the photographer’s flashbulb went off.
He pleaded guilty to the murder of policemen Ira Evans and Leo Gorsky and was given a life sentence. First sent to the Stillwater penitentiary, he was moved to the St. Peter Hospital for the Criminally Insane on December 27, 1935 — it turned out to be a late Christmas gift of sorts for Lawrence.
Psychiatrists at St. Peter’s described him as suffering from a mania called “Dementia Praecox Catatonia.” The condition was characterized, they claimed, by “unbalanced judgment, delusions, hallucinations, alternating apathy and indifference, and tremendous and often violent excitement. The victim’s memory remains good, however, he does not lose the capacity to understand situations and act.” That should have been a warning to anyone familiar with Lawrence and his criminal history.
Unlike his psychiatrists, Lawrence understood perfectly the opportunity that was presented to him and he wasted no time in taking advantage of it. He organized a successful escape from the hospital, along with fifteen other dangerous criminals, the following July.
A nationwide search wound up in Enid, Oklahoma, when police officers located him in a tavern on July 7, 1936. Asked to accompany them back to the station for questioning, he said, “Let me finish drinking my beer.” While draining the mug with one hand, he pulled out his gun with the other and opened fire, wounding one officer and killing the other. Though he fled the scene, this time there would be no getaway. With more Enid officers in hot pursuit, Lawrence James DeVol was shot nine times and killed a few blocks from the tavern where he enjoyed his final beer.
Featured photo: mugshots of Lawrence DeVol taken December 18, 1932. Collection of the author.
Additional mugshots and news photo of St. Peter’s Hospital escaped men from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.