CROWN POINT | Depression-era gangster John Dillinger wrote several infamous chapters in Northwest Indiana history in 1934 and, as a result, became the FBI’s Public Enemy No. 1.
On Sunday, the Public Enemy Fest debuted at the Lake County Fairgrounds and saluted law enforcement rather than the violent criminal. It also raised money for various local charities.
“I am a history buff and appreciate that we had this piece of national history right here in Crown Point,” said organizer Tim Fealy, of Hometown Happenings, an event planning company. “Not all history is favorable. A few people were concerned (about the festival’s name), but this is supporting law enforcement.”
Two rare pieces of Dillinger history were on display during the festival. Both date to the gangster’s escape from the Lake County Jail in Crown Point on March 3, 1934.
The original wooden gun Dillinger used in his jail break was brought to the festival by representatives of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority. It was the first time the gun has been in Crown Point since Dillinger’s escape.
During that infamous jail escape, Dillinger also stole a tommy gun that was on loan to Lake County from the Porter County sheriff. It was used later in bank robberies by Dillinger and his gang.
Recovered from an FBI warehouse in the early 2000s, the tommy gun is displayed at the Porter County Sheriff’s Department. Porter County Sheriff Dave Lain authorized its appearance at the Public Enemies Festival, said Officer Chad Crosby.
Crowds also gathered to watch members of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department Aviation Unit land the department’s helicopter.
Housed at the Griffith Airport, the 4-year-old helicopter is the only police copter in the area, said Sgt. George Nestorovich, a member of the Aviation Unit.
“We go all over Indiana,” Nestorovich said.
“On average we respond to 1,000 calls and have assisted 45 other police agencies and the Secret Service,” he said. “We’re big with Indiana Homeland Security and they have provided us with upgraded equipment.”
Members of the Northwest Regional SWAT Team were also on hand with the RV-size command vehicle to inform the public about their work and explain the various pieces of equipment used.
Established in 1992, the 25-member SWAT team covers nine communities throughout Lake County. The team is dispatched through the Merrillville Police Department and on call 24/7/365, said Merrillville Police Sgt. Robert Morgan, NWRS commander.
“Our team is responsible for the protection of approximately 200,000 residents in an area that is over 130 square miles,” Morgan said. “Our mission is to provide member agencies with a tactical response to critical incidents such as barricaded gunman, armed suicidal subjects and felony warrant service to name a few.”
The SWAT team is seeking donations to help buy a $220,000 Bearcat armed rescue vehicle. To date, $140,000 has been raised, he said.
“The Bearcat will not only keep our team safe from gunfire, but will also serve to shield and protect innocent citizens in any type of high-risk situation,” Morgan said.
Crown Point Police Department’s K-9 unit brought Buddy, Ace and Radar to the festival to demonstrate how the German shepherds work in concert with their human partners, Cpl. Jeff Eldridge, Patrolman Dave Wilkins and Patrolman Stanko Gligic.
“The dogs are trained in tracking, narcotics (detection), bite/aggression and obedience,” said Eldridge, who heads the unit. “They respond to commands in German and hand signals.”
In keeping with the 1930s-themed festival, a vintage car contest featured vehicles from the 1920s and 1930s.
“Dillinger and other criminals liked Ford cars because Ford came out with a V-8 engine in 1932. They could outrun most police cars,” said Jim Lambert, of Kouts, who displayed his 1934 Ford sedan.
The car was used in Chicago during filming of Michael Mann’s 2008 movie “Public Enemies” starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis.
Winners of the vintage car contest were Grant and Barbara Hagberg, of Crown Point, who own a 1929 Ford Roadster Pickup.