Known to many of that generation as Public Enemy Number 1 or George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, Lester M. Gillis reportedly used Mineral County to hide out from authorities.
As reported in the Mineral County Independent-News, Nelson had been spotted throughout the county and enough sightings were shared that a federal officer stopped long enough to check the reported actives of the criminal as he and his companions, wife, Helen and partner in crime, John Paul Chase, headed west for safety.
Nelson had a long history of crime under his belt, mostly theft, where he earned his name after a victim described him as having “a baby face with a brown felt hat”. A tavern robbery on Nov. 26, 1930, would have Nelson killing his first victim, a stockbroker. Two others died in the robbery and three were left injured.
A part of the Tape Bandits, whose habit was securing their victims with tape, fled and most were rounded up by the winter of 1931. Nelson would find himself in the Joliet penitentiary, but not for long. He escaped and went on the lam taking shelter in Reno.
It was during this time that the sightings of Nelson would become evident to those in Mineral County.
Little credence was given to the story of Nelson in our area during election time until Camelia, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. M. Thompson declared that she saw the desperado bandit. Tex Hall, another resident, collaborated her story after he passed the party heading over Lucky Boy grade.
On Nov. 7, 1934, Carl Bloom would head to Bodie after voting in Hawthorne and was stopped by a man meeting the description of Nelson. After Bloom identified himself he was permitted to make his way to Bodie. Walter McKeough of Aurora also believed he saw Nelson in Aurora. The sightings become frequent and many.
The federal officer, who reported to the Mineral County Independent-News, said that the stories may check with more recent reports from California where Department of Justice agents are now at work in an effort to close in on Nelson and his companions. The fact that Nelson was in Bodie shortly after the time he was supposed to have been in Hawthorne has almost definitely been established.
Left behind by the federal officer at the Independent-News would be a photograph of Nelson and notice of reward. The United States government offering $5,000 for the capture of the criminal and $2,500 for information leading to his arrest.
Six days after the notice appeared on the front page of the Independent-News in Hawthorne, “Baby Face” Nelson was mortally wounded in a shoot-out with Federal Agents William Ryan and Thomas McDade on Highway 14 heading towards Chicago, Ill. It is rumored that he lived only long enough for his wife; Helen to have a Catholic priest read him his last rights. Helen would wander the streets of Chicago, becoming the first female Public Enemy.
Though Nelson was dead, his name would arise almost four months later when J. M. Benedict of Walker Lake, would travel to Chicago in March of 1935 where he and his wife were called to testify against John Paul Chase, partner in crime of Nelson. Chase was convicted of aiding “Baby Face” Nelson in the murder of two federal agents in one of his many shootouts.
Mrs. Benedict continued onto San Francisco where she was called upon to testify against Nevada and California residents who had aided in the harboring of Nelson and Chase, the previous fall.
Unbeknownst to the Benedicts who had ran the Mt. Grant Lodge at Walker Lake, the desperate criminals, identity unknown to guests and owners, alike, took refuge at the Lodge, 12 miles north of Hawthorne, the previous August.
The stories of “Baby Face” Nelson and his gang could continue through history – whereas his time in Mineral County, looking at Walker Lake, in its heyday, slowly fades into the limelight.