Walter Walsh — oldest Olympian and FBI legend who found Baby Face Nelson’s body — dies at 106
FROM STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS May 8, 2014 4:58PM
Walter Walsh, in a 1934 FBI photo. The legendary former FBI special agent also was the world's oldest living Olympian until his death April 29 — six days shy of what would have been his 107th birthday.
Updated: June 10, 2014 6:55AM
ARLINGTON, Va. — Walter R. Walsh, an FBI sharp-shooter who hunted down two legendary gangsters in Depression-era Chicago, has died. He was 106.
Mr. Walsh died at his home in Arlington, Virginia, on April 29 — six days shy of his 107th birthday.
He’d been the oldest living former Olympian ever since last year, when he reached the age of 105 years and 321 days. That surpassed a record that had been held by German-born gymnast Rudolph Schrader, who competed for the United States in the 1904 St. Louis Games and died in 1981.
Mr. Walsh — who honed his shooting skills as a boy by picking clothespins off a clothesline with a BB gun — finished 12th in the 50-meter free pistol competition at the 1948 London Olympics. He was 41 by then and already had proven his prowess as a marksman with the FBI and the Marine Corps.
He was also the oldest ex-FBI special agent, having engaged in storied, guns-blazing shootouts with some of the nation’s most infamous gangsters.
And he was the oldest ex-Marine, having trained generations of Marine sharpshooters and taken part in the invasion of Okinawa in World War II.
“He was the oldest everything,” Walter Walsh Jr. said after his father’s funeral service Monday in the Washington, D.C., suburb. “And he was the oldest dad I ever had.”
For his 100th birthday, in 2007, Mr Walsh’s family got three birthday three cakes. One bore the Marine Corps seal, another the FBI seal and the other the interlocking rings of the Olympic Games.
During the Depression, Mr. Walsh was instrumental in the capture and killing of several gangsters, starting when he was an FBI rookie in 1934.
Soon after signing on with the FBI at the age of 27, “He found himself in the middle of a battle with a group of gun-slinging gangsters that would become legend in the history of crime,” John Miller, assistant director for public affairs, says on the FBI’s website in a video recorded at the agency’s 100-year anniversary celebration with the then-101-year-old Mr. Walsh in attendance. “Acting on a tip, it was Walsh who discovered the body of Chicago gangster Baby Face Nelson.”
He found the body in a ditch in Skokie after the mortally wounded gangster had gotten away following the shootout in Barrington.
Two months later, in early 1935, Mr. Walsh helped catch Arthur “Doc” Barker — son of the notorious “Ma” Barker — of the Barker Gang, who was wanted for three murders, bank robbery and kidinaping.
Here’s how the FBI’s Miller described it: “Walsh arrested one of the gangster era’s most notorious public enemies — Arthur ‘Doc” Barker. Barker, along with his brother and mother ‘Ma’ Barker.
“Doc Barker had been trailed to a Chicago apartment building, where Walsh caught the unarmed suspect off-guard.”
On the FBI anniversary video, Mr. Walsh — snowy-haired and dressed in a powder-blue suit — recalled what happened after trailing Barker to the building near his hideout and running up and putting his .45 to Barker’s head after the gangster fell on an icy sidewalk.
“I asked him, ‘Where’s your heater, Doc?’ He said, ‘It’s up in the apartment.’ I said, ‘You’re lucky, Doc. Ain’t that a hell of a place for it?’
“He was ready to be shot if he tried to run. … Lucky for him he didn’t because he was close enough he’d be hard to miss.”
Mr. Walsh’s most famous case came two years later, in 1937, when he posed as a clerk selling guns at a sporting goods store in Bangor, Maine, to capture Public Enemy No. 1, Alfred Brady, and end the Brady Gang’s deadly cross-country robbery spree. He quickly disarmed one of them as the man entered the store and helped gun down the others despite being shot himself — in the chest, shoulder and right hand.
Again, from the FBI video:
Miller: “The chase came to a head in September 1937. Having terrorized the Midwest and points east, Alfred Brady and two members of his gang — Clarence Shaffer and James Dalhover — traveled to Bangor, Maine, to stock up on ammunition and weapons.”
FBI historian Dr. John Fox: “Of course, their needs were a little special. They wanted magazines that could hold lots of bullets and were even looking for a Thompson submachine gun if they could purchase it. And it set off the warning lights for the manager of the store, who then talked to the local police, and that was how eventually we got drawn in.”
Miller: “Agents knew that the Brady gang would be back. So they set up a stakeout with local police, positioning themselves to cover as many angles as possible.”
Fox: “We had agents out on the street at different points pretending to do different businesses or being pedestrians, that sort of thing, and waiting for the gang to appear. So Walsh is pretending to be a salesman in the store. And he’s basically working as a clerk, doing the job for a couple days that the stakeout’s going. And Dalhover comes in. Dalhover is immediately arrested by Walsh and the other agent in the store.”
Mr. Walsh: “He was asked, ‘Where are your pals?’ He said, ‘They’re outside.’ And I started toward the door.”
Fox: “And as they are asking him where are your partners, Shaffer is coming in to the store. And seeing the agents with Dalhover, having arrested him, Shaffer begins firing at them.”
Mr. Walsh: “One of these people started in, and he and I met in the doorway, and that’s where the shooting took place.”
Mr. Walsh, carrying a gun in each hand, and Shaffer saw each other through the glass door as they both approached it. Both started firing.
Fox: “Shaffer’s mortally wounded. He makes it down the steps and back onto the street but dies there. And, of course, meanwhile, our other agents are beginning to converge on the car where Brady was waiting for them. And Brady says something along the lines of, ‘I’m coming out.’ But, as he’s coming out, he starts firing his own weapon, and the agents return fire, and Brady’s killed.”
Mr. Walsh took a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1938 and went on active duty in 1942, eventually serving on the front lines with the First Marine Division, and spent more than 20 years as a shooting instructor for the Marines after the war before his retirement, with the rank of colonel, in 1970.
Mr. Walsh’s skill as a marksman once landed him a photo spread in Life magazine. He won gold and silver for the United States at the 1952 International Shooting Sport Federation championships and was Team Leader of the U.S. shooting team at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was inducted into the USA Shooting Hall of Fame last September.
At Mr. Walsh’s funeral Mass on Monday at St. Ann Church, where he was, naturally, the oldest parishioner, his daughter Rosemary Haas said of his exploits as a G-man: “All of that is true, but shootouts with gangsters do not tell you who he was at his core. This does.”
She read a letter he sent her on Marine Corps stationery in 1953, for her 13th birthday.
“Today is a very important one in your life, and in mine, too, and my heart is so full of love for you and of Chicago . . . that i don’t know where to start or what words to use,” the letter began.
It contained advice that might sound old-fashioned, though it never seems to go out of fashion. Play hard, he told her, and enjoy. Do your work promptly and well. Be considerate.
“He didn’t just write these words, he believed them,” Haas said. “No, he lived them.”
Walter Rudolph Walsh was born in West Hoboken, New Jersey, on May 4, 1907. He was married for 43 years, until his wife Kathleen’s death in 1980.
Beside his son Walter Jr. and daughter Rosemary Haas, survivors include his son Gerald, daughters Linda Walsh and Kathleen Reams and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Burial was at Arlington National Cemetery.
Contributing: Gannett News Service, AP