People & Events: Matthew Leach, 1895-1955
Captain Matthew Leach headed the Indiana State Police during the Dillinger gang's heyday. A lawman who believed in modern police methods, Leach was so highly respected that Indiana Governor Paul McNutt often consulted him directly about crime issues, instead of speaking with Leach's superior, the Commissioner of Public Safety. In the summer of 1933, Leach would meet his match in John Dillinger.
As a young man, Leach worked as a wood finisher at a factory in Illinois. He also served in World War I before going into law enforcement.
Leach believed in using psychological methods to deal with criminals. A reporter once saw him interrogate a suspect who was unwilling to give information. Leach, who stuttered badly when nervous, began to stutter while questioning the prisoner. When he clumsily reached for a pack of cigarettes, the suspect gave him his own pack. When Leach appeared to be so nervous that he could not light a cigarette, the suspect reached over and lit it for him. By this time the suspect felt so sorry for Leach that he opened up and told him everything he needed to know.
Although he had only 42 men in the entire Indiana State Police, Leach came close to capturing Dillinger several times, but never succeeded. Dillinger made countless jokes about Leach, who often blamed him for crimes he did not commit. Dillinger once said, "Some day that guy will try to have me indicted for shooting Abe Lincoln." Dillinger would even call Leach to tease him over the phone. Once he said, "This is John Dillinger. How are you, you stuttering bastard?"
After the Dillinger gang had committed several robberies the public demanded more police protection. The Attorney General of Indiana offered the Indiana State Police 530 National Guardsmen, while the American Legion formed volunteer posses. Leach thought these drastic methods would not work with the Dillinger gang. He had by then guessed that the gang's real leader was Harry Pierpont. Leach thought that by crediting Dillinger with leadership, a power struggle would follow, ultimately destroying the gang. Leach explained his plan to Indianapolis reporters, who agreed to cooperate, and thereafter referred to the group as the Dillinger gang.
Leach's strategy proved ineffective because Pierpont did not care about being in the spotlight. Dilllinger, on the other hand, liked the media attention. He saved newspaper clippings about the gang, and tried to look professional by dressing more conservatively. He also chatted people up when robbing banks, and created little signatures, like jumping over the teller's cage.
When the Dillinger gang was arrested on the run in Tucson, Arizona on January 25, 1934, Leach went there to extradite Dillinger, who greeted him politely. Pierpont, however, threatened to kill Leach for putting his mother in jail. While Mrs. Pierpont had been arrested to make her give information leading to her son's whereabouts, Leach had been against it. In fact, he had even ordered her to be set free. Leach simply told a reporter, "There's a man who really loves his mother."
When the Division of Investigation began to pursue Dillinger, they refused to collaborate with Leach. The D.O.I. prided itself in its scientific methods, like the newly popular technique of fingerprinting, and tended to look down upon local and state law enforcement agencies. Because of Leach's near successes in capturing Dillinger, his relationship with Hoover was ultimately very competitive -- each accused the other of not cooperating and sharing information, and Leach was often frustrated by what he thought was Hoover's desire to lock him out of the investigation. He, however, continued to pursue Dillinger.
After Dillinger's death, Leach claimed that the outlaw had been shot by an East Chicago police officer, and not the D.O.I. He also claimed to have evidence that Dillinger had not been armed, and that $7,000 in cash had been taken from his body.
On September 4, 1937, the Indiana State Police asked for Leach's resignation. He was charged with 13 counts of not cooperating with the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover even accused Leach of telling citizens not to cooperate with FBI special agents. Because he refused to resign, Leach was fired on September 16, 1937.
For several years Leach worked on a book about the Dillinger case. He even discussed the book with a New York publisher. While driving back to Indiana from New York, Leach and his wife were killed in a car accident, on June 14, 1955.
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