With Public Enemies opening next week I thought it would be fun to look at the FBI's New York office during the gangster era. While Melvin Purvis and the G-Men of the mid-west were chasing the likes of Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, the G-Men of the east coast were pursuing their own desperados. Though they didn’t get as much publicity as their Midwest counterparts the New York G went up against equally dangerous men. One of the reasons that their story hasn’t been told is because the New York City bureau was able to accomplish their missions without bloodshed.
On January 18, two days after Florida G-Men killed Fred and “Ma” Barker in a dramatic gunfight in Florida, the New York City office was going to get it’s chance to bring in a Public Enemy. His name was Robert Mais and he was called “Pennsylvania’s Public Enemy #1”. Twenty-nine year old Mais was co-leader of the Tri-State gang, so called because they committed their depredations through out eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
Over the previous six months the FBI had been bringing down Public Enemies all across the Midwest. There was one constant in each FBI encounter, the Public Enemy was killed and in some cases, like that of Baby Face Nelson, so were G-Men. On July 22, 1934 Dillinger was killed in Chicago. In October it was Pretty Boy Floyd’s turn. He was shot down while running across an Ohio farm. The following month Baby Face Nelson got his but took two agents with him. On January 16, 1935 it was Freddie Barker who went down in a hail of lead. Now while Fred and Ma were still on a slab it was New York City’s Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Francis X. Fay’s turn.
There was every reason to assume that, like the previous run-ins with the Public Enemies, the capture of Mais and his gang would result in much shooting. The FBI had been on the Tri-State gangs trail since the previous winter when on March 8, 1934 Mais and his chief partner, forty-one year old Walter Legenza, robbed a postal truck in Richmond, Virginia that was carrying money from the Federal Reserve. Letting himself into the rear of the truck Legenza shot down one of the truck handlers in cold blood. The gang grabbed the mail bags and took off. Mais and Legenza’s information had been wrong however. All they stole was cancelled checks.
The following summer authorities were able to trace the Tri-State gang to a house in the Baltimore suburbs. Together with local police, G-Men raided the house and a gunfight unfolded. While shooting at the invaders Mais took a blast from a Tommy gun to the stomach. Seeing his partner drop with six bullets in the abdomen Legenza surrendered. The hoodlums were returned to Richmond where they were found guilty of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair that November.