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the last member of the FBI's "Public Enemies List"
Alvin Francis Karpowicz was born in Montreal, Canada, on August 10, 1907, the only son of Lithuanian immigrants John and Anna Karpowicz (he had 3 sisters), and raised in Topeka, Kansas. He began his began life of crime at about age 10, selling pornography and running with gamblers, bootleggers, and pimps. In 1926, he was sentenced to 10 years at the Kansas State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson for attempted burglary. He subsequently escaped with another inmate, Lawrence De Vol, and went on a year-long crime spree that was interrupted briefly while he lived with his parents after De Vol was arrested. After moving to Kansas City, Missouri, he was caught stealing a car and sent back to the Reformatory. Transferred to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, he met Fred Barker, who was in prison for bank burglary. Barker was one of the notorious members of the "Bloody Barkers," as the newspapers of the time had called them. After Alvin was released in 1931, he joined up with Fred Barker in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they soon put together the Karpis-Barker gang. That gang soon became one of the most notorious gangs of the early-1930's, robbing banks and hijacking mail deliveries, and never hesitating to kill anyone who got in their way, including policemen and innocent bystanders.
On June 15, 1933, the gang kidnapped Minnesota brewer William Hamm; his ransom netted them $100,000. Six months later, they abducted St. Paul banker Edward Bremer, whose ranson netted them another $200,000. Although the gang made a lot of "easy money" from those kidnappings, they also brought it to the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who quickly placed every member of the gang on the FBI's list of "America's Most Wanted."
The year 1934 saw the deaths of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis, John "Red" Hamilton, Homer Van Meter, Tommy Carroll, and Eddie Green, and the deaths of Kate "Ma" and Fred Barker at the hands of the FBI on January 16, 1935, left Karpis as the sole member of Hoover's "Public Enemies List." Soon after the death of the Barkers, the FBI spotted Karpis and fellow gang member Harry Campbell in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Karpis and Campbell managed to shoot their way to an escape, but Karpis's eight-month-pregnant girlfriend Dolores Delaney was hit in the thigh by a wild shot fired by Campbell during the escape. Karpis continued his crime spree, but had to be on the move more than ever. In November 1935, he, Campbell, and at least one other accomplice pulled off a train robbery in Garrettsville, Ohio, that netted them $27,000.
In April 1936, U.S. Senator Kenneth McKellar humiliated Hoover by questioning the performance of the FBI and remarking that Hoover had never arrested anyone. Hoover responded to McKellar by vowing to take Karpis down personally. On May 1, the FBI spotted Karpis in New Orleans, and Hoover flew there to take charge of the arrest. How involved Hoover was in the actual arrest of Karpis varies depending on whose story one believes, but all versions agree that Karpis was taken out of his car with barely a fight and restrained with a necktie tied around his wrists -- the FBI agents had expected Karpis to die in a gunfight and had not bothered to bring handcuffs with them.
Karpis subsequently pled guilty to conspiring to kidnap Bremer and was sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Alcatraz Island in August 1936 and, except for a six-month transfer to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas in 1958, remained there until April 1962, when he was moved to McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington. He was paroled in 1969 and deported to Canada. His autobiography, The Alvin Karpis Story, was published in 1971.
Karpis moved to Torremolinos, Spain, in 1973, and died there on August 26, 1979. He is buried in the Cementerio de San Miguel, Málaga, Spain.
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This page was last updated on September 23, 2017.