The Story of the Dayton Police ‘Bank Flyer’ and its ‘Flying Squadron’
How a Vintage Police Photo and Its Historical Account Came Together
--by retired Dayton Sgt. Steve Grismer
The Dayton Police History Exhibit – Patrolling the Streets of Dayton – was soon to have its Grand Opening at Carillon Historical Park on May 2, 2008. The organizers of this event, of which I was one, had been preparing since November of 2007. A search for period photographs from the 1870’s to present was exhaustively conducted. The layout of the displays, text and photos had been finalized and were being arranged in the final days before the official opening of this six-month past-policing showcase.
Two of the eight primary display cases were dedicated to a particular period in history… the years between 1925 and 1950. This was a time when Dayton was one of our Nation’s top 40 cities with a citizen population steadily rising from 152,559 to 243,872. One display at the DPH Exhibit was dedicated to the “Chief Wurstner Era…” and the other to “Prohibition and the Gangster Era”:
· Chief Wurstner Era–National Dean of Police Chiefs
Rudolph Wurstner was appointed to the Dayton police force in December 1902 at a time when there were only two horse-drawn patrol wagons. As a patrolman, he was armed with a club and a whistle as he walked his beat. After 22 years of service he rose to the rank of Chief of Police in 1925. Ten years later, Chief Wurstner became the Nation’s Dean of Police Chiefs in 1935 and remained the United State’s most senior metropolitan police commander for the next 14 years! Chief Wurstner served the police force for total of 47 years, leading it 25 of those years. He patrolled during the Great Flood of 1913 and the Great War. He led the police force through Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and WWII. By the time Chief Wurstner retired, the police force had well over 50 motorized vehicles with two-way radio communications and officers wearing Sam Browne gun belts with Colt revolvers. His tenure as a major municipal chief of police had been equaled by only three others in our Nation’s history.
· Prohibition and the Gangster Era
By 1925, the prohibition of alcohol was firmly established by law and police enforcement. The Dayton police force had formed a “special liquor squad” to confront the bootlegging of alcohol produced in illegal stills throughout the city. But the federal law prohibiting the production, sale, distribution and consumption of alcoholic beverages was repealed in 1933. Career gangsters had to find another source of revenue. Holding up banks was one way to fill the void. It was in 1933 that John Dillinger was gaining notoriety for robbing banks in Ohio and Indiana. This man, who would be named “Public Enemy No. 1”, was arrested by two Dayton police detectives on September 22nd while visiting his girlfriend at a First Street boarding house. Dillinger was later extradited to an Allen County jail. Bank robberies remained a constant source of trouble for Dayton police and its citizenry. In the summer of 1946, George ‘Bugs’ Moran and his gang were in Dayton planning a hold-up. They hijacked the car of a businessman after he walked out of Winters Bank on West Third Street with a $10,000 cash withdrawal. Within days, Moran and his accomplices were arrested and convicted in Dayton of the armed robbery. Moran died in prison ten years later.
On May 1, 2008 – one day before the DPH Exhibit’s Grand Opening – a period photo with a unique depiction surfaced from an unusual source. A film producer by the name of Michael Chapa, who had contributed to the planned exhibit, donated an original picture that he had purchased at a flea market sometime past. What a find! Although the displays had been firmly set, this photo had such vintage appeal that it had to be placed in the display. In the photo Chief Wurstner was readily recognizable as was Capt. Harvey Siferd standing to his left. A uniformed officer and three detectives, armed with Thompson sub-machine guns and shotguns, were standing alongside the two commanders and in front of a massive, shining automobile with an unusual-looking reinforced front bumper.
Chief Wurstner, the ‘Bank Flyer’ and the ‘Flying Squadron’
But what was the background to the image shown in the photograph? Could it be a Prohibition Era vehicle designed to ram doors of warehouses and barns where illegal liquor was suspected of being stored? Were the officers part of the “special liquor squad” formed to fight bootlegging and the operators of illegal stills? Under further examination, this auto with the unusual bumper was identified as a Cadillac, a rather expensive motorcar generally not found traditional police fleets. The picture was determined to have been taken on Sunrise Ave. (now Edwin C. Moses Blvd. near Salem Ave.), a popular location for annual Dayton police inspections.
This wonderfully classic police photo image was exhibited without a story in the “Prohibition Era” display case at the DPH Exhibit. It could have been just as appropriately exhibited in the “Chief Wurstner” case. It proved to be one of more talked about photographs. “Patrolling the Streets of Dayton” was intended to be a temporary showcase. After a six-month run, the Dayton Police History Exhibit came to an end on November 15, 2008.
The story behind this photograph still remained a mystery!
Several months later in February 2009 at a meeting of members of the Dayton Fraternal Order of Police, retired Lt. Tom Tunney approached me. He had been reading a locally written book titled Paper, Mister. He found on pages 182 and 183 references to Dayton police. He handed me a copy and suggested that I might find the passage interesting given the historical context. I took it home but placed it aside for several weeks.
When I finally opened a copy of the book, I learned that the story was about its author’s experiences as a youngster selling newspapers. He reminisces about his travels and observations as a newsboy in Dayton in 1935 and 1936. As I read the specific pages identified by the retired lieutenant, I was struck suddenly by the most gratifying revelation. Eureka! Lt. Tunney – who had never seen the classic photo of Chief Wurstner in pose with his police squad in front of the massive Cadillac – had unintentionally united the period picture with its intriguing story. In that two-page excerpt of his book the author, H. Jamison Redder, recounted his memories of going to the downtown Dayton police building:
As a young boy, Redder’s father occasionally took him to the Market House at 22 S. Main Street to visit the Dayton police headquarters on the second floor. He remembered the stairway up to the public restrooms, or “comfort stations” as they were called then.
One day, instead of walking inside and up the steps, they strolled to the north side of the building on Market Street. He recalled, "Behind a huge sliding door, under the stairs, was the biggest, longest car I'd ever seen." It was the “Bank Flyer”. The automobile had been presented to the Dayton police department by banks and building and loan associations to be used to deter bank robberies.
The car was an eight-cylinder Cadillac that had been "refitted" by a company in Cincinnati with special racks built inside the vehicle to hold "an assortment of machine guns, rifles, shotguns, tear gas bombs, hand grenades, gas masks and bullet-proof vests.” The car had a heavy steel bumper making it “possible... to go through a brick wall”. It had a special steel shield to protect the radiator. The tires and windows were bullet proof.
The various financial institutions that gifted the ‘Bank Flyer’ had alarm buttons located at strategic places inside their businesses. In the event of an armed robbery a bank official could… by hand, foot, elbow or knee… activate the hold-up alarm to sound in the garage and upstairs at police headquarters.
If an alarm rang, the motor officer in the garage would have the car started by the time the three-man “Flying Squadron” would come scrambling down the stairs from police headquarters. The squadron, with this heavily armed special-purpose vehicle, would hasten to the crime scene.
In his book, the author named the members of the squad. In conducting some additional research, I learned that all of the officers were assigned to the police headquarter building in various assignments: the auto recovery bureau and fingerprint analysis. I was also able to ascertain the officers’ career dates.
Off. Frank W. Johnson, Police HQ Officer in Charge
[September 26, 1902 to June 1, 1936]
Sgt. Floyd Hartman, Auto Recovery Bureau
[July 5, 1906 to February 14, 1947]
Off. John R. Blake, Fingerprint Expert
[September 26, 1924 to April 16, 1946]
Off. Walter T. Dempsey, Fingerprint Expert
[December 27, 1926 to December 20, 1946 ]
It is now clear why Capt. Siferd appeared in the ‘Bank Flyer’ photograph along with Chief Wurstner. He was the commander of the Bureau of Identification and Records, a unit that would include fingerprint experts and auto recovery. The career of Capt. Siferd began as a patrolman on March 8, 1912. He was promoted to sergeant on October 4, 1919 and then to Captain on October 1, 1924. He was an expert in the Bertillon identification system and was once called to testify in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1926 regarding a federal auto theft case.
The book’s author said that he viewed the ‘Bank Flyer’ for the first time in the spring of 1936. A recently discovered police assignment detail shows that the Cadillac was in the police automobile fleet in December 1932… 9 months before Dillinger was arrested in Dayton. Given the time of year that the photograph appears to have been taken (mild weather) and with records showing that Capt. Siferd retired on February 1, 1932, the picture had to be taken no later than early autumn, 1931.
It appears that the ‘Bank Flyer’ was in the Dayton police fleet for at least 5 years and assigned for operational use. Knowing the police department and the limited resources under which it historically operates, my sense is that the ‘Flying Squadron’ members were not necessarily a specially selected full-time team. The Cadillac – as extraordinary as it was – most likely lacked in its practicality for regular deployment.
I suspect that the police force received this very generous gift from the financial business community and was grateful… but obligated to satisfy the banks by placing it in service in some manner. It was not a vehicle realistically designed for routine patrol. The motor officer was one who would be regularly in proximity of the ‘Bank Flyer’ at police headquarters. Immediacy to respond probably played the key role in choosing members for the ‘Flying Squadron’. It is noteworthy that all were officers already stationed at police headquarters and in the kind of assignments that kept them bound to the office during their entire tour of duty.
So, how successful was the ‘Bank Flyer’ and the ‘Flying Squadron’ in deterring bank robberies in Dayton? Was the effectiveness of this impressive automotive machinery worthwhile or limited? Did the ‘Bank Flyer’ merely serve more as a photo feature for ‘Don’t-Tread-on-Me’ publicity campaigns and roving exhibitions by Dayton’s Division of Police?
…and, whatever happened to this incredibly impressive, special-purpose Cadillac? When did it disappear from the police fleet? To whom and to where did it go?
These are questions not yet answered but deserving of further research. Maybe a reader of this story can shed additional light… or will want to conduct an investigation to reveal the full account of the Dayton Police ‘Bank Flyer’ and its ‘Flying Squadron’.
As soon as more is learned, this story will be continued.
Postscript: The search for the Bank Flyer continues. Even though the customized 1930 police Cadillac has not be found, new information and assistance have been provided by individuals, businesses and friends in the media.
A Packard Museum staff member recently suggested that the Cincinnati company to which author H. Jamison Redder refers that customized the Cadillac was likely Hess and Eisenhardt. This company was famous for the production of commercial armored vehicles including the customized limousine in which President Kennedy was riding in Dallas when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Mr. Hess was a consultant to the Warren Commission.
The search led to an appeal to the local community. In January of this year, Dayton Daily News writer, Skip Peterson, wrote about "Dayton's Cadillac Police Car" as a feature in Wheels of the Week. Peterson pursued the Hess and Eisenhardt angle. He learned that other Cadillacs had been "modified for use during the bank robbery days of John Dillinger, Bugs Moran and Al Capone." He recounted that two Cadillacs had been painted to look like Chicago police cars and were customized with armor plating and special weapons for Capone by Hess and Eisenhardt. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt became the first American president to ride in a bulletproof limousine when one of Capone's government-seized cars was used for presidential protection with a threatened assassination attempt.
Retired Dayton patrolman Wilbur McAfee (retired in 1976) recalled the police had a "gangster car". He said that when he was first appointed in 1952 the "gangster car" was in the police fleet but kept in closed storage. He did not know what happened to the car but believed he saw it at a local car show. Ray Engleman, a resident of downtown Dayton from the 1940s to the 1970s and current caretaker for the Dayton Fraternal Order of Police also recalled seeing the Bank Flyer. The police Cadillac had been stored at the old police headquarters at Main and Market Streets. Engleman remembered it was moved to the perimeter of the construction site for the Dayton Police Safety Building, which was completed in 1956. It was last seen by Engleman on Lafayette Street, protected from the weather elements beneath a tarp. This is the last reported sighting.
In an effort to expand the search to a national audience, the owner of Gephart's Classic Cars based in Scottsdale, Arizona was contacted. Leo Gephart was originally from Dayton. He moved away over 30 years ago but remembered seeing this "neat car" when he still lived here. Although he had no clue as to its whereabouts today, he offered to circulate information to other classic car enthusiasts. In April of this year, Daniel Strohl, the Associate Editor of Hemmings Motor News wrote a feature under the Hemmings Auto Blog. Hemmings is a monthly magazine catering to traders and collectors of antique and classic cars, the largest and oldest publication of its kind. Possibly with some national exposure, a car shows enthusiast may surface that knows something regarding the whereabouts of the Bank Flyer.
The links to the Dayton Daily News Wheels article by Skip Peterson and the Hemmings Motor News article by Daniel Strohl are below.
Dayton's Cadillac Police Car - Dayton Daily News Wheels of the Week
The Cadillac that Took Down Dillinger in Dayton? - Hemmings Motor News
The ongoing search for and story of the Bank Flyer will be reported as more is learned.
More narrative details about the history of the Dayton police force and the 2008 Dayton Police History Exhibit, “Patrolling the Streets of Dayton”, may be found under the Books/Booklets section of this website.