"Baby Face Nelson" - Had Things Gone Differently, It Could Have Ended At Lake Como...



When Bureau Inspector, Samuel Cowley, and Special Agent (SA) Herman Hollis awoke that cold morning in November 1934, they each scanned the headlines of the local Chicago paper.  After a second cup of coffee, with small gold badges in their pockets, and credentials tucked in their suit coats, each one opened the cylinder of their .38 revolvers for one last check before holstering. 

Enroute to the Chicago office, there were all the loving thoughts of wives and children. Later that day and for years after, those same women and children would cry. 

For one of the actors who caused it all, his lifeless body was placed on the roadside near a cemetery during the getaway.  Helen covered his body with a blanket stating later,  "He hated being cold."  A somewhat bizarre action on her part considering.  Yes, once again he escaped the firefight but this time he didn't live to kill again. 

Approximately two hours before the fatal shootout with Cowley and Hollis, SA's James Metcalfe,  SA Charles Winstead, and SA Colin E. McRae staked out the home of Hobart Hermanson in Lake Como, Wisconsin based upon a tip that Nelson and others would arrive there for a winter stay.  The Hermanson's had allowed Bureau agents to use the home itself and thus, surprise Nelson when he showed. The tip came from Hermanson himself. But there was no time table as to when Nelson might arrive.  

The three G-Men had been there nearly three weeks when Life's paths would be altered for so many....

As the Nelson's and Chase approached the house in a similar Ford V8, Metcalfe mistakenly thought it was Mrs. Hermanson. He stood on the porch straining to see the occupants approaching.  Mud and sun obscured his view. As the vehicle got closer, Winstead's view was hampered by the same. 

Metcalfe was unarmed at that immediate moment on the porch. It was explained later that the Hermanson's were visited by folks in and out all day. While they allowed the stakeout, they didn't want the agents to be seen wearing or carrying weapons on the grounds. Thus the FBI weapons were hidden inside the house.  There was a brief exchange with Nelson on the whereabouts of "Hobe" and "Eddy." 

Winstead was in an upper window of the home with a deadly bead on the driver (Nelson) from his rifle, but he couldn't see the occupants well enough to identify them.  He relied on Metcalfe's observations and passage of information, requiring Metcalfe to yell to him in the upstairs.  

Winstead could have killed all three of them within seconds. The deadly fire from his .351 Winchester rifle would have first sent Nelson to the Hell in which he deserved.

Yet whether it was Fate, Destiny, God's Plan or some other sobering thought, perhaps non-Biblical, circumstances beyond anyone's control were already in motion.  The day was not going to end at Lake Como.   

But the key to any possible pursuit of the Nelson's and Chase, when they drove off, is found in one small fact long forgotten. SA McRae had taken the Bureau car to seek out lunch in Lake Geneva nearby and was not present.  After being at the stake out so many days, the supplies of the G-Men ran dry. But now there was no vehicle avail for the use of Metcalfe and Winstead.   Nelson and others showed up at the home at the exact moment SA McRae was a few miles away in Lake Geneva with the only Bureau vehicle. The Hermanson vehicle was out also and thus could not be commandeered by the G-Men.

Although nearly three weeks had gone by with no results, some might say that sending rookie, SA Colin McRae into Lake Geneva for groceries was a tactical error.  At the risk of second guessing, and maybe not aware of some info they had that would allow it, it did leave remaining agents one man short in the event of an encounter. It also left those remaining without a pursuit vehicle.  But anyone who has done it, will tell you the truth. Surveillances and stake outs get excessively boring and at times, and seem non-productive at the moment.  As a result, one's guard is dropped.  At the Hermanson home, Winstead and Metcalfe were used to seeing cars coming and going with visitors to the Lake Como Inn. The Hermanson's had left the previous Sunday on a trip.

Regardless, all of it raises the proverbial "what if" questions had McRae not gone... 

From the driver's seat and a few words with SA Metcalfe, who remained on the porch, Nelson learned that Hermanson wasn't home. Nelson also suspected a trap as later revealed to his wife and Chase during the escape.  They headed into Lake Geneva and it was there, in a passing glance, that McRae saw them and knew who they were. 

Thinking Lake Geneva was teaming with G-Men, Nelson sped away.  The coming exchange of gunfire with SA's Ryan and McDade while escaping was set into motion.

So was the ultimate shootout at the lone intersection in Barrington, Illinois...

That is “Baby Face” Nelson...
— Metcalfe To Winstead - Statement



The document below encompasses Winstead's statement on what happened. It also includes Metcalfe's 1945 letter to a friend revealing what happened that same day and his thoughts of pursuit; reflections of his FBI career, and pursuit of his real passion.  A most compelling document.

  • Winstead's report and the above facts were obtained from the Dillinger file at the FBI; Metcalfe's corroborating letter was generously donated to this site by his son, Judge Don Metcalfe. (We note that during our research, the statements of Metcalfe and McRae were not found in the file in the area where normally they'd be. That's explainable however we note there's no reason those statements should deviate from Winstead's story, or Metcalfe's story to a friend years later.)

Both documents in full are combined and shown here.

For a full reading of the report of Supervisor Virgil Petersen on the shooting, go to this link: