Indiana Judge Blocks Exhumation of John Dillinger’s Body

Indiana Reformatory booking shots of John Dillinger, stored in the state archives, showing the notorious gangster as a 21-year-old. (AP Photo/The Indianapolis Star, Charlie Nye, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) – An Indiana judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a relative of famed 1930s gangster John Dillinger seeking to dig up his body to confirm it is actually him.

In a tan-walled Marion County courtroom, Superior Court Judge Timothy Oakes entertained arguments from the Crown Hill Cemetery, where Dillinger’s body is buried, which claimed that it has a right under state law to deny the exhumation of any body.

The fight over digging up Dillinger’s remains came after the gangster’s nephew Michael Thompson filed a lawsuit in August claiming the cemetery is wrongfully preventing him from exhuming the body to verify it is indeed the remains of his notorious uncle.

In court Wednesday, Oakes seemed openly sympathetic to Thompson regarding his wishes and even said he didn’t buy any of Crown Hill’s reasoning to prevent the exhumation.

However, the judge ruled from the bench that the cemetery could deny the request even without a “valid, rational or meaningful reason.”

Dillinger gained national notoriety in the 1930s for a string of bank robberies, shootouts and jailbreaks throughout the Midwest, which he set out upon after spending almost a decade in state prison on assault and battery convictions.

According to the FBI’s account of Dillinger, he and his violent gang took the lives of 10 men and wounded seven more while robbing banks and police stations. These actions earned him the moniker of “public enemy number one” in the FBI.

Dillinger’s crime spree took place in the Great Depression. Despite the violence he committed, he became a mythic figure to many for stealing from banks and seemingly not targeting the poor. The often outrageous nature of his actions also added to Dillinger’s fame and legacy, including the fact that he underwent extreme surgeries to alter his physical appearance.

Dillinger met his demise at the hands of federal agents on July 22, 1934, when he was shot and killed outside a Chicago theater. However, since his death, his myth has only grown, including one theory that the man inside the Dillinger-marked grave is someone else entirely.

Thompson seems to entertain this theory, as he claims he has reason to believe that the remains inside the Dillinger grave may not be those of his uncle.

Crown Hill has dismissed the idea, calling it a decades-old conspiracy theory in court documents.

The theory of another person being shot in place of Dillinger is not new and has been spoken enough times that the FBI even lists it in an article about the top Dillinger myths.

“If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, that’s because it is. Claims that a man resembling Dillinger was actually killed have been advanced with only circumstantial evidence. On the other hand, a wealth of information supports Dillinger’s demise,” the article reads.

Regardless of the theories surrounding Dillinger, the court proceedings mostly focused on the law governing the process to remove a body from a grave.

The cemetery claims that under Indiana law, if it denies an exhumation request, remains may only be removed from a burial plot for an autopsy or relocation. Judge Oakes agreed.

The exhumation of Dillinger’s body had been linked to a planned History Channel documentary, but the rumored project has reportedly been abandoned.

Oakes repeatedly expressed verbal disinterest in the reasoning for the exhumation. The judge asked Thompson’s lawyer, Andrea Simmons of S.K. Huffer & Associates, why the clear language of the statute should be ignored.

Simmons argued that Thompson’s request is similar to an autopsy, as he wishes to have the body in Dillinger’s grave identified. However, Oakes was unwilling to fully explore that line of thinking.

Crown Hill’s attorney, Alice Morical Hoover Hull Turner, directly countered that argument by saying Thompson’s complaint does not request an autopsy at all, as an autopsy is defined as an investigation to determine the cause of death.

Oakes asked Simmons why Thompson did not seek to have the remains moved to another cemetery, which in theory would be more accommodating to the nephew’s wishes.

Simmons said Crown Hill initially cooperated with her client’s request, so Thompson saw no reason to pursue another avenue to have the body removed or exhumed.

Thompson has twice been granted permits from the Indiana Department of Health allowing the removal of the body, but the cemetery has blocked his plan on the grounds that widespread media attention would be disruptive to cemetery visitors and nearby gravesites.

“The legislature has expressly granted cemetery owners the right to prevent disinterment in this type of case, and protect its gravesites from unwarned disturbance,” Crown Hill argued in court documents.

Briefly touched on in court Wednesday was another mysterious theory regarding Dillinger’s grave, one that claims a block of cement is placed above his casket, which would make any attempt to exhume the body more difficult. While not central to the legal case, the claim adds to the mystique surrounding the deceased gangster.

While seemingly unimpressed with Thompson’s arguments, Oakes dismissed the case without prejudice, leaving the door open for further proceedings. Thompson could appeal or seek another route such as having the body moved, which is allowed under the state law that is central to the case.

Given Dillinger’s reputation and infamy, it is unlikely that the interest or mystery surrounding his grave will be put to rest any time soon.

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