The city of Chicago was crawling with mobsters during the 1920s and 30s.
One of the most famous crimes was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which has a local connection to our own Berrien County.
The guns used in the killings were found in Stevensville.
Berrien County was a popular vacation destination for gangsters and their families. If those guns hadn't made it to our area, we might never have known who was involved in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Retired Berrien County Sheriff Lieutenant Mike Kline studied the Prohibition Era, which started in 1920, and the serious gangsters that came out of it.
Alphonse Capone, George "Bugs" Moran and their gangs were mortal enemies.
Moran had come close to killing Capone one time too many, and Capone's lieutenants armored up with Thompson submachine guns.
"They’re fully automatic, about 850 rounds a minute, which is very fast in even modern-day firearms,” said Kline. “It’s intended for one thing and one thing only; killing men."
Capone's men made a plan to dress like cops and take out Moran.
"It went off with pretty much military precision with the exception of, when it was all done, they didn’t get Bugs Moran,” said Kline.
Moran may have gotten away, but Capone's men got off scot-free, too. That's because men like Fred "Killer" Burke did the job for them.
"He was a kind of contract hitman,” said Kline.
Burke was such a pro, but he disappeared after the massacre.
Kelsey Curnutt with the Berrien County Historical Association says the area was Al Capone's playground.
"In the 20s, he would come over with several of his associates to vacation,” said Curnutt. “This was where they would come and just relax."
They didn't make trouble, but, instead, made friends with the locals.
"They tipped very well,” said Curnutt. “A lot of times people who waited on them made more money than they would in a general week or even a month."
Burke followed suit.
"It was easy for him to just create a quiet life here where no one knew him or paid attention to him,” said Curnutt.
Burke may have never been noticed if he hadn't made a big mistake just 10 months after the massacre.
"He’s been drinking heavily,” said Kline. “He has a fender bender with a guy by the name of Forrest Cool."
Cool called the cops and Officer Charles Skelly pulled Burke over.
"Burke rolls his window down, produces a Colt .45 pistol, pumps two rounds into Officer Skelly’s chest,” said Kline. “As he’s falling, he hits him with a third round which ends up, later on, being the fatal round into his back."
The response was immediate.
Skelly identified the shooter as Burke. Soon, Berrien County Sheriff's deputies swarmed Burke's bungalow, which is now a Coldwell Banker Real Estate Office.
The bungalow 90 years ago was a criminal's dream.
Chris Hamilton, Coldwell Banker office administrator, said, "They had a lot of little cubbies in the old craftsman homes."
Over the years, Hamilton and the others who work here have found plenty of Burke's hidey-holes.
"He could have hidden booze, he could have hidden money,” said Hamilton. “There could have been other guns there. There could have been just about anything your imagination can think of!"
Officers found the jackpot in a closet.
"There was an actual space that was meant more for storage than anything that goes from the outside wall to the inside wall,” said Hamilton.
“We found Fred Burke’s tool kit to the tune of a couple Thompson submachine guns, a couple rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition, bullet proof vests, tear gas grenades, hand grenades, nitroglycerin, disguises,” said Kline.
That arsenal, specifically the Tommy guns, tied Burke to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Officers used ballistic forensics to prove it. The new science examined microscopic tool marks in the barrels of the guns.
"Which are as identical to the bullet and shell casings and firing pin hits as your fingerprints are to you and me," said Kline.
The slaying of Skelly and the new evidence sealed Burke's notoriety, but he was nowhere to be found until March of '31, more than two years after the Massacre.
He was the most wanted man in America, and Burke was finally arrested in the Show Me State of Missouri.
"The prosecutor down in Missouri looked at all of it and said 'Berrien County has the most airtight case against him,'” said Kline.
Burke stood trial, but it had nothing to do with the St. Valentine's Day Massacre; it was simply justice for Skelly.
"During the trial, they asked him, they said, ‘Why did you shoot Officer Skelly?’” Kline said. “He said, ‘I’d have never shot that man if I hadn’t been drinking,’ because, like I said, he was a pro. He was a professional, contract killer, and he made mistakes that day."
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is still one of the oldest unsolved murder mysteries in American history.
Burke was sentenced to life and never opened his mouth about who else was involved. We might never have even known he was involved if he hadn't killed Skelly.
The Burke killing and others like it changed how police operate.
Ballistic forensics became much more popular, but these kinds of events also forced police departments to get more organized, like the crime organizations with which they were dealing.
Law enforcement agencies started doing a lot more training and they got a lot better at working across state lines.