Homer Van Meter (Bank Robber and John Dillinger Associate)By Asher Sarnoff Assistant Curator

 

Homer Van Meter was born in Fort Wayne Indiana, on December 3rd 1906. His father was an alcoholic and when Homer was in the sixth grade he ran away from home. He finally ended up in Chicago where he worked as a bellhop and also a waiter.  His first arrest came at the age of 17 for drunk and disorderly conduct in Aurora Illinois, on June 23, 1923.  He also served 41 days in jail for a larceny charge. On January 11th 1924, Van Meter was charged with auto theft and sent to the Menard Correctional Center.  Upon his release, in December of that same year, he robbed passengers on a train in Crown Point Indiana, was caught and sentenced to 10 to 21 years in prison. He was sent to the Pendleton Reformatory. Ever the prankster, he soon met John Dillinger and Harry Pierpont in Pendleton. Dillinger and Van Meter were fast friends while Pierpont  didn’t get along with Van Meter, do to his clowning nature and pension for playing pranks on people. On July 28th 1925, Van Meters behavior got him transferred to the State Prison in Michigan City.

In January of 1926, Van Meter was being taken to Chicago to testify in the trial of the man thought to be his accomplice in the Crown Point train robbery. He escaped from the transport vehicle but was apprehended shortly after begging for change on the sidewalk. One week later, Van Meter and his cellmate Charles Stewart sawed through the bars of their cell and beat a guard unconscious, but were caught leaving the jail. For this infraction Van Meter spent the following two months in solitary confinement where it is alleged he was beaten by guards.

Van Meter won parole on May 19th of 1933, shortly after, he teamed up with “Baby Face” Nelson and Tommy Carroll to rob a bank in Grand Haven Michigan. They escaped with $30,000.  On October 23rd, 1933, the same trio along with John Paul Chase robbed another bank in Brainerd Minnesota, escaping with 32,000 dollars. When Dillinger made his famous escape from the Crown Point Jail on March 3rd, 1934, he joined Van Meters group along with John “Red” Hamilton another career criminal and bank robber. The group so strengthened, began to rob more banks. Their next robbery would take place in Sioux Falls Idaho where a police officer named Keith Hale was severely wounded by “Baby Face” Nelson. The group escaped with $39,500 and went back to St. Paul Minnesota where there hideout was. Van Meter was familiar with the city.

The gang’s continued bank robberies soon brought them to the attention of the newly formed F.B.I. and J. Edgar Hoover. In March of 1934, Dillinger and Van Meter escaped a shootout with police as well as on April 23rd they shot it out with police pursuers and escaped yet again.  Several of the gang’s associates had been killed earlier that year. It is alleged that soon after this, both Dillinger and Van Meter had plastic surgery at the hands of one Wilhelm Loeser In the apartment of Chicago“Outfit” gangster, Jimmy Probasco. Van Meter was not happy with the results of his surgery and wanted to kill Loeser on the spot.  On June 30th 1934, Van Meter, Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and an unidentified fourth man robbed a bank in South Bend Indiana, 4 bystanders were killed in the robbery and Van Meter killed police officer Howard Wagner during the gang’s escape. It would be the gang’s last raid. On August 23rd, 1934, Van Meter was accosted on the street in St. Paul Minnesota where he had been hiding out by 4 police officers, including chief of police Frank Cullen and former chief, Thomas Brown along with two other detectives. Ignoring their command to stop, Van Meter opened fire on them and ran into a nearby alley, he was cornered and shot and killed.