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Utahn Cowley can't get his due on the big screen

Published: Friday, Oct. 2 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

When it comes to Hollywood, Sam Cowley has never received his due.

Take the summer movie "Public Enemies." In the scene where FBI agents huddle outside the Little Bohemia Lodge, they suggest waiting for "Cowley's men" to block the roads to prevent the notorious banker robbers John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson from escaping.

It's the sole mention of Samuel P. Cowley, a Cache Valley native who became an unlikely martyr in the nation's war on crime. But it's not unlike other films about the 1930s-era of cops and robbers, where the character playing Cowley has a bit part to the more popular agent Melvin Purvis, despite the documents and books that describe the "bland but hardworking" Cowley as a key player who took over from a bumbling Purvis in tracking down and eliminating many of America's public enemies.

"Some people play a role in life to get a place in history," says Sam Cowley Jr., 75, who was an infant when his father was fatally shot in a gun battle that also felled Nelson. "Others play the role of getting something accomplished."

Of course, the films are largely fictional, and descriptions of agent Cowley give the impression that he likely would have preferred not being mentioned at all. By most accounts, Cowley avoided the press and, as a result, rarely got the credit he deserved in helping stamp out America's first great crime wave. His background and demeanor were also incongruous with a popularized image created in films of a tough and gun-toting G-man.

He was born in Franklin, Idaho, in the polygamous family of an LDS Church apostle, Mathias F. Cowley, who was forced to resign his church post over plural marriage.

When Sam Cowley was 17 years old, he sailed to Hawaii to serve a four-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His brother, Matthew Cowley, would later become an apostle for the church.

After graduating from the Utah Agricultural College in Logan, Sam Cowley headed to Washington, D.C., where he lived with his sister and brother-in-law while attending law school at George Washington University.

Sam Cowley Jr., a retired attorney living in Emigration Canyon, said his father was hired by the fledgling Bureau of Investigation after receiving his law degree. It was intended to be a temporary job until he could find work practicing law back home in Utah.

"But he was promoted so rapidly, he stayed," his son said.

It was Cowley's smarts and work ethic, and not his appearance or skills with a gun, that caught the attention of his superiors at the bureau. One bureau review sized up the quiet, hardworking Cowley as being "rather unimpressive in certain personal characteristics, which is accentuated by his thoughtlessness or carelessness in the selection of his tailor," according to an account in the book "Public Enemies," by Bryan Burrough. But the review concluded that "this employee has a habit of consistently doing things right."

Besides his appearance, the only chinks in Cowley's armor were that he wouldn't take the time to get certified on the shooting range and wouldn't wear the bulletproof vest that he found uncomfortable.

Sam Cowley Jr. said one of his father's greatest talents was writing. He could condense stacks of information into concise memos, which apparently impressed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a prolific memo-writer himself.

In five years, Cowley ascended from special agent posted in a half-dozen bureaus around the country to director of investigations at headquarters in D.C., where he emerged as one of Hoover's most trusted aides.

According to Burrough, the FBI had bungled the manhunt for Dillinger several times, as innocent people were killed, accomplices inadvertently freed and badly executed stakeouts and leads resulted in nothing but lost time and bad press. Meanwhile, Dillinger and other criminals were becoming Depression-era folk heroes.

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