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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.

Frustrated, Hoover dispatched Cowley to Chicago to survey the operation and report back, Burrough records. But Cowley never left Chicago. Instead of just observing, Cowley took charge, reorganizing resources, sorting out informants, refining leads, studying the criminals he was pursuing and planning the stakeouts that would lead to their capture.

"There were traits about (Baby Face) Nelson that were studied daily by Cowley," wrote Richard Emery in his biography "Sam Cowley: Legendary Lawman."

"A careful study of the records and facts Cowley had compiled informed him of every quirk and phase, every psychological oddity of Nelson's nature."

Emery said Cowley drove his men relentlessly, which caused some conflict and bad morale when he initially took over. But in the end, the work paid off, as Dillinger was finally found and gunned down as he left a movie theater in Chicago.

Although he was officially in charge, Cowley shunned attention and let Purvis take credit for Dillinger's demise. And while Hoover publicly congratulated Purvis for bringing down Dillinger, Hoover placed his confidence in Cowley, giving him "unrestricted power" to hunt down Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and others on the "Public Enemies" list, according to Burrough.

Floyd was gunned down by FBI agents and police in an Ohio farm field two months after Dillinger's death. A month later, Cowley took a call in his Chicago office from two agents who had mistakenly let Baby Face Nelson drive away from their stakeout. Cowley joined several other agents in pursuit of Nelson.

They faced off with Nelson in the small town of Barrington, Ill., north of Chicago, on Nov. 27, 1934. Nelson's car had been disabled by gunfire, so the notorious bank robber, known for his hot temper, stood on the running board of his black Ford and began firing an automatic rifle at Cowley and his partner. When the rifle jammed, Nelson resumed his attack with a Thompson machine gun.

Meanwhile, Cowley got out of his car armed with a submachine gun.

"A desk man his entire career, the squat, jowly Mormon was the last man Hoover would have wanted facing off with Nelson," Burrough wrote.

But Cowley hit Nelson with at least six rounds. Riddled with bullets, Nelson managed to return fire, hitting Cowley twice in the midsection. Burrough infers that had Cowley worn a bulletproof vest, he would have survived.

Instead, Cowley died the next day at a rural hospital at the age of 35. Later that day, FBI agents found the bullet-riddled body of Baby Face Nelson wrapped in a blanket and discarded in a ditch.

Cowley left behind a widow and two young boys. While he intentionally didn't draw much attention in Chicago, back home in Utah, his body lay in state at the Capitol rotunda. His funeral was held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square, and a who's who of church, civic and government leaders either attended or spoke.

Assistant Director Harold Nathan eulogized inspector Cowley, saying, "As generations of new agents come into our service, they will be told of the life and death of Sam Cowley. He will become a tradition. He will have attained earthly immortality."

For decades, Hoover— who eventually had a falling out with Purvis — held up Cowley as a hero and the epitome of an FBI man.

Loris Sheets learned that firsthand during a brief interview with Hoover. The Tooele High graduate spent a summer in the early 1960s as an intern at FBI headquarters. When Hoover learned she was from Utah, he asked Sheets during her exit interview if she knew of Cowley.

Sheets made the honest mistake of saying she didn't.

"He got mad at me, pointing to a picture and saying, 'This is Sam Cowley … the bravest man I ever knew.'

"This country owes this man, he gave his life for this country," Sheets said, recounting what Hoover said about Cowley. "He had tears in his eyes and pointed his finger at me."

Sheets, who still lives in Tooele County, concluded Cowley must have been the reason why she had heard that Hoover also liked Mormons. "There were so many working in the bureau back then," she recalled.

During her internship, the movie "The FBI Story," starring Jimmy Stewart, was being filmed on location in D.C., and Sheets was an extra in one scene. She said that film and others that followed inaccurately depicted Cowley as supporting cast and not the main character that he actually was in the 1930s war on crime.

And it's for that reason that Sam Cowley Jr. didn't rush out to see "Public Enemies" when it opened over the summer. "When I saw the previews and publicity, I was a bit skeptical," he said about how it would portray his dad. "We'll see the movie when it comes to Red Box for a $1."

e-mail: mbrown@desnews.com

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