Bandits got away with approximately $2,600 in cash and gold 88 years ago

Thomas Holden (Left) escaped from Leavenworth Penitentiary two months before his alleged involvement in the Dawson bank robbery. Joe Cretzker (Right) was allegedly one of the men involved in the Dawson bank robbery. FBI file photos

When two men brandishing handguns entered the First National Bank of Dawson on April 30, 1930, they forced four bank employees and four customers into a small airtight vault.

While the men who got away with approximately $2,600 in cash and gold were never apprehended or identified, the vault still remains in the bank building that has since been converted into an area museum.

Three months after that crime, six men robbed the Bank of Willmar and got away with $70,000 in cash, gold and bonds and also were never caught or identified at the time.

Last year, while researching that July 15, 1930, Willmar bank robbery, this reporter came across an autobiography written by J. Evetts Haley called Robbing Banks Was My Business: The Story of J. Harvey Bailey.

Bailey was 85 years old when he sat down with Haley to talk about what would be included in the book in 1973. Only six books were printed, and only one is known to still be in existence at the University of Texas-El Paso Library.

After Bailey’s death in 1979, at age 91, a female relative of his came across several notes and journals in which Bailey detailed some of the many bank robberies he was involved in. Most of his notes were not used in the book.

Photo of the vault from a 1987 article in the Dawson Sentinel. Bank employees were locked in the vault during the bank robbery on April 30, 1930. Although the building is no longer a bank, the vault is still there. The building is now called the Dawson Bank Museum. Contributed photo

With the help of the Texas library, Bailey’s relative was contacted. Requesting anonymity, she revealed through his notations to this reporter who the six men were that robbed the Bank of Willmar, including Bailey and the notorious George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

Dennis and Ruby Anderson, who are caretakers of their late son Steven’s Safari Room located in the recently-opened Dawson Bank Museum, gave a recent tour of the museum and pointed out the bank vault that still remains.

Sensing a similarity in the Dawson Bank robbery 88 years ago, this reporter again contacted Bailey’s relative and asked her to look through his journals and notes again to see if there was any mention of bank robberies in Dawson and Madison; the latter a town near Dawson that was also robbed in 1930.

Bailey’s relative replied six days after the request.

“No mention at all of Madison,” she said. “But there is a little information mentioned about the bank in Dawson.”

The relative said Bailey was not involved in that robbery, but three of the members of his ever-changing gang were. According to Bailey, two of his gang members went inside the bank that day. Their vehicle was parked behind the bank a few hundred feet away so as not to be noticed, according to Bailey.

The two men inside the bank brandishing handguns were Joe Cretzer, 18 (he would turn 19 years old nine days later); and Thomas Holden, 34, according to Bailey’s notes. A third man, whom Bailey did not know, was a friend of Cretzer and acted as a lookout outside the bank. Bailey claimed the men got away with $10,000, but it was common practice back then for bank robbers to exaggerate the amount taken as a way of bragging to other gangs.

The three men were never chased by police or anyone else and drove back to the Twin Cities area where they were living at the time.

According to a story written in the Dawson Sentinel following the robbery, witnesses said two armed men, one older than the other, entered the bank around 10 a.m. The older of the two men, likely Holden, first pointed a gun at the head of assistant cashier Chester Stageberg and ordered him to lie “face-down” on the floor. The younger gunman, likely Cretzer, then opened the door leading behind the counter and ordered bookkeeper Robert Ewing and assistant cashier Glen Blomquist to also lie on the ground.

Holden then proceeded to the rear of the bank and encountered cashier Theo Thompson and customer Harry Wilroth, ordering them both to the ground.

Soon after, Ellen Dale entered the bank to make a deposit, and Cretzer barked out “Going to the dance tonight, Bill?” a predetermined message to inform Holden that a customer had entered the bank.

As Holden was making his way through all the bank drawers searching for money, two more customers – Jim Kvam and Robert Dahl – entered the bank.

Holden and Cretzer then herded the eight employees and customers into the airtight vault and locked it behind them. The robbers left the bank through the back door where their waiting “get-away” vehicle was parked. Holden was the driver, according to Bailey.

Even though they were only locked in the vault for “10 or 15 minutes” before anyone knew what had happened, the eight employees and customers were soon gasping for air.

Dale, interviewed by the Sentinel 57 years later, recalled the minutes inside the vault “seemed like an hour” and that some of those inside were getting light-headed.

Eventually, others entered the bank, and Stageberg was able to shout the numbers to the combination of the vault to E.G. Gilliot, who worked for another bank.

No other details about the Dawson robbery were found in Bailey’s journals and notes, according to his relative.

About the bank robbers:

Joe Cretzer – Starting at age 16, Cretzer was in and out of jail. Although he was the youngest member of Bailey’s gang, he looked much older than his age, often wearing a straw hat and a suit during his robberies. He was eventually caught and in 1939, sentenced to 25 years in prison. He broke out of prison, was caught, and five years were added to his sentence. Following another escape attempt, Cretzer killed a U.S. marshal and was sentenced to life in prison at Alcatraz in 1940. He attempted to escape Alcatraz twice, killing two guards in one attempt with other prisoners. He eventually committed suicide in prison at age 35 in 1946.

Thomas Holden – Two months prior to the Dawson bank robbery, Holden escaped from Leavenworth Penitentiary. A year and a half after robbing the First National Bank in Dawson, Holden and one of his partners robbed the State Bank of Duluth and got away with nearly $60,000. Holden was arrested in 1932 following a series of daylight robberies and was released in 1947. Two years later, Holden shot and killed his wife and her two brothers in Chicago and was the first fugitive placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. He was eventually arrested in 1951 and sentenced to life in prison. He died in prison two years later of a heart attack at age 57.