Max Towle: To say Max Towle is one of the most colorful characters in legal history is an understatement. While serving as Lancaster County’s district attorney, Towle ran the state’s capital through prohibition practically as an open city. Gambling was not only tolerated, it was out in the open, and Towle took an active part in it. He sued the railroad company when a train delayed him from making a bet on a horse, and took part in the cockfighting just outside of town. When he purchased a few prize roosters in Mexico and had them shipped to his office, his secretary didn’t know what to do with them, and had them sent to the butcher’s. Towle only restricted slot machines when they became so numerous that they slowed his progress through the lobby of his building.
When the largest bank robbery in world history took place in his town, he utilized underworld connections which led him straight to the Capone organization. When Towle went to visit Capone, he took a young hitchhiker and told him to drive while he slept in the passenger seat. When the kid crashed the car in a ditch, Towle jumped awake with his .38 in his hand.
Fred "Killer" Burke: Fred Burke, called the “Doc” by other criminals because of an impromptu surgery he did on a fellow criminal, was a World War I vet and small time criminal in “Egan’s Rats,” a criminal organization in Missouri. When the top members of the gang were jailed in 1924, he fled to Detroit where he became a member of the infamous “Purple Gang.” He gained the reputable nickname “Killer” by being such a notorious murderer, including taking part in the Milaflores Massacre in 1927. Soon after that, the Purple Gang turned on him and he and several others, including his close friend Gus Winkeler, fled to the protection of Al Capone, who referred to them as his “American Boys.”
In 1929, Fred Burke helped organize and execute the most infamous gang murder in history, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Burke was identified as one of the killers and he went into hiding. At the end of the year, he was spotted by a police offer, who Burke shot and killed. He shot to the top of the most wanted list.
A year later, he was spotted again, this time at 12th and O Streets in Lincoln Nebraska as the look-out man and apparent leader of the group of bank robbers who got away with the largest cache in a bank robbery in history.
Gus Winkeler: Like his friend, Fred Burke, Gus Winkeler was a World War I veteran who fell in with “Egan’s Rats” in Missouri. It had been Gus’s hand that Burke had done surgery on to remove a bullet, the incident which gave Burke the nickname in the underworld of “Doc.” The two of them fled Missouri together when the heads of the organization went to jail, and worked for the Purple Gang in Detroit. They then had to escape them as well into the protection of Al Capone in Chicago, who called them his “American Boys.” Winkeler aided Burke in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but was not identified the way Burke was.
Winkeler’s wife, who had continually covered for him, begged Gus to get out of the rackets and to cut ties with Burke, but Winkeler continued to help Burke while he was in hiding and while he committed more crimes and murders, including the killing of a police officer. When Winkeler was unconscious in a hospital after a car crash, he muttered something about the Lincoln bank robbery. Authorities assumed this meant he had been a part of the robbery, but in truth, he simply knew about it because of Fred Burke. He was charged with the crime, but then made a deal with Nebraska authorities to keep him out of jail.
Al Capone: The most infamous gangster in history, Al Capone was viewed at the time in many different lights. He had come from New York where he had been a part of several gangs until Johnny Torrio took him under his wing. Torrio took him to Chicago when prohibition opened up many new avenues of making money. When Torrio returned to Italy in 1924, he left the organization in Capone’s hands. Capone and his brother’s continued Torrio’s tradition of running his criminal organization like a business, and he brokered peace negotiations with rival gangs, divvying up territories so no one would fight and they wouldn’t scare away customers. He differed from Torrio in that he did not remain in the shadows, but rather became a celebrity, appearing in public, signing autographs, and even appearing on the cover of Time Magazine.
Near the end of the 1920s, Capone was pulling away from the business, spending more and more time in Florida, and giving a lot of the responsibilities to others, such as “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, and Fred “Killer” Burke. It was these two who organized the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and later the bank robbery in Lincoln, Nebraska. The South Side gang had never knocked off a bank before; it was not the sort of business Al Capone had been interested in. But evidence became more and more clear that several of his boys had done it.
Capone posted the $100,000 bail to get Gus Winkeler out of jail, and it was pretty clear he was going to be able to keep him out, and keep the money, as there was no proof that he had it, and their organization had a lot more resources than the Nebraska authorities could bring against them. Then, quite suddenly, Al Capone changed his mind. What exactly changed his mind has remained a mystery for decades, but is finally revealed in The Great Heist.