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Car thief Martin Durkin’s 1925 Murder of the FBI’s first special agent killed in the line of duty

Home | Feature Stories | Car thief Martin Durkin’s 1925 Murder of the FBI’s first special agent killed in the line of duty

The following story was written and provided by the History Section of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A link to a photo gallery of high quality black and white images from the Chicago Tribune taken during Martin Durkin’s trial can be found at the end of this article. These images are amazing to view and historical true crime readers won’t want to miss them. This is an incredible story of a man who shot and wounded four police officers in two separate incidents before killing Agent Ed Shanahan in Chicago in 1925.

During his trial, Durkin was noted to have the ability to charm both a wife and mistress, and keep them both at the same time. He may have been a dynamic and interesting criminal in his day, but he was also a cold blooded murderer. His story is below.


Justice Department Agent Edward Shanahan

Justice Department
Agent Edward Shanahan

On October 11, 1925, FBI Special Agent Edwin C. Shanahan, sought to apprehend Martin James Durkin, a professional automobile thief, for violation of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. Durkin had a long record. He had previously shot and wounded three policemen in Chicago and also had shot and wounded a fourth police officer in California. He had already attained a reputation as a desperate gunman who would shoot to kill upon meeting the slightest interference in his activities.

Special Agent Shanahan had received confidential information to the effect that a man thought to be Durkin was due to arrive at a certain garage in Chicago with a stolen automobile that he had transported to that city from New Mexico. Special Agent Shanahan procured proper assistance and proceeded to the garage in question. After an all day wait, it appeared that the information was inaccurate and that Durkin would not come into the garage as had been expected.

While the police officers with Special Agent Shanahan had momentarily left the garage for the purpose of seeking another detail of officers to relieve them, Durkin drove in with the stolen car. Special Agent Shanahan attempted to take him into custody but, through a ruse, Durkin swept an automatic pistol from the front seat of the stolen automobile and shot Shanahan through the breast. Special Agent Shanahan was the first FBI agent to be killed in the line of duty.

As a result of this atrocious murder, all the forces of the FBI throughout the country were concentrated in an effort to effect Durkin’s capture.

A few weeks after the murder of Shanahan, information was received that Durkin and a woman with whom he had been living would appear in Chicago at the home of a relative of the woman. Police officers of the Chicago Police Department attempted to arrest Durkin when he arrived at the house late at night. In the gun fight which followed, a police officer was killed and another wounded. Durkin again escaped.

Durkin successfully evaded capture until January 20, 1926, when he was arrested near St. Louis, Missouri as the result of an alarm spread throughout the United States and a last minute chase across the continent conducted entirely by special agents of the FBI.


Martin Durkin

Durkin’s “racket” was the stealing and interstate transportation of high powered automobiles which he sold after all the numbers thereon had been changed. The cars which he was particularly fond of stealing were Pierce Arrows, Cadillacs, and Packards. His favorite system in stealing such automobiles was to present himself as a prospective buyer at dealerships which handled these expensive cars. There he would dicker for the purchase of a high priced automobile and would agree to buy the same, arranging to have the car serviced and filled with gasoline and oil, ready for delivery to him the following day. He would agree to return the following day and pay cash for the car. That night he would burglarize the garage of the dealership in question and drive the expensive car away. He would then change the motor, serial number, and all other assembly numbers by means of which the car could be identified. Next, he would procure license plates under assumed names giving fictitious addresses. He would then drive the car to another state where he would dispose of it for several thousand dollars.

Special agents of the FBI carefully notified dealerships for such expensive cars throughout the United States as to the method employed by Durkin in these thefts. On January 10, 1926, as a result of this careful and systematic covering of the entire country, a Cadillac dealership at San Diego, California, informed the Los Angeles office of the FBI that, on the night before, a new Cadillac Phaeton with brown California top, green body and green wooden wheels had been stolen from their show room under circumstances identical with the system employed by Durkin. The motor, serial, and other assembly numbers on this stolen Cadillac were procured by FBI agents. In an effort to stop this car on the theory that perhaps the thief driving it might be Martin Durkin, all roads leading from California to the eastern section of the United States were covered. This systematic covering of all highways was conducted by Bureau agents in field offices at Los Angeles; Phoenix, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; El Paso, San Antonio and Dallas, Texas; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The transcontinental highways leading East were covered by shotgun squads day and night for almost a week to no avail. The Cadillac failed to appear.

On Sunday, January 17, 1926, a sheriff in the town of Pecos, Texas noticed a green Cadillac parked on the streets. He accosted the young man who was at the wheel and asked him to identify himself. The young man was a very smooth talker and did not present the appearance of a hard-boiled gunman and murderer. He convincingly told the sheriff that his name was Fred Conley and that he was a deputy sheriff of Los Angeles, California. He also told the sheriff that he had been employed at Los Angeles as a movie actor and that he was then en route east with his wife.

The sheriff asked him to produce papers showing ownership of the Cadillac, and the young man stated that those papers were in his luggage at the hotel. He told the sheriff that he would be glad to go for them and bring them back to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff carefully observed the Cadillac before permitting this. He took a record of the motor number, license number, and other assembly numbers on the car and noticed in particular that it had red wooden wheels. The young man was carrying a pistol and had a forty-four Winchester in the car, all of which lent color to his story that he was a Los Angeles deputy sheriff. Being disarmed by his innocent appearance and glib talk, the sheriff permitted him to go to the hotel in Pecos for the purpose of procuring and exhibiting the papers certifying ownership of the Cadillac.

When the young man describing himself as Mr. Fred Conley, a deputy sheriff from Los Angeles, did not return immediately with these papers, the sheriff proceeded to the hotel where he discovered that “Mr. Conley” had hurriedly entered the hotel, seized his baggage, and accompanied by the woman with whom he was registered, departed from Pecos at a high speed in the Cadillac.

Efforts made by the sheriff that day failed to effect the capture of “Mr. Conley” in this Cadillac car, which the sheriff now believed to be stolen. Numerous car thieves had been captured by this sheriff at Pecos, Texas, and he believed that this was just another thief and did not, at the time, connect him with Martin Durkin, the Chicago gunman, for whom a $1,000 reward was outstanding.

However, on this Sunday, January 17, 1926, the sheriff wrote a letter to the field office of the FBI at El Paso, Texas, describing the incident mentioned above and ending his communication with the comment to the effect that the FBI “might have something on this bird.”

The special agent in charge of the office at El Paso, Texas immediately recognized the physical description contained in this letter as being that of Martin Durkin, the murderer of Special Agent Shanahan.

The Cadillac touring car which had been stolen in Los Angeles bore assembly numbers entirely different from those on the Cadillac car examined by the sheriff at Pecos, Texas; the wheels of the car driven by “Mr. Conley” were red, whereas the wheels on the car stolen at San Diego had been green. However, the glibness with which “Mr. Conley” had evaded the sheriff at Pecos bore the earmarks of Durkin’s methods of operation. There was no doubt in the minds of the Bureau operatives at El Paso that they were on the right trail.

The telegraph and telephone wires were kept hot both east and west in the effort to stop this Cadillac car driven by “Mr. Conley” and his woman companion. Bureau agents now had the benefit of the changed assembly numbers, as well as the license number on this stolen car. Special agents were dispatched from El Paso to comb the country in the remote western section of Texas known as the “Big Bend of the Rio Grande.”

As a result of an all day search through the cactus and sage brush of those remote regions, the stolen car was found deserted in a clump of desert mesquite trees about 50 miles west of Fort Stockton, Texas. The deserted Cadillac was found late in the afternoon of January 19. The right rear wheel was broken off. The fleeing murderer had the misfortune to get a punctured tire and, because of the high rate of speed at which he had been traveling, had lost the brand new extra tire from the rack in the rear. In desperation, he had continued driving on a flat tire with the result that the spokes in the wheel had finally broken, and he could proceed no further. Tests by Bureau agents positively identified the Cadillac as the one which had been stolen at San Diego.

A hurried investigation revealed information from a rancher nearby that he had hauled the smooth talking stranger and the good looking woman with him to the small town of Girvin, Texas. The stranger had said that they were going to catch a train at Alpine, Texas in the Davis Mountains, about 150 miles to the south, near the Mexican border.

Special agents of the Bureau, knowing the fondness of Martin Durkin for the big cities and the night clubs, were not fooled into believing that he had entered old Mexico. They believed that he would not care to undergo the hardships of desert travel in that bandit infested region.

Accordingly, the ticket agent of the Southern Pacific Railway in the village of Alpine, Texas was immediately interviewed. Information was obtained from him that a strange man and woman had boarded Southern Pacific Train No. 110 at 12:12 a.m., on Monday, January 18, 1926, for San Antonio, Texas. From train dispatchers of the Southern Pacific, information was immediately obtained as to the names and addresses of the train conductor and pullman conductor who had ridden Southern Pacific Train No. 110 through Alpine on the night in question.

The railroad conductor was found at his home in El Paso, and he identified a photograph of Durkin as being the man who got on his train at Alpine at midnight on the 18th and gave a good description of the woman with him. He furnished additional information indicating that Durkin had talked with the pullman conductor concerning possible connections out of San Antonio, Texas for other points. It was ascertained that the pullman conductor in question was, on the night of the inquiry, en route on another train between San Antonio and Dallas.

Special agents from the Dallas and San Antonio Field Offices, on the morning of January 20, obtained information that a couple using the same baggage check numbers as those which had been used by Durkin and his lady companion out of Alpine, Texas had secured transportation out of San Antonio, Texas on the Texas Special of the M. K. & T. Railroad, then en route to St. Louis, Missouri, and due to arrive there that same morning at 11 a.m.

The pullman conductor of Southern Pacific Train no. 110, upon being interviewed, positively identified photographs of Durkin. He also stated that Durkin, upon boarding the train at Alpine, had immediately inquired as to the quickest connection out of San Antonio for St. Louis and had been told that the first and best connection was the above described Texas Special.

At about daylight on the morning of January 20, special agents of the FBI at St. Louis, Missouri were notified that Martin Durkin and his mysterious woman companion were in a stateroom in a car of the Texas Special of the “Katy,” due to arrive there that morning at 11 a.m. The services of the City Detective Bureau of the St. Louis Police Department were procured, and through appropriate arrangements, the Texas Special was stopped at a small town near St. Louis, where the fugitive murderer would have no chance to escape except by running on foot through plowed fields. The train was surrounded, and Bureau agents, accompanied by St. Louis City detectives, dragged the desperate gunman from the stateroom and placed him in irons before he had an opportunity to reach for the weapons which were in his luggage and overcoat.

Because it was not a federal offense to kill a special agent until 1934, Durkin was tried and convicted in state court for the murder of Agent Shanahan and was sentenced to serve a term of 35 years in the penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois. He also was tried in the federal court at Chicago for the interstate transportation of numerous automobiles in violation of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act. He was convicted on all these charges and was given a term of imprisonment in the federal penitentiary totaling 15 years. Durkin was 25 years of age when he entered the Statesville Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois in 1926. In 1946, he was taken to Leavenworth Federal Prison. He was 53 when he was “released upon expiration of sentence” on July 28, 1954.

Chicago Tribune Images

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