Although the FBI was created in 1908 (originally as the Bureau of Investigation), the agency did not see one its men die in the line of duty for another 17 years. October 11, 1925, is remembered by FBI agents past and present as a testament to just how dangerous their chosen profession is. That day, the lives of two young men, one a criminal and one a federal agent, collided in Chicago with tragic results.
Martin Durkin’s racket was car theft. The 25-year-old criminal was known for stealing cars and transporting them between states to sell illegally. Durkin would pose as a prospective car buyer at dealerships, convince employees he’d be back the next day to make a purchase, and steal cars at night when the businesses were closed to the public. He’d then alter the car’s engine, some other parts, and its serial number and sell each automobile in another state for a nice profit.
Edwin Shanahan was a 27-year-old Chicago native who had been with the FBI since 1920. Before joining the Bureau, Shanahan served in the Army during World War I.
In late 1925, Durkin became a wanted man by the FBI because of his numerous violations of the Dyer Act, a law that made transporting stolen cars across state lines a federal crime. It was common knowledge that Durkin was a dangerous man: he had previously shot three policemen in Chicago and one in California, though none of them were killed. On October 11, 1925, Special Agent Edwin Shanahan received a tip that Martin Durkin would be arriving at a garage in Chicago to drop off a car he had stolen and driven up from New Mexico.
Shanahan and a team of police officers surveilled the garage for most of October 11, with no sighting of Durkin. It appeared that the information may not have been reliable and that the wanted car thief would not be showing up that day. The team of police officers with Shanahan left the FBI agent at the garage to find a team to relieve them. As Shanahan waited by himself, Martin Durkin drove the stolen car up to the garage.
Special Agent Shanahan approached the car alone and attempted to arrest Durkin. The thief, surprised by Shanahan’s sudden appearance, shot the FBI agent in the chest. Shanahan died instantly, becoming the first FBI agent to be killed in the line of duty. Durkin fled the scene, and FBI agents and police officers across the country made it a top priority to capture the car-thief-turned-killer.
A few weeks after Shanahan’s murder, law enforcement received a tip that Durkin would be at a house in Chicago. Police descended on the house, and Durkin was confronted by Sergeant Harry Gray, who attempted to arrest him. Again, Durkin fired on law enforcement – hitting Sergeant Gray – and escaped. Gray died five days later. The manhunt for Martin Durkin intensified. He had now killed an FBI agent and a Chicago police officer.
Durkin headed west, spending time in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. FBI agents hunted Durkin but kept coming up short. Finally, in January 1926, over three months after Agent Shanahan’s murder, their luck changed. A railroad ticket agent in Alpine, Texas identified Durkin and his girlfriend as having bought tickets for a train bound for St. Louis.
On January 20, 1926, Durkin and his girlfriend were indeed on the train headed to St. Louis. Federal agents scrambled to set up an arrest. Agents in Texas contacted the FBI office in St. Louis and told them Durkin was on a train headed for their city. The Missouri agents and local police arranged to have the train stopped before it reached its final destination, and Durkin was arrested just outside St. Louis. The manhunt for Martin Durkin was over.
Durkin admitted to murdering Agent Shanahan, but at the time killing an FBI agent was not a federal crime, so Durkin was tried and sentenced in the state of Illinois. He received a 35-year sentence for the murder. Durkin was also tried in federal court for his Dyer Act violations, and he received an additional 15-year federal sentence.
Durkin spent nearly 20 years in prison in Illinois, and in 1946 he was transferred to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas to serve his federal sentence. Martin Durkin was paroled from Leavenworth in 1954 at the age of 53. Durkin died in 1981.
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