Willie Sutton arrest: How I nabbed a world famous bank bandit!
17 February 2012, Tracy Connor, NY Daily News
It’s been 60 years since he collared Willie Sutton, but retired detective Donald Shea remembers every detail – right down to making the legendary bank robber drop his shorts.
– I knew it was going to be a good arrest, – Shea, 86, told the Daily News on the eve of the anniversary. – I didn’t realize it was going to be the biggest arrest I’ve ever made.
It was an arrest that almost didn’t happen.
On Feb. 18, 1952, Willie Sutton was the most famous bank robber in the world.
He’d knocked over scores of banks, stealing $2 million, and escaped from prison six times.
He was known for natty suits and good manners. He carried a Tommy gun, but never fired it. His cunning earned him two nicknames, The Actor and Slick Willie.
With just four years on the job, Shea was on patrol with partner Joseph McClellan when salesman Arnold Schuster flagged them down near downtown Brooklyn.
– He said he thought he saw Willie Sutton on the subway train and he followed him down to Third Ave. He thought he saw him go into a gas station, – Shea recalled.
The cops drove there and asked the mechanic if he’d seen anyone. He mentioned a man had bought a battery and headed toward Dean St.
– We went over there, and there’s a car with its hood up, – Shea said. – It looked like it could be him.
The officers asked the man for identification and he gave them a card with an alias and the address of a building on the block.The cops wondered if they had the right man.
Shea had a photo he got four years earlier – when he was a rookie and Sutton had just waltzed out of prison in a guard’s uniform.
– The picture wasn’t so good. I decided maybe the detectives would have a better picture, – he said.
Leaving McClellan with the suspect, Shea went to the 78th Precinct stationhouse and brought Detective Louis Weiner back to Dean St.
– We decided to take him in, – Shea said.
– The three of us were in the squad room with him and we were asking him all kinds of questions. . . . He was so calm. He just went along.
Finally, the told him they were going to fingerprint him.
– That’s when he said, – OK, you got me!, – Shea remembered.
They started to search Sutton. He willingly took off his jacket and shirt, but protested when they told him to take off his pants.
– Take your shorts down, – they told him.
– Hey c’mon, guys, this is embarrassing, – Sutton said.
The cops insisted – and good thing.
– He dropped his shorts, and we found a gun between his legs, – Shea said.
Soon Police Commissioner George Monaghan stopped in to congratulate them.
Shea was chosen to take Sutton to his arraignment, and – that was the last time I saw him, – he said.
But the arrest had a legacy.
Shea and McClellan were promoted to first-grade detective, and Shea made the front page of The News.
Schuster, the tipster, stole a bit of their thunder by coming forward to say he was the first person to spot Sutton.
It was a fateful move – two weeks later, Schuster, 24, was murdered in the street.
Shea went on to investigate dozens of other crimes in a 35-year career before he retired in 1983.
Slick Willie went to prison for a decade, went on to write a book and make TV commercials, and died in Florida in 1980.
He had become kind of a folk hero, but to Shea, he was just a perp.
– To me, a robber is a robber, – he said.