The police officers working for the city of Davenport, Iowa, must have been elated on March 8, 1947.
For months, an unknown suspect had been breaking into local homes throughout the city. There had been no solid leads on them, and every crime that the robber committed was like a slap in the face to the local law enforcement. They were eager to catch him, and now they had their best opportunity yet.
A call had just gone out over the radio to be on the lookout for a middle-aged man of a particular age and description. They had been seen by a neighbor who had called police after seeing him leaving the home of Martin Schultz, a Davenport high school teacher. The individual had been carrying a portable typewriter and a radio.
It didn’t take long for police to find the suspect.
A short distance away, two patrolmen spotted a man that matched the suspect’s description. He was patiently waiting for a bus, a typewriter and radio by his side. They stopped and began to ask him some questions. The man, who said his name was Calvin Howard Page, admitted that he had stolen the items from the house and didn’t resist as the two officers took him into custody.
At the police station, a search revealed that Page was carrying a set of burglary tools, including a screwdriver, knife, glass cutter, and skeleton keys. Once the booking process had been completed, Reed Philips, the Chief of Police for the City of Davenport, came to talk to him.
The Davenport Police Department expected Willis to be the robbery suspect that they had been looking for. They were ready for Chief Philips to confirm this and rejoice in the good news that the person they had sought for so long was now in their hands.
Unfortunately, they were about to be disappointed.
The Truth Revealed
It didn’t take long for Philips to determine that Page wasn’t the man they were looking for. Yes, the man was an admitted thief and criminal, and yes, he had robbed the Schultz house earlier that day. However, Page had the perfect alibi for the other robberies, one that was air-tight.
Mr. Page had escaped from a Maryland prison only a few weeks before and had been making his way west that entire time.
Whatever Philips had been expecting, it almost certainly wasn’t this.
Mr. Page, as it turned out, wasn’t really Mr. Page. His real name was Guy Howard Willis. He was – more or less – a 51-year-old career criminal who had been in and out of prison for most of his life. He had several aliases and was currently the subject of a nationwide manhunt involving the FBI.
Philips, along with a Detective Captain and the Scott County Attorney, urged Willis to continue his story. The robber was only too happy to oblige.
Willis had been put in a Frederick, Maryland jail for forgery. He was used to prison, but certainly didn’t want to stay there. After some planning, Willis devised an escape plan.
Procuring a saw, he and three other inmates circumvented their bonds and made good their escape.
The biggest thing on their minds was getting as far away from the jail as possible. Running would only take them so far, so fast, so the escapees determined to get a car. Thinking quickly, they kidnapped a taxi driver named Merle Hobbs, and forced him to drive them to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Along the way, they found out that Hobbs had fought in World War II and had lost a limb there. Criminals they may have been, but Willis and his companions respected the man’s service and sacrifice. In an odd tribute to that, they decided not to harm him any more than they already had, and not to rob him. However, they couldn’t just let him go, either.
When they arrived in Gettysburg, the escapees gagged the veteran and left him tied up in the back seat of his taxi. From there, the former inmates went their separate ways.
On the Lam
Willis made his way gradually west to Chicago, where he successfully hid for several days. For whatever reason, he decided that Chicago wasn’t a good place to be in anymore, and moved again, this time to Peoria, Illinois. Perhaps he had heard that the FBI was still actively searching for him in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
On March 7, 1947, Willis arrived in Davenport. He spent his time hanging out in railroad stations and bus depots. While the authorities were looking for him, Willis had still successfully hidden from them. But, for his own reasons, he decided that he wanted to go back to Maryland. He needed money for a train ticket, so he decided to rob the Schultz house on Gaines, which he had seen while walking through the neighborhood.
And now Willis was here, at Davenport Police Headquarters, talking to the authorities and waiting for the arrival of the FBI.
Willis was sentenced to 10 years for the breaking and entering of the Schultz home. The next year, he was convicted in the kidnapping of Merle Hobbs and sentenced to another 15 years.
By the 1960’s, Willis, who had done time in prisons all over the country, was incarcerated at Leavenworth, Kansas. At the end of June 1963, he was granted parole and released. True to form, however, it didn’t take long for him to violate his parole conditions and leave the area.
A brief search ensured, and Willis was once again sent back to jail.
Police work can be very boring, and sometimes very routine. But, inevitably, a monotonous evening shift can turn overwhelmingly exciting in the blink of an eye. While this can often involve life-threatening situations for the officers involved, in 1947, it led to surprise rather than danger.
After all, it’s not everyday that a relatively mundane house robbery leads you to capture one of the most wanted fugitives in the entire nation.
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‘Widely-Sought Criminal Nabbed.’ The Democrat and Leader, 3/9/1947 p. 1
‘Burglar, Wanted By the FBI For Jailbreak and Kidnapping Held to District Court Here.’ The Democrat and Leader, 3/10/1947, p. 2
‘Mooney, Willis To Enter Pleas on Thursday.’ The Democrat and Leader, 3/11/1947, p. 9
‘Mooney, Willis Cases Continued Until Tuesday.’ The Democrat and Leader, 3/20/1947, p. 15
‘Man Sought by FBI Draws 10-Year Term.’ The Democrat and Leader, 3/25/1947, p. 9
‘Fugitive Held to District Court on Burglary Charges.’ The Daily Times, 3/10/1947, p. 2
‘Man Arrested Here is Given Term on Kidnapping Charge.’ The Daily Times, 6/19/1948, p 6
‘Mooney and Willis Arraignments Are Set for Next Week.’ The Daily Times, 3/14/1947, p. 14
‘Last Kidnapper Sent to Prison.’ The Gettysburg Compiler, 6/26/1948
‘Man is Arrested as Parole Violator.’ Iowa City Press-Citizen, 10/22/1963
United States Federal Census