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Ex-FBI agents honor Utahn who died taking down Baby Face Nelson

SALT LAKE CITY — FBI agent Samuel Cowley died Nov. 28, 1934, a day after being hit in a shootout that took down notorious gangster Baby Face Nelson outside Chicago.

The Utah Chapter of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI honored Cowley on Monday at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park where he is buried. His son, Samuel Cowley Jr., posted a small American flag and a wreath at his gravesite. The society is holding ceremonies for fallen FBI agents around the country this year.

Cowley Jr., who was 8 months old when his father died, considers him a hero.

"I think that dad's contribution was significant," the 82-year-old Emigration Canyon resident said.

Cowley’s actions helped shut down the interstate bank robbery and kidnapping industries, according to Dan Ward, president of the ex-agents association.

Cowley was born in Franklin, Idaho. At age 17, he sailed to Hawaii to serve a four-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His brother, Matthew Cowley, would later become an apostle for the church.

After graduating from the Utah Agricultural College in Logan, Cowley headed to Washington, D.C., where he lived with his sister and brother-in-law while attending law school at George Washington University. The fledgling Bureau of Investigation hired him for what was intended to be a temporary job until he could find work practicing law back home in Utah.

But Cowley quickly ascended from special agent posted in a half-dozen bureaus around the country to director of investigations at headquarters in D.C., where he emerged as one of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's most trusted aides.

Hoover dispatched Cowley to Chicago to survey and report back operations in the city where agents had bungled the manhunt for gangster John Dillinger several times, according to the book "Public Enemies," by Bryan Burrough.

But Cowley never left Chicago. Instead of just observing, he took charge, reorganizing resources, sorting out informants, refining leads, studying the criminals he was pursuing and planning the stakeouts that would lead to their capture.

On Nov. 27, 1934, Cowley took a call in his Chicago office from two agents who had mistakenly let Baby Face Nelson drive away from their stakeout. He joined several other agents in pursuit of Nelson.

The G-men encountered Nelson in the small town of Barrington, Illinois, north of Chicago. Gunfire had disabled Nelson's car, so the notorious bank robber, known for his hot temper, stood on the running board of his black Ford firing an automatic rifle at Cowley and his partner. When the rifle jammed, Nelson resumed his attack with a Thompson machine gun.

Meanwhile, Cowley got out of his car armed with a submachine gun.

"A desk man his entire career, the squat, jowly Mormon was the last man Hoover would have wanted facing off with Nelson," Burrough wrote.

But Cowley hit Nelson with at least six rounds. Riddled with bullets, Nelson managed to return fire, hitting Cowley twice in the midsection.

Cowley died the next day at a rural hospital at the age of 35. Later that day, FBI agents found the bullet-riddled body of Nelson wrapped in a blanket and discarded in a ditch.

While he intentionally didn't draw much attention in Chicago, back home in Utah, Cowley's body lay in state at the Capitol rotunda. Church, civic and government leaders either attended or spoke at his funeral in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

Cowley left behind a wife and two young boys. Lavon Cowley reared her sons working as a clerk in various FBI offices, which was the pension benefit for widows back in those days, Cowley Jr. said.

"We've always felt that mother was very close to the hero of the family as well," he said.