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John Dillinger continues to fascinate more than 80 years after his death. Here are some interesting facts about the famous Depression-era gangster from Indiana. (Dwight Adams/IndyStar)
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A Marion County judge on Wednesday ruled the family of notorious Hoosier bank robber John Dillinger will not be allowed to exhume the 85-year-old corpse from its resting place at Crown Hill Cemetery — for now.

Dillinger’s nephew Michael C. Thompson filed a lawsuit in August after a public back-and-forth between the family and the cemetery, which had voiced its opposition to the proposition of digging up the body. 

In his ruling Wednesday, Marion County Superior Court Judge Timothy Oakes said the parties’ main question was whether the exhumation could occur without cemetery approval, as laid out under Indiana Statute 23-14-57-1.

“Court finds that the statutory requirements for this section of the statute are clear in that disinterment requires the cemetery owner to give consent before disinterment may occur,” Oakes’ ruling says, according to online court records, “and the statute does not require that the cemetery have a valid, rational, or meaningful reason.”

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Thompson received a permit in June from the Indiana State Department of Health to complete the exhumation sometime before Sept. 16, but ran into road blocks after news reports drew attention to the plans. 

The family’s plans to exhume the body and complete DNA testing to determine its identity were to be depicted in a documentary distributed by the History Channel, which has since backed out of the project.

Oakes dismissed the case without prejudice, leaving room for Thompson’s attorney, Andrea Simmons, to file an amended complaint under another section of the statute. 

“We feel like Mr. Thompson should not be prohibited from seeking a disinterment to learn the identity just because his uncle happens to be infamous,” Simmons said before the ruling. “If his was anonymous, if no one had ever heard the name, we wouldn’t be here today.” 

Why exhume Dillinger’s body?

Dillinger, born in Indianapolis in 1903, became famous after committing a string of bank robberies in 1933 and making several high-profile escapes from police custody.

He became a legend when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled him Public Enemy No. 1, but his life of crime came to an end when police and federal agents ambushed him outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934. 

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He was shot three times and pronounced dead at the scene. 

Or was he? 

Efforts allegedly made by Dillinger to alter his appearance — including plastic surgery and burning off his fingerprints with acid — have led some historians and Dillinger enthusiasts to believe that it wasn’t him shot dead outside the theater, but a doppelganger.

That, according to sworn affidavits filed by two of Dillinger’s family members in May, is exactly why the body should be dug up.

“It is my belief and opinion that it is critical to learn whether Dillinger lived beyond his reported date of death of July 22, 1934,” Thompson, Dillinger’s nephew, affirmed in the affidavit.

“If he was not killed on that date, I am interested in discovering what happened to him,” the affidavit reads, “where he lived, whether he had children, and whether any such children or grandchildren are living today.”

Crown Hill Cemetery pushed back

Shortly after reports of the planned exhumation surfaced in July, Crown Hill Cemetery released a statement saying it was opposed to the idea of digging up Dillinger’s body, saying it had a responsibility to the families of others interred on the grounds. 

“We have a duty to the families we serve to ensure the safety and integrity of the Cemetery which is threatened by the proposed exhumation,” cemetery management said in a written statement.  “We also have concerns that the complex and commercial nature of this exhumation could cause disruption to the peaceful tranquility of the Cemetery and those who are visiting to remember their loved ones.”

The cemetery also expressed concern that not all members of the Dillinger family agreed with the planned exhumation. Another Dillinger family member, great-nephew Jeff Scalf, previously told IndyStar he believed the action was “despicable.” 

The FBI also took a rare step in issuing a statement confirming the body was identified as Dillinger at the time of death.

Call IndyStar reporter Holly Hays at 317-444-6156. Follow her on Twitter: @hollyvhays.

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