Baby Face Nelson’s watch now part of Tahoe City collection

Baby Face Nelson’s gold watch, now in the collection of North Lake Tahoe Historical Society. | Mark McLaughlin

During the early 1930s, Chicago-based gangsters were always streaming into Reno, Nev., a small but bustling city where William “Curly” Graham had police and politicians in his pocket. It was also easy to go unnoticed among the hordes of gamblers and tourists. After Baby Face Nelson’s cover was blown in the Bay Area, Graham assured the nervous outlaw that in Reno: “No one goes to the slammer round here less I say so.”

In December 1933, Graham and his partner Jim McKay were under indictment for mail fraud and other crimes. Chief witness for the government’s prosecution was Roy Frisch, a former cashier at Riverside Bank in Reno. Graham and McKay told Nelson, whose real name was Lester Joseph Gillis, that if Frisch disappeared, the federal prosecution would likely fold. Frisch was a 49-year-old bachelor and former Reno city councilman. His testimony could put two of Reno’s wealthiest underworld crime bosses in prison. On the evening of March 22, 1934, Frisch left home to see a movie, but never returned.

He could have left town, but there was strong suspicion that Frisch was killed and his body taken to Lake Tahoe, weighted down and dumped in the water. (The rumor likely added to the persistent myth of dead bodies suspended in the depths of Big Blue.) Word among Reno’s underworld was that Graham’s former employee “Jimmie Burnell” (Nelson) had taken Frisch on a one-way ride.

Following Nelson’s death later that year, investigators determined that Baby Face shot Frisch in the head and tossed his body into an abandoned mine shaft. After the hit, Nelson returned to the Midwest. Graham and McKay went to trial and after two hung juries, they were eventually convicted by a third jury and sentenced to nine years in prison.

At this point Nelson had been running from the law for more than 2½ years. On July 26, 1934, Baby Face, his wife Helen, Johnny Chase and friends Jack and Patricia Perkins, with their young son, John Jr., headed west in two cars. Both vehicles contained an arsenal of machine guns, revolvers, rifles, ammunition and bulletproof vests. When they reached Reno, they drove south so they could enter California on backroads near Lake Tahoe.

Nelson meets Pop Bechdolt
After several days meandering around rural northern California, Nelson and his friends headed back to Nevada, where they car-camped on the outskirts of Carson City and Fallon. In early August, Baby Face was at fault in a minor car accident at Homewood on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore. He was accompanied by an unidentified man, most likely Chase.

When local Deputy Sheriff Carl “Pop” Bechdolt arrived at the scene of the collision, Nelson told him that the other driver wanted $50 for damages but he only had $28 in cash. Officer Bechdolt later told the FBI that Nelson “appeared nervous.” He said that he loaned the gangster $22 and took two watches as security.

Perhaps to test Bechdolt’s integrity, Baby Face told the officer that he had “been running liquor between the lake and Reno” and planned to redeem the watches the next day. The pair promised Bechdolt a gallon of free whiskey next time they were in Tahoe, but the deputy replied that he would arrest them if they did. Prohibition had been repealed, but smuggled rum or whiskey could still be cheaper without state and federal excise taxes.

Later that month, Lester and Helen rented a room at the Tahoe Inn in Tahoe City — the former Blue Agave restaurant (which closed in July). The couple registered as Mr. and Mrs. Burnham and paid in advance. The Burnham’s were “flashily dressed.”

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Nelson was likely unaware that Sheriff Bechdolt and his wife Julie had purchased the Tahoe Inn that spring. (During Prohibition the hotel allegedly sported an illegal speakeasy.) It is possible that Bechdolt had told Nelson that if he wanted his watches back, the best place to reach him was at the inn, but that doesn’t explain why Lester and Helen would stay the night instead of heading to their hide-out cabin near Fallon; Nelson would drive that far just for breakfast. It also suggests that Bechdolt did not ask to see Nelson’s driver’s license or identification in the Homewood incident.

Tahoe Sheriff Carl “Pop” Bechdolt had two intimate contacts with Baby Face, but the peace officer later said that even after seeing the pint-sized gangster up close, he did not recognize Lester or Helen as the two most-wanted fugitives in the nation.

Bechdolt had two intimate contacts with Baby Face, but the peace officer later said that even after seeing the pint-sized gangster up close, he did not recognize Lester or Helen as the two most-wanted fugitives in the nation.

A night at the Truckee Jail?
There is another story that I haven’t been able to verify about Nelson spending a night in the Truckee Jail — not as a prisoner, but because he reportedly had nowhere to sleep. He would have been more comfortable staying in his car rather than the cold, dank cell of Truckee’s stone jail built in 1875. The tale is possible, but Baby Face almost always traveled with Helen or others and was rarely alone. Plus, from Truckee, the gangster was within easy driving distance (for him) to his hideout locations in western Nevada or even the Bay Area.

Nelson returns to Tahoe City?
After Nelson’s death in a shootout with FBI agents in Illinois on Nov. 27, 1934, the agency launched an extensive investigation into the gangster’s activities during his time in the Reno-Tahoe area and the Bay Area. When photographs of Lester and Helen Gillis were shown to Bechdolt by the U.S. Department of Justice, he identified them conclusively. The constable added that when the couple stayed at his lodge, they “went directly to their room without eating dinner and left in the morning before breakfast.” Such is a criminal’s life on the run.

I have not seen any original sources and I’m not saying that it’s incorrect, but local legend alleges that Lester, Helen and their son returned to the Tahoe Inn in September and stayed another night. If they had a child with them, it was not Ronnie Nelson because he was left back in Illinois with relatives, along with his sister. It might have been the Perkins’ son being used as “family cover.”

Watch now housed in Tahoe City
The story continues that Baby Face pawned his pocket watch to Constable Bechdolt for $200 in traveling money — nearly $4,500 in 2022 dollars, an unlikely sum for Bechdolt to have or loan. That would have been the third time that the ever-cautious Nelson dealt with the Tahoe City cop, who didn’t accept illegal liquor as a payoff. Maybe Nelson felt somewhat safe since he had not been recognized in his two previous encounters with Bechdolt and took him for a small-town patsy.

The trio apparently left the Tahoe Inn at 4 a.m., “a few hours before the FBI raided the hotel.” But federal agents did not know that Nelson was in the Reno-Tahoe area until October so that sounds spurious.

Baby Face Nelson’s hocked gold pocket watch, however, was later donated to the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society, a cherished treasure in their collection, and is on display at the Gatekeeper’s Museum in Tahoe City.

“Characters in Lake Tahoe” exhibit | Gatekeeper’s Museum
Featuring Baby Face Nelson’s pocket watch
10 a.m.-5 p.m.| Wed.-Sun