The 1948 film HE WALKED BY NIGHT starring Richard Basehart was loosely based on the 1946 crime spree of William Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker.
Jack Webb played a forensics specialist in HE WALKED BY NIGHT, and while filming the movie he had an epiphany — what if there was a radio show based on real life police work? Webb’s brainstorm would become a radio show, TV series, and a film (two films actually, one in 1954 starring Webb, and a comedy remake in 1987 starring Dan Ackroyd). The radio program debuted on June 2, 1949 with an episode entitled ROBBERY.
Episode two, HOMICIDE – THE NICKEL PLATED GUN, aired on June 10, 1949. This digitally remastered copy is courtesy of the National Archives.
DRAGNET: Homicide – The Nickel Plated Gun
Who was the real Erwin Walker? He had been a civilian employee of the Glendale Police Department prior to being drafted into the U.S. Army. He was very near-sighted, and would have been classified as unfit for service if not for his remarkable skills in electronics. Walker was sent to the Philippines where his non-combat unit ended up in a three day fight for their lives with a contingent of Japanese army paratroopers.
Walker survived the war physically, but mentally he was broken. His crime spree began even before his release from the army. In August 1945, he entered an Army Ordnance warehouse at night, stealing seven 45-caliber Thompson sub-machine guns, twelve .45-caliber pistols, six .38-caliber revolvers, ammunition, holsters, and magazines.
On April 25, 1946, Walker was on his way to sell some stolen motion picture equipment to a man named William Starr. Starr had suspected that Walker (who was calling himself Paul C. Norris) had stolen the equipment and he phoned the cops. As Walker approached Starr’s home he was confronted by two LAPD Hollywood Division detectives, Lt. Colin C. Forbes, and his partner Sgt. Stewart W. Johnson. Walker opened fire — he wounded both cops and then he disappeared into the subterranean storm drains of Los Angeles.
Walker managed to evade capture, and early on Wednesday, June 5, 1946, he drove to a meat market at the corner of Los Feliz Boulevard and Brunswick Avenue in Glendale, where he was rousted by a suspicious California Highway patrolman, Loren Cornwell Roosevelt. Instead of producing his I.D when Roosevelt asked to see it, Walker pulled out a weapon and fired. Then the cop killer once again vanished into the storm drains of the city.
Walker would later testify that he’d fired at Roosevelt only after the cop had shot at him first. It was a lie. Walker also stated that he fired twice — but Roosevelt had died in the hospital with nine slugs in him. The investigation revealed that the fatal rounds had likely been fired from one of the Thompson sub-machine guns Walker kept with him.
LAPD was tipped off that Walker was living in a duplex at 1831 1/2 N. Argyle Avenue. In the early morning hours of December 20, 1946, using a key provided by the landlord, detectives Wynn, Donahue, and Rombeau entered Walker’s apartment.
Walker came up quick and reached for the Thompson he kept on the bed beside him. He struggled with the cops, but they shot him twice in the shoulder and finally subdued him by cracking his skull with the butt of a pistol. Walker was in custody at last.
While on death row awaiting execution, a shrink diagnosed Walker with paranoid schizophrenia. Thirty-six hours before his scheduled execution Walker was found unconscious with a length of radio headphone cord wrapped around his neck. He was revived and his execution was postponed indefinitely while he underwent an extensive psych evaluation.
Walker was declared insane and committed to the Mendocino State Hospital where he received electroshock therapy, and spent his free time reading chemistry textbooks.
During the early 1970s Walker attempted to get his conviction overturned, but the courts denied his petitions. However, he did manage to get a ruling that deleted the portion of his life sentence that excluded any possibility of parole.
Walker had managed to successfully work the system and cheat the executioner. The convicted cop killer was paroled in 1974! Upon his release he legally changed his name, got a job as a chemist, and disappeared from public view.
Walker died in 1982. He had never once expressed remorse for the anguish he had caused the victims of his crimes. If there is a hell, he is certain to burn for eternity.
HE WALKED BY NIGHT is in the public domain and if you have never seen it, here’s your chance.