Walter R. Walsh was so skilled with a pistol, it was said, that men trusted him to shoot cigarettes from their mouths.
He had grown up playing target-practice with clothespins on his aunt’s laundry line and later picked off rats at his local New Jersey dump. At 27, in the midst of the Depression and not long out of law school, he joined the FBI in the first cohort of agents permitted to carry weapons.
It was a time of stickups, stakeouts and shootouts, when public enemies such as John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd robbed and gunned their way across the land.
Walsh, whose perfect shot became the scourge of gangsters, was regarded then as a hero among G-Men and retained the status until his death April 29 at 106. He died at his home in Arlington, Va., and had recently suffered a heart attack, said his son Gerald Walsh.
Walsh spent most of his career in the Marine Corps, training other servicemen in marksmanship and retiring as a colonel. But he was best known for his exploits in the FBI in the 1930s.
Director J. Edgar Hoover had noted Walsh’s skill and put him on the trail of the country’s most notorious scoundrels.
In 1934, Walsh helped track down the corpse of Lester Gillis, the bank robber and killer better known as Baby Face Nelson, who was shot in an encounter with other FBI agents but escaped before succumbing to his wounds.
The next year, Walsh helped apprehend gangster Arthur “Doc” Barker. Years later, Walsh told National Public Radio that he and his colleagues knew they were in the right place when they spotted Barker’s “gal” in the red fox fur coat known to be hers.
Walsh jumped out of his car to pursue Barker, according to an account in the publication American Rifleman magazine, but Barker slipped and fell on ice.
“Don’t move, Doc, or I’ll kill you,” Walsh said as he stuck a .45 to his head.
“Where’s your heater, Doc?” Walsh later recalled asking him.
“It’s up in the apartment,” the outlaw replied.
“You’re lucky, Doc,” said the agent. “Ain’t that a hell of a place for it?”
Barker later groused about having been arrested by a “baby-faced kid.”
Later that day, Walsh was pulled into a raid on another outlaw – Russell “Slim Gray” Gibson. “He shot high,” Walsh told American Rifleman. “I didn’t.”
Walsh’s most celebrated success came Oct. 12, 1937. Al Brady of the Brady gang, a man who had dismissed Dillinger as a “cream puff,” had surfaced in Bangor, Maine. When a shopkeeper tipped off authorities that the gangsters were expected back at his store, G-Men and other officials staged a stakeout with Walsh posing as a clerk.
“Viewed through the eyes of an unemotional criminologist,” The Washington Post reported in one of the many sensational news accounts of the event, “the Bangor ambush was a work of art.”
Sometime before 9 a.m., a car rolled up to the shop. The FBI agents and other officers were ready. A shootout and hand-to-hand fighting ensued, with both Brady and his associate, Clarence Lee Shaffer Jr., falling dead. Walsh received a gunshot wound to the shoulder. Another gang member, James Dalhover, was arrested. Not even his wife would defend him.
“They had it coming to them,” she told a reporter.
Walter Rudolph Walsh was born May 4, 1907, in West Hoboken, N.J. His father was a firefighter and ran a saloon, among other jobs. Mr. Walsh graduated in 1931 from the old New Jersey Law School and three years later joined the FBI.
“I thought to myself, this might be a good outfit to tie up with,” he told NPR in 2008. “I’m not trying to pin medals on myself, but the people in the FBI knew that I was very handy with firearms.”
Walsh served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, including in Okinawa, and was credited with taking out a menacing Japanese enemy with a single shot.
His wife, the former Kathleen Barber, died in 1980. Survivors include five children, Gerald Walsh of Fort Collins, Colo., Kathleen Reams of College Park, Md., Linda Walsh of Arlington, Va., Rosemary Haas of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Walter Walsh Jr. of Birmingham, Ala.; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A grandson, Marine Sgt. Nicholas Walsh, 26, was killed by a sniper while serving in Fallujah, Iraq.
In addition to his service in the FBI and with the Marines, Walsh participated in and coached competitive shooting. He was a member of the 1948 Olympic shooting team.
Gerald Walsh said his father rarely talked to his children about his career as a G-Man. The son did, however, recall “rummaging around in the basement” and opening a trunk to find, neatly folded, a man’s suit with a hole through the jacket, vest and shirt.