If you saw Public Enemies, you didn't see Johnny Depp waiting patiently in an Allen County jail cell, and you didn't hear one character utter the name "Jess Sarber," but this tragic jailbreak is immortalized in Lima.
The placards on the wall tell the story better than I ever could. Dillinger and his gang swept through Ohio during the summer of 1933, knocking over banks and nearly uncatchable. Dillinger himself only got caught in Dayton when he stopped to visit a girlfriend in September of that year, and was jailed in Lima to await trial for a bank robbery in Bluffton.
The important thing to know about the Lima jail is that the jail building itself was built on to the sheriff's house as the world's most unwelcoming house addition. That's why it's not unusual that both Sheriff Jesse Sarber and his wife, Lucy, were present when three men calling themselves police officers from Michigan City walked in to the jail and asked to see John Dillinger. When Sheriff Sarber asked to see their badges, they drew their guns instead, shot Sarber in his left side, and demanded the keys to Dillinger's cell.
Obviously, these men weren't police officers. They were part of Dillinger's gang; Charles Makley, Russell Clark, and Harry "Pete" Peirpont. While the bullet Peirpont fired at Sarber worked its way down his leg to sever an artery, Peirpont and Makley beat Sarber with the butt of their guns as his wife cried and begged for his life. She would be the one to find the key that released Dillinger, but the damage was already done. Jess Sarber would die that night, and John Dillinger would walk free for another year, until that fateful night in Chicago. But you've already seen that movie.
Makley, Clark, and Harry Pierpont would be tried for murder almost a year to the day of Sarber's death. Their trial would be overseen by the new sheriff, Donald Sarber, who watched his father's murderers with one hand on the machine gun resting in his lap. The black and white photograph hanging on the wall that captures that moment belies the tension in the room. Sarber leans far back in his chair, one leg propped up over the other, one hand holding the gun at a restive, almost jaunty angle, the other wrapped around his chin. If you couldn't see his face, you might think he was relaxed. But his eyes are sharp. Focused. There are killers in the room, and he knows it.
There's no one else here in the basement with me, so I reach out and wrap my hand around one of the bars. The metal is cool under my fingers, making my palm feel indescribably hot. I wonder how it felt for Mr. Dillinger. Was he hot-blooded and itching for escape? Or did he know his men were coming for him, and waited here, calm and confident? His men found him playing pinochle. I'm inclined to believe it was the latter.