Monday, October 31, 2016

Killed by Al Capone's Hitman

Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Charles H. Skalay was born on 3 May 1904 in Bainbridge Township, Michigan, to Gustav Skalay (born Skale) and Mary Schultz. Charles was the grandson of Anna Eleonore (Schalin) Skale. By 1910 Charles and his family lived at 1121 Lavette Avenue in Benton Harbor. His father worked on a construction gang building sidewalks and his mother worked on their small fruit farm. On 21 November 1919, Charles' mother died giving birth to a premature baby girl leaving his father, Gustav, with eight small children.[1] Charles dropped out of school to help his father around the house.

When the 1920 census was enumerated, Charles, his father, and siblings lived on a fruit farm in Benton Township, which was owned by his father. Charles was 16 years old. According to Chriss Lyon, author of A Killing in Capone's Playground, Charles started working as a driver for the Yellow Cab Company in 1923. He joined the St. Joseph Police Department and changed the spelling of his surname to Skelly, which was more Americanized than Skalay.[2] He moved to an apartment on State Street in downtown St. Joseph. After the St. Joseph Fire Department became a paid department instead of staffed only with volunteers, Charles took the newly created Assistant Fire Chief position, beginning work on 6 March 1928. Charles returned to the St. Joseph Police Department in June 1929 as a motorcycle officer. The department had recently been expanded due to ever-increasing crime brought about by the illegal production of alcohol during Prohibition. Berrien County had also become a popular retreat for several members of the Chicago mafia.

On the evening of 14 December 1929 the worlds of Charles H. Skalay and Berrien County's reputation as Al Capone's Playground collided in terrible fashion.

The headlines of the Extra edition published by the News-Palladium on the
morning of 16 December 1929; image courtesy of

Charles H. Skalay was shot multiple times and died from those wounds while on traffic duty. His murderer was a hitman for Al Capone known as Fred "Killer" Burke. He was also one of the shooters during the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago.

Fred "Killer" Burke; photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

Burke was arrested at a small farm house on 26 March 1931 in Sullivan County, Missouri. Police learned of his location from a tip by a resident who read detective magazines. Missouri Governor Henry Caufield, signed the extradition orders a two days later, releasing Burke to officers from the Berrien County Sheriff's Department. Though Burke was wanted for murder in several jurisdictions, Berrien County was the first to have made a formal application to the governor.

Fred Burke pled guilty to the second degree murder of patrolman Charles Skalay and was sentenced to life in prison by the circuit court judge who tried the case. He served his sentence in Marquette State Penitentiary until he died of a massive heart attack on 10 July 1940.

From the Berrien County Sheriff's Office website, which was excerpted by Chriss Lyon:

"Berrien County hasn't forgotten the impact of Fred "Killer" Burke and Officer Charles Skelly both played in its history. The arsenal of weaponry found at the Burke residence, specifically the Thompson submachine guns, have become the ever-popular topic of magazine articles and television documentaries including the 2004 episode of History Detectives on PBS, and a 2012 documentary on the National Geographic Channel called 'Valentine's Day Massacre.'

Not far from where Officer Skelly lost his life stands the Berrien County Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial Monument. Presently on the monument are the names of 15 fallen officers, including that of Officer Charles Skelly. His body was laid to rest in Crystal Springs Cemetery in Benton Harbor, while his name is etched into the history of Berrien County and the entire nation."

Charles H. Skalay (memorial on the Officer Down Memorial website)

I will be telling the story of Charles H. Skalay's murder in more detail in future blog posts.

[1] The premature baby girl was named Helen Skalay. She died on 6 December 1919 at the Michigan Children's Home Association; she was 15 days old.

[2] The family's surname was actually Skale. Skalay was the phonetic spelling which the family adopted when they immigrated to Michigan.

DNA Discoveries: Finding Anna Eleonore (Schalin) Skale (or Skalay)

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What a horrible connection of your family to the Capone gang. Do you have a photograph of the monument along with the names of all the officers who fell?