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FBI’s “Most Wanted” gangster was busted in Beaverton

The mild-mannered drywall contractor turned out to be a notorious gangster after an article in the Morning Oregonian published his mugshots; he was wanted for the murder of three family members.

The FBI-supplied booking shot of Thomas James Holden as he appeared in the late 1940s, when he was released from prison, prior to the triple murder for which he was wanted. (Image: Portland Morning Oregonian)

The contractors were getting ready to wrap up work for the day when several visitors arrived at the job site, a house on Scholls Ferry Road near Beaverton. The newcomers were a small group of serious-looking men in conservative, well-fitting suits, accompanied by the workers’ boss, Charles Robinson.

Robinson sought out one of his employees, a 55-year-old plasterer named John McCullough. McCullough, although he’d only been on the job for three months, was already one of Robinson’s best men. He was quiet, easygoing, hardworking, sober and reliable.

Robinson led his well-dressed visitors to McCullough and introduced them as FBI agents.

The other workers on the job watched with astonishment as the agents arrested McCullough and led him away. They’d been kidding him for days about his uncanny resemblance to a picture that had run in the Portland Morning Oregonian a couple days earlier, under the headline, “Accused Murderer of Three Tops FBI List of Wanted Criminals.” Maybe there’d been something in that resemblance after all, they thought.

The picture had been identified as Thomas James Holden, and the resemblance to McCullough had been quite startling. Holden could have been McCullough’s twin brother. Holden, the newspaper said, was wanted for gunning down his wife and two brothers-in-law during a drunken family argument. He had, apparently, shot each of them once with a .38, and with his fourth shot, grazed the cheek of his sister-in-law. Four shots, three dead. Then he’d fled and disappeared.

The newspaper said Holden was a train robber, serial bank robber and “product of the mad-dog days of gangsterism,” who had been caught, sentenced to a long stretch at Leavenworth, escaped and subsequently helped perpetrate a sensational armed prison breakout in 1931. Recaptured, Holden had been sent to the feds’ maximum-security prison — Alcatraz, where he served for about a decade. He was paroled in 1947.

It had been 18 months later that he’d committed the shocking triple murder for which he was now wanted.

The newspaper also quoted the FBI as calling Holden “one man whose freedom in society is a menace to every man, woman and child in America.”

Such a criminal resume formed quite a contrast with the mild-mannered McCullough that the other men on the plastering crew knew. They never once thought they might be the same man, despite the eerie similarities. But they teased him about it, an activity that was made even more fun by the fact that he apparently had no idea what they were talking about. He had not, it seemed, read Wednesday’s paper.

If he had, he would have disappeared immediately, he later told authorities.

“McCullough” at first tried to stick to his story. He was John R. McCullough, he insisted — just a laborer who’d come to Portland three months before from Butte, Mont., to find work. But when they reached the FBI office and he learned how much they knew about him, he broke down and copped to it.

Holden’s landlady was shocked by the news. He’d been renting a tiny cabin from her in Sahnow’s Motel and Trailer Park since first coming to town.

“He was a model tenant,” she told the Oregonian. “I suspect a lot of people about being crooks, but not this one. I’m a little shocked. I took his rent every week. He always was happy and singing Irish folk songs. He had a good enough voice to be in opera.”

Holden had been
the first man ever put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, and he was among the first to be caught. His distinctive appearance made identification an absolute breeze. His mugshot shows a wide and flat forehead, low and straight brow ridge, preternaturally straight mouth — in all, startlingly similar to Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein’s Monster in the iconic 1931 movie.

Not much is known about Holden’s story, other than what’s in the police reports. But we do know that the wife he shot during that drunken argument was the woman who’d faithfully waited 16 years for him to get out of prison. During his time on Alcatraz, his only visitor was his son, Tommy, a U.S. Army private who’d grown into a man with his father behind bars. And we know that Holden got a telegram from his mother, in 1945, telling him Tommy was dying, and asking to see him.

Of course, he couldn’t come. Five days later, the young soldier died.

So by the time Holden had arrived in Portland, he wasn’t what he once had been — what the FBI assumed he still was. No dashing sociopath was he, but a lonely, broken old man, eking out a perilous living at hard labor, living paycheck-to-paycheck in a trailer park. He’d lost everyone who’d known and cared about him, all through his own doing — through murder or through neglect. He was a walking, talking cautionary tale for any young buck thinking of embarking on a life of crime.

So now, caught at last and for the final time, looking tired and resigned to his fate, Holden signed the extradition papers that would send him back to Chicago to stand trial for the triple murder. With his sister-in-law’s testimony, it was not a difficult case for the prosecution to win. He was sent to the Illinois State Prison, knowing it would be his home for the rest of his life.

It was. He died there, just two years later.

(Sources: Ward, David. Alcatraz: The Gangster Years. Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 2009; fbi.gov; Portland Morning Oregonian, 6/20-24/1951 and 1/30/1955)

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