In 1952, Donald P. Shea's life changed faster than you can say "Willie Sutton." That's fitting, because at age 26, Shea, a uniformed police officer working the streets of Brooklyn, helped capture that notorious bank robber who stole $2 million from more than 100 banks, escaped prison multiple times and was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
The arrest was big news, and before the flashbulbs could cool, Shea was promoted to detective first grade -- the highest rank of detective -- and became part of New York's crime-fighting history. "I was stunned to be involved in such a big case," recalled Shea, 87, in his Baldwin home.
Shea, who was forced to retire from the NYPD in 1983 because of a detached retina, is the lone survivor of a three-man team that brought an end to Sutton's 30-year crime wave. "In police circles, Don Shea is like the Lone Ranger, a real hero, to old-timers," said Richard Ornstein, vice president of the New York Veteran Police Association in Baldwin. The group plans to honor Shea soon, he said.
The arrest that ended Sutton's criminal career began with Arnold Schuster, the 24-year-old son of a tailor. Schuster was on a subway and recognized Sutton from FBI Wanted posters. When Sutton got off the train, Schuster followed him to a local gas station, where the convict, who had escaped from prison years earlier, purchased a car battery. Schuster alerted Shea, who was in a patrol car with Officer Joseph McClellan.
The two cops found Sutton fixing his car, but the FBI photo of Sutton that Shea had in his notebook was too frayed to confirm an identity, so Shea went to a nearby police precinct, returning with Det. Louis Weiner. When questioned, Sutton showed them false identification and kept working on the car.
"He was a very calm fellow for a felon. They usually get very nervous when you ask too many questions," Shea said. "He was very nonchalant about everything we asked him, and he would say, 'Give me a break, I'm trying to get my car going.' " When they asked Sutton to go with them to the precinct for more questions, he didn't resist. Once there, Shea said, one of the officers mentioned "finger printing." Sutton heard that and quietly uttered, "OK, you got me. I'm Willie Sutton."
Despite Sutton's extensive rap sheet, it was an uneventful arrest until police asked him to undress so they could search for weapons. Sutton acted embarrassed and reluctant to strip completely. Then police saw why: Sutton was concealing a loaded pistol wrapped in oilcloth, held in place between his legs with a sanitary-napkin belt.
As word of the arrest spread, the press and police department's top brass quickly converged at the precinct. Immediately, Shea and McClellan were jumped to detective first grade. Weiner, a third-grade detective, was promoted to second-grade. The day after the arrest, Shea accompanied Sutton to Queens for his court arraignment. No words were exchanged, and Shea never saw Sutton again.
In all the years Sutton used disguises and a gun to hold up banks, there were no known injuries during the heists. But tragedy befell Arnold Schuster, whose tip to Shea and McClellan led to the arrest. Not long after Sutton's capture, Schuster was brutally shot to death, reportedly by the mob, to intimidate others from going to the police about suspected criminals. When Schuster's family filed a civil suit against the city for not providing the young man with police protection, Shea appeared in court to identify Schuster as the person who led him to Sutton.
The spotlight on Shea lasted about two weeks with mentions in newspapers. Even his parents got their pictures in the press. Sutton was sentenced to 30 to 120 years and sent to Attica state prison.
Shea's career as an NYPD detective for more than three decades included work with the FBI on bank robbery detail. His promotion after Sutton's arrest bumped his salary from $4,400 a year to $5,400 -- equivalent to a lieutenant's pay -- allowing him eventually to buy a comfortable home, raise four children, travel internationally with his wife after retiring and continue his passion for woodcrafting. Now a grandfather of eight, Shea, a widower since 1997, said, "I'm still making money on Willie Sutton because of my pension as a detective."
Sutton didn't do too badly, either. In 1969, he was granted an early release from prison because of failing health. As a free man, he co-authored the second of two autobiographies and made a TV commercial for a bank credit card, cashing in on his notoriety. Since his death in 1980 at age 79, there have been more books about him, at least two documentaries and even a website
(williesutton.com) detailing his escapades.
While they walked very different paths, Sutton still had an impact on Shea's life. Shea appears in a documentary by director Richard Gold, "In the Footsteps of Willie Sutton," which played at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival last June and the Doc Miami Film Festival in December.
Since last year, which marked the 60th anniversary of Sutton's capture, Shea has addressed several organizations for retired police and audiences at public libraries to talk about the famous arrest. With one of his two daughters, Mary Lou Thursland of Hauppauge, who is his booking agent, Shea will give his first Long Island presentation Tuesday evening at the East Meadow Library [see box].
"He enjoys the story [of the arrest], reliving it and telling it, but it doesn't define him," said Thursland, a teaching assistant at Hauppauge Middle School. Growing up, she and her siblings knew about their father's role in Sutton's capture, but "We didn't know it was such a big thing, because we didn't live through it," she said.
Amazed at his own celebrity, Shea recalled a woman's reaction when he attended a showing of Gold's film at the Brooklyn Public Library last year. The smitten lady told Shea, "I did not know I was sitting next to a movie actor. I have to tell my friends," he recalled with a chuckle. "She was floating on air."
While the Sutton case had an effect on his income, Shea insists it didn't define his career on the police force.
Other cases yielded personal reward for Shea. Once, he and another partner arrested the killer in two fatal stabbings in Brooklyn. Shea was able to track down the assailant's girlfriend, who revealed her boyfriend's real name and address. Years after the killer was released from prison and working as a building superintendent in Queens, he ran into Shea's partner, who relayed to Shea what the ex-con had said: "You and Mr. Shea locked me up, and I want to thank you, because it straightened me all out."
Shea, who served in the Navy during World War II, believes his Catholic upbringing influenced the way he treated arrestees. His siblings -- he was the fifth of nine children -- included a Paulist priest, an Xaverian brother and a St. Joseph nun.
"Some guys treated them [arrested suspects] like lazy bums," he said. "But I tried to treat everyone fairly -- as much as I could, including Willie Sutton, although I was just a little more cautious in dealing with him. I didn't want him to pull a fast one on me."
Hear Shea's account
Here's where you can listen to a firsthand account of Willie Sutton's final arrest. Retired NYPD Det. Donald P. Shea, who was a rookie officer when he helped nab Sutton, will make his first Long Island presentation about the capture April 2, with others to follow:
APRIL 2 East Meadow Library, 1886 Front St., 7 p.m.;
APRIL 9 Hauppauge Library, 601 Veterans Memorial Hwy.,
7 p.m.; 631-979-1600
MAY 18 Sachem Library, 150 Holbrook Rd., Holbrook, 2 p.m.; 631-588-5024. The documentary, "In the Footsteps of Willie Sutton," will be shown and the film's director, Richard Gold, will address the audience with Shea.