An American gangster laid to rest among  the Malaga elite

An American gangster laid to rest among the Malaga elite

  • Until the late 1990s few people knew that Alvin Karpis, sentenced to life imprisonment in Alcatraz, had retired to Torremolinos and was buried in Malaga’s San Miguel cemetery

The Larios family, the Heredias, the Lorings, the Strachans and the Huelins not only shared the privilege of contributing to the transformation of Malaga and linking their names to the history of the city. They also share their place of eternal rest in the city's historic San Miguel cemetery, which keeps alive the memory of industrialists, traders, patrons, benefactors, military officers, politicians, architects and artists. However, this cemetery is much more than the burial place of the city's illustrious sons. Others who are much less well-known have also been buried there and their stories are even more surprising.

That is certainly the case of one who lay hidden for decades in the fourth courtyard, in niche number 2,300. That area of the historic cemetery no longer exists, having been demolished to make room for the new park. The name Alvin Karpis might not be familiar but his profession, as described on the cemetery documents, says a great deal: KARPOWICZ, ALVIN (1908-1979). Gangster. USA.

Who was Alvin Karpis? What crimes did he commit, for his name to be associated forever with the word 'gangster'? And, above all, how did he come to be in the San Miguel cemetery?

Born Alvin Francis Karpowicz, the occupant of niche number 2,300 shortened his name to Alvin Karpis and became one of the most-feared and pursued criminals in the recent history of the United States. The son of Lithuanian immigrants, he was born in Montreal, Canada, and grew up in Kansas, USA. His story is a real example of how the most deeply rooted criminal vocations start showing at an early age.

When he was ten years old he was already smashing shop windows to steal goods, and before he was 20 he was sentenced to ten years at a reformatory. He escaped, and after a few months of adding to his police record he ended up in the state prison of Kansas, in Laising, in 1930. There, he met Fred Barker, with whom he would go on to form the Karpis-Barker gang, one of the most notorious criminal groups of the 1930s.

"I was the best at robbing banks and kidnapping the wealthy... how many men have I killed? Well, I did try to count them once..."

Those are just a couple of the comments made by Alvin 'Creepy' Karpis (the nickname came from his sinister smile) several decades later, when he had written his memoirs and was giving media interviews about those years of crime. He may not have kept track of everything he did, but in the archives of Alcatraz, the most famous prison in the world for being almost impregnable, it is specifically stated that the Karpis-Barker gang "had no hesitation in killing anyone who got in their way, including innocent bystanders".

These two men's careers were bloated with bank robberies, postal delivery robberies and kidnappings. And, of course, murders. In fact, Karpis used to boast that his role was the most important of all: "I was the one who waited outside," he would say. That, on the criminal organisation chart, was vital work, given that the gang always depended on the man who kept watch outside in the street and who, when the moment came or there was danger, was capable of opening fire and killing in order to protect his own. And Karpis was scared of nothing.

Nor did he shy away from planning and carrying out the kidnappings that maintained the gang's financial status but, at the same time, that was what hastened his end: one of the most high-profile kidnap victims was banker Edward Brenner, and that really upset US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, because Brenner was a personal friend.

The need to put an end to this type of crime led the FBI to organise a group of highly-trained officers into flying squads, used to hunt down "public enemies" including Karpis and Barker. The results were not long in coming, and in the following months each and every one of the most-wanted criminals were caught. Including Barker.

The FBI had Karpis in their sights, and the gangster was about to be caught in a standoff with his girlfriend Dolores Delaney, who was eight months pregnant. She was shot in a thigh, and he fled. He never heard from her again, nor did he ever see the baby who was born a few weeks later. Those who knew him admitted afterwards that that was not a problem as far as he was concerned. He wasn't at all bothered about it.

He got away on that occasion, but the recently appointed director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was determined to start his campaign against the underworld with Karpis' head. Dead or alive, he said. In the end, he was taken alive, something that was unprecedented, given the experience of other criminals. 'Creepy' began his sentence at Alcatraz, which was also known as 'The Rock'.

Karpis was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1936 and charged with between six and 14 deaths. His life behind bars was uneventful: in fact, despite being the prisoner who spent the most time in jail (nearly 26 years), he never tried to escape. The prison officers remember him as someone who frequently complained about the conditions in jail, and he often used to fight with other inmates. He was also a compulsive reader.

The gangster's stay in Alcatraz ended in 1962, when it began to be dismantled and he was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary instead. There he met another legendary criminal, Charles Manson, whom he taught to play the guitar and used to refer to as "little Charlie". The leader of the hippie sect who shocked the world by killing seven people was at that time serving a sentence for falsifying cheques, and still remembers Karpis today as "one of the guys I learned most from".

Despite being given a life sentence, Karpis was paroled in 1969 on the condition that he never set foot on American soil again, and he was deported to Canada. There he enjoyed relative fame while promoting his memoirs and even sold the rights to Hollywood for a film about his life, starring Steve McQueen. Although the book was published, nothing more was ever heard about the film. During those years, Karpis made enough money to plan his definitive retirement.

He decided to retire to Torremolinos, and arrived at the height of the Costa del Sol's tourism boom in 1973. Little is known of his life there, except that he lived in the Plaza de la Caracola and "went almost unnoticed," according to an article published in SUR on 30 August 1979, at the time of his death. "He had very few friends, rarely went out and gave the impression of being a normal, ordinary pensioner," it said.

Beyond that discreet lifestyle, however, it is known that Karpis lived up to his reputation as a womaniser. In those final years of his life he had several relationships with women who were several decades younger than him. He told some of them about his past, but mainly talked about the tricks he had learned in the kitchens and the bakery at Alcatraz, and he gave his girlfriends advice on diets and calories. He never learned to speak Spanish.

That golden retirement came to an end on 28 August 1979 at 11pm, when a heart attack - according to the official version - ended the life of Alvin 'Creepy' Karpis at the age of 72. Although there were some doubts about whether his death was due to suicide or a settling of scores, there is no autopsy report.

"Died from a heart attack," says the cemetery website, with a reproduction of the burial certificate in niche number 2,300 in courtyard number four, at 10.30 the following morning.

Only two people were present at the burial. They probably knew the secret of that pensioner who came to the Costa del Sol seeking more than sunshine and ended up sharing his final resting place with others who, like him, went down in history but for completely different reasons.

However, Karpis had one final journey ahead of him, because at the end of the 1990s that part of the cemetery disappeared to make way for the park next to it: the niches in that section, including number 2,300, were exhumed and the remains were returned to those families who had asked for them. That doesn't appear to be the case with Karpis. Nobody claimed him, and he will probably rest forever in the general ossuary at Parcemasa. And, with him, went a story worthy of the best family sagas... of criminals.