When I returned to Cook County in 1977, the Sheriff’s Department was very busy. Usually one deputy and the Sheriff worked during the day and two deputies were on patrol at night. A tremendous amount of theft occurred during this time. Different categories of theft include auto theft, residential and business burglaries, and plain old theft, which is the taking of personal property or money. In 1977, the sheriff’s department investigated five stolen motor vehicles, seven burglaries and multiple incidents of vandalism and theft from vehicles. Those random acts of vandalism and theft created a major problem for a small department with limited resources and a large area to patrol.
In a small community, word gets out and it doesn’t take long to develop suspects. A small group of young local men who hung out together decided they would prey on vehicles parked in remote areas of the county; places such as the Brule Lake landing, Bearskin Lake parking area, Round Lake landing and Eagle Mountain parking lot.
They were all outdoor guys and very familiar with the county. After investigating dozens of theft incidents, they established a “local” M.O. (mode of operation). Times were changing and the area was being visited by more folks going on canoe and camping trips. It seemed our local thieves had an ‘us against them’ attitude and would only break into visitors’ vehicles. The deputies became frustrated, spending hundreds of hours staking out these remote locations with no success. Being a small department, if another call came in, we would have to abandon our particular area and give priority to the call.
We soon began wondering if these guys were getting information on our location. I was called to meet with a honeymooning couple who had been parked along a county road and had gone for a hike. When they returned to their vehicle, it had been broken into and over $2,000 was taken. This time, the remoteness of the area worked in our favor. The highway department had been working on the road that day and it was an area of very limited vehicular movement. When the county employees were asked about what they had seen that day, they described a vehicle that matched the description of one of our suspect’s vehicles.
Later that day, I visited with the alleged driver of the suspect vehicle. He was informed that he was seen in the vicinity of a large theft and he was our primary suspect. Two days later, he came to the office and made admissions, clearing many of the thefts, including taking the money. Other members of his group were also charged with theft and drug-related crimes. Restitution was made to the couple on their honeymoon. Word got out and the theft activity stopped.
Some of the most difficult cases to solve are burglaries. We experienced burglaries that involved locals stealing from locals and out-of-town burglars who came from Duluth. Looking back, it seems ironic that we identified the out-of-town burglars and struggled to solve what we thought were locals invading local homes.
Two local burglaries that haunt me to this day happened to friends of mine. One incident involved the taking of a safe from a residence and the other a considerable amount of cash. On the safe job, I requested the assistance of the mobile crime unit from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Our department had some resources, but they always seemed inadequate for the bigger cases. No forensic evidence was found at the scene.
However, this appeared to be an incident involving someone with specific knowledge. The same was true regarding the cash theft. So, we formed a list of suspects based on information that developed and served search warrants to homes of the suspects. The safe was recovered from a field near St. Cloud. It had been peeled open and no contents were found. Additional information gathered indicated one of our suspects was looking to purchase a car. A considerable amount of time was spent in St. Cloud going to auto dealerships with no success. Further information led to the Iron Range. I called a banker there who told me in my suspect was in his office with a large amount of cash. I drove to the Iron Range to talk in person, but the banker denied everything he told me earlier. The investigation came to a dead end, but I always thought I knew who committed the crime. Unfortunately, when it comes to theft, knowing and proving are two different things.
Another burglary committed by out-of-towners was an attempted safe job at the I.G.A. grocery store. Due to a rash of business burglaries in the 70s, Stan, the police chief, brought in a fellow who installed alarm systems in businesses. The I.G.A. store had an alarm installed and it was wired into the law enforcement center. One evening, it went off. The local police were tied up on another call and a deputy who was fairly new to the department, did a drive by and thought all was secure. The next morning, we were informed by the owner of the I.G.A. that someone attempted to peel his safe.
A check of the dispatcher’s activity log book showed a private citizen called in to report a suspicious vehicle in his driveway. This citizen went out and spoke with the people in the car and took down the plate number. We ran the plate and checked with the Duluth P.D. to see if they knew these folks. The officer I was speaking to laughed and said the vehicle came back registered to a woman who was a stripper in a Duluth club and ran with two active burglars in Duluth.
The suspects left their tools at the scene as they must have been spooked when the deputy did his drive by. The tools were covered with lard. We went to Duluth and discovered these guys worked for a rendering company. I went to the company and learned those were our suspect’s tools. We concluded these suspects cased our grocery store when they were in the area for their job collecting lard from local restaurants.
I thought we had put together a pretty good case, even if it was considered circumstantial. However, the county attorney didn’t agree, so no charges were made. The leg work involved to make cases like this takes a lot of time and dedication, so it was very frustrating.
Another case took place a couple miles west of town. A retired couple had their home broken into and their silver was taken, which was valued at several thousand dollars. I called some Duluth and Minneapolis businesses that dealt in silver and found a lead. A business in Duluth had just purchased silver from a fellow and issued him a check. There is only one bank in Duluth that can cash that type of check, so I contacted them, and got the name of a man. On a hunch, I checked with our local motels and discovered a person with the same name had stayed in town at the time of the theft. Further investigation led me to a home in Hovland where I located the suspect. I executed a search warrant and discovered that the man had saved a small silver memento from his theft. He was arrested, pled guilty and we recovered the silver.
Every now and then we had a happy ending. This recovery was even sweeter since it was the Christmas season.