The Good Ol’ Days: Remembering Officer Frank Peterson
Sunday morning, February 3, 1963 dawned cloudy and cold. It had been well below zero a few days earlier, but temps had now risen into the teens. KGCA radio was 18 months old and went on the air on Sundays at 8 a.m. All over Rugby and Pierce County we tuned in primarily to get the local weather report as we prepared to go to church.
The pleasant, professional voice of Doug Johnson greeted us that morning. Doug was a Rugby High School senior and award-winning FFA public speaker, mentored by the legendary Rugby FFA chapter advisor Don Erickson, also a KGCA announcer.
Rugby, in early 1963, was coming off a bumper crop from the previous year’s harvest and was also looking forward to defending its Class A basketball championship in March. Things, it seemed, were going routinely and well for most of us.
That all changed when Johnson reported that a local policeman named Frank Peterson had been found shot dead in the alley behind the the Otter Tail Power Company offices. Peterson, 56, married with two children, was working as the “night cop” on weekends. He was well-known to the community as a good father, husband and neighbor. He even volunteered to dig graves for families who couldn’t afford it. It was the first murder in the county in over a decade.
The Highway Patrol quickly mobilized a multi-county dragnet of 100 officers from area law enforcement departments as other of their colleagues did a local crime scene investigation. An elderly witness stated that Officer Peterson had driven into the alley and had surprised at least two suspects in a burglary in progress at about 3 a.m. They had already broken into the Lyric Theater, Hanbury’s Cafe and Sportsman’s Bar, and were in the process of burglarizing Otter Tail when Peterson approached them and was caught in a frenzied crossfire. Just who they were and where they went was unknown.
The number of bullets recovered and bullet holes in nearby walls and telephone poles in that lonely alley prompted United Press International to report that police were looking for three suspects. The evidence revealed that at least 40 shots had been fired from seven different guns. Sixteen bullets were found in Peterson’s body. The coup de grce had been delivered by Officer Peterson’s own service revolver at close range. Several years after the incident you could still see some of the bullet holes in the alley.
The witness, whose identity was not disclosed, said he saw the killers back Peterson’s patrol car out of the alley so that they could leave in their own car. However, he couldn’t provide a clear description of the vehicle.
KGCA didn’t have a local news department and depended on the wire services to provide state and national news via teletype. The station’s general manager and several off-duty announcers, along with co-owner (District Judge) Ray Friederich, formed an ad hoc news team and kept us listeners up-to-date with the latest developments as they received them from Sheriff Walt Miltenberger, Chief of Police Oswald “Ozzie” Tofte and Pierce County State’s Attorney Conrad Ziegler.
The general feeling in the community was that the perpetrators couldn’t be from the local area. No way. But whoever had done it were probably also responsible for other recent burglaries in rural area villages that had little or no local law enforcement, especially at night.
Police put out a plea for any additional witnesses. Someone came forward and stated that they had heard the sound of gunfire and when they went to the window they saw a light blue Nash Rambler speed out of the alley and race westward on Third Street. Other witnesses stated that it sped south on Highway 3 toward U.S. 2.
Armed with that description, law enforcement quickly tracked down the owner of such a vehicle. He lived with a roommate in an apartment in Minot. He was a student at Minot State, but the roommate had dropped out. Both were in their early 20s. When police came to the apartment, the roommate ran out the back door. The other suspect was at a nearby cafe. Both were quickly apprehended. Their apartment was so full of stolen items such as guns, cash, liquor, cigarettes and other merchandise that the City of Minot had to use a dog catcher’s truck to haul away everything.
The distinctive Nash Rambler had been stopped by lawmen at some point, and they noticed that it didn’t have a back seat.
And then the biggest shock of all: The owner of the vehicle was from Rugby. As he was being led to a police car a photographer captured an iconic photo of him appearing much younger than his 21 years, with curly hair and horn-rimmed glasses and clutching a teddy bear. That photo accompanied many reprints of the story in various true crime magazines for years to come.
The men quickly confessed to burglary but each said that the other was the actual shooter. They were convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison on March 19, 1963. The former Rugby resident was released from prison some years ago and passed away shortly afterward.
When we learned the identity of the Rugby shooter, I recalled an incident from six or seven years previously. One day a bunch of we neighborhood kids were gathered in front of the Presthus residence on S.W. Third Street across from Ellery Park. We had been bicycling and were taking a water break when the young man in question rode up on his bike. He was in his teens and not from our neighborhood, but we knew him as a bully. Suddenly, without provocation, he began ramming his bicycle’s front tire into the side of one of my mate’s bikes. He kept ramming it repeatedly and we froze in fear.
Mrs. Presthus came out onto her front step and shouted the boy’s first and last name and added “You stop that!” The young man sneered back, “Shut up!”
I had never heard anyone say that to an adult before and it stayed in my memory for all these years. Rumor was that he also used to spend hours filing pennies down to the size of dimes in order to buy a Coke from a machine for a penny.
Bill is a Rugby native, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. He is a retired FAA air traffic controller and although he resides in Orlando, Florida, his heart will always be with the Heart of America.
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