Shootout on 39th Street

Gangland fears, carjackings, welfare-bashing: The O'Kasick brothers' crime spree--which ended 40 years ago this week--had it all.

Minneapolis police patrolman Robert H. Fossum, 31, married and the father of three, lay dead in the middle of 39th Street from a bullet wound to the head. His partner, Ward Canfield, writhed in pain next to him, critically injured from a bullet that hit his pelvis. He'd been dragged and then run over by the getaway car driven by his assailants, three South Minneapolis brothers in their early 20s.

In the minutes following the crime, two dozen police cars converged on the area in what would become the biggest manhunt in Minneapolis history, dragging on for almost a month and spawning newspaper headlines about carjackings, robberies, and cold-blooded shootings. There was speculation that Chicago gangs had moved into the Twin Cities, and punditry about how welfare and the single-parent family had created juvenile-delinquent monsters. The climax came in the woods north of Anoka; by the time the shootout was over, two of the brothers were dead along with a hostage. The date was September 14. The year was 1957.

For Twin Cities residents in their 50s and beyond, the name O'Kasick might still ring a faint bell. For everyone else, chances are the spree's 40th anniversary will end Sunday without so much as a reminder. Not one of the surviving protagonists interviewed for this article has been contacted for commemoration. Yet it's worth plodding through their fading memories for a story that gets more eerily contemporary the further it recedes in time.

The O'Kasicks weren't exactly a poster family of the postwar years. Michael was a convicted thief who worked sporadically and whose drunken binges usually ended in a beating for his wife, Florence, or one of the seven children. When the county relief check didn't cover the necessities, the kids--chiefly the four boys--resorted to petty thievery.

Richard, the eldest brother, started stealing coins from milk bottles and graduated to felony-level robbery. He spent more than seven years in the St. Cloud state prison and during his second stint there experienced a "religious conversion" to Christianity. After the death of his mother in 1952 and his release from prison in 1953, Richard settled the family in the Longfellow neighborhood, at 3909 38th Ave. S. He'd gone legit by this time, he says, and was unaware of the criminal activities--drugstore robberies and the like--of Roger and Ronald. Nor did he realize that James, the youngest, was allowed to join the minigang after he found a pistol stashed in a drawer. Newspaper reports would later refer to the young men as "flashy barroom toughs." (Richard O'Kasick, who now lives near St. Louis, Missouri, changed his notorious surname in 1978 and now goes by his mother's maiden name, Saunders.)

On August 17, Roger, Ronald, and James had intended to rob the Red Owl supermarket on South Hennepin Avenue. But that scheme went haywire after they made an illegal U-turn on Lake Street and their stolen 1955 Chrysler was spotted by Fossum and Canfield. Following a high-speed car chase and running gunfight that zigzagged through South Minneapolis, the cars carrying the cops and robbers both overshot a left turn from Blaisdell onto 39th Street. They spun out and the combatants faced each other in the street. When Canfield ran out of ammunition he threw his shotgun at James O'Kasick, knocking off an expensive straw hat. At this point, James later told reporters, he shot Canfield.

By the time Richard came home from his Saturday night shift as a broiler cook at the Leamington Hotel, his brothers were back in the house on 38th Street. They'd eluded police by jacking several cars, at one point taking Velma Anderson of Bloomington hostage. His father had been following live coverage of the drama on TV. It wasn't until much later, Saunders says, that his father admitted seeing the younger brothers let themselves in the back door, their faces blackened "to disguise their features."

On Sunday, the day after the shootout, the three brothers kept to themselves in an upstairs bedroom. "No one really came down very much, but Ronald did a little later," recalls Saunders. "He kept sitting there, looking at me. He was probably wondering what to do--I think they really wanted to surrender."

Early Monday morning, the trio slipped out and headed for the Superior National Forest. They hid out, living in a 1950 Oldsmobile, and robbed at least one tavern when their funds ran low. They were near the Twin Cities again four weeks later when their luck slipped.

The Olds ran out of gas north of Anoka. Ronald, who went off to fill a can, was picked up by sheriff's deputies. When the officers approached the Oldsmobile, shots were fired and one deputy was wounded. In the ensuing chaos, the brothers escaped, running to a nearby house. In the garage they found a red-and-white Cadillac, which they took, along with its owner, Eugene Lindgren. The hostage drove the Cadillac over winding country roads as police, sheriff's deputies, and highway patrolmen converged on the scene. Roadblocks were set up and a chopper joined the hunt from the air. In the Cadillac's back seat, Roger shot off a connecting link on the handcuffs Ronald was wearing.

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