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.

Accounts vary about the close, violent encounter that followed when the Cadillac finally bogged down in the mud of the Carlos Avery game farm. Patrolman James Crawford, who would later command the state highway patrol, was credited with killing both Roger and Ronald O'Kasick with his 12-gauge shotgun. Lindgren, the hostage, was also killed. James O'Kasick held his dying brother Ronald in his arms, then scurried into some bushes to shoot himself with his .38 revolver. He barely nicked his heart.

Saunders saw his brother again at Minneapolis General Hospital. He remains convinced that "from the bottom to the top," a conspiracy prevails to cover up what James kept telling him: that police shot the hostage. He'd been right behind Roger, James insisted, and the older brother had only held Lindgren at gunpoint, not shot him. Richard followed up on the matter in a private investigation along with the late Warren Feist, editor of the Anoka newspaper, and in 1958 pushed the Anoka County attorney to put the matter on trial.

"It was a trial to clear the air, so to speak," says Peter Barna, who defended James O'Kasick in that case. Retired from a Coon Rapids law firm, Barna sits in a gold fabric-covered easy chair in his immaculate condo in New Brighton. He's cordial and affable and mentions that he's recovering from prostate surgery. He's a bit hazier on the details of a four-decades-old trial.

"The only thing I can remember is Jimmy--I can remember him as though it were yesterday," Barna says. He was "articulate... always well-dressed. He was not a bad kid; he was the youngest brother, that's all he was. I liked him. You would have, too."

Robert W. Johnson, the former Anoka County attorney who prosecuted James O'Kasick, can't remember many particulars of the case either. As to defense contentions that police shot the hostage, Johnson tersely responds during a brief telephone call: "That was the issue that was litigated and the jury found otherwise." O'Kasick--already imprisoned at St. Cloud for the Fossum killing--was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to seven years.

He never served them. One year and a day after his older brothers were shot to death, James O'Kasick plunged a sharpened butter knife into his chest. Guards came looking for him after he didn't show up for his job in the prison tailor shop and found him moaning weakly in the cell.

James, who was haunted by his brothers' blood-drenched end, "felt bad that he didn't die with them," explains Saunders, to whom James addressed a suicide note. "To me it has not been a year passed," it said, "but instead it is the actual day Ronnie and Roger died, and it seems like they're right here beside me, like it was when we were sitting in the woods." The note was signed "Your Brothers, Jim, Roger and Ronald."

The headlines had faded by the time James killed himself, but for a while the O'Kasick story made national news. Carl T. Rowan, who was a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and later a syndicated columnist, wrote about the case in The Saturday Evening Post. His article, "Is There Hope for 'Hopeless' Families?" examined the shortcomings of the "relief" system--what we now call welfare--in light of how Michael O'Kasick "'supported' his family with 19 years of petty crime and $20,000 in relief funds."

The story went on to examine some of the newest intervention strategies for dealing with "what social workers have described variously as a 'hard core,' 'sick,' or 'multiple-problem' family." Rowan wrote that "there were opportunities to help the O'Kasick children. 'But nobody intervened,' said a Minnesota official. 'The first organized approach to this family came when that posse organized.'"

Rowan may have laid out an argument most people these days could recite in their sleep. But the remaining details of the story are getting hazier with time, even among the eyewitnesses. Ward Canfield, for one, still lives in the same well-kept South Minneapolis home he occupied at the time of the 39th Street shootout. The former police officer, described as "ruggedly built" in a 1957 news account, sits in a wheelchair. A short stump is all that remains of his right leg. He is 75 years old and in frail health.

Canfield describes a little of the gun battle with the O'Kasicks, veering from the official story in a few interesting places: "Then they spun out at the intersection of 39th, and then Fossum and I jumped out and gave chase, and we caught up to them and they gave up." It's hard to tell whether the divergence--newspaper accounts of the time never mentioned the O'Kasicks trying to give themselves up--is due to faulty reporting or a faulty memory: Years of medication, Evelyn Canfield says, have slowed her husband's mind. And either way, almost no one seems to care. With the exception of this interview, she says, no one remembered her husband on the 40th anniversary of his brush with history.

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