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.

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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