Frozen Stiffs

Bruce Rubenstein may hold the unusual distinction of being the state's leading chronicler of murder

Bruce Rubenstein has been writing murder stories for 25 years. In that time, he's chronicled the carnage of teenage psychopaths and femme fatales, dipsomaniacal tramps and millionaire dope fiends.

But the murder story that's continued to consume Rubenstein over the years is the first one that he ever published: the saga of the notorious O'Kasick brothers. During the summers of 1956 and '57, the O'Kasick brothers--a ne'er-do-well trio of twentysomething budding alcoholics--committed a slew of increasingly bold armed heists in Minneapolis.

On August 17, 1957, they set out in a stolen green Chrysler to rob the Red Owl Super Market at 24th Street and Hennepin Avenue. The hot vehicle, however, was identified by a pair of police officers patrolling Franklin Avenue. When the cops attempted to pull the O'Kasick brothers over, a high-speed chase ensued. The two cars careened through south Minneapolis at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. The pursuit finally ended after the stolen Chrysler careened into a parked car at the intersection of Blaisdell Avenue and 39th Street.

Bruce Rubenstein may hold the unusual distinction of being the state's leading chronicler of murder
Richard Fleischman
Bruce Rubenstein may hold the unusual distinction of being the state's leading chronicler of murder

But the O'Kasick brothers weren't ready to surrender. When the pursuing officers arrived on the scene moments later, the hoodlums gunned down both of them. One officer died at the scene. The other was permanently disabled.

The O'Kasick brothers escaped and went on the lam. They holed up in a swampy area about 40 miles north of Minneapolis, then made their way to the Superior National Forest. Broke and hungry, they eventually returned to areas around the Twin Cities.

Their exploits finally came to a close on September 16. After another high-speed chase, two of the brothers met their deaths near Forest Lake after being shot by a highway patrol officer. The third brother, Jimmy, stabbed himself to death in prison a year later.

Rubenstein first became fixated on the O'Kasick case when he was a St. Paul teenager and the cop killers were the talk of the town. "It was a huge event here," he recalls over a pint of Red Hook on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Palmer's Bar on the West Bank. "They dragged those bodies out for display, and they put them on the television screens, and they had pictures on the front page of the newspaper. They wanted to send a message that if you kill a cop this is what's going to happen to you. I have never seen such lurid pictures in the paper since."

Rubenstein's accounting of the notorious O'Kasick clan was first serialized in Sweet Potato (a precursor to City Pages) in 1981. It's also the opening story in Greed, Rage, and Love Gone Wrong: Murder in Minnesota, a collection of 10 grisly Rubenstein tales published last month by the University of Minnesota Press. As the title implies, all the stories are rooted in Minnesota, but other than geography (and bloodshed) they have little in common. The crimes vary from crude spur-of-the-moment stabbings to elaborately planned insurance-fraud schemes. Rubenstein's tales venture from Alaska to the Caribbean, and rope in such disparate characters as Pancho Villa and Keith Richards.

Some of the killings involve well-known figures from Minnesota lore, such as Margaret Congdon Hagen. The adopted daughter of Elisabeth Congdon, heiress to a Minnesota mining fortune, Hagen is one of the most brazen and bizarre criminal figures in the state's history. Over the years, she has been charged with murdering both her mother and one of her husbands, though she was ultimately convicted of neither crime. In the mid-'80s she served nearly two years for insurance fraud and arson after her home in Mound burned down. Then, in 1993, she was caught in the act of torching a neighbor's home in Ajo, Arizona, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. She was released from prison in January of this year at age 70.

At the other end of the sociological spectrum are Robert Jackson and Frank Mendoza. The pair of alcoholic tramps started traveling together near Kansas City in 1998 and eventually made their way to Minneapolis. On July 26 of that year, they hooked up with two other drifters at a downtown homeless shelter and spent the day drinking and drugging. At one point the inebriated quartet confronted a female bicyclist on the bus transit way connecting the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses of the University of Minnesota. They stole her bike, but left the shaken woman unharmed.

Shortly afterward, a dispute over liquor money led to Mendoza stabbing one of the men they'd picked up at the shelter. The ill-fated day finally ended with two patrons of Arone's Bar and Grill on Central Avenue in Minneapolis being stabbed to death. Jackson and Mendoza were convicted of the killings.

When Rubenstein interviewed the latter at Oak Park Heights prison, the convict showed little sympathy for the victims. "I've seen so many people die," he told the author. "I've seen drive-bys, fatal beatings, stabbings. I've watched people get shot to death. I was sitting in a Burger King in L.A. when someone came in and executed a man at the next table. I just finished my hamburger."

 

Rubenstein says he never set out to be a journalist. The 66-year-old father of two grown children has a head of steel-wool hair that's matted down on one side, as if he'd just woken up from a nap on the couch. Steel rim glasses frame his small, watery brown eyes. He wears a black leather jacket and a shabby flannel shirt. His gruff voice competes to be heard over the cover versions of Dylan songs occasionally being belted out by the Palmer's regulars. The next day he'll depart with his wife for the Arizona desert where the couple owns a winter home.

"I was a Sixties guy," he says. "I went away and lived in Mexico for a while. I came back here and the war was going on. I was in antiwar stuff. I got involved with the woman that I would marry. At the end of all that we were living on the West Bank and we had two kids and I needed a way to make a living.

"I had written some fiction that had gotten published, but in little magazines," he continues. "My theory was that I'd become a great fiction writer and that's how we'd live. Well, as soon as I got serious I saw that that ain't going to happen. I never thought of myself as a journalist, although I was kind of cubbyholed that way and forced to write things that bored the shit out of me because I had a need to make money."

Over the years Rubenstein has largely paid the bills by writing for legal trade publications. In the mid-'80s, he covered the infamous Jordan child sex-ring cases for the New York Times. He was an editor for the Minnesota Law Journal in the late '80s, and for a time in the '90s he relocated to Chicago and edited the Illinois Legal Times. But Rubenstein has always returned to murder as his topic of choice.

Arguably his most famous piece on the subject is not even included in the new collection, falling as it does outside state lines. That story examined the "Milwaukee Avenue Massacre" of Thanksgiving night, 1981. Four Mexican immigrants died during the Chicago shootout. Four other Mexicans were convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison.

Rubenstein originally glommed onto the case because it was supposedly a kind of modern-day Romeo and Juliet tale. As the story had been reported in the media, the killings were the result of a longstanding family feud with roots in the Mexican state of Guerrero. "I thought, That's interesting," he recalls. "There's a feud in Guerrero and it ends up as a quadruple murder in Chicago."

Rubenstein interviewed one of the convicted killers, Rogelio Arroyo, at Pontiac Prison. The inmate spoke little English, but he was able to communicate his basic message: He was in prison for a crime that he didn't commit. "He looked me in the eye and said, 'I am not guilty. Get me out of here,'" Rubenstein says.

As it turned out, unlike most prisoners who profess their innocence, Arroyo was telling the truth. He and his three co-defendants had been wrongly imprisoned for nine years. The actual killers had immediately fled to Mexico. Rubenstein's article, which was published in Chicago magazine, laid out in exacting detail the case for the four men's innocence, including signed confessions from the actual gunmen. Fifteen months after the story was published, the convicted men were pardoned by Illinois Governor James Edgar.

Rubenstein sees the Milwaukee Avenue Massacre case as a cautionary tale of what can happen when poor immigrants run into cops and prosecutors more interested in convictions than justice. "I think what they said is, 'There's four dead Mexicans, there's going to be four arrested Mexicans,'" he says.

Rubenstein is relieved to have finally escaped Chicago after living there off and on for seven years. "Every time you turn around there's a car alarm in your face," he notes, finishing up his second pint of beer. "It's a noisy place."

Rubenstein is currently mulling over a couple of grisly homicides to turn into his next project. One of them is the 1990 killing of a young couple that occurred in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka. Another is a notoriously sadistic Roseville kidnapping and murder from the late '80s.

"It's the most complicated and interesting thing that I have come across as a general topic," Rubenstein says of his murder fetish. "Crime in general, and murder specifically, is very complicated and interesting--and it's not that hard to sell."

There's another upside, of course, to choosing murder as your life's work: You never run out of material.

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