By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
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By Judy Keen
Donald Larson turned 79 last Sunday. With his snow-white hair and slightly stooped posture, he looks every bit his age. But despite medical woes that include diabetes, glaucoma, and a bad heart, he remains relatively spry. His speech is clear. His mind is sharp. He keeps busy. This is all the more surprising considering Larson's circumstances: For the past 29 years he has been an inmate in the Minnesota prison system.
Shuffling into a stuffy, windowless conference room at the Linden Wing of the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Faribault, Larson flicks on a floor fan, sits down, and makes himself at home. His day, he explains, has followed the usual trajectory. He woke at 6:00 a.m., took his diabetes medicine at 6:30, and ate breakfast at 7:00. After the mandatory post-breakfast head count, he went to work in the shop, where he spent four hours gluing together wooden toys for a small manufacturer that has a contract with the prison. He is paid about 50 cents an hour for his labors. On a good week, he earns about $10, which he spends at the prison canteen. He is not impressed with the fare there. Truth be told, there is very little that impresses him at Faribault. "The food here? Honest to God, I'd rather eat out of a garbage can," he complains.
Still, most afternoons, Larson is left free to do as he likes. Sometimes he watches television. Aside from the news, he doesn't much care for TV--too much "phoniness." Besides, he has more pressing matters on his mind. Lately, Larson has been spending much of his time poring over law books in the hopes of winning freedom. "I'm going to court in a month or two and I'm going to file a writ," he declares. "If I had a lawyer, I'd already be on my way out of here."
That last assertion is debatable. Larson has the unenviable distinction of being the oldest "lifer" in a Minnesota prison--and part of a rapidly growing cohort in penal systems nationwide. Over the years, he's seen other lifers released after serving a couple of decades--especially older guys like him who were handed their original sentences under the more lenient laws of the 1970s. But Larson is not just any convict. He is one of the most notorious criminals of his day.
If you remember Donald Larson's name, chances are it is for his alleged role in the kidnapping of Virginia Piper, a wealthy socialite. In 1972, two masked men kidnapped Piper from the garden of her Lake Minnetonka home. They left behind a housekeeper taped to a chair and a note
demanding $1 million in ransom, all to be paid in $20 bills. Piper's husband, the retired investment banker Harry C. Piper, dropped the money behind a north Minneapolis bar. The next day, Virginia Piper was found alive, chained to a tree, in a state forest in northern Minnesota.
For five years, investigators were stymied. The vast majority of the money--all but $4,000--was never recovered, making the Piper kidnapping among the most successful in U.S. history. Finally, in 1977, Larson and his friend and business partner, Kenneth Callahan, were charged with the crime. It was a circumstantial case that hinged mainly on a partial fingerprint and a hair sample. Nonetheless, the two men were found guilty. An appeal was made on the grounds that the judge had improperly barred the testimony of a defense witness. In a second trial, a fingerprint expert testified that the incriminating print linked to Larson had been altered. The claim was not rebutted by the prosecution, and both Callahan and Larson were quickly acquitted by the jury.
Hennepin County Judge Thor Anderson, who was the prosecutor in the second trial, says he was surprised by the acquittal, and recalls that the evidence at the second trial was stronger than in the first. His recalls Larson as a "vanilla" defendant. "He came across as an average Joe--kind of like the guy who works for the lawn service or drives a tow truck," Anderson remembers. Ron Meshbesher, the Minneapolis criminal defense attorney, represented Callahan. He remains convinced that neither man had anything to do with the Piper kidnapping. Callahan died last Christmas after suffering a heart attack while shoveling snow. Meshbesher remains in touch with Larson, whom he represented in another less remembered but much more horrific case. "You get to know Don, it's hard not to like him," Meshbesher says. "But what he did was so horrendous, it overshadows any good he's done since."
What Don Larson did--what he admits to doing now, though he didn't testify at trial--was to shoot and kill five people. It was the final and most grievous act of a life of crime that started early. The son of a housepainter and a homemaker, Larson grew up in south Minneapolis. He started running with a gang as a teenager. After being arrested for a string of burglaries, he was sent to the boys' prison at Red Wing. He emerged from the institution unreformed. Along with two friends, he went on to rob a Lake Street liquor store--"the biggest liquor store in Minneapolis at the time," he brags. Afterward, they stole a car and drove to New Orleans. Arrested, Larson was given a sentence of 10 to 40 years. "After I did seven years, the parole board set me free," he says wistfully.