A Slow Death

The Mad Dog Killers claimed Jim Peterson's life 45 years ago. But he only recently got around to dying.

By the time his body turned up in the steam room on May 3, Jim Peterson had already been dead for about three hours. No one witnessed his death, so that's just a guess. But an acquaintance reported seeing Peterson at about noon in Minneapolis's Stay Fit Athletic Club. He was alive then. Around 3:00 p.m., when another patron arrived, it was too late.

Within a few weeks, the office of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner determined that Peterson's death was caused by chronic seizure disorder and left hemiplegia, a medical term for a paralysis in one hemisphere of a person's body, from foot to trunk. The more intriguing finding was the manner of death: homicide. Peterson's seizures and hemiplegia, the coroner concluded, were the result of bullet fragments lodged in his brain.

The search for the killer, however, was a cursory exercise. Everyone knew who shot Jim Peterson. They knew, too, that his killer died nearly half a century ago.

Jim Peterson and his mom, Verna
Courtesy of the Peterson Family
Jim Peterson and his mom, Verna

Jim Peterson stuck around a lot longer. He never liked to talk much about what happened to him. When he did, he called it his "accident." But its legacy—mainly, suffering of Old Testament proportions—was always with him.

After the autopsy, Bob Peterson, Jim's younger brother, went to the basement of the funeral home to view the body. "He wasn't made up. He was just natural," Bob says. He pauses for a moment, searching out the words. "He looked the best he had in years. He looked like he was relieved."

Three big poster boards, adorned with photographs of Jim Peterson, stand next to the bar in the basement of Deb Olesen's Brooklyn Park home. Olesen, Peterson's younger sister, cobbled together the display for Jim's funeral at Brooklyn Park Lutheran Church, where Jim was a steady parishioner. There are the usual childhood pictures: a shot of Jim as a toddler soaking in a washtub, a formal high school portrait, a picture of Jim as a dapper 16-year-old with a pompadour, a bright smile, and white Bucks shoes. "That's what all the ladies' men wore," Olesen says with a laugh.

The second oldest of Ralph and Verna Peterson's four children, James Edward Peterson grew up in Brooklyn Park. When he was a small child, the family was so poor that Verna made her kids' shirts from old feed sacks. Eventually, Ralph quit farming—Brooklyn Park was still more country than suburb—and got into the residential construction business. When the family fortunes improved, they moved from a basement apartment into a modern split-level that Ralph built.

Of the three boys in the family, Jim was always the most studious and most ambitious. By the time he was a senior in high school, he had already settled on a career choice: accounting. He'd also landed steady work as an attendant at the Holiday-Erickson gas station on Highway 81 in Crystal. He loved Elvis and his 1958 Pontiac Catalina, which he kept spotless.

On February 18, 1961, a snowy, cold Saturday, the 17-year-old switched shifts with a co-worker named Shorty. According to family lore, Peterson wanted Shorty to cover his Sunday shift so he could attend a church service with his girlfriend, a minister's daughter. It proved to be a fateful decision.

Earlier in the week, Charles Edwin Kelley and Charles Noel Brown set out on a brief but grisly three-state crime spree. Kelley, a 20-year-old Minnesota native who still lived with his parents, and Brown, a 29-year-old carnie and ex-con from Indiana, had worked together as parking-lot attendants. The two became drinking buddies. After Kelley successfully robbed a gas station of $200 with a screwdriver, Brown took the proceeds to a pawnshop on Washington Avenue, where he purchased two handguns.

The next night, Kelley and Brown stormed into the Holiday station where Peterson was working. After emptying the till of $97, the bandits forced Peterson into the station bathroom.

"They shot him at least three times and they really beat the hell out of him," recalls Bob Peterson. One of the bullets likely would have penetrated his heart and killed him had it not been deflected by the silver button on his work uniform.

Still, with the bullet fragments in Jim's brain and his head swollen like a watermelon, no one expected him to survive. A few days later, he emerged from a coma long enough to talk to police, then lapsed back into unconsciousness.

Kelley and Brown, however, were only just getting started. Two days later, they hit the 19 Bar, the pioneering gay saloon a few blocks from Loring Park. After calmly smoking Pall Malls, the two men pulled out their guns and, without a word, began shooting. One customer, a 52-year-old sales manager from Milwaukee, died on the spot. According to an account in the Minneapolis Tribune, he was killed without provocation as he stood "quietly and obediently" in the back room.

The bartender was shot six times. Amazingly, all the slugs missed his vital organs. Although he lost three pints of blood, he was able to give police a description of the suspects, whom police quickly linked to the Peterson shooting. The newspapers dubbed the bandits "the Mad Dog Killers" and a nationwide alert went out.

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