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A Slow Death

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

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 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.

Kelley and Brown, accompanied by Brown's mistress, fled the state. Over the next few days, they killed a liquor-store owner in Omaha and shot two other men—one fatally—while stealing cars in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The spree ended when Pottawattamie County sheriff's deputies caught Kelley and Brown at a roadblock outside of Council Bluffs.

In his confession, Brown said he and Kelley shot their victims because they didn't want to risk being identified. He claimed he was too drunk to recall precise details of the crimes. But Kelley told investigators he shot Peterson while Brown was in another room.

The following June, Brown was hanged at Fort Madison, Iowa, becoming the first person executed in that state in more than a decade. On September 6, 1962, Kelley followed him to the gallows. According to the Minneapolis Tribune, he faced death calmly and, as the hood was placed over his head, murmured, "I'm sorry for what I did."

As it turned out, Kelley was the last person executed by the state of Iowa, which abolished capital punishment in 1965.

 

For Jim Peterson and his family, the effects of the shooting never really faded. The young man who had prided himself on his dancing found his new physical limitations to be a lifelong source of pain and bitterness. To his parents and siblings, Peterson's struggles were hard to watch.

"Unless you were there, you can't know how much he suffered," says older brother Ron Peterson, a Twin Cities boxing promoter. "His whole left side was paralyzed and atrophied. He was like half a person. Sometimes I think it would be a blessing if he'd passed when he was shot."

Although Jim Peterson graduated from high school (and later got a degree in business), he never managed to find regular work. But he prided himself on his independence, refusing to ask for physical assistance. Sometimes, he got "help" he didn't want. Because his leg brace was cumbersome—and he couldn't really sense cold—Peterson usually wore shorts. When Peterson walked bare-legged in the wintertime, people worried.

"He had the cops called on him more times than we could count," says Deb Olesen. "People would think he was a vulnerable adult or a flasher."

Over the years, Peterson married three times; he was divorced when he died. Still, his two children and five grandchildren were an enduring source of pride. "He always carried a little plastic bag, and in the bag would be pictures of the grandkids. He was just so proud of them," says the Rev. Darrin Vick of Brooklyn Park Lutheran.

Despite his physical limitations, Peterson worked hard to remain in shape. When Vick first shook hands with Peterson, he recalls, "I thought, man, this guy is gonna crush my hand."

Over time, Peterson's bad luck persisted. A few years back, he was struck by a car while crossing a street in Brooklyn Park. Naturally, the driver was uninsured. Peterson struggled with persistent seizures and headaches. Mostly, he was lonesome.

"After he was shot, I don't think he was ever really happy again," Bob Peterson says. "Maybe twice. Once when his son was born, and once when his daughter was born." Financial woes didn't help his spirits. At Christmas, Bob says, Jim would sometimes cry inconsolably because he couldn't afford to buy gifts.

"He just wanted to be like everyone else, but he wasn't," says Olesen. "He was frustrated because he couldn't do what everyone else could. He was a very loving and compassionate person, and he just wanted to be loved back. Yeah, he really had a wonderful life."

As Olesen cruises down Highway 81, she points out the old Holiday station, now a used-car dealership, where Peterson was working the night he was shot. Not far up the road, she pulls into the Mound Cemetery. Stepping out of the car, she scans the rows of headstones for his gravesite. There's no monument yet, just a temporary marker. It's located a few yards from the family plot where Petersen's beloved maternal grandmother rests.

"It's a nice little cemetery," Olesen says, casting an approving eye across the grounds. "I wouldn't mind being buried here." Standing near the marker, Olesen squints into the summer sun, searching the graveyard for something else. She methodically paces off the distance to a flat marker. It's about 30 feet. She bends down and wipes aside some grass to reveal the inscription: "Charles Edwin Kelley."

 

Having died 45 years and almost 400 miles apart, Jim Peterson and his killer now rest side by side.


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