The Killer Inside
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.
Upon his release, he went to work as a freight handler and trucker for Arthur Stillman, a Minneapolis businessman and member of the parole board. Larson worked for Stillman for 19 years. Over that time, he married, had a few kids, divorced, and eventually remarried. He and his old friend Kenneth Callahan opened a business together on Glenwood Avenue--Custom Cabinets--and, in 1974, Larson purchased a farm about 50 miles south of Duluth in Willow River. He says that was the best period of his life. He liked the outdoors. He liked the farm. He bought ponies for the kids.
By 1976, Larson's relationship with his wife, Ruth, had begun to sour. Ruth became intimate with a family friend and neighbor in Willow River, 34-year-old James Falch. After Larson learned of the affair, the couple resolved to divorce. In April of that year, Larson drove to the farm, he says, to collect some power tools. When he arrived, he discovered his wife and Falch loading assorted possessions into a trailer. Larson says now he became incensed when he saw some "four or five thousand bucks of my tools" in the trailer. Though he maintains that he had no intention of killing anyone, he had brought two handguns with him. After the confrontation with Falch turned physical, he shot Falch in the shoulder.
According to testimony at the trial, Falch's 12-year-old son, Jimmy, then rushed outside, where he denounced Larson as "a rotten S.O.B." Larson responded by shooting the boy three times. He returned to the house and said to the wounded father, "See what you made me do? Are you happy now?" The precise sequence of events that followed remains cloudy in Larson's mind. He remembers seeing his wife in the kitchen, dialing the police on the telephone. In the scuffle that ensued, he says, he accidentally shot his five-year-old son, Mark, in the forehead.
"Then I just went crazy. I shot everything in sight," Larson says. In the end, five people died--Ruth Larson, James Falch, Jimmy Falch, Mark Larson, and Ruth's 12-year-old son from a prior marriage, Scott Powell. Three other boys present at the scene--Scott's older brother and Falch's two young sons--escaped Larson's wrath by running into some nearby woods. The whole rampage was over in a matter of minutes.
After that, Larson sped back to Minneapolis and checked into a motel, where he downed a handful of sleeping pills. "The cleanup people came in, and couldn't wake me up, so they took me to the hospital," he recalls. It would be his last taste of freedom.
Like a lot of the civilian elderly, Larson is convinced that a lot of things aren't as good as they used to be. He is judgmental about many of the younger convicts he encounters. Their acts of violence, he thinks, are markedly different from the ones he committed. Gangs used to settle fights with fists, he observes, not guns. "And there is more child abuse and sex and rape and murder than there ever has been," he adds. "Every time I watch Fox news, they're showing pictures of these young girls who have been kidnapped and raped. Years ago, you never heard of that."
When talking about the years he spent in the state prison at Stillwater, he is nearly nostalgic. That was a real prison, a place where rapists were administered rough justice at the hands of fellow inmates while guards looked the other way. It's not like that at Faribault. "Here they protect every damn sex offender, and every single guy is a stool pigeon," he complains. He is especially indignant about the presence of female guards. "You can't swear. You can't look at a Playboy magazine. They got so many rules," he says. "This is more of a mental hospital than a prison."
Aside from the guards and glimpses of razor wire through the windows, actually, the Linden Wing at Faribault actually resembles a nursing home more than anything. Larson has the key to his own cell, which looks like a college dorm room. There is no toilet or running water--just two beds, two lockers, two TVs, and two desks. He shares the space with an asthmatic 61-year-old from Moorhead. Larson believes his cellmate--who was convicted of killing his girlfriend--is a pedophile, so he doesn't speak with him much. There are few people at Faribault he cares to associate with. "I got about four or five friends--old men," Larson says. "And most of them are bitter, just like I am."
In his days at Stillwater, Larson worked in the prison hospital, where he helped care for inmates with AIDS. In that capacity, he began sewing quilts. It is a hobby he pursues to this day. Opening the drawer beneath his bed, he produces some samples of his latest project. Each square of fabric is embroidered with a bloody image of Jesus on the cross. Larson says he got the idea for the religious quilt after the death of the pope.
At that, he turns his attention to legal matters. He thumbs through a sheaf of computer printouts with information about parole eligibility. He is convinced they prove that he ought to have been released. If it weren't for the intransigence of "that woman"--a reference to the Department of Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian--he thinks he would be free today.
"What type of crime am I going to commit? How many guys commit crimes when they're 80 years old?" he asks. "If I got out, I'd just like to take a swim, go fishing, and sew."
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