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At 9:15 a.m., on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 1931, a large black, high-powered Lincoln automobile heading east came to a stop in front of the Frank Hintzman Funeral Parlor in the 400 block of Main Street.

The driver, a small-time hoodlum named Frank Webber, remained in the driver’s seat and kept the motor running. Three men jumped out of the car and with guns concealed under their coats, walked a half-block to the Kraft State Bank tucked in next to the Montgomery Ward store.

Upon entering the bank, they produced their guns while rushing into the lobby and ordering the patrons and employees to lie on the floor. Under the watchful eye of two of the gunmen, the third invader scooped up $90,000 in cash and securities from the open vault. Vernon Townsend, the bank’s guard, didn’t confront the trio of robbers, but did succeed in tripping the burglar alarm and rushing to the roof of the bank to attack the bandits as they fled the building.

By this time, Webber had pulled up and parked in the middle of Main Street slightly beyond the bank’s entrance. He then stepped out of the car with a machine gun and with his back towards Lake Menomin, sprayed bullets towards any self-appointed armed vigilantes such as Winfield Kern, who returned fire from inside his café, as evidenced by bullet holes in the large plate glass window of his shop. Ed Grudt, a clerk in the Farmer Store next door on the corner of Main and Sixth Streets, did what he could by shooting his firearm at Webber, who quickly responded by shooting back with his machine gun.

Hostage situation

All of this took place in a matter of seconds, before the trio of gunman exited the bank with two hostages, young James Kraft, and a bank customer, Mrs. A.W. Schafer. Upon leaving the bank, Mrs. Schafer stumbled and fell, but the fleeing robbers continued to rush to the waiting get-away car using young Kraft as a shield.

Efforts to catch up with the fleeing bandits and their hostage, failed. During their flight from authorities, the robbers did find time to stop on Suckow Road, about a hundred yards before its connection with State Highway 25 to dump the body of Frank Webber, and to execute young James Kraft with a bullet in his head.

But the fleeting party had another badly-wounded bandit, Charles Preston Harmon, believed to have been hit by Grudt’s bullets. He was in such agony that his partners in crime decided to abandon him at a deserted farm where he died a lonely, painful death. There were now two of the gang on the loose” — their identities unknown.

Safe haven

Back in Menomonie, District Attorney A. W. Galvin was certain that the men who robbed and killed in the Kraft State Bank hold-up were based in St. Paul, Minn. The city was basically an organized crime safe haven that had become a well-known refuge for criminals who promised local police not to commit crimes in that city. St. Paul was the home base for well-known and hunted gangsters like John Dillinger, Homer Van Meter, Fred Barker and Ma Barker, Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson, and Alvin Karpis.

With St. Paul as their haven, these criminals were able to leave their hideouts and rob banks in a number of nearby cities and villages like Menomonie and Colfax.

At the time of the Kraft State Bank hold-up, Karpis was imprisoned at Alcatraz Prison. Because the two of the bandits at the Kraft State Bank were suspected to be members of the Karpis gang, Galvin traveled to Alcatraz to interview the jailed criminal.

Galvin was unsuccessful in getting any meaningful information from Karpis. He did tell Galvin, however, that he hated to drive through Menomonie on U.S. 12 because to him it was the “city of the crooked bridges — referring to the fact that the highway traced the city’s Broadway twisted route over three bridges, and tight curves required slow maneuvering to drive through the city’s milling district.

A new suspect, a gambler and bookmaker who had no permanent address in Minneapolis named Robert V. Newbern was on trial for a robbery in Minnesota when, during a trial’s cross examination, was asked, “Have you been through Menomonie, Wisconsin?” He replied, “I have been through Menomonie, yes, sir.”

Then the prosecutor asked “Isn’t it a fact that on Oct. 18, 1931, you and Hankins entered the Kraft State Bank at Menomonie, Wisconsin with guns in your hands?” Newburn attempted to answer, “Mr. Compton, I…” Compton yelled, “Answer that ‘yes’ or ‘no’!” To which Newburn replied, “It is not a fact, no sir, I never robbed a bank in my life in no town or no place.”

Readers will have to wait until next week’s column for the whole story!

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John Russell, a local photographer and Dunn County resident, writes a weekly column for The Dunn County News. He is curator emeritus of the Dunn County Historical Society.

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Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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