Recovering from a broken hip, Bob Patrin moved slowly into the sun room of his home in Edina. Waiting on a table were three binders, the testaments to Patrin’s 30-year obsession to clear the name of his uncle Frank.
Patrin lowered himself onto a couch and flipped through the binders. Plastic envelopes held photocopied news clippings, a yellowing insurance policy, an old Twin Cities map. He took out a color photograph, circa 1945, of his mother’s brother-in-law, Frank Fietek. He’s smiling as he stands in front of his new bar just outside the St. Paul city limits. The lettering in the windows reads: Frank & Marie’s Tavern, Fine Food, Dancing.
Then, a copy of a death certificate dated March 4, 1946. Name of deceased: Frank Fietek. Age: 42. Cause of death: Strangulation, due to hanging.
The death merited a three-paragraph story in the newspaper that left no doubt that it was self-inflicted. “Relatives said the man, discharged from the Army because of his age, had been despondent after recently breaking both legs in an accident.”
Patrin was a teenager when his uncle died, and his family hid the article from him. He discovered it in his mother’s papers years later, and what seemed to him the sheer absurdity of the official account compelled him to try to set the record straight.
Patrin, who’s 84, a retired University of Minnesota employee and a sports historian, has told his version of the story over and over again, and sometimes you have to yank him out of his memories to get to the point. Yet he is consistent: There was no accident, no suicide. Patrin is convinced that his uncle died at the hands of gangsters, because he got in on the liquor business without their permission, and then proved too bullheaded to heed their increasingly violent overtures.
Patrin thinks he knows who did it, but no cop would even make an arrest on the evidence he offers. Yet given the suspicious events preceding Fietek’s death, the authorities should not have left it up to his nephew to do a real investigation decades after justice could be served.
Growing up on Rice Street during the Great Depression, Patrin got an early education in the violent code of old St. Paul. He said that as a child, he pushed his way through a crowd to see the body of Homer Van Meter, a John Dillinger lieutenant gunned down by police at Marion and University in August 1934.
Patrin said his uncle, who grew up in rural Ivanhoe, Minn., was probably naive about such things as mob control when he opened a bar in 1945. Newly discharged from the Army after a mix-up about his birth date, Fietek got government help to acquire the license of a bar formerly known as Swing City, at 1682 Rice St., in what was then unincorporated Ramsey County.
Fietek asked Patrin’s mother to add her name to the establishment, and he opened for business. Not long after, Fietek got a visit from two men in business suits and hats. Patrin, who helped his uncle around the bar, saw the men sitting across a table from Fietek. They took out two wads of bills. Fietek rejected the “partnership” offer.
Not long after, the men were back. They pointed across the street to the St. Paul city limits. Police protection ends there, so you need our help in case you have some trouble in your bar, they said. Fietek again said no. A brawl broke out not long after, spattering the dance floor with blood.
At closing time one night in the fall of 1945, the men in the black sedan returned. They asked Fietek to get in, and, foolishly, he did.
They left Fietek with two broken legs on a remote stretch of County Road D, probably hoping he would get run over and the death would look like an accident. Fietek survived, but his legs were crippled. He moved into the ground floor of his brother’s duplex on Carroll Avenue. Patrin said his uncle became somewhat of a recluse after that. Even after the beating, and a fire that broke out in the basement of the bar, he would not give up the license.
On March 4, Fietek’s brother went down to the basement of their 327 Carroll Ave. home and made the horrific discovery.
“Police said the man had a necktie tied tightly around his neck and that a wire attached to an overhead pipe had given way, dropping him onto a pile of wood,” the newspaper reported.
Fietek never wore a tie. More to the point, how could a man with little use of his legs make his way into the basement, string wire around pipes and climb up on a pile of firewood?
Then there was Patrin’s encounter with one of the “bag men,” who showed up at his uncle’s viewing the day before the funeral. Nearly 70 years later, the words still live with Patrin. “It’s too bad about your uncle, but he was such a hardheaded Polack,” the man told him. “The pain must have been intense.”
His uncle’s service was held at the St. Paul Cathedral, inconceivable for any Catholic who committed suicide, Patrin said. In one of his binders, Patrin showed me black-and-white snapshots of the open casket, the honor guard, the grave at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
A couple of weeks later, an advertisement appeared in the newspaper announcing the reopening of Swing City, “under new management.”
Fietek’s story would have been buried with him had his nephew not pestered everyone in sight with his relentless research. Patrin hoped he could get the death certificate corrected, maybe prompt the authorities to reopen the investigation. So far, he has contented himself with the journalists and historians who have, finally, listened.
I asked Patrin what his uncle would think of his mission. He looked up from his binders and took a breath.
“I think he would have been proud of me, because I never gave up on him.”
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.