James Peter Taylor and Ben Bakken waited until the other inmates went to watch the movie the guards were showing at their Indiana penitentiary. Then they plotted what they hoped would be the perfect crime: no violence, no weapons, lots of loot.
It was 1955, and Taylor, 30, had spent the previous few years in and out of jail for writing bad checks, impersonating an FBI agent and joining a car-theft ring. Bakken, according to Taylor’s 2007 memoir, was a former banker doing time for embezzling from a northern Minnesota bank — and who had a personal beef against Thief River Falls banker Kenneth Lindberg.
Lindberg, 44, was a married father of four who worked at Northern State Bank in Thief River Falls. Bakken knew Lindberg “in every way, his character, habits, his weaknesses” and told Taylor that he “would be anxious for new business to come to the bank and … would be very gullible.”
Only days after he was released from the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., Taylor called Lindberg pretending to be Herbert Johnson, president of the Johnson Wax Co. in Racine, Wis., and said he planned to scout the area for a new plant secretly in the works. He said that he’d be carrying $35,000 for the deal and hoped to put it in Northern’s vault for safekeeping, but there was a problem: He’d be arriving after hours on a Saturday.
Lindberg “replied that he would keep the bank open for me,” Taylor wrote. Taylor invited the banker to dinner to learn more about the community, and Lindberg said he’d scuttle his plans to go to a children’s event that night.
By the time Taylor arrived at the bank on Nov. 12, 1955, things already were going awry. First, he had left behind in his Minneapolis hotel the sleeping pills he planned to use on Lindberg. Then, after arriving at the bank, he found a janitor and the bank president in the building along with Lindberg. Bakken had assured him no one else would be there after 3 p.m.
Taylor stalled with talk about Johnson Wax, sports and hunting until the others had left. Then he asked Lindberg if he could put his brown overnight bag with the cash in the vault. In reality the bag was empty; Taylor had less than a dollar after his trek from Chicago to Minneapolis and then to Thief River Falls.
Lindberg said he’d feel better if he counted the money before locking it up. Taylor, according to his confession later, told Lindberg “to prepare himself for a shock”: The bank was being robbed. Accomplices near Lindberg’s home would hurt his family unless he cooperated.
“My only weapon was the false threat I had made that his family’s well-being was in jeopardy,” Taylor said later.
The banker said the main vault couldn’t be opened until Monday. But there was another safe, he said, with about $15,000 in travelers’ checks and $1,750 in silver coins. Taylor took the loot, and the two headed for Minneapolis in the banker’s car.
Taylor said he planned to drug Lindberg and then disappear, making the banker the prime suspect when he awoke in Minneapolis. But he couldn’t drug Lindberg without the sleeping pills, and he had counted on paper money rather than a heavy bag of silver dollars filling his small suitcase. Taylor realized as they drove that it would be hard even getting the suitcase on a plane.
So he pulled off Hwy. 10, about 10 miles south of St. Cloud, to bury the coins with a World War II-era foxhole digger found in Lindberg’s trunk. As snow fell in the darkness, the banker toted two boxes of silver coins and Taylor followed with the shovel and flashlight.
On the way, Taylor wrote, he slipped, lost his footing and grabbed Lindberg’s coat. The banker responded by smashing Taylor in the face with the coins. “Against a night sky, I saw the silhouette of his large shape barreling down that slope and … I struck him with the foxhole digger in the back of his head,” Taylor wrote.
Boys hunting rabbits found Lindberg’s bludgeoned body nearly two weeks later, near Crescent Lake in western Sherburne County.
Taylor fled to Minneapolis, where his car was found. He went from city to city across the country before the FBI arrested him on Dec. 8 in Joplin, Mo., where he’d been passing the travelers’ checks.
Getting him into the Minneapolis courthouse without detection, according to one newspaper account, was “a wartime cloak and dagger operation. Wearing an imported British tweed topcoat over a sports coat and charcoal brown slacks, Taylor was transported in an unmarked federal car.”
After his release from federal prison at 70 in 1995, Taylor married social worker Kathleen Murphy-Taylor. They worked on his 2007 memoir, “Willow in a Storm,” which he dedicated to Lindberg, his wife and children — “all who suffered more than I can know, at my hands. I offer them my most profound apology … and this written work. May it answer some of their questions and soothe any troubles of their souls.”
Taylor, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died five years later. He was 86.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send ideas to email@example.com. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at onminnesotahistory.com.