Minneapolis cop Joseph Ollinger had an eerie feeling when he headed to his beat Saturday night, July 15, 1911.
“There may be something doing tonight,” he told his wife, Anna, as he kissed her goodbye.
He’d been nervous all day, according to his sister-in-law, who heard him declare: “I’m going to get that fellow tonight if I come home in a box.”
At 52, Ollinger had been a patrolman for 15 years. He and Anna lived with their 13-year-old son, William, and other relatives in a white frame house that still stands at 800 19th Av. NE.
A couple hours before midnight, Ollinger stopped at the home of his priest, the Rev. Robert Fitzgerald, founder of St. Clement’s parish. The patrolman wanted advice on how to handle an impending confrontation with a notorious criminal.
Try to take him alive, the father told him, and don’t fire first to kill.
A former prizefighter, career criminal Jerry McCarty had wrists so thick police couldn’t get handcuffs on him when he was arrested for shooting at an officer two years earlier. That earned him 10 years in Stillwater prison.
But McCarty was deft at escaping. He busted out of a Montana penitentiary after serving five years for a diamond heist in Butte. He broke out of an Iowa prison while facing time for robbery.
Never mind that no one had escaped Stillwater prison for 19 years. McCarty worked in the prison machine shop and fashioned keys that helped spring him and fellow inmate Peter Juhl. Model prisoners, they weren’t required to wear stripped prison garb, so they disappeared inconspicuously into the dark after scaling Stillwater’s stone wall.
Despite a massive manhunt, they eluded authorities for months. Ollinger, meanwhile, was infiltrating a group planning to blow up the safe and rob a bank on Central Avenue on July 24 when $30,000 in railroad cash would be stored overnight.
Meeting in a pool hall, a cigar dealer named Fred Briggs introduced Ollinger to a mysterious guy named Nolan — who was really the escapee, McCarty. They tried to lure Ollinger into their ring, offering him a cut in exchange for information about the vault and alarm bells.
Ollinger took the information to his superiors, who told him to try to catch the bank robbers in the act. On July 14, the day before the showdown, Ollinger learned Nolan was McCarty through a prison photo.
On his Saturday night shift, Ollinger caught a glimpse of McCarty behind a drugstore. “I’m going to get him,” the officer told the druggist. As he walked toward McCarty about 11:45 p.m., Ollinger whispered to a firefighter friend crossing his path: “There is going to be some shooting here in a minute and I want you to be out of the way … there’s going to be trouble.”
At 6-feet-3, Ollinger measured up to the former boxer. “His physique made him an adversary worthy of [McCarty’s] strength,” the Minneapolis Journal reported.
Witnesses say Ollinger put his left hand on McCarty’s shoulder. As they began to tussle, the policeman struck McCarty’s left eye with the butt of his revolver and broke his nose with another blow.
Then shots rang out as McCarty pumped two revolvers from each hip, shooting Ollinger five times in the abdomen and once in his neck. The officer got off two shots of his own, one to the escapee’s heart and one near his left eye.
“Both of them stood there while the shots rang out one after the other,” one witness said. “They just seemed to be looking each other in the eyes and pumping fire into each other’s body.”
Another witness said he overheard Ollinger say: “I got you, partner, but I guess you got me.”
The escapee shot and died first. Ollinger was still alive when the Rev. Fitzgerald administered his last rites.
“As his fellow patrolmen lifted him onto the stretcher, Ollinger said distinctly, ‘Well, boys, you can say that Joe died and I want you all to come to the funeral.’ ” He died in the hospital just after 1 a.m.
Ollinger is one of 48 Minneapolis police officers killed in the line of duty. His story would be all but forgotten if not for another cop. Ron Ottoson served for more than 30 years with the Minneapolis police before retiring in 2005 to travel the country in his RV with his wife of 40 years, Mary.
First, though, he decided to collect every newspaper clipping connected to the Ollinger case. He visited graveyards, crime scenes and historical societies and amassed more than 650 pages into a digital file.
“I figured I’d see where it would lead and kept finding one more thing, and it got bigger and bigger as I grew more fascinated,” said Ottoson, 77, who grew up in Red Wing. “I had no idea what to do with it all, so I put it all in storage.”
He then headed out in his RV, knowing Ollinger’s story had been captured along with the escaped convict with the thick wrists.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org, and podcasts can be found at onminnesotahistory.com. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.