This summer marks the 35th anniversary of my arrest. The charge: pillow theft.

I landed my first newspaper reporting job in 1981 at the Fergus Falls Daily Journal during the summer before my senior year at Macalester College. On Memorial Day weekend, I loaded my pickup and headed west 180 miles on Interstate 94.

Riding shotgun: my girlfriend, Adele — now my wife of 33 years and the mother of my three kids. She had a job dissecting mice at a University of Minnesota lab, so this would be our romantic fling before a summer apart.

One problem. Every hotel and motel was booked for weddings, graduations, christenings, you name it. We found the last room in Fergus at the Lakeland Motel. I think we paid $18 for single occupancy. Adele hid in the car while I checked in.

When it was time to check out, I said, “Hey, grab the pillow.”

I had rented a room in an old house in town near Lake Alice. The town pot dealer, I would learn, lived in an adjoining room. He would become the subject of one of my stories that summer.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Adele said as we tossed the pillow in the truck. Charlie Manson’s women probably said the same thing.

A week went by. Adele returned to the Twin Cities. And I had my first story: A profile of a retired Chicago cop who’d bought a fishing resort on one of the countless lakes punctuating Otter Tail County.

The story ran on the front page, along with my photo of the cop on his dock. In a little box next to the story, editors included a blurb about the Chicago boy joining the news crew for the summer. I was pumped and ready for my first weekend in small-town America.

Then came the knock on the door.

I figured it was either James Garcia, the photographer I’d befriended, or the Welcome Wagon. Instead, I opened the door to a uniformed Otter Tail County deputy and a plain-clothed detective who reminded me of Columbo.

“What can I do for you, fellows?” I asked, wondering what they might have spied me doing through the window.

“You have the right to remain silent,” the deputy said, reading my Miranda rights, all the while looking like Dudley Do-Right with his big hat and gun.

The detective, glancing at his small notebook, asked if I had a pillow, a pillow case and a towel removed from the Lakeland Motel. I fessed up and returned the bedding.

I was charged with misdemeanor theft and ordered to appear in Otter Tail County court before the honorable Judge Elliott Boe. I panicked and decided on a no-coverup strategy. Watergate was less than a decade old. Lesson learned.

I headed first to Mabel Murphy’s bar to confess my sin to my editor, Pat Walkup. She was yucking it up after work when I said we had to talk. I’ve just been arrested. For stealing a pillow. She fell off her bar stool laughing. Her happy hour mates were members of the county attorney’s staff and promised to put in a good word with the judge.

Next stop: the motel. I told the woman in the office I was sorry and had returned everything.

“That’s not how we do things in Fergus Falls, Mr. Chicago boy,” she said, complaining about someone stealing a phone out of another room. She’d had enough.

“But you can still lead a straight life,” she said as I walked out the door.

On Monday, I filled in for the vacationing police reporter. In those days, that meant sifting through a stack of complaints at the police station — trolling for news. Kegger broken up at the lake. Boat motor stolen.

Then I found myself in the criminal complaints: Suspect apprehended with stolen motel bedding. The secretaries suppressed giggles. This was a small town. Everyone knew what I’d done.

Back at the newspaper, I knocked on the door of Charles Underwood, the owner of what was still a family-owned operation. I told him what had happened and he thanked me for my candor. Sure beat hearing about it at the country club, where his merchant buddies were on him to start cracking down on shoplifting by publishing the names of those charged with misdemeanor theft. He’d wait until my case blew over.

In court, I pleaded guilty, your honor. The judge said that, because I had no prior legal trouble and was launching a journalism career, I was a good candidate for the first-time offender program. He sentenced me to 25 hours of community service. If I didn’t do anything else stupid, the charge would be vacated in a year.

I met with my probation officer and agreed to serve my time at the softball complex. For five nights in the summer of ’81, I raised the flag and sold concessions. The money went to a local boy’s leukemia fund.

My career veered into sports writing for a decade or so. I covered Super Bowls and Olympics. Stayed in great hotels from Tokyo to Phoenix. But I never even took the little bottles of shampoo, let alone the pillows.

I had learned justice, Otter Tail County style.


Curt Brown writes a weekly Minnesota History column for the Star Tribune.

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