The more things change, the more they stay the same (Part 1)

Crime, and how we as a people respond to it, has been in our nation’s conscience since the earliest days of our republic. Our founders taught us an engaged and empowered people with a healthy dose of skepticism toward government is critical to preserve the peace. At the same time, they grappled with the task of coming up with a way to uphold the laws passed by Congress and the states lest they become simply good, but ultimately meaningless, ideas written on paper. How to maintain public safety and simultaneously uphold individual liberty has always been the subject, and rightfully so, of robust debate. A natural result of that always-evolving and delicate balancing act is the inherent personal risk for those who answer the call to policing professions. This was true when our nation suffered its first known law enforcement Line of Duty Death in 1791 in Albany County, New York when Constable Darius Quimby was murdered while attempting to arrest a man on a trespassing warrant. The same has proven tragically true with the loss of 21,575 more law enforcement officers in the intervening 227 years.

In its history, North Dakota has sadly seen the names of 57 officers added to that tragic roster. On April 26, 2018, at 10:00 a.m. at the Municipal Auditorium Room 201, the Minot Police Department will commemorate two of those men, who exactly 100 years earlier answered the call to law enforcement service and were murdered in the line of duty.

On April 26, 1918, in a freshly seeded wheat field northeast of Minot (an area just northeast of where Minot International Airport now operates), farmer Vac Barta noticed a set of car tracks crossed the field. Checking on these tracks, Barta discovered a stash of stolen tires. There had been a recent string of area burglaries resulting in the theft of tires, a high value item due to the nation’s need for rubber in the first World War (in full swing at the time). Barta informed a neighbor and fellow farmer, Chauncey Jones, who was driving by at the time, asking he tell police. Jones drove to town and reported the finding to the Minot Police Department. The stolen property was retrieved and Police Chief Dan Dougherty informed Special Agent Kersey Gowin of the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office (state investigators who would later become the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigations) as the discovery was made outside city limits.

While the report was being made, four men drove to the field, and when confronted by Barta drove away after claiming to be looking for Flaxton, a community nearly 80 miles away to the northwest. Minot Police Officer Patrick Devaney, learning of Agent Gowin’s need for assistance volunteered to join him, in a plan for the officers to go back to the area to arrest the assailants should they return. Jones agreed to drive the men back to the field, now late in the evening. Upon their return, the officers discovered a Ford car in the area, got out believing the suspects may have already come back, and started to search the immediate area despite the difficulty due to darkness and tall thistles along a fence line. The officers were immediately ambushed by the group of men who repeatedly shot both of them, killing Officer Devaney instantly. Grievously wounded, Agent Gowin, a veteran of the Spanish American war, fought back, returning fire from a German Lugar he carried until out of ammunition, then firing a second gun, a revolver, until its ammunition was also exhausted. Despite his ferocious efforts, Agent Gowin’s bullets did not find their targets, and one of the suspects doubled back, stood over him and shot him two more times. Agent Gowin was still able to make his way back to Jones who, while putting himself in harm’s way, moved up and checked on Officer Devaney confirming he was dead before driving Agent Gowin to Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Minot. Jones was also later identified on the States Attorney’s witness list, and was prepared to testify against the killers. Despite knowing the grim reality that he wouldn’t survive, Agent Gowin remained lucid and provided a detailed accounting of what happened to State’s Attorney O. B. Hergistad. Agent Gowin died in the early morning hours of April 27. The information Agent Gowin shared, coupled with other investigative leads followed up on by Chief Dougherty and Officer John Reed led to the eventual capture of four assailants.

Of the four men arrested in connection with the burglaries and incident resulting in the murder of the officers, Arthur Buck, was the only one convicted of murder. The remaining suspects, convicted of various lower level theft and burglary offences, served out minor sentences. After pleading guilty to Officer Devaney’s murder, Buck was sentenced to life imprisonment. Six month later on November 12th States Attorney Hergistad deciding since Buck already admitted to the facts of the case, plead guilty in Officer Devaney’s murder, and was already serving a life sentence, dismissed the remaining count of murder resulting from Agent Gowin’s slaying. Nearly a year after the killings, on March 27, 1919, a trial charging another of the accused killers, Clark Ticknor, with the officers’ murder was underway. Buck was brought back to Minot from the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck to testify, as he had previously implicated Ticknor in the shootings when he initially confessed to his involvement in the incident. Although once on the stand, Buck recanted and took responsibility for killing both officers. The murder charges against Ticknor were dismissed. With this dismissal, no further charges for the officers’ murders were ever filed, and nobody was ever convicted for the murder of Agent Gowin. On March 11, 1920, Buck, and three other inmates, escaped from prison. Buck was never recaptured.

See Minot Daily News Thursday for Part 2.

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