Shaw: Memories of deadly Medina shootout still sharp for officers 40 years later
In this first installment of a three-part series, police officers who were at the scene of the shootout with Gordon Kahl, Yorie Kahl and Scott Faul offer a glimpse of the harrowing experience.
MEDINA, N.D. — Sometimes called the crime of the century in North Dakota, the 1983 Medina shootout sent shockwaves through the state and nation 40 years ago.
“It was a tragedy that didn’t need to happen,” Lynn Crooks said. Crooks, 81, was the chief prosecutor of the case.
From the shootings to the search for an assailant to the funerals to the trial to a prison interview, I covered it all.
This series of stories features 14 new interviews that were conducted in recent months. Those interviews provide some never-before-heard information and a fresh perspective on the shootout and those involved. The story also looks at a letter I received a few months ago from one of the convicted murderers, who is still serving his sentence in a federal prison.
The shootout centered around a 63-year-old farmer from Heaton, North Dakota, named Gordon Kahl. Heaton is in central North Dakota, about 20 miles west of Carrington.
Kahl was raised on a farm in North Dakota. During World War II, he was a highly decorated turret gunner. After the war, Kahl’s attitude toward the United States started to change.
In the 1970s, he moved to Texas and organized the first Texas chapter of Posse Comitatus. That organization is anti-tax, anti-federal government, racist and antisemitic. It recognizes no government authority above the county level and believes in sovereign townships.
Kahl was recorded on audio tape saying, “It’s a Jew campaign to conquer the world and destroy Christianity and the white race. Everything goes back to that.”
He later wrote, “We are a conquered and occupied nation; conquered and occupied by the Jews.”
Kahl’s views led him to drive a car without a driver’s license and without registering the vehicle. He also stopped paying federal income taxes in 1967. In 1977, he was convicted of tax evasion. He was sentenced to two years in prison and a $2,000 fine.
“I don’t know how a guy like Gordon gets pushed over the edge,” Crooks said. “None of us likes to pay taxes, but we have to pay them to fund the government.”
Kahl was released from prison after eight months but was put on supervised probation for five years. However, he failed to check in with his probation officer and the courts. He also continued to refuse to pay federal income tax. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
He moved back to North Dakota in the early 1980s, where he remained active in the anti-federal government movement.
'Call this off'
In January of 1983, Medina, North Dakota, Police Chief Darrell Graf accidentally ran into Kahl.
“He said he will never go back to prison again,” Graf said. “He also said he will pay local taxes for the fire department and schools, but he will not send any more money to the IRS.”
Also in January, Stutsman County Deputy Sheriff Brad Kapp sat in on a Posse Comitatus meeting with Kahl and his followers. That meeting was held in Medina, about 30 miles west of Jamestown.
“They had rifles and handguns,” Kapp said. “They were talking about the government taking away all the farms. They said if they had to take up arms against the government, they would.”
Two weeks later, Kapp learned the U.S. Marshal’s Service had a warrant out for Kahl’s arrest.
Sunday, Feb. 13, 1983, was an unusually mild midwinter day in North Dakota, with high temperatures in the 40s and 50s. On that day, Kahl and his anti-government group met in Medina at the medical clinic of Dr. Clarence Martin.
Joining Gordon Kahl were his son Yorie Kahl, his wife Joan Kahl, and friends Scott Faul, David Broer and Vernon Wegner. They talked about farm foreclosures and forming a sovereign township. They argued about whether or not to allow Jews and Black Americans to live in their township.
Kapp noticed Kahl’s car was at the clinic and called the Marshal’s Service.
So, North Dakota U.S. Marshal Ken Muir and Deputy Marshal Carl Wigglesworth headed from Fargo to Medina in an attempt to arrest Kahl. Muir told his wife that he would be back home that evening so they could watch one of their favorite television programs together.
Also driving to Medina were Deputy U.S. Marshals Robert Cheshire and James Hopson, who were coming from Bismarck. As he was leaving the house, James Hopson’s wife, Doris Hopson, took a line from the popular television show “Hill Street Blues” and told her husband, “Be careful out there.”
“I told Kapp to call this off,” Graf said. “I told him that Kahl was not going to go without a battle.”
Graf decided to avoid the potential confrontation and went to the fire station. He organized a medical team and an ambulance to be ready.
“I knew Gordon wouldn’t give himself up, that he was heavily armed, and there was a pretty good chance of violence, “ Graf said. “If I’m out there, Kahl is going to think I’m a spy. That could start the shooting, and that’s why I had to stay out of there.”
'I thought I was going to die'
The marshals arrived in Medina and were joined by Kapp and Medina Police Officer Steve Schnabel. They set up a roadblock in town.
Graf told them how dangerous this could be and persuaded them to move the roadblock a few miles north of Medina.
At that time, Kahl and his group left their meeting in two cars and ran into the roadblock. Gordon Kahl, Yorie Kahl and Scott Faul got out of their cars with their rifles and took up positions. Faul ran off, and Wigglesworth followed him until Wigglesworth became stuck in a slough.
“At that point, everyone was pointing guns at everyone,” Schnabel said.
Cheshire went on his radio and said, “We’re looking right into the face of these guys. Let’s go.”
“Cheshire and Hopson were yelling that they had an arrest warrant for Gordon Kahl,” Kapp said. “They identified themselves as U.S. Marshals. The Marshals kept telling them to drop their weapons, but nothing happened.”
“Muir told them to give up and put their weapons down,” Schnabel said. “There was yelling back and forth.”
The standoff, with both sides pointing guns at each other, lasted for nine minutes. Suddenly, a shot was fired.
“I heard the shot,” Kapp said. “I looked at Cheshire, and I could see the front of his shirt was red, and I knew he was hit.”
Cheshire went on the radio and yelled, “Officer hit! Officer hit! Let’s go guys. I’m hit bad!”
Law enforcement officers said the shot came from Yorie Kahl, which he denied.
“I didn’t start the shooting,” Yorie Kahl told me in an exclusive interview for WDAY-TV in 1993 from the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. “I believe Marshal Muir did.”
“The last thing I remember before I left to go stop Scott from whatever he was doing was Ken telling everyone on the radio to hold their fire. 'Do not shoot,'” Wigglesworth told me in 1993. “He would not violate his own orders.”
“I’m sure Yorie fired first,” Kapp said. “The sound came from where he was standing, and he had the angle to hit Cheshire.”
“I believe Yorie fired first,” Schnabel said. “He had the clear shot at Cheshire.”
Over the next 30 seconds, a barrage of gunfire came from all directions.
“After Yorie fired a second shot at Cheshire, I fired at Yorie three times,” Kapp said. “I hit him in the abdomen. He went down to his knees and fell forward.”
Faul fired at least six shots, while Gordon Kahl fired dozens.
Muir was shot in the chest and immediately died.
Hopson was shot in the ear and brain and went to the ground with severe wounds.
Many rounds were fired at Kapp. He was shot in the hand, chin, above his left eye and in the chest. His bulletproof vest saved his life.
“I thought ... 'I’m getting pelted here,'” Kapp said. “I went to the rear of my vehicle and went into a ditch.”
He was determined to keep firing.
“I wanted to fire more,” Kapp said. “I looked at my hand, and it was shredded. I was unable to reload my shotgun.”
While kneeling, it became even more frightening.
“I was going to reach for my revolver, and then Gordon Kahl showed up. He had his rifle trained on me,” Kapp said. “I thought, 'Jesus Christ, where is everyone else? Am I the only one left?' I thought I was going to die.”
Kahl was only 20 feet away. Then, inexplicably, he turned to the north and looked at something else.
“I got up and ran down to the bottom of the ditch, away from him,” Kapp said.
Kahl headed toward Cheshire, who was badly wounded and lying on the ground. Kahl then executed Cheshire by shooting him twice in the head at point-blank range.
Schnabel didn’t fire any rounds but was right in the middle of it.
“They all had .243 rifles. I had a shotgun,” Schnabel said. “Bullets were flying over my head. Gordon’s rifle was pointing right at me. I was hit in the thigh.”
Then, Schnabel crawled into the ditch.
“I thought I was toast,” he said. “While I was popping my head up, there weren’t any marshals standing there anymore. The only person I could see was Gordon.”
Schnabel remained in the ditch, waiting for someone to rescue him.
“I look over to my left, and there’s Gordon in front of my car with a rifle,” Schnabel said. “I raised my shotgun up, and then he pointed his .243 right at me. I was thinking I was a dead man. That’s when I dropped my shotgun and told Gordon, 'I’m done.'”
Schnabel then waited to see what would happen.
“He walked over to me and put his rifle on the back of my neck,” Schnabel said. “He grabbed my shotgun and took my .357 pistol. Then they loaded Yorie into my car and took him to the (Medina) clinic.”
The shooting was over.
Graf and Wigglesworth traveled separately to the scene and saw that Muir and Cheshire were dead, and Hopson was severely wounded.
Wigglesworth, with his voice strained, went on the radio and called in the tragic findings. He said, “5206 (Cheshire) is DOA. 5200 (Muir) is DOA. 5207 (Hopson) is badly injured.”
“I was disheartened and upset over what I saw,” Graf said.
Hopson, Schnabel and Kapp were all taken by ambulance to the Medina Clinic.
Kapp said, “When I got there, Yorie Kahl was lying in a bed in the same room I was in, and he was being treated."
Kapp sat on a chair while his hand was bandaged. He was also given two shots.
“As I was sitting in the clinic, Gordon Kahl walks in,” Kapp said. “Yorie was screaming and hollering. Gordon had a rifle in each hand. I looked at him and asked him, ‘Was it worth it?’
"He said, ‘Yes. To me. it was.’”
Next Saturday in this three-part series: The Aftermath