A 'kind-hearted' ND policeman was gunned down in a cold alley in 1963. Inside the hunt for his killers
Patrolman Frank Peterson was shot and killed by burglars of the Mint Bar in Rugby, North Dakota. His murder launched an intense manhunt, and later, memorials to a man who gave his life for his town.
RUGBY, North Dakota — Sixty years ago, the city of Rugby said goodbye to a local hero, a police officer who laid down his life to serve and protect his community.
February 1963 was cold in Rugby, North Dakota, the geographical center of North America. The previous year yielded bumper crops for farmers in the area. The local basketball team prepared to defend their class A championship.
At midnight on Feb. 3, 1963, Patrolman Frank Peterson began his tour of duty for the Rugby Police Department. He drove Car 88, a 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne, most likely equipped with a powerful small block 283-cubic-inch engine that generated a whopping 170 horsepower. Although the car’s equipment included an automatic transmission, the conservative nature of most city leaders in that era would have compelled them to purchase the least expensive V8 engine available.
At that time, the Rugby Police Department consisted of Chief Oswald Tofte, Lt. Glenn (Bud) Miller, Patrolman Harold Hoffart, and Peterson, a part-time officer. He worked three shifts each week, covering a weekly day off for the department’s three full-tifme officers, and received a salary of $162 per month.
Peterson was a kind-hearted man who carried a gun because his position required it of him. He had commented to friends, however, that he could never shoot first and for that reason someday he might “get it.”
Snowfall and a temperature below zero made the night just a bit more hazardous than usual. As Peterson patrolled the streets of Rugby, a truck driver flagged him down on US Highway 2. The trucker reported a vehicle in the ditch a mile back along the highway and suggested the officer check on the occupants.
Peterson located the car beyond the city limits, stopped, and used his flashlight to see if anyone was inside. Finding no one, he returned to his patrol car.
“Rugby SO this is car 88,” Peterson called over the two-way radio.
“Rugby SO, go ahead 88,” replied Elizabeth Miltenberger, Pierce County Sheriff Walter Miltenberger's wife, who also worked as a dispatcher.
“I just checked on a vehicle in the ditch on US 2, one mile east of Rugby, no one around; notify 316 to investigate further,” the patrolman requested.
“Rugby SO to car 88, unit 316 will be en-route,” the dispatcher replied.
Sheriff Miltenberger, Unit 316, responded and in turn, radioed his wife with the license plate number. Concerned about the occupants’ welfare due to the subzero weather conditions, the sheriff asked Elizabeth to call Bismarck for registration information. She called the registered owner at home. She learned that a passerby gave the owner a ride home, and he was fine.
The sheriff returned to Rugby, met with Peterson on his way, and invited him to the sheriff’s residence at the county jail for coffee and homemade donuts. Peterson, who had formerly worked for Miltenberger as a deputy, accepted the offer, glad to take a break from the frigid weather.
At 3:50 a.m., as Peterson prepared to leave and resume patrol, the sheriff offered to help him with any door checks he might still have to do. The patrolman thanked him but said he had already finished his door checks. Peterson thanked the sheriff and his wife for the hot coffee and donuts. Miltenberger said goodbye to his friend and fellow officer, not realizing it would be the last time he saw Peterson alive.
Presumably Peterson made his rounds about town, which included occasional passes through the streets and alleys of the business district.
At 5 a.m., Harold Anderson, a local undertaker, awoke to the sound of a barrage of gunshots. Anderson looked out his bedroom window and saw three figures amid multiple rounds of gunfire in an alley to the south of his residence. He also saw Car 88 standing with its headlights on.
As the firing ceased, he saw a man in civilian clothes enter the police car, move it, and shut off its headlights. A short time later, he saw what he believed to be a black over pink Chevrolet car exit the alley, turn westbound on Third Street, and disappear into the night.
The investigation, and a dragnet
Anderson, understandably alarmed after not being able to see the patrolman, notified Chief Tofte, Lt. Miller, and Sheriff Miltenberger. All three lawmen rushed to the scene, only to find that their good friend and fellow officer had been gunned down. His body lay face up with his arms across his chest. The fallen officer’s service revolver lay on the ground near his body.
Consistent with common practice at that time (before portable radios), the radio microphone hung by its cord outside the driver’s door window, ready and available in the event the officer could not make it back into the car to call for help. The sheriff, who had seen his friend less than an hour and a half before, speculated the patrolman was trying to call him on the radio when he was ambushed. The sheriff also surmised Peterson probably recognized the perpetrators, which compelled them to kill the patrolman. Anderson, the local undertaker, examined the slain patrolman’s body, locating 16 gunshot wounds. One of the bullets had pierced the officer’s badge.
The officers at the scene discovered the theater, electrical shop, and power company had all been burglarized by someone who pried open the rear doors. A check of other businesses revealed evidence of burglary attempts.
Initially, the evidence suggested three subjects were involved. The officers quickly deduced, however, that the third subject the witness saw was the slain patrolman.
Phones rang throughout the region awakening peace officers. Lawmen across the region deployed to set up a dragnet, an early version of today’s Signal 100, to locate the killers. The highway patrol quickly mobilized personnel to the area to assist in the search. The border patrol also received notification and deployed its airplane to assist. The Rugby mayor, a pilot, also searched the area from the air.
North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Identification Agent Richard Hilde’s phone rang about 6:15 a.m. A State Radio dispatcher told him a Rugby policeman had been killed and that Rugby authorities requested BCI’s help assistance for the crime scene investigation. Art Narum, BCI officer in charge, had directed the dispatcher to call Hilde and dispatch him to Rugby at once.
Hilde drove from Bismarck to Rugby along U.S. Highway 10 and state Highway 3. During his trip north on ND 3, Hilde checked all vehicles coming from the Rugby area without locating anyone of interest.
Upon Hilde’s arrival, Tofte briefed the agent. Importantly, those at the scene had recovered the slain officer’s service weapon, a Colt .38 caliber special revolver. The gun contained four spent cartridges and one live wadcutter round. Officers also recovered a piece of a broken mirror, presumably from a suspect vehicle, as well as a button that appeared to have been torn from a coat.
Hilde interviewed Anderson and took down a detailed account of the witness’s recollection of the incident. Primarily of interest was the description of the getaway car. Anderson recalled the shape looked like the car of a resident he knew, but the color was different.
Sometime later, FBI agent Richard Rourke, of Grand Forks, and BCI agent Dale Granrud joined Hilde in the investigation. These experienced investigators scoured the crime scene in an effort to locate as much evidence as possible. Of particular interest to the agents were distinct tool marks that could be used for comparison if they located the tool that made them.
Meanwhile, local investigators organized a posse to search for the killers. The sheriff directed his posse members to leave no stone unturned and directed each party to call in every half hour. If a search party located the suspects that party should, if at all possible, wait for additional help, as the suspects were considered armed and dangerous.
The posse, and the suspects
Two hours after daylight, sheriff’s deputies spotted vehicle tracks turning from U.S. Highway 2 onto a narrow section line road. The deputies saw a television set and numerous other items in the ditch alongside the road. The items had been stolen in the overnight burglaries. Officers also recovered guns and ammunition stolen in recent burglaries in Minot. That prompted the sheriff to notify Minot Police Chief Fred Dobrovolny to alert his officers that the cop killers may be headed back to that city.
On Monday, Feb. 4, Minot Police patrolmen Wheeler and Meier reported they were checking out a black and red Rambler near Surrey where they’d been stationed for a roadblock. The officers cautiously obtained driver’s licenses from Frank Linha and Louis Mattern. Linha told him that he lived in Minot with his adoptive parents. Mattern was from Rugby but presently lived in Minot where he attended Minot State Teachers College.
The pair claimed they were returning from a visit to Mattern’s parents in Rugby, where they prepared for a friend’s birthday party they had planned. One of the patrolmen asked if anything had happened in Rugby during their visit, and Mattern replied that his parents lived outside of Rugby, and they didn’t actually go into town. The officers saw the rear seat cushion was missing from the vehicle which sparked their interest.
Original reports from Rugby indicated three suspects were involved. Patrolman Meier pressed the two, asking if they had been with a third person earlier, which they denied. When questioned further about the seat being removed, the two explained they had taken it out when they moved to their new apartment about the week before.
Patrolman Meier radioed Chief Dobrovolny about the encounter. The patrolman said the story given by the pair seemed credible, although he added that neither could look the officers in the eye. The chief asked if the suspects said anything about the shooting, and the patrolman relayed the suspects’ claim that they had not been to Rugby proper as Mattern’s parents lived outside that city.
Chief Dobrovolny called Chief Tofte in Rugby and asked if they had any information on Mattern. The Rugby chief said that Mattern had reported a minor accident on Second Street in that city about a week prior and added that his parents owned a car dealership and lived on the west outskirts of Rugby.
Chief Dobrovolny radioed Patrolman Meier and asked if there was any damage to the vehicle. Meier reported the vehicle had a small dent and a couple of loose bolts where a mirror may have been. The missing mirror caught the chief’s attention as the description put out included a missing mirror. The chief asked if the missing mirror looked like it had been recently removed. The patrolman replied that it did not have any rust.
'We may have a lead'
Chief Dobrovolny called Harold Anderson and asked if he had reported the suspect’s car had a dangling mirror. Anderson confirmed the mirror was dangling. The chief said, “We better get Sheriff Miltenberger over here right away, as I think we may have a lead on Peterson’s killer.”
Chief Dobrovolny immediately dispatched a half dozen officers to maintain surveillance on the apartment on Ninth Street near the teachers college where Linha and Mattern were staying.
Ward County Sheriff Olaf Haaland and State’s Attorney Richard Thomas waited with Dobrovolny for the arrival of the Rugby officers. Pierce County Sheriff Miltenberger, Deputy Smith, Rugby Police Chief Tofte, State’s Attorney Conrad Ziegler, and the Rugby mayor arrived in Minot early Monday evening.
The Minot chief briefed the Rugby lawmen that Mattern and Linha had returned to the apartment house an hour earlier, but that Linha had walked to a downtown pizza shop and had been tailed by Deputy Edwin Heilmann. Chief Deputy Herb Yuly and several city officers maintained surveillance on the apartment house. They reported Mattern had not left. Sheriff Miltenberger inquired as to the location of the suspect vehicle, and Chief Doborovolny told him it was parked at the pair’s apartment.
Minot police detective Captain Ray Lennick brought in a sophomore at the college who was a friend of Mattern for an interview. Captain Lennick learned that the friend had seen several guns in Mattern’s apartment. The friend also said Mattern admitted to stealing one of the guns, which was a .22 caliber semi-automatic.
Deputy Edwin Heilmann and Chief Deputy Herb Yuly apprehended Linha and Mattern, who were unarmed and did not offer any resistance. A search of their apartment revealed a cache of stolen weapons and other loot from burglaries that spanned the entire region. The 260-pound Mattern clutched a small stuffed dog. When Sheriff Miltenberger tried to take it from him, Mattern cried out, “You can’t have it, it’s mine.”
The funeral, and convictions
Edward “Frank” Linha was taken to the Minot City Jail and Louis Mattern was booked into the Ward County Jail. Both men eventually confessed, but each accused the other of being the shooter.
Two days after the killers were apprehended, a funeral was held for Patrolman Frank Arthur Peterson, at 2 P.M. at the First Methodist Church in Rugby. Nearly 40 uniformed law enforcement officers attended the funeral, some from as far away as Grafton, Napoleon, and Williston with the largest delegations from the North Dakota Highway Patrol and the Minot, Devils Lake, and Grand Forks police forces.
The church filled to capacity and many who wanted to attend had to be turned away. Pallbearers included Pierce County Sheriff Walter Miltenberger, Rugby Police Chief Oswald Tofte, and Lt. Glenn Miller. The 55-year-old fallen officer was laid to rest at Persilla Watts Cemetery in Rugby.
Both Frank Linha and Louis Mattern pled guilty to murder and were sentenced to life in the state penitentiary. Both men were released on parole in 1979 after serving only 16 years for killing Peterson.
Mattern died in 1983 as a result of a natural gas explosion in the Minot home that he shared with his mother, who died instantly in the blast. Mattern suffered grave injuries and was transferred to a Minnesota burn center, where he died a week later. Linha lived in the Fargo area, where he died in 2013.
'He gave his life for his community'
Former Rugby mayor Dale Niewoehner had done extensive research on Frank Peterson’s murder. Niewoehner purchased a headstone for Peterson’s grave that displays Peterson’s picture in uniform and reads: “HE GAVE HIS LIFE FOR HIS COMMUNITY — FEBRUARY 3, 1963.”
Niewoehner also petitioned the district court to release Peterson’s badge from a box of evidence that is still at the courthouse. The badge had a bullet hole, obviously from an exit wound on the victim. Niewoehner created a framed display memorial to Officer Peterson consisting of the badge, a medal of valor posthumously awarded to Peterson, and a pencil rubbing of the officer’s name from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. He presented it to the Rugby Police Department. It now occupies a place of honor on display at the Pierce County Law Enforcement Center.
The Law Enforcement Center maintains a binder with information about Peterson’s death. Contents include the cards in Peterson’s wallet at the time of his death. One of those cards is Peterson’s 1963 North Dakota Peace Officers Association membership card signed by Arthur J. Narum, NDPOA secretary and officer in charge of the Bureau of Criminal Identification at the time of Peterson’s death.
On behalf of the North Dakota Peace Officers Association, we remember and salute Patrolman Frank Peterson who made the ultimate sacrifice and laid down his life to protect his community over 60 years ago on February 3, 1963.
Curt Olson, a 38-year North Dakota law enforcement veteran, is chairman of the Historical Preservation Committee for the North Dakota Peace Officers Association.