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Twisting case follows 1921 shootout with railroad detectives in Jamestown, ND

Three transients were killed by railroad detectives in Jamestown.

Johnson grave
The grave of Fred Johnson in McGinnis Cemetery in Jamestown proclaims how he was killed and when. Keith Norman / The Sun
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JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- May 8, 1921, likely started as a quiet Sunday in Jamestown. North Dakota's blue laws prohibited most businesses from being open along with activities like baseball and plays or movies.

Late that afternoon, gunfire erupted on the north edge of Jamestown resulting in the deaths of three men.

According to newspaper reports, railroad detectives William Wyant and Henry Kearns were acting on a tip that three transients were planning to rob a boxcar in Jamestown.

Or maybe the men had robbed a train in Bismarck or the bank in Tuttle. All were listed in the newspapers as possible reasons the railroad detectives approached the three men as they camped along the railroad tracks near Jamestown.

Information provided by the detectives describes a brief and intense exchange of gunfire.

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"They saw three men standing there with their hands in their side coat pockets," wrote the Bismarck Tribune in its May 9, 1921, edition. "... Which one of you men has the gun.' In reply, the man pulled a gun from his pocket and fired at the officers."

All three of the transients received serious wounds while the two railroad detectives were uninjured.

The identities of the three transients are at best murky. With no DNA testing or databases of fingerprints or photographs, no definitive identifications could be made.

Fred Johnson, one of the three transients, received two bullet wounds through the body and one in the arm. One of the bullets struck in the rear of the shoulder "indicating he was turned when shot," reported the newspapers.

Johnson lived long enough to describe the shooting and say he was from Valley City where he had a brother who farmed. No brother could be located and officials were unable to connect him to the Valley City area to verify his identity.

James Harley was 22, according to a doctor who had previously treated him. Papers found on his person gave the name J. Carlson and his address book contained a number of people living in Chicago. He died about midnight on the day of the shooting without regaining consciousness. In later legal proceedings, the name Joseph Rhadecky was used to refer to him as well.

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Walter Harrison received a bullet wound to the skull and died in a Jamestown hospital 12 days after the shooting. Doctors had performed surgery to remove bone fragments from his brain. He did regain consciousness but was never able to communicate the circumstances of the shooting.

His identity was established by a union card, although local union officials were not able to confirm it after contacting other union chapters.

While the railroad detectives and their supervisors claimed the shooting was justified, railroad detectives Wyant and Kearns were held in the Stutsman County Jail pending a coroner's inquest.

The May 12, 1921, edition of The Jamestown Alert carried a headline that proclaimed the two detectives had "felonious killed" the two transients that had already died by that time.

A coroner's jury consisting of three members of the public, all men in this case, heard testimony from witnesses questioned by the coroner and prosecuting attorneys. There was no defense attorney to question witnesses.

It took the jury just 30 minutes to reach the verdict that the shooting had been a crime.

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According to the newspaper accounts, coroner's inquests were often held in a doctor's office or at a funeral home. This proceeding was held at the Stutsman County Courthouse with more than 100 people attending.

On June 2, 1921, The Jamestown Alert reported that a preliminary hearing held in Jamestown had resulted in Wyant and Kearns being bound over for a jury trial on murder charges.

During the preliminary hearing, O.J. Seiler, a Jamestown resident, testified he was one of the first members of the public to arrive at the scene of the shooting and there were no guns near the bodies of the transients.

Another Jamestown resident, identified only as Mr. Holcomb, testified that he had asked Johnson who had shot him which evoked an outburst in the again packed Stutsman County Courthouse.

"Johnson said in reply to the question as to who shot him, 'The fat man," wrote The Jamestown Alert in its coverage of the preliminary hearing. The Alert then reported members of the public in the courtroom audience said "The railroad bull."
The final act of this crime drama did not play out in Jamestown.

The trial was moved to Grand Forks and the trial of Wyant and Kearns for the murder of Fred Johnson convened there in November.

The testimony made by the Jamestown residents at the preliminary hearing was not allowed.

The jury deliberated two hours before returning a not guilty verdict in the case. Following the verdict, Louis Tellner, Stutsman County state's attorney who had prosecuted the case, moved to dismiss the charges related to Harrison and Rhadecky because "the facts attendant upon their deaths being identical as in the case of Johnson."

Fred Johnson lies buried in McGinnis Cemetery on the north edge of Jamestown probably within a mile of where he was killed. The final resting place of Harrison and Rhadecky is unknown.

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