MINNEAPOLIS — In the spring of 1976, Americans were awash in a sea of red, white and blue as the nation was celebrating its 200th birthday, a Romanian gymnast named Nadia Comaneci was about to show the world what perfection looked like and the FBI in Minnesota was going nowhere fast in one of its most high-profile cases in years.
Four years earlier in 1972, Twin Cities socialite Virginia Piper had been kidnapped from her backyard garden in Orono, Minn. She was deadheading her pansies when two men broke into her house, tied up the cleaning ladies and demanded she come with them.
They put a pillowcase over her head, put her in the back seat of their car and drove two hours north to Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth, where they chained her to a tree. She sat there for 48 hours, often in downpouring rain, living on soggy sandwiches and soda. One of her kidnappers stood watch and guarded her until her husband, prominent businessman Harry “Bobby” Piper, could deliver the $1 million ransom.
- Read the full story here on the kidnapping, including a news conference from 1972 featuring Virginia Piper.
In a time when the FBI had its hands full with antiwar protests, internal investigations and the infamous D.B. Cooper case, the G-men needed a win with the Piper case — and it wasn’t looking good.
It’s estimated they spoke to about 1,000 possible suspects. One of the suspects was a man named Donald Larson, a 45-year-old truck driver from Minneapolis. He was a big man who had been in trouble with the law from childhood, including serving stints in prison for robbery and burglary.
According to William Swanson, author of “Stolen from the Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper,” Larson met a man named Kenneth Callahan while the two had overlapping prison sentences in the 1940s. He, like Larson, had a long record with charges including auto theft, burglary and counterfeiting. And like Larson, he, too, was a suspect in the kidnapping.
“The pair (Larson and Callahan) matched, at least in broad terms, the descriptions of the kidnappers provided by Ginny and the cleaning women and are somewhat similar to the men in the sketches of the ransom-money passers,” Swanson said.
However, by the end of 1972, the FBI didn’t pay much attention to them. They had moved on to other theories. Fast forward to 1975, and for whatever reason, investigators started to once again focus on Larson and Callahan. According to Swanson, a January 1976 memo states that Larson, Callahan and a Minneapolis burglar named Thomas Grey were “prime suspects.”
But if Larson was trying to lay low to divert attention from the FBI, he wasn’t doing a very good job of it. Just five months later, he murdered five people.
Tragedy on the farm
Willow River, Minn., sits at the heart of Pine County about an hour and a half north of the Twin Cities and a half hour southwest of Duluth. With a population of 331 in 1976, it’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and if anything much happens, the locals on Main Street will be talking about it.
That was the case in the days following Saturday, April 24, 1976, when five people were gunned down at a farm 14 miles west of town. Newspapers described townspeople as feeling “numb and in shock” from the brutal crime, “unable to even discuss it without breaking into tears.”
Reese Frederickson has been the Pine County Attorney since 2015 and while he didn’t grow up there, it was one of those cases he had always heard about.
“It just always fascinated me,” Frederickson said. “It might be a bit hyperbolic to say, but it was kind of a holy grail to find something out about that case.”
He has the case files in his office and has done presentations about it over the years for audiences who haven't forgotten.
“Some of them kind of remember the pain the community had,” Frederickson said. “A few of them told me to this day, they can still feel it.”
April 24, 1976
Four years after the Piper kidnapping, Donald Larson was 49 and retired from trucking following a heart attack he suffered in 1974. He said he moved to Willow River to “get away from the crime in Minneapolis.”
He bought an 80-acre property west of town with his wife, Ruth Larson, 32. They lived in the home with their son, Mark, 5, and Ruth’s two sons from a previous marriage, Kyle 14, and Scott, 12.
But by January 1976, Larson found out that Ruth was having an affair with one of his best friends and neighbors, a 34-year-old pig farmer named James Falch. Larson moved in with friends in Minneapolis. But when he got wind that Ruth was planning to move out and move in with Falch, who lived about 6 miles away, Larson rented a trailer to get his stuff out of their Willow River home before she could take it all.
“When he arrived, I think he expected that there would be nobody there. And that he would beat the other people there and get his stuff and leave,” Frederickson said.
But when he drove up, instead he found Falch, his three sons and Ruth taking items out of the house and putting them in Falch’s pickup.
“That’s when Larson flipped out,” Frederickson said.
And Larson had two loaded guns with him.
He shot Falch, then went outside to “cool off.” That’s when he was confronted by Falch’s 12-year-old son, James Jr., who started calling him names. Larson shot him three times, once in the head.
Frederickson said Larson then went back inside the house.
“His version of events is that he went in and confronted Ruth. Then there's a scuffle over the gun and during that scuffle, the gun goes off and he shoots the 5-year-old boy in the head,” Frederickson said.
The 5-year-old boy was Larson’s own son, Mark, — a son adored by Larson, by all accounts.
But Larson wasn’t done yet. Ruth’s oldest son, Kyle, and Falch’s other two sons, Steven, 8, and Brad, 5, were hiding in the farmyard when Larson found them.
“And this is really chilling,” Frederickson said, “He lines them up and gets the gun out. But when he fires, he's out of ammo. So he stops to reload, and then of course these kids run away.”
The boys made it to neighbors’ houses where they were safe. Frederickson said he’s spoken to someone who was on the grand jury who is still haunted by this part of the story.
“He told me that was the part that gave him nightmares,” Frederickson said.
Then Larson went back in the home and saw Ruth’s middle son, Scott, walking through the doorway of the kitchen, and he shot him in the head.
Sgt. Jerry Olson was the first deputy on the scene. He spotted Scott in the doorway right away, then Ruth and little Mark lying on the kitchen floor together. It's been 45 years, but it's still a haunting and vivid memory.
“How could you forget it?” he said. “I remember it very well — the little boy, the 5-year-old, with his right arm wrapped around his mom's leg, and in his left hand he was holding a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, and he was wearing railroad engineer's outfit coveralls with the engineer cap.
Olson said they immediately knew at least three people were dead: Ruth and her two sons Mark and Scott. But James Falch Sr. and James Falch Jr. were still alive. Olson and another deputy, Bob Johnson, grabbed the tape recorder to get Falch Sr. talking and possibly get a “dying declaration” for court.
DEPUTY: Do you know who all was shot?
FALCH: He shot me first.
DEPUTY: What else can you tell me about what happened?
FALCH: Well, it was a jealous thing.
DEPUTY: Did he say anything to you before he shot you?
FALCH: He was just all mad.
DEPUTY: Don’t say anything. Don’t move.
FALCH: It hurts.
DEPUTY: I know it. Don’t get up now.
FALCH: Oh it hurts! I’m gonna die. I don’t wanna.
DEPUTY: Oh, you’re gonna be all right.
FALCH: You think so?
But Falch wouldn’t be all right. He died two days later. His son, James Falch Jr., died the following day.
Following the shooting spree, Larson immediately took off for Minneapolis and holed up in the old Fair Oaks Motel where a maid eventually found him passed out from vodka and pills — the same day his wife’s funeral was being held five blocks away.
Frederickson said the case was pretty much cut and dry. Larson admitted to killing everyone in letters he wrote to friends, although he said he didn’t mean to kill anyone, just scare them. Once in court, he claimed he wasn’t in his right mind during the shootings. But jurors only bought his insanity defense for the last victim that Larson shot after slaughtering the others. He was sentenced to life in prison.
But Donald Larson’s days in court were far from over. The FBI was still hot on his trail for the Piper kidnapping.
Next week, Oct. 21, on "The 'Perfect' Kidnapping of Virginia Piper," Larson and Callahan go on trial for Piper’s kidnapping — and some speculate the murders in Willow River were an attempt to cover up the crime.