Close of the year reminded us of strange criminal activity of the last half-century in central Minnesota lake country

We’re all looking back on year 2020 with mixed emotions of sorrow, relief—and hopefully, optimism. 

While the global COVID-19 pandemic is the top story in retrospective views of the year, I found myself mentally diverted by thoughts of “weird crime” as I looked back 12 months. 

Taking top honors for strange local crimes of the year was the widely publicized arson of the Star Lake bridge. “The Great Star Lake Bridge Sabotage of Labor Day Weekend 2020” lacked an obvious motive or logic. The suspect allegedly torched the bridge using propane tanks, and the evidence was at the scene of the crime. 

 A suspect was arrested within 24 hours—and he lived just down the road a half mile or so. 

It wasn’t a “victimless” crime, because it disrupted vehicle traffic, and created detours—then and now. There is a weight limit on the bridge because it has been structurally compromised. Further, when it is reconstructed this year (2021) there will be more detours and inconveniences.

The taxpayers across Otter Tail County are also victims, as bridge repairs are expected to near $1 million. There is reportedly some action being considered to collect restitution of costs to restore the county bridge, when the court appearances and legal actions conclude—but it is uncertain whether a fraction of the expense will be recovered.

The strange arson reminded me of another weird crime in Otter Tail County, which is marking the 40th anniversary in 2021. 

Reprinted here is one of the accounts of the “Great Vergas Bank Caper of 1981.” 

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Robbers caught when getaway truck gets away too soon 

Two bank robbers pulled off a slick heist–then discovered their getaway truck had gotten away.

The pair stole a pickup truck belonging to Robert Schmid, (25 years old at the time) and drove to the Vergas State Bank. They put on masks and marched inside.

Meanwhile, Robert saw his stolen truck parked in front of the bank and watched as the gunmen entered the bank.

While the robbers were busy robbing, Robert drove away in his truck. At the same time, a friend called the cops.

The thieves rushed from the bank, loot in hand, and stood slack-jawed for just a moment when they realized the truck was gone. The pair fled on foot, but both were quickly caught by police.

* * * * * *

I don’t have information on the current status of the convicted bank robbers, though my conjecture is full of New Year’s optimism: The convicts served their time for the crime 40 years ago, and are enjoying peaceful, law-abiding lives as we enter 2021. 

A final “weird crime” comes not from Otter Tail, but Crow Wing County (County seat, Brainerd). It was earlier in my newspaper career, probably 25 years ago. Details are a little sketchy, from my memory, and I wasn’t able to locate any original accounts. 

The “Bait Box Bandit” of Otter Tail County

A lone robber entered the doors of a small branch bank in the far north of Crow Wing County, in the little town of Emily. 

Demanding cash, he passed a small styrofoam cooler to the bank teller. Mind you—this was not a larger styrofoam beer cooler, or even a bulkier minnow bucket. Rather, it was a small container, one that might contain a couple dozen night crawlers for a day’s fishing.

The teller, nervous but clever, went into the till and started cramming greenbacks into the box. She filled it up; closed the container; passed it back to robber; and he fled out the door. 

The “Bait Box Bandit of Crow Wing County” made off with a bundle of cash—all in one dollar bills. 

The bank robber was evidently not as dumb as he sounds. Because, to my knowledge, he was never apprehended and remains at large today. 

But the case of beer he bought with proceeds from the bank heist is long gone…..