By: Jon Wickett
In the darkness of early morning on Saturday, June 4th, 1949, a crime unfolded that shocked the young Village of Richfield to its very core. While responding to a call at the National Foods grocery store at 76th and Lyndale, Officer Fred Babcock was shot and killed.
It began when Eugene Reynolds awoke to see men attempting to break into the grocery store that backed against his lot at 7620 Garfield Avenue. He also saw a suspicious car out front. Reynolds phoned the police at 2am, calling into action Officer Babcock and his partner Leroy Poulter, the sole Richfield Police on duty that night. The officers drove their squad car towards the scene. Poulter got out at the corner of 76th Street and Garfield Avenue and headed towards National Foods when the three men began to run from the grocery store towards Garfield Avenue.
Meanwhile, Babcock neared the suspicious vehicle parked on Garfield, getting out of his squad car and taking a defensive stance behind his driver’s side door. With gun drawn, he ordered the unknown driver to get out of the car. That’s when the mysterious assailant fired the first shot at Officer Babcock with a rifle. This shot lodged into the radiator of Babcock’s squad car. Babcock ordered again; the gunman leveled his shotgun and fired another shot. This time the bullet struck Babcock in the throat, going through his jugular vein and knocking him to the ground. Moments later, two of the running suspects joined the driver in the car and sped off — in such a hurry they left the fourth suspect behind.
At the same time, Officer Poulter hurried to the squad car to find his partner bleeding out, lying on the pavement. He fired six shots at the fleeing suspects’ car and then radioed for help. Officer Fred Babcock died minutes later.
The fourth suspect, Gustav Johnson, was left to escape on his own. He ran through the yards of houses and past the businesses on Lyndale. As Johnson passed behind Duell’s Café through to the farms and swampland of undeveloped Richfield, he cast off his gloves and bag of tools from the crime.
Back at the night-shadowed crime scene that 76th and Garfield had become, the area quickly swarmed with police from Richfield, Bloomington, Edina and Minneapolis, along with the County Sheriff and the relatively new Highway Patrol. A request was sent to LaCrosse, Wisconsin for bloodhounds to pick up Johnson’s trail. Within hours the dogs had arrived. One whiff of Johnson’s gloves and they were off. At 11 in the morning that Saturday, Gustav Johnson was arrested at 90th and Lyndale in Bloomington without incident. He was soaking wet, muddy and exhausted from running through the countryside. He revealed the names of his three accomplices. They were brothers Carl and Arthur Bistram, and Allen Hartman. With that, the manhunt was on.
The Bistram brothers and Hartman fled the state into North Dakota. There, they kidnapped police Officer Ralph Senn and stole his car, stripping off its sirens and antennas to disguise their new vehicle. As many as eleven planes were searching for them. They knew they were being hunted. The three criminals headed south to Nebraska with their captive, eventually releasing Officer Senn and stealing another car.
Arriving in Wisner, Nebraska, they took a farmer and his wife hostage, ordering the wife to prepare them food while held at gunpoint. It was here in the farmer’s kitchen that Arthur Bistram heard on the radio a plea from his own wife begging him to surrender. Whether it was her plea that changed his heart, or that he had agreed to help in a robbery and not a murder, Arthur Bistram wanted to surrender.
His accomplices, however, still hoped to escape. After all, Carl Bistram was now guilty of murder for shooting Babcock from the getaway car. The men agreed that Arthur Bistram would stay at the farmhouse with the hostage couple long enough to allow his brother Carl and Allen Hartman to gain headway on their continued escape. After waiting in the house, Arthur turned himself in and revealed details of the crime to the police. He also confessed to the FBI, because once they crossed into North Dakota their scheme became an interstate crime of and kidnapping and theft. Arthur even gave away his brother Carl as the one who shot and killed Officer Fred Babcock with his .30 caliber shotgun. Carl Bistram and Allen Hartman continued their flight south, stealing several more cars and kidnapping a new victim.
It finally ended when they crashed into a washed-out bridge in Marysville, Kansas. That was on Tuesday morning, June 7, after three days on the run. Local farmers with shotguns took them captive and delivered them to the nearby hospital where they were treated for their injuries and then arrested by the police.
The men plead guilty in federal court to charges relating to the kidnapping of Officer Ralph Senn, and of interstate motor theft. Because he was only 20 years old, Allen Hartman was sentenced to service in the Youth Conservation Corps. Arthur Bistram was sentenced to 25 years on the kidnapping charge and 5 years on the theft charge, which he served at Leavenworth in Kansas. Carl Bistram was given 30 years for the kidnapping and 5 years for the theft, which he served first in Alcatraz and then in Leavenworth. While in prison he was indicted for the murder of Officer Fred Babcock, but he was never tried. The only action was an appeal filed by Carl Bistram in 1964 while he was still in Leavenworth, trying to have the indictment vacated. This appeal was denied, but for reasons as yet undiscovered and no further action was ever taken. The Village of Richfield, including the mayor and council, turned out en masse for Officer Babcock’s funeral. Local businesses were closed for the day and a fund established for Babcock’s wife and children raised $10,000, which would be roughly $75,000 today. The community recognized Officer Babcock’s sacrifice by naming Richfield’s new Veterans of Foreign Wars post in his honor in 1953. Even today, in the Richfield City Hall, a conference room is named for Babcock, and his picture still hangs in the front entry of the police department. It is a fitting memorial for the only Richfield police officer to die while serving the people of that little village in 1949. This local crime put the village of Richfield in the midst of national news at a time when the burgeoning suburb was largely farmer’s fields. The story of Fred Babcock’s final night took place in the space of a city block in southern Richfield but reverberated across the country.
Jon Wickett is a local Richfield writer who has uncovered many previously unknown facts about the murder of Fred Babcock. He also leads a walking tour of the area where the incident happened and continues to research the fates of those involved with the events.