by Bruce Rubenstein
This is an excerpt from a story about what some Minneapolis policemen with long memories still consider the worst crimes ever committed here. The O'Kasick brothers, a gang of armed robbers, murdered one officer and maimed another so severely that he never recovered. People pored over the details of the perpetrators' lives as they emerged piece-meal after their spree was ended, and were shocked that the kind of poverty and pathology that spawned them could exist in the pleasant, midwestern city that Minneapolis seemed to be in the 1950s.
The Saint Cloud, Minn., region is blessed with an abundance of high quality granite, both pink and gray, that can be quarried, slabbed and sold for a variety of purposes.
makes a handsome gravestone, or a stately staircase, and it was once the material
of choice for prison construction. Polished granite wouldn’t seem to be
especially serviceable as a grinding agent because it offers such a smooth surface,
but in a pinch it will do; witness the innumerable weapons that have been fashioned
by rubbing pieces of metal against the walls of Saint Cloud prison. In fact,
the same qualities that make Saint Cloud Gray so highly favored for mausoleums
and prisons—density, impenetrability, cohesive mass—make it useful
for sharpening blades.
There are problems though, practical matters that must be recognized and addressed.
Chief among them is the presence of scratches on the grinding surface, something
prison guards are always looking for. If cell walls were made of diamonds there
wouldn’t be any scratches to hide—a possibility that pops up from
time to time in prisoners’ daydreams, along with the weary acknowledgment
that if dreams came true prisons would be empty. So the inmates make do with
what they have, then cover the marred surfaces with a carefully placed footlocker,
a picture of mom, any old thing.
There is no record of what inmate No. 22121 used to hide the scratches on his
cell wall during the first half of September, 1958. The 22,120 inmates who’d
preceded him had developed a substantial body of knowledge regarding knives,
so it couldn’t have been much of a problem. All we know for sure is that
sometime in early September, while the guards walked the night shift and insomnia-plagued
prisoners lay awake turning things over in their minds, No. 22121 took to rubbing
a table knife with a round end against the wall of his cell.
Approximately 10 hours of work are required to produce a proper point, and sleep
eventually overwhelms even the most troubled mind, so his task must have consumed
the better part of two weeks. During those tedious hours he probably lay on
his side, face to the wall, footlocker pulled slightly askew, and scraped. He
used only a downward stroke because an up and down motion will produce vibrations,
even through granite, and those vibrations might reach the ear of a guard. So
it was down down down on one side, then down down down on the other.
the second week the point had taken shape, and was no longer blunt to the touch.
Now the blade had to be ground at an angle, requiring either a circular or a
back and forth motion. Two or three
passes and a pause. Two or three more. No vibrations.
By the morning of September 15, No. 22121 had managed to fashion a deadly weapon
out of a standard institutional table knife. He told the guard on duty that
morning that he was feeling sick and didn’t want to go to his job in the
prison tailor shop.
Shortly after the guard left he pulled his blanket over his head and plunged
the knife into his stomach. He took it out and stabbed himself again. Neither
wound was immediately fatal. At that point it may have crossed his mind to go
for his heart, but he would have rejected that, remembering the time a year
ago almost to the day when he’d lain in a ditch in rural Anoka County
near the bodies of his two slain brothers, and turned his pistol on himself.
The bullet had nicked his heart, leaving him alive but permanently weakened.
So James O’Kasick, 20, the last of the infamous O’Kasick gang, pushed
the crudely-fashioned knife into his stomach for the third time, curled up around
the hilt, and slipped into unconsciousness. He died half an hour later in an
ambulance speeding toward St. Cloud Hospital, while attendants, for reasons
that wouldn’t have made sense to him, tried to save his life.
Everett Warren Allen was walking down Franklin Avenue one winter night when
the snow came whipping in on a bitter west wind and the dog shit on the sidewalk
was frozen hard enough to stub your toe. He didn’t have anything but a
pint of wine, four dollars, a wrist watch, and a pocket knife to scare the muggers
away. He stopped at the corner, snuck a hit of wine, then capped the bottle
again with numb fingers, all the while peeking down the side street to see if
anyone was watching. Somebody was. “Hold on there, partner,” he
heard the guy say.
Maybe the arc light swinging in the wind cast a feral glint off Michael O’Kasick’s
lazy eye. It certainly shed enough light for Everett to recognize one of the
meanest drunks on the Avenue heading his way.
“That you Mike?” Everett said, as Mike drew near.
Mike didn’t answer. He just stood there, glaring. A gust of wind stung
the back of Everett’s bare neck. He pushed his hands into his pockets
and felt for his knife. There it was under the Zippo. He knew right then he
didn’t have the guts to use it.
“Wouldn’t have a few bucks to spare?” Mike asked. “Naw,
I ain’t got nothing,” Everett replied. “Yeah you do, you’ve
got that watch,” Mike said. “I seen that before you put your hands
in your pockets.”
“Can’t give you that, Mike.”
“You son of a bitch,” Mike said, “let’s just see what
you’ve got.” He grabbed Everett Warren Allen by the arm, pulled
him down the side street, and tried to trip him.
Everett was a lot bigger than Mike (everybody was bigger than Mike), so he didn’t
fall. He kept his balance and started to walk away.
Mike grabbed him again. “Just a damn minute,” he said, and he pulled
a toy gun out of his pocket.
“Now what is this crazy bastard up to?” Everett thought. “Am
I supposed to pretend he’s fooling me with that thing?”
“See what this is? This here is a gun!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Everett said, and he started to walk away again.
Mike ran up and punched him on the back of the head. He leaped on him and pulled
him to the ground. “This is a gun, you son of a bitch, DID’JA HEAR
ME? A GUN!” He kicked Everett in the ribs.
Everett gave Mike everything he had so he wouldn’t get beat up any more,
even gave him what was left of the wine. Mike stuffed the bills, the knife,
the lighter, the watch and the toy gun into his pockets, kicked Everett one
more time just for the hell of it, then walked off up the Avenue. He paused,
and took a long swig from the bottle. He drained it, and laughed.
“YOU BASTARD,” Everett heard himself yelling after Mike, and he
modulated his tone in mid-sentence. “I’ll get you for this,”
Mike just shot him a dirty look and flung the empty bottle back in his direction.
It skidded past him on the crusty snow.
hour later Mike was bellied up to the Brite Spot bar with one foot on the rail,
and Everett’s last buck tucked under an empty glass in front of him. He
had a nice glow on, and he was trying to get the bartender’s attention
when all of a sudden the joint hushed up, literally went silent, behind him.
He turned around, and there was Everett Warren Allen in the doorway with a cop.
“That’s him, officer, Mike O’Kasick! He done it. Watch out!
He’s got a gun!”
Now wait a minute, Mike started to say, but the cop drew his pistol and yelled
3/18/50- Michael O’Kasick sentenced to two to 15 years in Stillwater prison
for robbery from one Everett Warren Allen, cash and items of value in the amount
of $11.91: cash- $4.44; ballpoint pen-98 cents; Zippo lighter-49 cents; pocketknife-$1;
A probation officer once described Mrs. Florence O’Kasick as “passive,
run down, beaten.” A friend of the family told a St. Paul Dispatch reporter;
“The old man would get drunk and beat her and the kids up. She developed
a nervous disorder, and just fell apart and died one day back in ‘51.”
“None of us can forget mother,” Doris O’Kasick told a reporter
after her brothers were killed. “She just couldn’t keep up with
it. She died of a broken heart.”
O’Kasick was the smartest one in the family, a bookworm who shut himself
up in his rented room and read books from the library. He was a rebel and a
scofflaw, but he never had an overdue library book. It was a matter of pride
with him. When he wasn’t reading he hung around bars and pool halls, and
showed off by carrying a gun.
His sister Joyce called him the bitter one, the quiet one, who would pick a
fight for no reason at all. The family’s poverty just gnawed at him, she
said. According to a social worker at Phillips Junior High he had sadistic tendencies.
He was sent to Red Wing Reformatory for burglarizing a safe at Phillips when
he was 17, and joined the army to get an early release.
For a few weeks after he was discharged from the service he treated his sister
Doris like a girl friend. He took her out to movies, bought flowers, held her
hand when they walked down Franklin Avenue. Doris told a reporter that she thought
it was curious the way he acted. The neighbors had always gossiped about incest
in the O’Kasick home. The oldest brother, Richard, later verified that
Michael O’Kasick sexually assaulted his own daughters.
As a child Roger was shy and ashamed of his threadbare clothes, but by 1957,
when he was 26, the police described him as a flashy barroom tough who dressed
in straw hats, single-breasted black sport coats, and cream-colored, draped
pants that cut his patent leather shoes just so, about an inch above the heel.
They said he bolstered his courage with liquor, and was prone to sudden, destructive
Roger’s little brother Ronnie was driving around in a stolen car one night
in November 1951, with a buddy of his from Franklin Avenue. A cold sleet that
sometimes turned to snow was falling. Mom was dead.
Ronnie wanted to get some money so he could go to California and get warm. The
gas company had cut off their service, and there was no heat in the house. He’d
been cold for days.
drove slowly by the Maddox Grocery on 26th Avenue Southeast. “This is
called casing the joint,” Ronnie told his pal.
It looked like an easy stick-up, a breeze, even with a toy gun, which was all
they had. Ronnie went in while his friend waited in the car. He pointed the
gun at the store owner. “This is a stick-up, mister,” he said. “Hand
over all your money.”
The grocer came over the counter, grabbed him by the shirt and threw him through
the storefront window. He and his buddy escaped in the stolen car, ditched it
a few blocks away and started walking back to the Avenue.
The sidewalks were ankle deep in icy slush. Ronnie’s hand was badly cut,
and they made a few lame jokes about the trail of blood they were leaving.
Later that night Ronnie was arrested. He pleaded guilty to attempted robbery,
and was sentenced to Saint Cloud prison, in January 1952. He was 18.
He got out a year later, and married soon after. He had two children by the
time he was 21. He often told his wife about his early home life, how his mother
had died when he and his eight brothers and three sisters were just kids. He
said they didn’t have much money, and they were hungry many times. They
lived in a tiny house right across the street from Phillips Junior High, so
their pitiful life was on permanent display for their classmates. Sometimes
the old man would get drunk on the Avenue and stagger home, but fail to make
it through the door. Instead he’d pass out, and spend the night in the
People seemed to agree that Ronnie was a likable guy. He had many friends around
town, good friends, according to a pal of his, who talked to a reporter in 1957.
The interview took place in a graveyard. His friends had gotten together some
money to give Ronnie a little funeral, and the press showed up, as they inevitably
did at any venue that might produce some tid-bit about the O’Kasick gang.
Ronnie’s buddies got drunk and extolled the virtues of their deceased
friend, while gusts of wind sent showers of autumn leaves falling on the casket.
The gravediggers stood around eyeing the mourners and the reporters, wishing
it would end, wishing they could just fill the hole and go get drunk themselves.
It was their first celebrity funeral.
Even the Minneapolis Star had something good to say about Ronnie after he was
buried. It said that of the three brothers, Ronnie had the least to answer for.
“He shot no one, and may have been an unwilling accomplice,” according
to the paper.
It was probably true. He was a mope and a sad-sack, not a killer. His wife had
divorced him by the time he started using a real gun to rob stores, and he spent
most of his loot in a vain attempt to win her back. She called him a little
guy who always wanted to be big. He was 5’3” and weighed 127 pounds.
He talked about buying elevator shoes all his life, but never got around to
was the youngest, a brawler, more like Roger, whom he idolized, than Ronnie,
whom he protected. Jimmy liked to throw hands. He reveled in duking it out,
win lose or draw, and approached a fist-fight with such gleeful abandon that
bigger kids feared him. He once knocked his father down for beating his sister
Joyce. He was engaged briefly in 1954, but the girl broke it off when Jimmy
beat her up.
Jimmy made his debut in the records of the criminal justice system in June of
1938. He was the “squalling infant” in the arms of his mother, a
“distraught, disheveled woman, with missing teeth and a downcast demeanor,”
according to a report filed by the probation officer, who’d come by to
see her husband, Mike.
Little Jimmy’s face and arms were blotched with angry red welts. He squirmed
and yowled so vigorously that the officer inquired about his distress.”
We don’t have much in the way of screens, and the mosquitos bite us,”
Mrs. O’Kasick explained. “We can’t sleep at night.”
Excerpted from “Greed, Rage, and Love Gone Wrong:
Murder in Minnesota” by BRUCE RUBENSTEIN, published by University of Minnesota
Press (October 2004). Available at your favorite bookstore.
For additional information, go to UPress.umn.edu.
Hardcover: 232 pages, $22.95. ISBN: 0816643377.