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Amid the 1980s farm crisis, desperate farmer, son murder ag lenders

The body of banker Rudolph Blythe lies in the ditch where he was killed by Steven Todd Jenkins on Sept. 29, 1983, north of a Ruthton, Minn., farmstead. Photo courtesy of the Marshall Independent1 / 2
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MARSHALL, Minn. — Lincoln County, Minn., was home to some the most bizarre early outcroppings of the farm credit crisis as it unfolded in the Upper Midwest in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Joseph Amato, a history professor emeritus and former dean of rural and regional studies at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, wrote about it in two books — one about a famous Jerusalem artichoke Ponzi scheme and the other about the murder of two agricultural lenders in Ruthton, Minn.

Ruthton murders

A failed farmer and his son lured a pair of ag bankers on Sept. 29, 1983, a few miles north of Ruthton, Minn., pretending to be potential buyers. The son shot them dead.

The case was covered extensively by the “locals” —  the Worthington Globe and the Marshall County Independent newspapers — and also “outsider” publications including the New York Times, Amato said.

It was a shocking story: failed former farmer James Jenkins, 46, and his son Steven, 18, lured Rudolph “Rudy” Blythe, president and owner of the Buffalo Ridge State Bank of Ruthton, and his loan officer, Deems “Toby” Thulin, to a farmstead Jenkins had once inhabited.

The Jenkins duo fled to Paducah, Texas, near Lubbock, where James Jenkins later died by a shot from his own shotgun.

Steven turned himself in.

Biting back

On Oct. 28, 1983, a grand jury charged Steven with murdering the bankers. He never took the stand but was convicted of bushwhacking the bankers, shooting one from a distance and and chasing them down.

Amato said the “bigger outside press” that seldom showed up in rural America often got the story wrong.  There were three non-fiction books, including one by a New York Times writer. “People” magazine ran a story.

Jim Langman, a Starbuck, farmer and local president of AAM, said,  “A farmer is a human being, and a human being is an animal; if you beat at him, poke at him, and take everything away from him, he’s going to turn and bite back,”

Amato wrote a detailed, more nuanced account in his book,  “When Father and Son Conspire: A Minnesota Farm Murder,” published in 1988.

Amato wrote that James was the only child of poor farmers. He’d quit school after 10th grade, married his wife Darlene and had a daughter and son.

Family meltdown

After several failed ventures, Darlene left James in August 1980. She filed for divorce, alleging verbal abuse. She later remarried.

James complained to others that his wife may have been stepping out with an employer and even bank president Rudy Blythe.

James Jenkins quit the farm and illegally sold cattle that been collateral for a Buffalo Ridge Bank loan.

He filed for bankruptcy, owing $25,000. He started another dairy operation, but the barn burned. He started trucking in Ohio, then hitchhiked to Texas for labor and maintenance jobs at a school district. Steven quit school in 11th grade and joined his dad in Texas.

The loner and his son returned to Minnesota, slept on air mattresses and were refused loans and credit by cattle sellers, citing poor credit references from Buffalo Ridge Bank.

James had bought an M-1 rifle for his son, Steven, who “dressed like he was AWOL from the Army or the Marines,” as Amato puts it. One of James’ co-workers, a Vietnam veteran, taught the boy how to use it.

Strange twists

Steven’s trial was judicial theater seldom seen in the area.

Defense attorney Allan “Swen” Anderson, a controversial, loud, profane trial lawyer from Granite Falls, took Steven’s case for free. Swen Anderson tried to earn money for a psychological examination of Steven by selling the story to a New York screenplay writer.

In a bizarre twist, Anderson kept Steven in his own home during the trial and in 1984 actually adopted the young man, which allowed the defendant to change his last name to Anderson. Steven’s mother (and her new husband) bankrolled Steven’s $150,000 bond.

Steven confessed to two charges and claimed he went with his father to “rob and scare” Blythe.

The jury found Steven guilty of first-degree premeditated killing of Blythe and second-degree intentional killing of Thulin. The judge sentenced him to life in prison for killing Blythe, and to 100 months for the murder of Thulin.

In late 1985, Anderson appealed the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court but was rejected. On Feb. 2, 1986, Anderson died of a heart attack. In May 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand Steven’s conviction.

In 2000, Steven Anderson confessed to the murders in a television documentary, saying he had been convinced Blythe was the source of the family’s problems.

Tom Fabel, the prosecutor in the case, who helped get him on a path to parole. Steven (Jenkins) Anderson at age 49 was released on parole in May 2015. He will remain under supervision of the Hennepin County authorities for life.

This story has been updated to correct the age of Steven Anderson.

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