Kidnapping, community shock marked 1935 Freeman, South Dakota bank robbery
Historic building still maintains bank vault, history of the incident
FREEMAN, S.D. — It was just another business day at the First National Bank in Freeman.
And then it wasn’t.
On Monday, May 27, 1935, three armed men entered the bank, looking to relieve it of cash and then make their escape in the V8 Ford car that was running and waiting in the street just outside the building. The getaway driver was behind the wheel and ready to haul himself and his co-conspirators to safety.
But it didn’t go exactly as planned. The relative inexperience of the four men combined with a subtle ruse put on by the bank employees kept the robbers from making off with much cash. But during those few minutes as they grabbed as much money as they could, the robbery would escalate to a kidnapping and high-speed chase that reached speeds of over 80 mph.
The First National Bank in Freeman closed in 1999 when it was purchased by CorTrust Bank, but the historic two-story brick bank building , built in 1906, on the corner of Main Street and Fourth Street in downtown Freeman still stands, having been recently renovated into a floral and gift shop after housing multiple other businesses throughout the years.
And while the First National Bank had moved out long before Dawn Walz, the latest owner, took over, there are remnants of the old bank still intact, including the vault and the safe. In fact, she named her business the Vintage Vault Floral & Fashions in connection with the building, which is on the National Historic Registry.
In addition to her business, Walz curates the history of the building, and standing inside the building vault recently, she recounted the events of that day.
The robbery occurred at approximately 11 a.m. that day.
“When they came in it was about 11 a.m., and (a receptionist for the doctor and dentist who worked upstairs) brought down her deposit. She was walking out the front door and the robbers were coming in, and they kind of shoved her aside,” Walz said. “One stayed in the vehicle while the other three came in.”
The receptionist, who had figured out what was going on, walked out the front door of the bank and toward the back steps of the building, where she went upstairs where she worked and called the police. Meanwhile, the three armed men announced they were robbing the bank, something that didn’t immediately register with employees and customers inside.
“It was kind of a shock that it was happening,” Walz said.
As is often the case in small towns, local residents would sometimes enter the bank and jokingly say they were there to rob the place. That appears to have been the first reaction of those inside the bank, but it soon became clear that it was a real robbery.
The thieves demanded that they open the safe inside the vault, but the bank employees told them it was on a time lock and couldn’t be opened right then. Time locks on safes and vaults were and still are common, but in this case, there was no time lock on the safe.
But the robbers did not know that.
“They wanted to get into the safe, but they had lied about the fact that the safe was locked. It wasn’t actually on a time lock,” Walz said.
With time running short, the three men took all the cash they could find in the drawers at the counter, piling up a grand total of $1,288.21 before they were ready to make their escape. But in an effort to give themselves some leverage as they left, they grabbed John J. Waltner, founder of the bank, and pulled him out through the front door and into their car.
Meanwhile, upstairs, one of the doctors had a gun in his office, and looking out his south-facing window he could plainly see the driver down on the street. He was sitting in the getaway car, waiting for his compatriots, ready to speed east out of town. The doctor apparently said he had a clear shot at the driver, but cooler heads prevailed and he never fired his gun, Walz said.
Quickly, the four men and Waltner were speeding out of town. At some point a few miles outside of town, the car slowed down enough for them to force Waltner out and into the ditch. They fired a few shots in the air to make sure he stayed down and continued with their escape. Several cars allegedly gave chase but were unable to catch up to the speed of the V8 Ford.
In the end, nobody was hurt, but it was a scary moment for those involved, Walz said.
Three of the four perpetrators were arrested not long after and charged with robbery. Soon after, the fourth member of the group turned himself in after finding out about the fate of his colleagues.
It turned out the three of the four men were somewhat local, with one, Alfred Nuss, 31, hailing from the Freeman and Bridgewater areas. Also arrested were Fred Nelson, 24, of Viborg; Richard D. Null, 20, of Burke; and Alvin Kirschenman, 25, of Yankton.
“(The bank employees) recognized one of them as a local, and that kind of shocked them as well,” Walz said.
In an example of swift-moving justice, within four weeks of the arrests, all four were sentenced to life in prison. Those sentences were later reduced, although records provided by the South Dakota State Penitentiary only give the release date for Nelson, which is listed as March 20, 1948. Many penitentiary records from that era were lost in a fire in the 1940s, Walz said.
While the four perpetrators were clearly not hardened bank robbers, they did walk into the bank armed and ready, if nothing else, to intimidate the employees into compliance, according to a transcript of a statement given to authorities by Null.
Q: Who first said “hands up?”
Q: Did you point your gun at Mr. Waltner?
Null: Yes, sir.
Q: What kind of gun did you point at Mr. Waltner?
Null: It was an automatic.
Q: Do you remember the calibre and make?
Null: I can’t say whether it was a .30 or .32.
Q: What kind of gun did Freddie Nelson have in the bank?
Null: He had an automatic.
Q: What kind of gun did Alvin Kirschenman have in the bank?
Null: An automatic.
Later in his statement, Null stresses that his gun was loaded, but on safety during the robbery.
Q: Is there anything else in connection with the robbery of the First National Bank of Freeman that you would like to tell us?
Null: Well, there is only one thing that I could say that might help me, and that is my gun was on safety.
Q: But your gun was loaded?
Null: It was loaded, yes, sir.
Q: And the only thing you had to do was simply press your thumb to the safety to fire it?
Null: Yes, sir.
Luckily, no shots were fired in the bank. But the fact that the robbery was bloodless hasn’t stopped interest in the incident over the years. Walz said a cousin of Kirschenman visited her store in recent years to see the bank and the vault, and told of how he embarrassed his mother upon spotting a familiar face on a wanted poster.
“His cousin lived in California and came here when he was about 86, and he was so damned excited,” Walz said. “He was about 8 or 9 when it happened, and there were wanted posters all over, including one at Menno State Bank.”
The boy pointed to the picture of his cousin on the poster and began to ask his mother if it was who he thought it was. He didn’t get to finish.
“He was going to blurt it out but he said he never got the words out because his mom got him by the ear and dragged him right back out of the bank” Walz said.
Walz said the community was shocked that men with such close connections to the town were involved with the robbery, with the most familiar suspects having come from what were considered good, stable homes.
A part of local history
The incident remains a part of local history, even after 86 years having gone by. Walz enjoys sharing the story of the building, and visitors can step inside the vault to read historical materials, view photos and generally step back in time.
A few years back, in a bit of live theater, a local group of community theater enthusiasts re-enacted the robbery at the building, complete with vintage-style costuming. It was a neat idea, Walz said, and something she would like to see happen again.
The incident reflects back to a time when armed robberies and crime gangs were regularly in the news, Walz said, but not every small town can look back in its history and find an actual armed bank robbery that involves high-speed pursuit and kidnapping.
There is a mystique to it, she said.
“That’s all part of the interest in it. Not every little town, especially around us, can say they had a bank robbery in their town,” Walz said.