On Saturday, November 12, 1955, Kenneth E. Lindberg, cashier of the Northern State Bank of Thief River Falls, met in the bank with a man who had identified himself as Herbert Johnson of the Johnson Wax Company. Lindberg was never seen alive in Thief River Falls again.
The man who called himself Herbert Johnson told Lindberg by telephone that he was on his way to Thief River Falls Saturday for an important business deal and wished to store $25,000 in cash over the weekend. When Johnson arrived, at 3:30, the bank’s vice-president and a janitor were also present. Johnson told Lindberg that his company planned to build a new factory near Thief River; Johnson extended the conversation until the other two men had left the building, at which point he revealed to Lindberg his true purpose: robbery.
Johnson was in fact James P. Taylor, thirty, a career criminal fresh out of federal prison in Terre Haute, who imagined a $100,000 score from this bank and in this town about which he knew nothing— including that the vault operated on a timer that prevented its being opened on a weekend. He got away with at least $14,000 in travelers checks and $1,750 in coins. But he had no gun, no getaway car, and no getaway plan. So he commandeered Lindberg’s 1951 Buick and, because he did not know the local roads, Lindberg himself to serve as a guide. He told Lindberg that his “syndicate” was watching the banker’s wife and children. They drove south toward Minneapolis.
By Sunday morning it was clear in Thief River Falls that the bank had been robbed and Lindberg taken. Because it was a federally insured bank, the FBI got involved, but five days passed with no leads. On November 18, Lindberg’s car showed up abandoned in north Minneapolis. On the same day, the Minneapolis Star reported that $8,000 of the travelers checks had been deposited in a Detroit bank in the name of Charles D. Kenwell; the FBI recovered a fingerprint. (A concurrent Minneapolis Morning Tribune story gave a figure of $6,000). On November 28, three Fierack brothers hunting on their farm near Clear Lake, Sherburne County, found Kenneth Lindberg’s frozen body.
With the fingerprint, the FBI identified Taylor as its major suspect. And because it had a list of the stolen travelers checks, it could, with some delays, follow his movements. He had gone from Minneapolis to Chicago to Detroit to Miami to Fort Lauderdale, to Cleveland, back to Detroit, and then to Joplin, Missouri, mostly by air, cashing travelers checks along the way. The FBI arrested him in Joplin without incident on December 8. By December 15 he had been moved to Minneapolis to face federal murder and other charges. Judge Gunnar Nordbye appointed lawyer Irving Nemerov to represent Taylor.
The able Nemerov presumably informed Taylor that the federal statute carried with it a possible death penalty, but only if imposed by a jury. On April 6 Taylor avoided a jury by pleading guilty to murder, no plea bargain. Judge Nordbye sentenced him to life in prison.
Taylor made a complete confession. He had not planned to kill. On their way south from Thief River Falls to Minneapolis, Taylor had concluded that the coins were too heavy to bother with, so he decided to bury them. He chose a road in Sherburne County. As Lindberg and Taylor lugged the coins, looking for a hiding place, Taylor slipped, fell, and struck Lindberg. Lindberg took this to be an attack, and hit Taylor in the face with a bag of coins. Unknown to Lindberg, Taylor was carrying a small hatchet — the only weapon he ever had during the crime — to use in digging a hole for the coins. Nine hatchet blows to the head later, banker Kenneth Lindberg, age forty-four, married and the father of four, was dead. When the coroner examined his body he found defensive wounds and a Christmas list.
James P. Taylor was sent to federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1960, again in 1969, and again in 1994, he brought his case back to federal court, seeking to have his guilty plea thrown out or his sentence reduced. All of these attempts failed, but the hearings revealed that Taylor had repeatedly, without success, sought mental health treatment in prison.