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James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: The Long Halloween

October 24, 2020

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the eighth instalment in Jason’s epic series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin. Here are the links to Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, Six and Seven.

Milwaukee Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer’s greatest achievement was his innovative establishment of a police training school that would later become the model for police schools nationwide.

According to police historian George Kelling, Captain Cloyd McGuire was appointed principal of the school, and he remained there until Hubert Dax was put in command in February, 1935.  Dax had been assigned as a pistol instructor while still a sergeant. Later, as lieutenant, Dax was appointed assistant in charge of the school, and put in full command as captain of police. Under Dax’s leadership, the police training school attracted worldwide acclaim.

While some of the more senior MPD members viewed the school with sneering distrust, the curriculum was professional and practical. As Maralyn Wellauer-Lewis details in her brief history of the Milwaukee Police Department, classes included criminal law, city ordinance, department rules and regulations, department discipline, evidence and its proper presentation, and target practice.

For their first 30 days on the job, all new recruits were required to attend three hours of school each morning for theoretical training, and then shadow a senior officer for five hours in the evening for practical experience.  After the initial 30 days, all members were required to attend the school one day each week.

The training school was housed in the newly-built safety building, a vast improvement from the old police station on Broadway and Wells street. The school’s basement housed a shooting gallery where regular target practice was mandatory. Ear protection was non-existent at the time, and many officers—particularly the range masters, suffered permanent hearing loss.

The effectiveness of Jacob Laubenheimer’s police training school, and even the resolve of his own police department, would be severely tested when the Cream City fell victim to a horrendous nine-day bombing campaign in late October, 1935.

The bombers were Hugh “Idzy” Rutkowski and Paul “Shrimp” Chovanec, two shitbird lowlifes who each harbored a systemic distrust of the law. As Matthew Prigge recounts in a 2014 piece for the Wisconsin Magazine of History, Rutkowski was a talented but troubled young man.  Despite plans for a career in auto mechanics, Rutkowski instead racked up a string of arrests for a range of petty crimes (It’s hard not to be reminded of a young Lee Earle Ellroy here).

Unable to find work, Rutkowski quickly developed a reputation as a local thug, and soon dubbed himself leader of a small clan of auto thieves that Prigge refers to as “the Rutkowski Gang.” Idzi Rutkowski’s numerous run-ins with the Milwaukee Police naturally engendered an outright hatred for authority figures. As Rutkowski would tell his older sister Elaine, during one of his arrests, the arresting officer smashed Rutkowski’s head with a night stick simply because Rutkowski answered the officer’s questions too slowly.

According to Prigge, Rutkowski’s accomplice, Paul Chovanec, earned the moniker “Shrimp” because of his exceptionally small frame. In 1934, Chovanec was arrested for stealing cigarettes, and sentenced to six months in Milwaukee’s St. Charles Detention Home for Boys. While Chovanec completed his sentence, Rutkowski sought work with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who coldly rejected him.

Idzi Rutkwoski

Paul ‘Shrimp’ Chovanec

At some time during the evening of October 2nd, 1935, three 50-pound crates of explosives, two-hundred feet of fuse, and 300 blasting caps were stolen from a CCC camp in northeast Milwaukee’s Estabrook Park. As Prigge details it, police theorized that the thief clearly had extensive knowledge of how the typically well-patrolled park operated.

Rutkowski and Chovanec stored their stolen dynamite at the Mitchell Street garage where “The Rutkowski Gang” convened. Over the next three weeks, Rutkowski and Chovanec began stocking stolen cars with dynamite and weapons and storing the vehicles in several garages across Milwaukee’s south side.

In easily their most daring catch, Rutkowski and Chovanec even stole an unattended west Milwaukee police squad car, stripped it of its lights, sirens, and police radio, and then abandoned the vehicle on a deserted city street. On October 26, Milwaukee police opened an investigation of Rutkowski, suspecting him of a hit-and-run accident that left a 70-year-old man gravely injured.

Rutkowski’s suspicious neighbors quickly ratted him out, giving police at least two separate leads that exposed Rutkowski’s secret arsenal.  Although two Milwaukee police officers visited the building, they carried no search warrant, and Rutkowski wasn’t even there.

It was Saturday, October 26, 1935, and as Milwaukee Historian Carl Swanson put it, this was the last normal day the Cream City would experience for quite some time…

This Storm         

The Shorewood Village Hall on Murray Avenue was the first target.  Five sticks of dynamite wrapped in newspaper smashed a two-foot hole through the concrete veneer, and buckled the foundation. As Swanson tells it, the blast also shattered all the windows on two sides of the building, uprooted the landscaping around the foundation, and destroyed an antique chandelier.

Federal agents arrived on the scene and told reporters the explosion was an amateur job. The investigation into the Shorewood bombing wasn’t even complete before two more blasts at two branch offices of the First Wisconsin National Bank the very next night, October 27th, sent Milwaukee into panic.

The first bomb blasted a 20-square-foot hole through the branch at 3602 North Villard Ave and shattered the windows.  Thirty minutes later, a second blast on Milwaukee’s east side blew a massive hole in the ground and damaged at least eight cars parked along the street.  According to a 2012 blog by the Milwaukee Polonia Project, most of the explosion’s force shot outward, because the dynamite was planted near the ground.

As Prigge tells it, Rutkowski and Chovanec bolted from one scene to another in a stolen Sedan outfitted with the gear the pair lifted from the west Milwaukee squad car. The pair then stashed the gear in their hideout garage on south thirteenth street, donned masks and sawed-off shotguns, and rejoined the chaos they created on the city’s east side, robbing two pharmacies along the way.

By Monday morning, the Milwaukee police had connected the blasts to the stolen dynamite from Estabrook Park, and warned citizens to brace for more attacks. Rutkowski and Chovanec’s targeting a bank naturally drew some federal attention. The newspapers called them “G-men”, and they were ready to slap the still-unknown perps with federal charges.

That afternoon, according to Prigge, Rutkowski assembled yet another explosive device, and dropped the package at a fire alarm box at the corner of Farwell and Park. The package bore a handwritten note, demanding $100,000, and promising a spectacular explosion for Sunday night.

Later that night, Rutkowski broke into the Center Street School in the Riverwest neighborhood and wrote another note to police on the school principal’s typewriter. This second note, later read on-air by WTMJ Radio, now demanded $125,000 and threatened to “Bom up the Sity” (Rutkowski’s mis-spellings were apparently deliberate) if police, whom the note mocked as “fat pigs” and “sissy boys” refused.  Rutkowski’s deadline was Friday at 8 p.m.

For the next 48 hours, nothing happened. Extra patrols were dispatched to city banks. The police, who initially kept the contents of both notes secret, focused their investigation on established local radicals, shitbird lunatics, and those recently released from Wisconsin’s Central Hospital for the Insane at Waupun.

 

Widespread Panic

Halloween night arrived in the Cream City beneath a portentous, ochre sunset… it was an unheeded harbinger of hysteria the next morning’s paper would call “mass chaos”.

A single stick of dynamite tore a massive gash in the fifth precinct police station at Third and Locust, shattering  all the windows and the Cream City’s nervous quiet. As Prigge tells it, the third precinct station at 12th and Vine was similarly crippled just eleven minutes later. While three police cruisers and a roomful of expensive radio equipment were lost, the only reported human injury was an officer smashed headlong into a heavy door.

Rutkowski and Chovanec certainly knew how to run interference during such a melee. According to Prigge, the pair tripped several fire alarms surrounding the two targeted stations, creating a chaotic and panicked confusion for the responding officers on Milwaukee’s north and west sides.

November dawned with all active Milwaukee police officers summoned to duty, and small camps of armed citizens surrounding downtown buildings and theaters.

Several witnesses reported seeing a police vehicle near the blasts that did not match the department’s patrol records.  Such evidence fueled the suspicion that the bombers may be using gear stolen from the west Milwaukee squad car. Accordingly, traumatized Milwaukeeans regarded every passing squad car with suspicion and distrust.

That evening, Milwaukee police launched raids on taverns and pubs. As Prigge tells it, any man who failed to provide a “satisfactory account” of himself was arrested as a suspected accomplice of the bombers.  While the raids apprehended at least 50 men, most were released the next day, and/or charged with far lesser offences. Once again, Milwaukee’s finest were left empty handed, though the Milwaukee Sentinel advised citizens to expect even more raids in the future.

 

Police State

The raids were just the first wave of what became a makeshift marshall law: Men stood sentry outside municipal powerhouses and substations, while floodlights canvassed the grounds of public buildings and armed officers nearly out-numbered pedestrians.

By Saturday, November 2nd, an army of private security agents joined police officers to guard Milwaukee’s public buildings. Police issued special rules for accessing City Hall, and hundreds of plainclothes officers patrolled the streets, searching for something—anything—to restore tranquility.

Police headquarters was inundated with dozens of reported sightings of the stolen squad car. None of these leads proved credible. Anxiety and paranoia dominated Milwaukee as citizens and police alike all waited helplessly for the next explosion.

 

Hushabye

James Ellroy has often spoken of crime scenes exhibiting an essence that is both horrific and pathetic. The most unintended denouement of Rutkowski and Chovanec’s nine-day Milwaukee crime wave would certainly fit the Demon Dog’s assessment.

According to Prigge, a careless mistake would ensure that the next bomb’s only casualties were Rutkowski and Chovanec themselves. The bombers had assembled their most ambitious device to date, a gargantuan dynamite load detonated with a gunpowder charge and ignited with an electric timing device.  It was quite a sophisticated upgrade from their typical and amateur fuse-lit explosives.

Though Rutkowski and Chovanec had intended to detonate the bomb in the city, while wiring an alarm clock to the device, the electrical circuit connected to the gunpowder blasting caps somehow ignited. The ensuing explosion, encompassing both nitroglycerin and at least 40 pounds of dynamite, vaporized Rutkowski and Chovanec, who both stood just inches from the device.

A nearby pharmacy and several surrounding homes were decimated, and a young girl was killed when a falling wooden beam crushed her skull. The blast also catapulted the garage’s roof high into the air, and dropped it in the middle of Mitchell Street, hundreds of feet away. The noise of the explosion was heard for at least seven miles.

Two Milwaukee detectives interviewing area residents in the hit-and-run investigation against Rutkowski were the first on the scene. They were forced to traverse an apocalyptic wasteland of broken glass, twisted metal, smoke, dust, agonized sobs, and more than a few mutilated body parts from Rutkowski or Chovanec.

The unnerving calm of the immediate aftermath was quickly replaced with a shrieking symphony of sirens. An army of squad cars and ambulances descended on the scene, as police haphazardly collected the human remains and a torrential downpour began.

According to Carl Swanson, Rutkowski’s motives remained elusive and unknown. Some speculated that Rutkowski’s resentment over his chronic unemployment amid the Great Depression’s sixth excruciating year was a factor, while others saw him merely as a thuggish bully.

The Milwaukee Journal later reported that Rutkowski and Chovanec’s mutilated remains were so horribly indistinguishable, the terrible twosome were eventually buried in the same coffin.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

 

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