St. Paul, Minn. — Author William Swanson says he was drawn to write about the events of May 22, 1970 because it "was arguably the most shocking event in a period of great change; social and economic and political change that happened in St. Paul."
The book - "Black White, Blue" - opens with the call received that night to police that a woman was about to have a baby at 859 Hague Avenue, at the corner of Hague and Victoria.
A call for a woman in labor would usually warrant back then the use of stretcher cars, which were station wagons with stretchers in them. But it was a shift change just after midnight, so the call instead went out to two traffic patrolmen who were sitting in their squad car near the state Capitol building. Inside that car were Glen Kothe and James Sackett. It was Sackett's first night on the job after a leave he'd taken after his fourth child was born.
It took the two about five minutes to get over to Hague Avenue.
"They got out of the car; went up to the door; rapped on the door, nothing happened," Swanson said. "Kothe went around back to try the back door; a dog barked. He hollered to his partner that there was a dog inside. At that moment, a shot rang out and James Sackett, standing at the front steps of that house, was hit and probably died before he hit the ground."
Swanson wasn't there that night; he was serving overseas. But Dan Bostrom, now a St. Paul city councilman, was. Back then, he was Sackett's sergeant and was one of the first to respond to the call that an officer had been shot.
"We arrived, we saw a police officer down on the ground... obviously seriously, seriously wounded," Bostrom said. "We had no idea what had happened, but here one of your charges is laying unconscious, bleeding on the front lawn, and this is a terrible sight to come across... He didn't make it."
Three days later, amidst the sound of 'Taps' at Fort Snelling cemetery, Bostrom served as a pallbearer during Sackett's funeral.
There were no arrests the night of Sackett's murder, no weapons found and no eyewitnesses. A white police officer had been killed in a predominately African-American neighborhood and the call that got the officers there was bogus. There was a pregnant woman living at 859 Hague at the time, but she wasn't in labor and no one in that house was involved with the crime.
Swanson's new book on the crime tells of the decades of police work done to prove early suspects Ronald Reed and Larry Clark had committed the murders, but no evidence ever tied them directly to the shooting.
A woman named Connie Trimble, who had had a child with Ronald Reed, acknowledged she placed the bogus phone call, but she was later acquitted of first-degree murder. Swanson said the case dried up quickly.
The book not only tells the story of a police officer's murder, it documents race relations in St. Paul in 1970 when there had been accusations in the black community of brutality by a mostly-white police force.
That includes Stem Hall, which is now known as Roy Wilkins auditorium in downtown St. Paul. At an event in 1968 attended mostly by young African-Americans, police sprayed tear gas and some of the young people who were sprayed later threw rocks, broke windows and started fires.
Swanson said there were incidents of police shooting and killing young black youths while responding to crimes. Bobby Hickman ran the Inner City Youth League in the Summit-University neighborhood during that time. In a 2006 interview with MPR News, he said there was a lot of anger bubbling in the black community over issues including police brutality.
"The only face that anybody could see at our level was, of course, the people who were in place to enforce the laws, and the rules, and the authorities and policies -- and that was the police," Hickman said. "We didn't see them as protectors and servers, we saw them as enforcers. And their methods of enforcement were deplorable."
While Sackett's murder spoke to race relations at the time, Bostrom also noted the importance of Sackett's death to that generation of police officers; he calls it the "defining moment" for every officer on the force at that time.
"With every police officer that goes on the job, somewhere in your career, there's something that happens - a defining moment," he said. "And for a lot of us of our generation, this was really the first situation we had had like that. And it truly began as a who-done-it murder. And because of the fact that the arrests weren't immediately made, this haunted me for 30-plus years. And when the arrests were made and the convictions were made, finally there was some closure to this horrible tragedy."
The book launch is tonight at Common Good Books, 38 S Snelling Ave, St. Paul, at 7 p.m.