Officer Down! The call went out to law officers throughout northeast Iowa. Vigilantes were called out. Everyone was on the lookout for two young men who had shot and killed the Dyersville town marshal on Saturday, March 15, 1930.
Iowa History, a weekly column, appears at IowaWatch on Saturdays.
Cheryl Mullenbach is a former history teacher, newspaper editor, and public television project manager. She is the author of four non-fiction books for young people. Double Victory was featured on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” and The Industrial Revolution for Kids was selected for “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.” Her most recent book, Women in Blue traces the evolution of women in policing.
Visit her website at: www.cherylmullenbachink.com
Marshal Henry Hanfeldt had responded when authorities from nearby Luxemburg notified officers in surrounding towns that their filling station, managed by Matt White, had been robbed by two bandits. The two had made off with $30. The getaway car was a yellow DeSoto Roadster with Wisconsin license plates that they had stolen in Madison, Wis.
About ten miles away in Dyersville, Marshal Hanfeldt got the call to be on the lookout for the robbers. He immediately deputized Benjamin Gebhart. Together the two law enforcement officials kept watch for the yellow car.
Marshal Hanfeldt and Gebhart encountered the robbers as they sped into Dyersville. Waving his arms to stop them, the marshal had his gun in one hand. The bandits drove toward the marshal, swerved around him, and as they went by, shot him. Before he died, the marshal stumbled toward Gebhart handing off his gun to the deputy. Gebhart fired at the fleeing bandits, but he failed to stop them.
As news spread about Marshal Hanfeldt, the hunt intensified throughout the region. An airplane from Dubuque Airways joined the search, scouring the countryside for the yellow coupe carrying the two bandits. Cedar Rapids police assigned a squadron to help.
Two Dubuque Telegraph-Herald reporters, William Kennedy and Charles Woodward, were on their way to Dyersville to cover the story of the shooting when they spotted the getaway vehicle speeding toward them. They notified Dubuque police, and within a couple of hours the two robbers had been arrested on a bus in East Dubuque, Ill. One of the robbers was wearing a woman’s hat and fur coat as a disguise. (It was later revealed the coat belonged to his mother.)
The suspects were high school students from Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. Ray McCormick, 17, and Gerald Haberman, 16, confessed to Dubuque Sheriff F.J. Kennedy soon after their apprehension. By March 18 they were in a Dubuque courtroom facing Judge P.J. Nelson.
Haberman admitted firing the bullet that killed Marshal Hanfeldt. He immediately entered a guilty plea. However, McCormick balked. “Well, I am not guilty in one sense. I didn’t shoot the man, but I was along,” he said just before murmuring, “guilty.”
They asked for immediate sentencing. Their lawyer asked for clemency due to the “tender age” of the defendants. He claimed they were “well liked” in their community and they both had reputations for “honesty and integrity.” Judge Nelson sentenced them to life in prison for first-degree murder.
On March 18 Haberman and McCormick joined 206 other men serving life sentences at Fort Madison penitentiary. (Only one—a 15-year-old—was younger.) In October 1931 the Mason City Globe Gazette published parts of a letter Haberman wrote warning young people to appreciate their parents. “During your years of adolescence you begin to grow away from your parents and think you have learned about all there is to know, but there you are mistaken…” he warned. “Your parents are looking out for your benefit,” Haberman wrote.
On Dec. 23, 1931, lawyers for the two robbers appeared before District Judge John Rankin to submit their complaint that their clients’ rights had been violated in the original court appearance. The judge “denied their application.” The lawyers promised to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
In January 1933 an appeal was submitted to the Iowa Supreme Court on behalf of the boys. Lawyers claimed the boys had pleaded guilty without a hearing and were sentenced without the submission of evidence to determine the degree of guilt. In February the Supreme Court upheld the 1931 appeal and denied release of Haberman and McCormick. However, on Jan. 15, 1934, on the recommendation of the Board of Parole, trial judge and county attorney who prosecuted the case, their sentence was commuted to 20 years.
Marshal Henry Hanfeldt was 47 when he was killed in March 1930. He had been with the Dyersville Police Department for 15 years and had been planning to retire on April 1.