I genuinely liked the Fraser boys. To this day I still have a soft spot in my heart for them and don’t feel I would have led a full life without knowing them. They were basically honest little thieves, honest to their upbringing at least, and there wasn’t a mean bone in their bodies. They wore a sense of humor on their faces, had a certain air of dignity about them never complained of their circumstances or made excuses for their actions. The blueprint of life set before them contained a number of social flaws for which they paid the price without flinching.
I first met Kent and Lyle Fraser when they were ten and eleven years old, respectfully. They regularly spied on old Pop Henderson who was ‘batching it’ in a rather ramshackle, two story, house on a small acreage a half mile from the their home. Shortly after dark one evening Kent, with his brother Lyle on look out, watched through a basement window as Pop deposited rolls of twenty dollar bills into a mason jar and hid it behind jars of rhubarb sauce on the canned goods shelf. Being years behind on support payments to his ex-wife he refrained from depositing money in any bank out of fear she would somehow attach it..
A few short days later, Pop called my office and reported that someone had entered his house while he was gone and stolen twelve hundred dollars. He showed me down the stairs to his damp cellar. Being nearly a head taller than Pop my forehead forged a new path through the cob webs, hanging from the ceiling joist, as we made our way across a well trodden path in the dirt floor to the rickety wood shelving along the west wall where he stored his canning. Blue-green mold grew on the lids of the peach jars and a thumb sized, black-green lizard’s tail protruded from beneath the moist, rot of an oak board in the corner. Pop showed me where he had hidden the money.
“Whenever I got as much as five, twenty dollar bills, I’d roll them up and put a rubber band around them. Then I’d put’em in a quart jar and hide’em down here,” Pop said. He brought a handful of rolled up twenties each bound with a rubber band from his pocket. “I had two jars, with twelve hundred dollars each in’em Half the money from each jar is gone. Could be my ex- wife’s doing. She always said she was going to get half of everything”. Pop looked up at me with questioning eyes, set in a spider web of worry lines.
I was puzzled as to who might only take half the money, but convinced an ex-wife with back support payments due wouldn’t let a guilty conscious halt her theft in mid stream. I considered the possibility of it being some of Pop’s drinking buddies who’d be considerate enough to spare him some cash. But Pop said he’d more or less quit drinking and none of his old friends had been by in months. It must have been very young children, I thought, inexperienced at thievery at this level.
If the culprits were kids, I knew, given time, they’d make some foolish mistakes. There was no sign of forced entry, however the door locks were old; any skeleton key could unlock them.
“I’ve got some ideas, Pop,” I said. “In the meantime you better find a safe place for your money. Ever thought of a bank?” I chided. He put the rolls of twenties in his front pockets and led the way upstairs, his trousers hitched above the paunch of his stomach and his grey socks showing above his high-top shoes.
“I know what to do with the money,” he said when he reached the top of the stairs.
“Let’s just keep quiet about this for a couple of days while I do some checking around,” I said. Pop nodded agreement.
The next day, without raising suspicion, I networked my contacts to determine what children between ten and sixteen years old lived in the locality. Most rural areas were so comfortably small everyone was a neighbor or friend and information of the type I sought was easily obtained. Proprietors of county stores were a wealth of information so I made it a practice of stopping by the stores in the county on a regular basis. Jake, the proprietor of the nearest store, an earthy guy with an earthy vocabulary wasn’t at all surprised by my visit. We first talked about the weather, fishing and the lady who’d recently painted her white house in red and blue polka dots.
“Any kids unusually flush with money lately, Jake?” I asked.
“Not that I can think of,” Jake replied. “Flush with money! Shit, ain’t nuthin but Paupers and Free Methodists around here. Paupers don’t have any money and Free Methodist don’t spend any money. The way things are going I’ll be closing the God damn doors in a month or two.” I selected two loaves of whole wheat bread to take home with me, and placed them on the counter. Most rural folk don’t especially appreciate or respond to direct questions immediately.
“Anything else?” Jake asked.
“That’ll be it,’ I said. I paid for the bread and was walking out the door when Jake spoke up.
“Say,” he said. “Lyle and Kent Fraser were in and bought a bunch of candy, not unusual I guess, but normally they have to scrape up all the change in their pockets to pay for it. Yesterday they paid with a twenty dollar bill and got change back.”
“Let’s keep this information between ourselves for a few days, Jake,” I said.
“You damn right, doubt if there will be anybody in to talk to anyway.”
Kent and Lyle were already near the top of a suspect list I’d gotten from a contact and the report on their mother was none too good either. It would be best if I could intercept them away from home. Luckily while cruising the townsite I found the two boys about four blocks from home and invited them into my car. After a few questions and a few denials they told the whole story. Kent was a round-faced, round-bodied, little bandy legged boy, smug and confident for his eleven years. Lyle was slim featured, pleasant mannered, with darting blue eyes that looked Kent’s way for direction before he spoke. I felt embarrassed and reluctant to talk to these little boys without their parents present. But, I figured I would be doing them nothing but a big favor by thwarting their outlaw careers at the beginning of their errant ways.
They admitted to watching Pop when he hid the money and the next day, after seeing him drive away, they let themselves in his house with the use of a skeleton key and took his money.
“Where’s the money now?” I asked. Kent wiped his fingers across his brow then produced a twenty and some change from his pants pocket. Lyle tugged at the sleeves of his faded plaid shirt.
“We hid the rest in a coffee can near a culvert by Hank Ernik’s place,” Lyle said. They were friendly now and wanted to be helpful. I drove with the boys to the hiding place where we retrieved the coffee can with the money, but there were only some over six hundred and fifty dollars inside.
“Where in the world did you boys spend over five hundred dollars already?” I asked. They stared at each other momentarily. I could tell they shared a secret neither wanted to reveal.
“Don’t tell,” Kent admonished his younger brother. I’d begun to appreciate these boys and exercised patience with them and soon they told the story. They’d put the rolls of twenties in their pockets and walked home. When Kent took his hand from his pocket to open the front door, two of the rolls had fallen to the front steps without his noticing. Later their mother found the twenties on the steps and confronted the boys. They confessed they’d taken the money from Pop’s house but hedged on the amount, telling her they’d taken only seven hundred dollars. Mother demanded five hundred of the loot from the boys and later that day bought a new television set from the money she’d taken from them.
I hoped the case could be handled informally through social services, but an order from the juvenile court judge would be needed before they could intervene and the county attorney declined to take a case against the mother.
Kent and Lyle, charged with delinquency, appeared before juvenile judge ‘Itch’ Stanley, aptly nick-named for his habit of continually scratching his genitals in public. Itch was a pretentious lawyer judge, learned in the law as they say. After a short hearing, and well aware of the complaisant involvement of the boys mother, who sat in court with them, he released the boys with a mild verbal reprimand and placed them on probation……..to their mother!! Provided Pop Henderson would be reimbursed for his full loss.
It was as if the court had just issued the boys a license to steal and during the next eight years Kent and Lyle were regular customers of mine for thievery and burglary and did time in two of Minnesota’s state correctional facilities
My idyllic view of the legal system, born both of innocence and ignorance, begun its non-stop slide, to where in my mind, high court justice, administered by black robed intelligence, fell to a much lower level than the occasional, harmless uncultured fumblings of the justice of the peace courts.