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William Swanson revisits the killing of St. Paul patrolman James Sackett

William Swanson
William Swanson

You’ll remember this story if you were around the Twin Cities in 1970. Just after midnight on May 22 of that year, a woman phoned St. Paul’s police department to request transportation to the hospital for her sister, who was in labor. Two young patrolmen, Glen Kothe and James Sackett (who was back on the job for the first time after a three-week paternity leave), drove to 859 Hague Avenue in the Summit-University neighborhood to pick her up. When they reached the front door, a shot rang out, and Sackett fell, assassinated by a sniper. He left behind a wife and four young children, and a case that stayed cold for more than 20 years.

In 2008, William Swanson heard about the case again. The longtime Twin Cities journalist had written “Dial M: The Murder of Carol Thompson,” about another infamous St. Paul crime, and he was discussing it at a book-club meeting.

“There happened to be several retired police officers at that book club, and the Sackett case came up in conversation. I was very impressed with the emotion they still had over that event,” he said in an interview. “They were deeply, profoundly affected by the case. Several called it the defining moment of their careers. And these were guys with long careers, who had seen a lot of awful things. But this was something special.”

Justice took decades

In 1970, St. Paul was experiencing a little bit of the racial unrest that was sweeping larger U.S. cities. St. Paul’s African-American community had been devastated by the imposition of I-94 through the heart of their longtime neighborhoods, and the remaining younger, poorer population bristled at the presence of white police officers. Sackett’s murder was immediately understood to be part of this troubled millieu, but it took decades, a TV newsman, and several intrepid investigators to finally bring the perpetrators to justice in a story that Swanson rolls out in fascinating detail in his latest book, “Black White Blue: The Assassination of Patrolman Sackett.”

Swanson says he’s attracted to stories involving law enforcement, courts, and crime and punishment, and the idea of exploring this murder took hold. “I’ve always been interested in this topic, probably since I was a kid reading ‘Dick Tracy’ in the old Minneapolis Star,” says Swanson, whose own record begins and ends with a couple of speeding tickets.

“As a writer, I’ve realized these crimes are an entry point into larger stories about the people involved. The crime is probably the least interesting component of the story. What’s most interesting is what happens before and afterward — long afterward. The survivors have to live with these horrendous crimes the rest of their lives. To me, that’s the most interesting subject, and frankly under-covered. Daily journalism moves on very quickly. For an author, there’s an opportunity to cover the long arc.”

Several twists and turns

In this case, the long arc had taken several twists and turns. In 1994, TV reporter Tom Hauser tracked down the woman who was long believed to have made that false call. In 2003, a task force reopened the cold case, and in this fascinating account, Swanson follows every lead to their eventual conclusion, the conviction of two middle-aged men who had been teenagers when they plotted the death of a police officer.

“All kinds of lives were affected, and ruined,” says Swanson, who explores the bonds that existed between the “Brotherhood of Blue” and the Sackett family, as well as the bonds between those responsible for the killing — young people caught up in the anger of the times who made a stupid decision that haunted the rest of their lives. “These were smart, charismatic kids with promising futures, who just gave away their potential. It was so wasteful, so pointless.”

Swanson spoke with many of the people involved in the case, on both sides, and he spent a good deal of time talking with law enforcement, reviewing old records, and simply walking Hague Avenue. Now that the case has been solved, the family has closure, but Swanson still found reporting difficult at times.

‘A crazy way to make a living’

“I’m not a particularly out-there and in-your-face guy to begin with. I have to crank up my nerve to make those calls. Calling Jeanette Sackett [James’ widow] up and asking if she wants to talk to a total stranger about the worst moment in her life … it’s a crazy way to make a living, if you think about it,” he says. “And as you know, some people are not willing to talk. I certainly found that true in the African-American community. They didn’t want to talk to white cops, and they don’t want to talk with white writers.”

Swanson hopes his efforts help people understand this moment in St. Paul history, and honor Sackett’s memory.

“There’s a park named after him on the East Side, not far from where he lived. He was an East Sider born and bred, as were a lot of cops in those days. To my knowledge, that’s the only marker,” he says. “I hope people will read this, and it will keep the story alive. I think it’s a very important story for a lot of reasons. I don’t think people should forget things like this, no matter how painful it was.”

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