It’s the latest chapter in the never-ending saga of Marjorie Caldwell Hagen, the would-be heiress caught up in Duluth’s Congdon murders back in 1977. Now, the woman who has been in enough legal scrapes to fill a book could return to prison after pleading guilty to attempted forgery in Tucson.
But she may only get probation, because of the way the plea bargain was structured.
This case involves a 2007 charge of forgery. She admitted she endorsed and deposited an $11,000 check from an elderly man she had befriended and helped with his finances. But the man had died before she tried to cash the check.
Police were unable to determine how the man died, though, because he was cremated shortly after his death. She told the judge that she didn’t realize that the power of attorney privileges — which she’d obtained from the man, Roger Sammis — expired when he did.
Hagen will be sentenced Jan. 12. She could get more than two years in prison, but some Arizona court watchers think the judge might go with probation because the plea deal was for attempted forgery and the official allegations in the pleading apparently were amended so they do not include her past convictions, which means there is no requirement for mandatory prison. Hagen is 76.
Hagen, who has a court-appointed attorney, pleaded guilty before jury selection in the trial began. Court records show Hagen lives on an annuity and monthly trust fund payments and has about $12,000 in the bank.
Murder in the mansion
Hagen’s legal problems date to the June 27, 1977, murder of her mother, Duluth heiress Elisabeth Congdon, who was 83 and partially paralyzed when a killer broke into her 39-room mansion on the Lake Superior shore.
Also in the attack, Congdon’s night nurse was bludgeoned to death on the grand stairway of the mansion, known as Glensheen and now a popular tourist destination. Miss Congdon — she’d never married but adopted Marjorie and another daughter as infants in the 1930s — was smothered in her upstairs bedroom with a pillow.
The killer — or killers, as some suspect — escaped by stealing the dead nurse’s car. The car was found in the parking ramp at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport the next day.
Police first described the murders as a burglary gone bad; jewelry items were missing from the house. But behind the scenes, they immediately focused their attention on Marjorie and her new husband, Roger Caldwell. The two, both previously divorced, had married a year earlier in Colorado and were broke. Marjorie had long gone to her mother to finance a high-end lifestyle, but eventually the Congdon family trustees cut her off. Roger told me years later that his car had been repossessed and that he and Marjorie used slugs in pop machines.
At the same time, though, they were looking at ranches in Colorado with real estate agents, and even claimed that her mother would help her buy one.
Ten days after the murder, Roger Caldwell was arrested and charged with the murders. The motive: greed.
His trial was moved to Brainerd because the Congdon family was so well known in Duluth and the case was highly publicized there, as well as throughout the state. After a three-month trial, he was found guilty. Soon after, Marjorie was charged with helping plan the murders.
A year later, she went on trial in Hastings. With extra time to research the case, her lawyer, Ron Meshbesher, presented the jury with new evidence. A fingerprint used to convict Caldwell was disputed by a new expert, and a waitress in Colorado suddenly remembered seeing Roger there on the night of the murder. Marjorie was acquitted.
On the strength of that new evidence, Caldwell was granted a new trial by the state Supreme Court. Rather than try the case a second time, and risk another acquittal, Duluth officials offered him a deal: If he’d plead guilty to the murders, he’d be released immediately, after having served five years in prison. Roger told me later that he thought about the offer for several seconds before saying yes.
He returned to his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., where he went on welfare. Five years later, he killed himself.
Bigamy, arson, more deaths
Marjorie’s troubles began soon after her murder trial. First, she married Wally Hagen of Mound, apparently without divorcing Roger, who was in prison at the time. She was charged with bigamy in North Dakota.
Then she reached a settlement with her children from a first marriage, who’d sued her in civil court soon after the murders, claiming that Marjorie was involved in the murder of their grandmother and shouldn’t get the multi-million-dollar inheritance. The settlement came in 1983. Marjorie got a fraction of the money but faced a $2 million attorney’s bill.
In 1984, Marjorie was convicted of arson for burning down a home in Mound. She served 21 months in prison.
Upon release, she and Hagen moved to Arizona, where she was arrested for trying to burn down a neighbor’s home. Police also suspected her in 13 other suspicious fires in the small town of Ajo, near the Mexican border. A jury convicted her of attempted arson, but the judge agreed to give her 24 hours of freedom before going to prison so she could take care of her husband, who she claimed was very ill. That night, Wally Hagen died in their home.
Police arrested her again, this time for murder, because it appeared he had been gassed. But further investigation showed he died of an overdose of prescription drugs in what was made to appear as a double suicide. And because she was facing 15 years in prison, the murder charge was eventually dropped.
Wally Hagen’s children, though, began wondering about their mother — Wally’s first wife — who died in the early 1980s. She and Wally had been close friends of Marjorie’s, and they’d been among the few friends who stuck with her during the Congdon murder trials era. But the first Mrs. Hagen developed Alzheimer’s and moved to a nursing home. The Hagen children remembered that the last person to visit their mother, before she died, was Marjorie. But no concrete evidence for their theory was ever uncovered.
Free, but for how long?
Marjorie Hagen was released from the prison in the arson case in 2004 and stayed in Arizona. While those of us who followed the case closely waited for another shoe to drop, she lived quietly there for several years, adopting a greyhound and eating at the Denny’s there.
When the forgery charges were filed in the spring of 2007, investigators also discovered that she had “befriended” another elderly person and that this woman had told her grown children that they didn’t have to worry about her finances any more. Police intervened in that case.
After the forgery charges were filed, the greyhound adoption people took Marjorie’s dog back. She sued them to get the dog back, but the case was dismissed.
Joe Kimball has covered the Congdon murder case, and Marjorie’s subsequent adventures, since the day of the murders. He is the author of the book “Secrets of the Congdon Murders.”