In the spring of 1921, at midday on a not-so-traveled road near Hibbing, Minn., a woman found an unconscious man with a bullet hole near his right breast and a head wound believed to be from a double-edged axe.
A trail of blood led back to the remains of a cabin where bones of another man were discovered.
The story of St. Louis County property assessor James Owens, who owned the shack and who was quickly arrested, Dominic Pappero, who died, and Joseph Beraldi, who didn’t seem like he would live but then did, remained at the forefront for well into the late fall as the big case played out in Hibbing District Court.
It was described in the Duluth News Tribune as “two of the most brutal crimes in Range history.”
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A reporter leaned hard on the visuals in the story that ran in the May 21, 1921, edition of the News Tribune — the first mention of the case of guns, moonshine and a thwarted insanity plea.
“Grewsome (sic) evidence of a mysterious dual tragedy was dug from the wind-strewn ashes of a burned cabin near Hibbing this afternoon when police and deputy sheriffs uncovered the charred bones of Dominic Pappero, a ‘Shacker,’” the story starts.
Pappero and Berlardi had been renting the shack owned by Owens — a modest space where the two men were also making moonshine, according to the News Tribune’s coverage of the trial.
The owner, along with his son and a friend, visited with plans to spend the night and plant potatoes. While they were eating dinner, or as the story goes, “partaking of repast” — the renters seemingly said something that rankled the owner.
According to Berlardi’s account, Owens pulled a gun, his eyes red like a wild cat.
“What’s the matter, are you crazy?” Berlardi recalled asking, months later during his testimony, then added that Owens said to him, “You shall die like a dog.”
Owens fatally shot Pappero and seemingly set fire to the cabin. A wounded Berlardi, gunshot wound in his back and significant head injuries, was able to crawl to the road, where he was discovered 15 hours later, according to the News Tribune. Meanwhile, Owens ordered his son Donald and friend Arthur Grosse to remove the groceries and kegs from the distillery. They ditched the supplies near a bridge on Kelly Lake Road, according to Grosse’s testimony.
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Berlardi offered details from The Root Hospital, where he was in and out of consciousness and not expected to live; Owens was arrested as a material witness, charged with first degree murder in addition to assault, then moved from the Hibbing Police Station to the county jail for his protection.
“Italian countrymen of the victims last night gathered in crowds threatening to avenge the crime,” the News Tribune reported. “Although the high feel has subsided somewhat today, rumors of threatened violence prompted authorities to remove Owen …”
Owens’ lawyer’s strategy leaned toward a plea of insanity — beefed up with an anecdote about how, years earlier, the defendant had fallen from a wagon in South Hibbing. Both his wife and son confirmed the fall and told of his odd things Owens had done afterward.
Owens wasn’t having it.
He said he knew what he was doing when he shot Tappero and that it was self defense. As for allegedly hitting Berlardi with the axe and setting fire to the cabin — he did neither, he testified.
According to Owens, Berlardi said to him: “If you tell anyone we make moonshine here, me kill you.”
He saw Berlardi reach for a punch hammer, he said, and shot at the men because he thought they were going to kill him. Berlardi hit his head on a foot scraper by the door, he said, and why would he set fire to his own place? The cabin and its belongings, valued at $2,500, weren’t insured.
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Owens was acquitted on the first degree murder charge in late July, and he received the verdict “unmoved.”
“He displayed the same coolness that he displayed all during the trial,” according to the July 27 edition of the News Tribune.
It was a victory for his attorney, John Gannon, who “made a masterly plea to the jury, one of the best ever made in a local court.”
The assault trial was held in the fall and noteworthy for its inclusion of Mrs. Henry Bridgeman, the first woman to sit on a jury for a criminal case in Hibbing District Court.
Owens was again acquitted, though by now a reporter for the News Tribune was referring to the burnt cabin as a "murder shack."
On Dec. 4, the News Tribune reported: “The last chapter in the James Owens case was written yesterday in district court when Caroline Owens, wife of the man who was acquitted by a jury on a charge of murder, obtained a divorce. She alleges cruel and inhuman treatment, and drunkenness.”
James Owens did not attend.