At 1400 hours on July 20, 1935, La Crosse County (Wis.) Jailer Robert Garrow was moving inmate Orville Moore from his cell to make a phone call. At the same moment, Trustee Dewey Meinertz was leading inmate Harold Chamberlain back to his cell after receiving a jail hair-cut.
On cue, the inmates simultaneously exploded into a pre-planned attack. Moore pulled a straight razor from his sleeve, spun Garrow around and laid the sharpened edge against the throat of the jailer.
Chamberlain produced a wooden dowel used to wash prisoner’s clothes and beat Meinertz to the floor with it, while displaying a pair of scissors. Meinertz ceased movement, hoping to live through the day.
Moore demanded, “Bob, you (expletive deleted), I gotta have those keys!”
Garrow replied without hesitation, “Boy, you can have them,” and handed the prisoner the keys to the jail. Before leaving the jail they made good use of the keys and acquired a machine gun, a shotgun, and a pistol from the armory.
La Crosse Police Respond
Andrew Jungen, a gardener for the county was working on the grounds outside the jail, when he heard the disturbance inside the jail. Jungen ran to a phone and summoned the police.
Officers Clarence Koblitz, Aaron Sanford, Joe McGrath, and Jack Fitzpatrick of the La Crosse Police Department formed a team and headed to the jail in one squad. Koblitz thought to acquire a Remington 30-30 rifle and hopped onto the running board of the squad.
Fitzpatrick, who was normally a motor cop, drove.
Back at the jail, the escapees’ plan was progressing better than they could have hoped, because instead having to make their escape on foot into the marsh adjacent to the jail, they found an unattended ‘Blue Cab’ stopped near the entrance.
Like the flash of a firefly on a summer night, the two loaded into the cab and were off. That’s where the speed of this escape ended, however, for the cab was equipped with a governor. This was a device installed in the cab and limited the speed of the cab to a maximum of 35 miles per hour.
Chamberlain was angered by this development, but saw police approaching and gambled that their odds of escape in a slow car was better than on foot.
As the squad pulled up to the jail, the gardener motioned frantically toward the Blue Cab, which had passed them Southbound on 11th and then turned West onto La Crosse Street. Fitzpatrick wheeled the car around and while Sanford and Koblitz, who were still on the running boards, tightened their grips.
Fitzpatrick gained ground and caught the cab quickly, having the advantage of an unrestricted gas pedal.
As the two vehicles reached Second and La Crosse Street, the first shots came from the cab.
After only a half block, Chamberlain began to pull to the side of the road. Even though shots had been fired from the cab, Officer Sanford jumped from the running board of the squad and began to run toward the cab, intending on accepting the surrender of the escapees.
As Sanford neared the cab, he saw a weapon pointed directly at him and he dropped to the roadway as the muzzle of the shotgun belched, blowing out the back window of the cab.
The blast passed over Sanford’s head.
Chamberlain accelerated South on Second, resuming their flight.
Fitzpatrick continued his pursuit, into the withering gunfire from the cab. Officers returned fire hitting the car repeatedly. Koblitz, however, standing on the running board of the squad, steadied his 30/30 as best as he could. Clarence took careful aim at the driver and fired twice. The first round hit the driver, Chamberlain in the left shoulder.
The second round fired by Koblitz from the running board of that squad struck the driver in the neck, killing him instantly. Chamberlain slumped to the side and the vehicle slowed, but did not stop.
Adrenalized, Moore pulled his dead partner from behind the wheel and accelerated away at 35 miles per hour. He continued to shoot back at the officers with one hand while he drove with the other. For Orville, freedom (and the Minnesota border) was in sight less than a mile away as he crossed the Wagon Bridge over the Mississippi River.
The Drama Ends
The Minnesota border loomed, as Koblitz took careful aim once again, while the two vehicles careened westward. Koblitz fired once and the cab visibly wavered as Moore was hit in the left shoulder.
Koblitz re-gripped his 30/30, took aim again, fired, and this time there was a dramatic reaction.
The cab veered wildly and slammed against ten guard rails before coming to a stop. The Officers approached the cab cautiously and found both escapees dead.
It was over.
Most Difficult Shot in Law Enforcement History?
I talked to retired Captain Koblitz in his later years about the incident and he told me, “Those men were desperate to get away at all costs.”
Then his gaze seemed to drift from the present to faded images of the past as he added, “We’re lucky we didn’t get it instead of them.”
If it was truly a game of luck, Koblitz was the lucky card dealt.
You see Clarence Koblitz fired four shots from his 30/30 rifle with fixed sights, balanced precariously on the running board of a speeding squad, holding onto the window frame, while firing one handed at the two occupants of the cab.
All the while this was happening, Koblitz and his fellow officers were being shot at and Koblitz still was able to fire four times, hitting each suspect twice.
The last shot Koblitz fired was a head shot. This was arguably the most difficult aimed shot ever made in law enforcement history, giving credibility to advice passed on again and again from master-shooters to novices over the centuries: “Aim small, miss small.”