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Sidney Eugene Berthelot

THE MYSTERY AT FOUR MILE CORNER: What happened 38 years ago?

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THE MYSTERY AT FOUR MILE CORNER: What happened 38 years ago?
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Hubbard County authorities are taking a look at a "cold case" to see if they can help a Sebeka woman learn how her 19-year-old brother died in 1973.

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Sidney Eugene Berthelot Jr, 19, mysteriously left his senior class of 1973 in Park Rapids to move to Mississippi mid-year.

He was a handsome kid who attracted women and trouble, his sister said. Like most kids in the 70s, he experimented with drugs and alcohol. Friends said he "borrowed cars" just to tweak the police and later reported to them where they could find the vehicles.

Just as mysteriously, he returned to Park Rapids around June 3, 1973. The Enterprise reported that in the early morning hours of June 4, "Gene" Berthelot was the victim of a hit-and-run accident on Highway 71 south of Park Rapids, near Four Mile Corner.

It was close to where the Berthelot family lived at the time, said Pat Haro, who was around 16 when her older brother died.

But the family was never sure Gene died of wounds from a car accident or something more sinister.

"They told us the autopsy report said he might have jumped or was thrown from a vehicle," Haro recalled of discussions with authorities at the time. He may have even been in a fight, she said.

Fading memories

Pat Haro doesn't remember how her brother arrived home that day, whether he took a Greyhound bus or hitchhiked back from Mississippi. The family had ties to the South and moved to rural Park Rapids in 1967.

Gene Berthelot was born in Baton Rouge, La. The family came to Park Rapids via Houston and Denver, his obituary said.

Even his pallbearers have trouble recalling Gene Berthelot Jr. Arthur Brissett struggled to remember the man whose coffin he escorted down the aisle of First Baptist Church in Park Rapids.

Brissett, his brother Orn, and half-brothers Alfred and Martin Broten, were among those pallbearers.

Arthur Brissett was more than a decade older than Berthelot, he said, "They must have called me back from Rochester because I was living there," he said.

Pat Haro said she doesn't remember if her brother left the area because of family discord or for some other reason. Gene Berthelot was described as a construction laborer on his death certificate.

All Haro remembers is how joyous her parents were when Gene showed up that day, a Sunday.

They had a typical family gathering, sat around talking, Haro recalled. Her father, Gene Sr., not one to show affection, hugged his son that afternoon, she remembered.

Early evening, young Gene headed to town to hook up with friends, Pat recalled.

"He didn't take the car," she said. He either hitchhiked or got a ride into Park Rapids, she theorized. She didn't recall if her folks had given her brother a ride.

Her next memory is of answering the door at 4 a.m. the next day to hear authorities say they'd found her brother out on the highway. Inspection of the Berthelot family car showed it had not been involved in the accident, Haro remembered.

Gene was dead.

Death on the highway

The newspaper clipping indicates Gene Berthelot was found around 1:30 a.m. on the highway.

Dr. Paul Grimes' death certificate indicated he pronounced Gene Berthelot dead at 2:07 a.m. In the coroner's opinion, death occurred around 1:45 a.m. Haro said her brother was still alive when officers reached the scene.

The official cause of death was upper body injuries including fractures of both upper arms, fracture of the right lower arm and wrist, traumatic shock and "intra-abdominal blood loss from rupture of liver."

An autopsy was performed, according to the death certificate, but no record exists, said assistant Hubbard County Recorder Darryl Hensel.

"Back at that time we weren't doing as many autopsies as we are now," Grimes said. Things have gotten much more legal."

Grimes agreed to look at the death certificate, but when he did, it didn't trigger any memories.

"Some cases are so unusual they stick with you," he said. "This wasn't one."

Reading the cause of death, he remarked that Gene Berthelot "had really severe injuries. I'm questioning if he was run over."

Grimes said the type of injuries Gene Berthelot suffered could not have been inflicted in a fight.

"If he was lying in the road that would account for it," he said of the injuries. "That would have been the only way it could have happened that way."

Haro recalls her family being told at one point that her brother may have been laying on the highway, but she questions how he got there.

Grimes agreed.

"It's really sad," he said. "It sounds like he was run over. How he got there in the road, we'll never know."

The investigation

"Cory (Aukes) had talked to some of those older guys and they did mention it was always in their heads there was something fishy about the whole deal but I have nothing to back it up," said Hubbard County investigator Colter Diekmann. "I don't even have a report, nothing to look into. I was going to try to look into it, help this lady out, try to get some info."

Former Hubbard County Sheriff Bob Ruhnke has little recollection of the case, although other officers said he spent hundreds of hours working it.

Other than the accident being in the 70s, "I can't recall anything else about it," Ruhnke said.

Former state trooper Dick Devine said although the patrol responded, it was not his accident to investigate and he doesn't recall which trooper had the case.

"I don't have any records of any open cases that are that old," said Brainerd Sgt. Doug Brown. "Not to say there wasn't one at one time. It may have gotten purged before I came up here. I came here in 2002 and I'm now our district investigator. I manage our fatal and serious files and any hit-and-run files and I have no records of that. I don't even have records of who might have been working then. I know we don't have it written down anywhere."

The State Patrol retains records only seven years, he said.

A BCA spokeswoman said her computerized records turned up nothing about a Berthelot file. She said if the Bureau assisted in the investigation, the primary agency likely maintained the records.

"Yes it rings a bell," said retired Park Rapids police officer Rich Knobloch. "I didn't personally work it. I was in the city. That was the patrol. I know we all worked on it for a long time. I don't think it was ever solved."

"People hear of DNA but there is no evidence at all," said Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes. "People's memories, that's about the only thing that we can keep our fingers crossed on, if there was anything suspicious.

"And I'm certainly not hoping there is anything suspicious but it would be nice to know one way or the other just to put the family a little bit at ease," he added. "And the officers that were around back then do remember that there was maybe a little doubt. People were suspicious back then but they couldn't prove anything."

Diekmann said there is no written report; no physical evidence remaining that is complicating the search for answers.

"Realistically to open up a cold case like that, number one, we're gonna need all the initial information, and two, we're gonna need something new to go on," Diekmann said.

Haro said one or more Menahga police officers went to the scene when they heard the Berthelot name on the police radio that night.

Haro was a young waitress in a Menagha café at the time and had waited on men from the police force, who went to the accident scene as a courtesy to the family, she said. She does not recall the officer or officers' names.

Today

Not even Gene Berthelot's former classmates have a good recollection of who he was.

"Jim kind of remembered him but he's better at that kind of thing than I am," said Hubbard County Auditor Pam Heeren, referring to her husband.

Both were in the high school class Gene Berthelot would have graduated from.

And Pam Heeren said neither she nor her husband knew that Gene Berthelot had died on the highway near Four Mile Corner.

Because Gene's birthday was Dec. 31, Pat Haro said questions about her brother's death come flooding back every New Year's.

But why 38 years later?

"She had a brother that did the same thing years ago," Knobloch recalled. "It's been reopened two or three times. One of her younger brothers insisted there was some foul play involved."

Knobloch says each time the case gets a fresh look, the inquiry hits a wall.

Haro said she just wants some closure to know how her brother died. Her younger brother suspected who might have been involved in Gene's death but never told her before he passed away, she said.

The driver was never caught. She believes Gene was murdered.

Martin Broten said Gene was his brother Alfred's best friend. The two stayed with Martin in Minneapolis the week before Gene returned to Park Rapids, he said. He gave the pair a ride here.

Broten said he heard Gene Berthelot was accidentally backed over by a car at a party that night in Park Rapids and his body was dumped on the highway near his home to cover up the accident. The driver of the car was killed several years later when he crashed into a tree, Broten said.

But Broten suggests some law officers who didn't like Berthelot may have been involved in the cover-up.

Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne said there could be some statute of limitations issues associated with the death. Murder has no statute of limitations but penalties for lesser offenses such as manslaughter have long since expired.

Haro said her brother lies in an unmarked grave at Greenwood Cemetery.

Ironically, while Gene Berthelot was in Mississippi, he was hit by a train, Haro said.

"He should have died," she added.

If anyone has a recollection of this case, you are asked to call Colter Diekmann at 732-2504.

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Pioneer staff reports
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