A place of honor: Sheriff’s deputies hope to create a memorial for fellow deputy killed in 1923
KELLIHER — The stories, nearing 100-years-old and printed in this newspaper and a now-defunct rival, are confusing to say the least.
They describe a "long-standing dispute" that cost four lives — including that of James Art Wilson, a Beltrami County Sheriff’s Deputy — and the killings came at the "hands of Leonard Portano, the ‘Wolf Man’ of Kelliher."
Why Portano, also referred to as Pirritano, maddeningly, for any newspaper person, went on his murderous spree Nov. 16, 1923, will probably never be known. But for Beltrami County sheriff’s Deputies Scott Wherley and Lee Anderson, Wilson’s story merits proper recognition. And a proper memorial.
He is the only deputy to die in the line of duty in the 116-year existence of the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office.
"I guess it just left an empty feeling. It really saddened me," Wherley said when he first saw the humble footstone marking Wilson’s grave in Kelliher. "He was well-liked and there was an uprising — the whole town made a posse to go out and find (Portano) and take matters into their own hands."
For future reference, we’ll refer to the killer as Portano, just as The Pioneer did in 1923. In this publication and The Bemidji Sentinel, Portano is referred to as "the Kelliher bad man" and the "Wolf Man." (He apparently hunted wolves, at one point capturing wolf cubs and handing them over to park officials in Bemidji where they were taken to a zoo at Diamond Point.) Wilson was the last to die that day, following John Sanders and his wife, Lena, and Oscar Timmy.
Of the dozens of stories written in this newspaper, its weekly version and The Sentinel, the exact chain of events is fuzzy. But the common thread among them is that Portano sought a relationship with the Sanders’ daughter, Myrtle, a 15-year-old who was also the object of Timmy’s affection. The tale of Portano’s murders was further "jumbled" when Portano learned one of the dead was Wilson, a friend of his for the previous 10 years. This facet of the story was first published by The Bemidji Pioneer a day after the killings.
"(Portano) seemed badly broken whenever the name of Wilson was mentioned in the course of the interview with him by a representative of the Pioneer Saturday afternoon," an unnamed reporter wrote at the time.
Young Myrtle witnessed all of the killings, but the stories suggest that most of the information came straight from Portano.
He told The Pioneer that "practically everything of value was taken from his shack" while serving time in the Beltrami County Jail "on a charge of alienating (Sanders’) wife’s affections." Exactly what that means is unclear, but Portano was upset enough to approach John Sanders on the day of the killings and demand his property be returned. A contract was drafted to reach an agreement on the items, and about the time Portano was to sign the document, he spotted Timmy in the woods nearby. Portano shot Timmy, who died of his wounds later, but not before telling Wilson of the atrocity.
Another lack of clarity exists in the order in which John Sanders and his wife were killed, but multiple stories line-up on one thing — Portano tied John Sanders to a bedpost in his home and shot him through the mouth.
After learning of the shootings, Wilson made his way to the Sanders’ home. Portano spotted him at a distance, and shot Wilson in the head — killing him instantly.
The citizens of Kelliher, enraged over the killings, formed a posse to find Portano. They were unsuccessful, but Sheriff Julius Johnson and his men eventually found Portano hiding under a pile of hay in a barn. To get around the mob seeking vigilante justice, Johnson employed some trickery.
In "Century of Honor" by Cathy Sargeant, a book published in 1997 on the 100-year anniversary of the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, an editorial from the Kansas City Star is cited regarding Johnson’s maneuver. It’s titled "Thwarting the Mob."
"The sheriff discovered where the slayer had concealed himself, but he kept quiet about it until he had sent the body of armed men off on a false trail," the editorial read. "Then, with a single assistant, the sheriff went to the hiding place of the slayer, captured the man and proceeded to jail with him, frustrating an attempt of members of a posse to seize his prisoner on the way thither."
It’s unclear, not surprisingly, whether Portano was extradited to New York to face charges there (if he had any), or if his time in court was limited to Beltrami County. But according to "Century of Honor," the definitive history of Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp’s office, Portano spent the rest of his life behind the walls of Stillwater prison.
"I don’t think we’ve ever had a crime of that magnitude since or prior to that that we’re aware of," Hodapp said.
In the building that sits on the corner of Main Street and Gould Avenue in Kelliher, Wilson’s death is not marked in the books that record deaths in the town, population 262. That’s probably because the death investigation was handled in Bemidji. But the names of the three others killed by Portano that day are. In cursive ink the names of John and Lena Sanders and Oscar Timmy were recorded on Nov. 18, 1923, for posterity.
Shelli Krueth, an employee of the city of Kelliher, pulled the musty books from a file cabinet in early May. She and Chuck Schultz, a 59-year-old jack-of-all-trades for the city, scoured the pages to find the location of Wilson’s footstone.
Leaves caught in the indented area marking where Wilson’s body lay obscured the footstone that day in early May. Erosion lowers the ground slightly, creating a basin for debris. There is no such dimple, however, in front of a bright, white tombstone that reads "Wilson" not far from the deputy’s eternal resting place.
Wilson lies alone.
"When I went to the gravesite. … it’s just so insignificant," Wherley said. "My goal is to find any family members. Nobody knows in Kelliher any extended family of this Art Wilson. We thought ‘we want to be respectful and let family know that we’d like to get a larger memorial.’"
Wilson left behind a wife, a son — Leonard — and two sisters, according to Pioneer archives. The man’s wife was described in a story written the day the funerals for all four of Portano’s victims took place. The mindset of the community, itself still enraged over the senseless killings, was reflected in the words of Rev. A.B. Vinje.
"Revenge belong to the Lord," he said during his sermon.
But thoughts of vengeance are far from Wherley’s mind. He seeks recognition.
"It’s one of those events where the guy laid down his life and should be memorialized," he said. "If we don’t hear from any family, we’re just going to go ahead on our own and get some sort of funding."
Wherley and Anderson would like to see memorials both at the Law Enforcement Center in Bemidji, and Fairview Cemetery in Kelliher. Without their efforts, months of research of the Portano killings, many might not have known the story behind Wilson’s humble marker.
Bronze and level with the ground, it reads simply "James A. 1881-1923." And the tombstone that marks no body near it gathers moss.
"That would be our goal. ... just that somebody can go into the cemetery and see that he gave his life for the community."