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Across The Lake

This may not be important or even interesting and if manners and politeness and respect are of little concern to you, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs. They will just seem like the rantings of a senior citizen who was brought up in an era when those things mattered.

The Associated Press may get the blame. They didn't do it alone, of course, and newspaper headline writers are guilty, too. So are the newscasters on television, back in the days when they actually were newscasters and not just attractive people with nice voices who read the news from neat sheets of paper or from the teleprompter in front of the camera.

When President Roosevelt died, Harry Truman became president. He became President Truman in the first reference and Mr. Truman in the balance of the report. There had been some slippage during the Roosevelt years -- the shorter FDR fit nicely in a headline where Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have occupied the full line. After a few years, Mr. Truman became HST.

But he was still Mr. Truman. Not just Truman, but Mr. Truman, until the network newscasters gradually took away the respect for his office which the title conferred. So today, we have "Bush bashers" and we have "Obama" and William Jefferson Clinton became "just plain Bill' like the old character on a soap opera. Whatever the case, it's still nice to go to the checkout at Blackduck Family Foods and be greeted with a polite, "Hi, Mr. Swenson." As I warned, maybe it's just my age.

"It was just such a surprise." "He seemed like such a nice neighbor." Comments like that often are the follow-up remarks after there's been an arrest and the reporters ask about the man involved. Or when there's been an accident or a death -- no one wants to speak ill of the dead. Even after one of those all too frequent incidents at a bar or a school and interest is high as to what happened. Who, when, why?

Neighbors in Medford were asking those questions a few months ago when they learned that federal agents had arrested Paul de la Rosa. He was the soccer coach for their kids, a father helping his wife raise four kids of their own, a hard-working man who in earlier years, had seemed headed for stardom as a bull fighter. In Mexico. A citizen of the United States, a "Minnesota nice" type of guy.

Last November, he was arrested in Laredo. His last crossing of the Texas border into Mexico had been halted when federal agents located guns and ammunition in a sofa in his van. A two-year investigation had started with his unusually large purchases of guns at sporting goods stores in nearby Owatonna and ended when a trained dog sniffed out the concealed weapons.

The idea of guns being smuggled from Minnesota to Mexico seems strange, but no stranger than guns being smuggled from North Dakota to Cuba. It happened years ago, when Fidel Castro was still attempting to overthrow the Batista government. Castro returned to Cuba in 1956 and three years later the Batista regime was toppled. Castro had gotten the guns he needed and a story in Newsweek magazine mentioned the name of one of those supplying the arms: Nick Torzeski.

Torzeski was known in North Dakota as the fellow who had secretly tape recorded a number of state officials. He'd offer them rides downtown at the end of the day and on the way, pumped them for information about their work. One was the state commissioner of agriculture, another the secretary of state. Nick was a polite young man with seemingly no ax to grind. What he wanted to know, it turned out later, was that the young North Dakota attorney general was implicated in a punchboard operation and Torzeski wanted a part of the business.

We learned of this when police were called to investigate a shooting. Torzeski's car had a bullet hole in the door and his expensive camel hair coat had traces of powder residue. Police were suspicious, no charges were ever filed, but it all led to an investigation by the late Jack Hagerty and me. Jack was United Press bureau manager in Bismarck at the time, and later editor of the Grand Forks Herald. That in turn led to the arrest and conviction of Twin Cities gangster Herman Paster and the ouster of attorney general Christianson.

During this time, Torzeski spent time in other parts of the country, working out of Minneapolis but retaining ties with his family in Bismarck where his father was an employee at the state penitentiary. The mention in Newsweek was the first intimation of Torzeski's activity in gun-running. Meanwhile, he'd become active in union work for the Teamsters at the time Jimmy Hoffa headed that organization. The word in Bismarck is that Torzeski was an "organizer" for Hoffa, a rumor Torzeski may well have started himself.

Hoffa was convicted, went to prison, was later pardoned by President Nixon, released from prison in 1971 and disappeared a few years later. His body was never found, but again, rumor had it that Torzeski knew where Hoffa was buried. Again, it was a rumor that Torzeski himself may have started. If he did know, the secret went to the grave with Torzeski, who died in November of 1997. Which brings it all back to the soccer coach in Medford, who wasn't the first man from this part of the country to gain a small measure of notoriety as a gun-runner.

Thoughts while drying the dishes... When Jack and I worked on that story -- I was working in broadcasting at the time -- it wasn't called "investigative reporting" as it would be now. We were just digging out a story. Were he still living, Jack would have made sure I mentioned that Paster went to prison, served his term, was released and was shot and killed in his Minneapolis suburban home. The murder was never solved.