This North Dakota lawman collared 'Gun-toting Tex' after a 2-year manhunt for the small-town cop-killer
When a gunman killed a police officer in Hope, North Dakota, in 1933, the county sheriff wasn't about to take it lying down. He persisted to track the suspect for two years over seven states and thousands of miles -- one of the most highly publicized manhunts in U.S. history.
HOPE, N.D. — Fred Carlson didn’t seem overly concerned when gunfire woke him up in the early morning hours of August 14, 1933. After all, Carlson didn’t live too far away from Torkel Thorsland, an old Norwegian farmer who had a habit of shooting at dogs trying to attack his sheep after the sun went down.
Only that night in Hope, North Dakota, after the four gun shots, Carlson didn’t hear the sounds of dogs barking or his neighbor yelling. Instead, he heard a car motor starting. After bolting to the window to see what was going on, he spotted a car headed right toward his house, then watched as the coupe with the rumble seat headed south on an old cemetery road.
As the sounds of the tires on the gravel faded, Carlson then heard something else — the distant sounds of groaning coming from the direction of the gunfire. He called Hope’s police chief, Dave Stewart, to get help. But Stewart didn't pick up the phone.
The groaning continued.
Carlson went outside and met two other neighbor men curious about what had happened. They walked together in their nightclothes toward the sounds of the groans which appeared to be coming from a gas station a couple of blocks away.
While it was mid-August, right in the dog days of summer, it was chilly for a summer night with a temperature just above 50 degrees. But the chill Carlson and the other men must have felt didn’t just come from the early hints of fall in the air, but from what they saw when they got to the gas station.
Stewart, the man who hadn't answered Fred Carlson's phone call, was lying on the ground dying from gunshot wounds.
They didn’t know it then, but that Monday, August 14, 1933, would become Day 1 of a two-year ordeal for little Hope, North Dakota — population 535 — one of the longest lasting manhunts in North Dakota history, spanning thousands of miles and a handful of states to avenge the death of a beloved police chief who died in the line of duty. It also brought acclaim to the man with the dogged determination to get justice.
The victim with a pedigree
David Livingstone Stewart was a handsome, dark-haired man with an interesting pedigree. He was named after his grandmother’s cousin, the Scottish explorer David Livingstone who made history with his travels through Africa. He’s credited with naming the waterfall on the Zambezi River “Victoria Falls” and being the first European to cross the width of southern Africa. But Stewart’s family had settled in Ontario, Canada, before he eventually ended up in North Dakota working in law enforcement.
Stewart had been Hope’s police chief for two years that August morning in 1933 when he stumbled upon a man attempting to drain gasoline out of an oil tank at the Texaco bulk station in town. It appears Stewart was shot in his arm while reaching for his gun. He was hit several more times before the suspect (or suspects) escaped and Carlson and the neighbor men found him.
In reporting his death, The Hope Pioneer said Stewart’s funeral was among the largest ever in the city with many people unable to get inside the church. Worse yet, for the mourners, the suspect or suspects were still at large.
The dogged lawman
With the town police officer dead, the job to find his killer fell upon Steele County Sheriff David Wennerstrom. A native of Michigan, who grew up in Minnesota, Wennerstrom farmed and worked as an auctioneer before becoming a lawman. From the start, Wennerstrom had a theory about the men that shot Stewart and got away.
According to his daughter, Evelyn Anderson, who wrote about her father in Hope’s Centennial book published in 1982, her father figured “the slayer would be found among a nomadic group, going nowhere, a restless type.”
There were no fingerprints or footprints at the scene of the crime, so Sheriff Wennerstrom had his work cut out for him. Then as luck would have it, word started to trickle in about a suspicious visiting harvester repairman at a nearby farm.
According to Anderson, the man “was said to have been gun crazy, always shooting at something and nursing his gun like it was a baby.”
But Wennerstrom was too late. The man was gone. However, it wasn’t in Wennerstrom’s stubborn Swedish DNA to give up. According to his daughter, his motto was, “Persistence has solved more crimes than all the scientific aids to crime detection put together.”
And clearly, the man could have taught a master class in persistence.
Over the next two years, Sheriff Wennerstrom was on the trail of the man who shot Stewart, a man they started calling “Gun-toting Tex.” National newspapers were taking note of the persistent sheriff and his mission to capture a killer.
However, Wennerstrom always seemed to be a couple of steps behind "Tex" as both men were snaking their way through tens of thousands of miles of backroads from Arkansas to Oklahoma to Texas.
Persistence has solved more crimes than all the scientific aids to crime detection put together.
But the suspect's luck was starting to run out. In early 1935, Wennerstrom stopped into an Arkansas cafe. No one knows how the conversation began, but according to Wennerstrom’s daughter, before it was over, Wennerstrom’s waitress said she knew the man they were looking for. She called “Tex” a ladies’ man and even produced a photo of him for Wennerstrom to use.
The suspect and his accomplice
By April of 1935, “Tex,” the man believed to have shot Stewart, was arrested in Center, Texas. He told authorities his name was Jack Smeltzer, but that was as fake a name as “Tex.” His real name was Border Lee Putnam. At the time of his arrest he was leading a pretty respectable life working for a typewriter company in Dallas.
But his past caught up with him, thanks, in part to the man who was reported to have helped him murder Stewart. Dick Lee, believed to be Putnam’s accomplice, was also apprehended in either Texas or Oklahoma. According to a story in the May 2, 1935 edition of The Hope Pioneer, Lee said he knew nothing of the killing of Stewart until he was arrested.
Instead he admitted to going to the gas station with the purpose of stealing gasoline. The plan was for Putnam to steal the gas, while Lee stood watch down the road. Lee said all of the sudden he heard shots fired and assumed the police were shooting at Putnam. Then he spotted Putnam jump in the car racing toward him. Lee jumped in the car and the two men hightailed it out of Hope, drove south for days and parted ways once they got to Texas. Lee said Putnam never said anything about killing an officer.
Lee signed a confession for his role in the crime and agreed to testify against Putnam. Lee plead guilty to third-degree burglary and was sentenced to a year in jail. His testimony against Putnam led to a guilty verdict for manslaughter and a seven-year sentence for Putnam in the North Dakota State Penitentiary.
What happened next?
Heralded a hero for this commitment and persistence to justice, Wennerstrom easily won re-election as Steele County sheriff. However, in 1937, he chose to go back home to Becker County, Minnesota, to take over the family farm following his father’s death. But he couldn’t stay away from law enforcement. He was elected sheriff in Becker County in 1945 serving until his death in 1955.
The man Wennerstrom helped put behind bars didn’t stay there for long. In March of 1940, two years shy of his seven-year sentence, Putnam was released from the North Dakota State Penitentiary after the parole board granted a request for him to return to Missouri to see his dying father. Putnam would be allowed to stay with his father until the father died, but then he would be incarcerated at the Missouri State Penitentiary, not for the remainder of his manslaughter sentence in the North Dakota murder, but for an old charge of stealing chickens from a Missouri farmer in 1932.
According to records, Putnam was out of prison by 1950 and got married. He lived the next 19 years in Texas, before dying at the age of 57 in 1969.
The story of the persistent sheriff and B.L. Putnam has largely been forgotten almost 90 years later. But if you go to the Steele County Museum, you’ll find a display in honor of Wennerstrom and the victim, Stewart.
Stewart remains the only law enforcement official to die in the line of duty in the county. His name is among thousands read at the annual candlelight vigil conducted by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund for fallen officers.
While peace is shared every year at the vigil in Washington, D.C. peace and closure came first to Hope, North Dakota, 87 years ago when justice was made possible, in the first place, by the stubborn Swedish sheriff who refused to give up.