On August 30, 1933 at 9:45 AM, just outside the South St. Paul Post Office, one officer was shot dead and another severely injured when the Barker-Karpis Gang robbed two bank messengers escaping with $33,000 in payroll intended for employees of Swift and Company.
A Brazen Crime
Around 9:10 AM that morning, South St. Paul Police Officer Leo Pavlak and two 21-year-old messengers for the Stockyards National Bank, Herbert Cheyne and Joseph Hamilton, went to the South St. Paul Railway Station to pick up the payroll. The money, shipped via a Great Western Railroad train from the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, was intended for employees of Swift and Company.
The men went to the station located a block behind the South St. Paul Post Office, picked up the money, walked through the alley and returned to the post office. As they walked down the front steps of the post office, a black sedan with a siren blaring and smoke coming out the back drove up and stopped in front of the building. Witnesses said two or three men emerged from the sedan including Fred Barker. Barker, carrying a sawed-off shotgun, approached the officer and messengers and shouted “Stick ’em up!” He disarmed Officer Pavlak and forced him to raise his hands. The two messengers were told to drop the bags, which they did and then hid under truck.
Meanwhile, another South St. Paul Police Officer, John Yeaman arrived on the scene from around the corner. One of the men that had emerged from the sedan fired on Yeaman as he approached in his squad. The suspect then approached the officer’s car and saw that he was slumped over the wheel with a wound to his head. Pushing Yeaman down on the floor, the robber took Yeaman’s Thompson submachine gun and ran toward the post office firing his own gun.
Barker then fired his shotgun at Officer Pavlak at close range, killing him instantly. The man with the machine gun fired at the post office, breaking glass partitions inside the building, then continued firing randomly hitting other nearby buildings. Bystanders witnessed one of the three gunmen stagger during the shooting. He was helped into the getaway car that drove north on Concord toward St. Paul.
During the robbery, Officer John Yeaman was struck multiple times by machine gun fire, including one bullet to his face. While Yeaman survived his injuries, he “was never truly well again,” according to his son Jack, who went on to serve as a South St. Paul police officer himself.
At just 38 years of age, Officer Pavlak had served only four months on the South St. Paul Police Department at the time of his death. He was survived by his wife, Pauline, and two children, Eleanor and Robert. Robert would go on to follow in his father’s footsteps by entering law enforcement and serving as a South St. Paul police officer for 32 years. He was elected to the Minnesota House of Representative in 1967 and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as a U.S. Marshal in 1980. His son Robert Jr. also served on the South St. Paul Police Department.
In addition to Fred Barker, other members of the the Barker-Karpis Gang reported to have been involved in the South St. Paul Post Office robbery were, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, Charlie Fitzgerald, Bryan Bolton and Fred Goetz. The Thompson submachine gun stolen from Officer Yeamen during the shootout was recovered by the FBI 18 months later in a raid of a Chicago apartment tied to the Barker-Karpis gang. No one was ever prosecuted or convicted for the South St. Paul robbery and shootings.
The South St. Paul Post Office is located at 236 Concord Exchange N, South St Paul, MN 55075
- City of South St. Paul Website, https://www.southstpaul.org/334/Officer-Leo-Pavlak
- Maccabee, Paul, “John Dillinger Slept Here”, Minnesota Historical Society Press (1995)
- Yanish, Jill, “South St. Paul police remember 80th anniversary of fallen officer”, Lillie Suburban News, September 30, 2013 http://www.eastsidereviewnews.com/articles/2013/09/03/south-st-paul-police-remember-80th-anniversary-fallen-officer
- South St. Paul Police remember 80th anniversary of fallen officer, Lillie News, September 3, 2013, Retreived from http://lillienews.com/articles/2013/09/03/south-st-paul-police-remember-80th-anniversary-fallen-officer