Led up the Courthouse steps
Westberg (without shirt) and Christensen are shown here being led up the Sully County Courthouse steps in 1937, after the murder of Ada Carey. Paula Barber said of this photograph, “Every time I go up the Sully County Courthouse steps, I think of that scene when they drug the boys up the steps and into the building.”

Continued from last week's article...

Howard Christensen and Norman Westberg were young boys when they first met in a Sunday school classroom on the north side of Chicago. By many standards, the 16 and 17 year-olds were still young when they came to South Dakota, five years later in 1937, with the purpose and intent of leading a life of crime.

The boys had lived about a block away from each other and had both had run-ins with the law for creating mischief. Christensen had served six days on a juvenile court charge of "malicious mischief;" he had begun to repaint a house black after the owner had just painted it white. Both boys had also experienced charges for shoplifting.

Both youths were drop-outs, and, discontent with their jobs, they decided to set out on a crime spree. They developed a plan; travel to Seattle, Washington, and begin a pick pocketing school. They had gleaned the inspiration for such a school from a fiction magazine story about just such a school; enrollees were to be given two weeks to learn the art and if they failed for any reason, they would be "docked off."

Christensen had been working for a printing concern in Chicago, complaining about not getting "good enough" pay, and Westberg had come back from the Civilian Conservation Corp after having served there for two years.

Westberg had sent a portion of his wages to his grandmother, Caroline Peterson, in Waupaca, Wisconsin while he had worked in the CCC.

The boys left Chicago May 15th and went first to Wisconsin to secure the money that Westberg had sent to his grandmother and was deposited in a bank there. The duo arrived on Saturday night and stayed until Monday morning when Westberg went to the bank to withdraw nearly $130 of the $400 he had sent to his grandmother.

The youth also stole a .32 pistol from the man whose house Westberg’s grandmother was housekeeper. Apparently in bad repair, the boys had the gun fixed at a local gunsmith’s before continuing on their journey.

They next bused to St. Paul, MN and bought new suits of clothes and spent time in pool halls. It was during this time that they discussed the possibility of holding up some lone traveler in an automobile. They finally purchased a ball peen hammer that Christensen carried with him while Westberg carried the revolver.

Christensen was to use the hammer to knock out their prospective victim.

The boys arrived in Watertown, SD on Wednesday night. At the hotel, they gave the names of N.F. Westberg and "Howard Winnan." The second name was one they had taken from a Robert Ripley ‘Believe-It-Or-Not’ cartoon which they said meant, "courage, bravery and victory." They registered as being from Fargo and paid for their lodging with a $20 bill.

According to the night clerk on duty, the boys had looked well dressed and older than their real ages.

During their stay in the Watertown hotel, the youth further detailed their plan for holding up a lone traveler. They agreed upon a signal which Westberg was to give his colleague, who would be seated in the rear, by folding down his second and third fingers while keeping the first and fourth fingers extended.

They were set to put their plan into motion on Thursday morning when they hailed a ride from an elderly man driving a Ford sedan. However, as Christensen was climbing in the backseat of the car, the handle of the hammer protruded from inside his shirt where the potential weapon was concealed. The man became suspicious and watched them closely, so no hand signal was given and the man dropped the boys off at Redfield at about noon. They caught another ride in a truck driven by a wool buyer to Gettysburg. The boys later explained that they did not move on this driver because they did not want a truck for their travels.

On Friday morning, after having stayed in Gettysburg, they decided again to try an altered plan; if possible, they would select a woman victim.

They caught a lift on a truck from Gettysburg out to the intersection of highways 212 and 83, about five miles west of Gettysburg. Highway 83 was then on the east side of Onida. The boys passed up several cars that they deemed ‘unsuited’ to their purpose, until they saw a shiny new car being driven by 28-year-old Frankfort school teacher, Ada Carey, who was traveling to her parent’s home in Blunt.

"This looks like our chance," one of the boys remarked to the other, and they began hailing her. This was around 9:00 in the morning.

When Miss Carey pulled over, Christensen climbed in the back seat, as pre-arranged, and Westberg climbed in the front. After traveling for 15 or 20 minutes, Westberg gave the signal and checked that his partner was aware.

Suddenly, Westberg reached down and pulled the keys from the ignition, while pulling the gun out of his pocket at the same time.

"Why you…" Miss Carey said and as she reached for the gun, the car began to lose speed. Westberg fired the pistol, and it seared Miss Carey’s hand. At the same time, Christensen leaned forward from the back seat and hit the girl over the head with the hammer which he had concealed within his shirt. Miss Carey then reached for the door handle and attempted to escape the car, but Westberg shot again, hitting her in the back, below the right shoulder.

By this time, the car had turned into the ditch, and Miss Carey fell from the vehicle. The boys picked her up and loaded her into the back of the car, although she pleaded with them to be left where she was. The placed her on the floor in the rear of the car and covered her with their own luggage. Westberg got behind the wheel to drive while Christensen sat beside him in the front seat.

As they were driving, Miss Carey partly rose off the floor, and Christensen hit her over the head with the hammer once more. Westberg didn’t pay enough attention to his driving at this time and went into the ditch again.

Getting out and going again, the boys then noticed another automobile following them and became nervous. At this point, Westberg again lost control of the car and it entered the ditch again and the car flipped over on its top.

The boys, uninjured except for scratches and Westberg’s sprained wrist, took off running across the open country after the car came to a stop.

Frank Hiatt of Huron had been following the Chicago youths in Miss Carey’s car for several miles and witnessed the wreck. Hiatt stopped at the crash site and found Miss Carey there, who told him she had been shot. Not wanting to move the girl, Hiatt went to a nearby farm and retrieved a farm wife to stay with the girl while he traveled on to Onida for help.

Newspaper’s account said that a Dr. V.W. Embree accompanied Sheriff Jack Reedy to the scene and brought Miss Carey to town. Sully County State’s Attorney Francis M. Ryan took a statement from Miss Carey at the hospital, which included a description of the boys.

Meanwhile, a posse was organized to search for the youths who had shot Miss Carey. It is said that "large crowds gathered in town by noon" from Blunt, Agar, Gettysburg, and Onida.

The youths were found hiding in a patch of Russian thistle a few miles north of Onida about three hours later. Accounts tell that the men who found them weren’t sure at first that the youth were hiding among the weeds, so they called out. The two boys jumped up and began running. Christiansen stopped upon the order of the men, but Westberg continued running until a couple of shots were fired over his head.

Newspapers from that time period described Christensen as "tearful and apparently very sorry for his act, according to officials, but since that time has given very inconsistent answers to the questions asked him by officials." It was later said of Christianson that his mind never developed past that point.

The boys were brought before Miss Carey just prior to her death, and she was able to identify them.

Headlines of newspapers across the state following Carey’s death called it a brutal slaying and the worst in the history of the state.

"The fact that the boys had started out planning on just such a career makes it obvious that no punishment can be too severe for them, and that they have no rightful place mingling with society," stated one newspaper editorial after the boys were caught.

At that time, South Dakota did not have a capital punishment, although a life sentence was mandatory for murder. Two weeks after Miss Carey’s death, the boys were arraigned and sent to the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls to serve their life sentences.

Several years later, Westberg hung himself while Christensen died of old age a few years ago.

Miss Ada Carey had been a member of the Blunt Eastern Star and in 2001, the annual Easter Egg Hunt was renamed in her honor. Paula Barber had made the connection to the crime committed north of Onida and the Eastern Star.

"I thought it was so interesting," Barber said. "We (renamed it) because she possessed so many qualities that the Eastern Star advocates."

Two weeks ago, Barber held a public historical program in Blunt to highlight the events of Carey’s murder.

"It’s good that we’re getting reacquainted with our roots," she said. "I feel kind of good that we uncovered this again."