EDITOR’S NOTE: Billings resident James Southworth researched this story from the archives of the Tri County News and the Billings Gazette. It first appeared in the Stillwater County News.Part 2 appears next week.
As a wintry dawn broke over Wheat Basin two days following Thanksgiving of 1937, Frank Robideau crossed the one and only street of the town to visit with Mike Visser, operator of the general merchandise store in the small town.
Frank Robideau was a 48-year-old Wheat Basin farmer.
“Say Mike, did you see those two hitchhikers in town last night?” asked Robideau.
“Hitchhikers? No, I didn’t see anyone around last night. I went to bed early though. Two of ’em, eh?”
“They came over to my house about dinner time. They wanted something to eat but damned if I could help them. I told them to start toward Columbus and get on the main highway. One was a man and the other a woman dressed in men’s clothes. They sure looked desperate,” Robideau said.
Visser had just dumped a dustpan full of cigarette butts, gum wrappers and assorted dirt into the coal stove when a small youth, his face blood-smeared and his eyes, swollen, fumbled at the latch.
Visser hurried to the door to meet the little fellow. His face was hideous, demanded sympathy. Tears had evaporated over dried blood, and his hair was a bloody tuft.
“Why boy, what’s the trouble?” asked Visser. “My God, it’s Mike Kuntz’s kid.”
“What’s the matter, sonny? Did a dog bit you?” asked Robideau.
“Someone killed my mama and papa,” the forlorn-looking boy repeated as Visser returned with a wet cloth and wiped the dried blood from the youth’s face.
Visser called Sheriff Murphy at Columbus and told him to inform the officers of “those hitchhikers.”
Robideau set out for the elevator and en route he met Ira “Slim” Reams, a Billings mail carrier, and Louis Paulson, a Wheat Basin farmer, who joined Robideau.
Tacked on the door of the elevator was a sign that read “We are closed today.”
They jerked the door open and stared at the blood-spattered running board of an automobile owned by Mike Kuntz. In the car, they found the bodies of the slain couple, sprawled on the blood-soiled cushion of the death automobile. Robideau started to open the left front door, but someone grabbed his arm and told him not to spoil chances of fingerprints.
Sheriff Frank Murphy and Undersheriff Jack Benjamin soon arrived at the scene of the slaying. There they heard Robideau’s story about the hitchhikers. Suspects immediately came into the minds of the officers. The officers set out for a small, nearly crumpled shack eight miles north of Columbus.
Halfway between Wheat Basin and Columbus, the officers stopped on the highway. There they found pieces of riddled glass and blood traces that marked the apparent site of dual tragedy.
When the officers arrived in Columbus, they were augmented by Constables Albert Thomas and Earl Wilson of Billings Township.
Minutes later, when the sheriff and his party were en route to the shack north of the town, they met Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Downard walking from Columbus toward Wheat Basin. The Downards were given a lift by the officers, a lift to the office of P.R. Heily, Stillwater county attorney. Downard, a 40-year-old ranch hand, and his pretty wife, 28, denied participation in the slayings when officers fired their first questions.
By this time, the officers had surmised that Mr. and Mrs. Kuntz were killed by two hitchhikers who flagged down the Kuntz automobile shortly after the elevator man and his wife set out for Columbus. This was Saturday afternoon.
Early Saturday evening, Downard and his wife were taken to Columbus hospital where they were viewed by little Larry Kuntz. The child pointed a finger at the ranch hand and said, “The man looks like the man, but the woman doesn’t look the same.”
The child’s memory was hazy and he was in a semi-0conscious condition from the blow on the head.
Officers sent for Frank Robideau. He studied the Downards closely, then identified the couple as the same persons who came to his Wheat Basin home early Friday evening, the night of the slaying, and asked him for food.
Late Saturday night, officers contacted neighbors of the pair and found that the Downards had an air-tight alibi. Sheriff Murphy said the Kuntz boy’s identity of Downard was a logical error.
Officers set out for Wheat Basin early Sunday morning and returned Robideau to Columbus. Then the officers returned to the hospital and found little Larry somewhat recovered from his severe beating. The youth rallied and whispered to officers, “Robideau killed my mama and papa.”
At 11 o’clock that night, two days after the double murder, and after ten hours of questioning, Robideau blurted out, “I did it. He was yellow.”
The confession was made in the presence of officers Murphy, Benjamin, Thomas and Wilson.
Officers believe that Robideau put the hitchhiker angle into Visser’s mind when he was bathing the boy’s face in Mike Visser’s store.
Days later, he told officers he was an escaped convict from an Auburn, N.Y., prison camp.
That was when he went under the name of Joseph Liberty. He changed his name to Robideau when he came west and attempted to start life anew, only to be caught in a tighter jam than the New York incident.
Robideau and his brother George Liberty, ages 21 and 18, had been sentenced to serve terms of 20 years to life in Clinton Prison on Dec. 22, 1910, for the murder of David Vano, age 60, in Plattsburg, N.Y., on December 3 of that year. Robideau escaped from the prison camp at Montezuma, N.Y., as a shrill noontime whistle cut the suffocating air on July 26, 1922. Robideau said he had never heard of his brother since his break from the prison camp.
Robideau told his story of the dual slaying in interviews and at the State Industrial Accident Board hearing on Tuesday. Next week, he confesses in his own words.