EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second and final part of a story about a double murder that occurred in 1937. Billings resident James Southworth researched the story from the archives of the Tri County News and The Billings Gazette.
Frank Robideau, a Wheat Basin farmer, confessed in 1937 to murdering Wheat Basin elevator manager Mike Kuntz and his wife on the Columbus-to-Molt Road.
Robideau told his story of the dual slaying in interviews and at the State Industrial Accident Board hearing on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving of that year. The following is in his own words:
“I needed money badly because my wife was expecting another baby the middle of December.
“After I argued with Kuntz at the elevator, I went home and got my gun and went back to the railroad track near the elevator. I hollered, ‘Mike, we’ll have it out right here.’ But Kuntz didn’t come out.
“I went back home and cooked my dinner, washed the dishes, and just as I was throwing out the dishwater, I saw Mike leaving his place in his automobile. They came over my place; Kuntz, his wife and their boy were in the front seat. I asked him, ‘Do you feel better now?’ He didn’t answer me.
“Mrs. Kuntz begged with her husband to give the money for the wheat because she knew how hard up I was. But Kuntz said, ‘I’ll be goddamned if I’ll give you any money.’ But then he told me to ‘get in here and I’ll go write you out some checks.’ We then went to the elevator and Kuntz wrote checks to other farmers in the area and was going to give them to me to cash. I suggested names of some farmers and he suggested others. But he put the checks in his jacket pocket.
“We got back in to the car and Kuntz stopped at my house. I reached for the door to open it and Kuntz said, ‘Oh no, you stay in here. I’m headed for Columbus.’ And there wasn’t a word spoken between none of us till we got to that place (about halfway between Columbus and Wheat Basin). The last mile before he stopped, he was driving all over the road.
“He stopped and thrust his gun at me. I took hold of his arm. That’s when the first shot was fired out of his gun. That’s the bullet in the roof of the car. I brought his arm in back of his head and he hollered at his wife for help. The gun exploded again and the bullet went through the from the windshield. His wife grabbed me and had me about done. Then I shot him in the back of the head. She had an awful hold on me. She also bit my finger. I took my gun and she realized that I couldn’t be released unless I shot her.
“My eyes were sticked out from the pain, then I shot her and killed her. I wasn’t sure if he was dead, so I shot him again through his body.
“The boy was standing there on the running board, hollering. I thought that I might just as well kill him, but just then, I looked into his eyes and I saw the picture of my boy. I’m glad I didn’t kill him. I hit him on the head with the butt of my gun. I then drove them back to the elevator and put the car inside. I shut the elevator door and went home.”
Frank Robideau entered a plea of guilty to the charge of murder in the first degree in connection with the death of Mike Kuntz when he was arraigned before Judge Ben Harwood on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 11. When arraigned, Robideau stated to the court that his true name was Joseph H. Liberty.
Judge Ben Harwood, of Billings, imposed the maximum penalty and sentenced Frank Robideau to be hanged on Saturday, Jan. 15, 1938. “I have nuthin’ to feel sorry about them people, Mr. and Mrs. Kuntz; they put me in this mess I’m in now,” Robideau said.
On the other hand, Robideau is regretful about one matter. “I’d have been better off if I had a rope around my neck years ago,” He told Undersheriff Benjamin. “I know the judge did the right thing. I have nothing against the judge, no more than I have anything against you.”
The following dates were noted as the story unfolded.
Dec. 30: Sheriff to Secure Forsyth Scaffold. The scaffold on which Henry Zorn and George Criner were executed at Miles City will be borrowed by Sheriff Murphy for the execution of Frank Robideau. It is thought that four others in addition to Zorn and Criner have been executed on the scaffold.
Jan. 13: Frank Robideau wants fried chicken, watermelon and cold mince pie for his last supper Friday evening, a few hours before he will be taken to Columbus and become the first man to be hanged in Stillwater County. (The county was created in 1913.)
Robideau held the first reunion with his wife and two of his four children in the lower murder cell of Yellowstone County Jail on Thursday.
“If you’re born to be hung, you’ll never die in a feather bed, and in you’re born to die in a feather bed, you’ll never be hung,” Robideau told Sheriff Dan Stephenson and Undersheriff Ed O’Donnell here Thursday.
Officers said that Mrs. Robideau and her two young daughters (the youngest was 18 days old), left the jail at 4 o’clock Thursday afternoon, “without a tear in their eye.”
“Robideau is holding up well,” Sheriff Murphy said. He said Robideau stated to him, “I deserve what’s coming to me.”
Sheriff Murphy presented Robideau with a green polka-dot shirt which he will wear to the gallows on which he will pay with his life for the slaying of Mr. and Mrs. Kuntz.
Four carloads of peace officers and civilians made up the escort as it left Billings at 11:30 p.m. Friday, a few hours after Robideau had partaken of his last meal in the Yellowstone County Jail.
”Leaving jail! Have you got a drink of whisky? I need one,” he said. Shortly after he was handcuffed to Undersheriff Ed O’Donnell, Robideau was given a bracer. O’Donnell, Robideau and Sheriff Dan Stephenson sat in the back seat, and a reporter and Deputy Sheriff Albert Jansen, who drove, sat in the front seat.
“There’s quite a mob around here, isn’t there?” Robideau said as the death car cruised away, sandwiched between three guard automobiles.
As the car sped from the city limits, Robideau said, “I suppose there will be a mob at Columbus, too. They’re all coyote hunters. When they get me in the trap, they’ll all go him.”
Robideau joked quite a bit on the long trip up Old Highway 10 to Columbus. Occasionally, for a few minutes, he would become serious. “My worst day was Thursday when my wife and babies visited me. This is the easiest part of the whole thing,” he said. Finishing another story, he said, ”If I’m going to croak, I might as well die happy.”
“If taking my neck pleases them and eases the feelings against me, my conscience is clean,” Robideau said. “I’m going to walk right up to the scaffold and take it like a man. I’m going to do my part, you do yours. I’m not the first man to be hung and I’m not the last one.”
At 12:45 a.m., the caravan started up the Columbus hill. Soon the lights of Columbus were visible. Scores of automobiles were parked at the side of the drive area, the main entrance of the Columbus us machinery shed, which was turned into a death house.
“Surely a lot of people around here,” Robideau said, as the automobile came to a halt between a line held back by officers from several different counties and state patrolmen.
It was 1:08 a.m. Benjamin and the others in the car stepped quickly from the machine. A minute later Robideau was standing a foot from the first of the 13 steps leading to the scaffold. Benjamin handcuffed the doomed man in back.
Benjamin then tied two straps around Robideau’s waist, over his green polka-dot shirt and blue coat. Robideau’s face became slightly pale, but he asked Undersheriff O’Donnell if “he wanted to flip that coin.”
He laughed weakly, “Well, good-bye, boys.”
Benjamin and Paul Rosean, Stillwater sheriff’s deputy, led Robideau up the 13 steps. Seconds later, Robideau made his last remarks. “ All I wish to say,” Robideau said, ”is if you have any sympathy to show, don’t show it to me, show it to my wife and family, as they need it. I don’t. That’s all I have to say.”
The black hood was placed over his head, and the rope was jerked tightly around his neck.
Undersheriff Benjamin snapped his finger. It was 1:11 a.m. A trap door swished, and Robideau disappeared from the platform. The rope remained still; his neck had been broken. Then 16½ minutes later, the man was pronounced dead.
Stillwater County had witnessed its first hanging. In the crowd of some 375 men in the machinery shed was one Florence Bowie, of Columbus, who was dressed like a man. At 3 a.m., a Columbus bartender said, “This is the biggest night we’ve ever had in Columbus.”
Mrs. Robideau had made the arrangements for the funeral and the coroner, O.R. McColley, claimed the body immediately after the execution. The funeral was held at the McColley Funeral Home, with burial in the Columbus Cemetery.