Brothers Ken and LaVern Johnson witnessed the robbery. Marjie White, Park County Museum Board oral historian, interviewed LaVern June 15, 2006, from his Willwood home. LaVern died in 2007. From Powell, White interviewed Ken Oct. 2, 2014, from his …
Though not widely known, two brothers are convinced the outlaw Earl Durand knocked off a grocery store in 1938, months before his worldwide journey to both infamy and notoriety.
Brothers Ken and LaVern Johnson witnessed the robbery. Marjie White, Park County Museum Board oral historian, interviewed LaVern June 15, 2006, from his Willwood home. LaVern died in 2007. From Powell, White interviewed Ken Oct. 2, 2014, from his Elk Horn, Neb., home.
The brothers’ lively accounts consistently describe a robbery that did occur, and Durand could have been the culprit.
Sawyer’s Groceries was just south of the tracks on Bent Street. “It’s just about where the co-op is now,” said Ken.
Just boys at the time, Ken and LaVern witnessed the stickup from their father, Albert’s, car.
The family had just returned from Christmas shopping in Billings. Ken’s mother, Viola, wanted to stop at Sawyer’s.
LaVern said he believed the robbery was on Christmas Eve, 1938, months before Durand’s killing spree and manhunt.
The Dec. 29, 1938, issue of The Powell Tribune reported a bandit robbed Sawyer’s on Christmas Eve 1938, making off with $150 in cash. Viola was in the store at the time, the Tribune article said.
According to the brothers, Durand was in Sawyer’s with their mother, some customers and store clerks.
“That’s Earl Durand,” said LaVern that fateful night.
Ken looked through the store window, and sure enough, the shop’s occupants had their hands in the air like a hold up, Ken said.
They could see who they believed was Durand motioning to the clerk. The robber grabbed a bag they assumed was cash and turned around.
“All I remember is him carrying a rifle, and he had a pistol on his belt,” Ken said.
“Stay where you are lady, and you won’t get hurt,” the robber said to Viola, according to Ken.
Then the robber shot the store window over Viola’s head. Viola felt the powder burn as she looked at her children and husband in the car, Ken said.
“Did he actually rob the store?” White asked LaVern.
“Well, he got the money himself, I think, because he had them lying down on the floor on the other side of the counter,” LaVern said.
“He came out with that paper sack in his hand and a rifle,” Ken said.
After snatching the cash, the gunman hightailed it out of there.
Albert gave chase. “Down the tracks he went after him,” Ken said. “We went right at him with that Model A (Ford automobile).”
“I was scared,” Ken recalled.
“He’s going to shoot us, Dad,” Ken said.
“He can’t see to shoot us with lights on,” Albert said.
The robber hopped on a railroad platform, and Albert drilled him with his headlights, Ken said.
Then the outlaw jumped off the dock onto the tracks, then the main tracks. “ ... And that’s where we lost him,” Ken said.
They returned to the store and fetched his mother, Ken said.
The next day a policeman came to their Willwood home to take Viola’s statement, Ken said.
Months later, in March of 1939, Durand, then 26, of Powell, was arrested for poaching.
He later busted out of jail and killed Powell Town Marshal Chuck Lewis and Deputy Sheriff D.M. Baker. Then, all hell broke loose. Killing the lawmen spurred a prodigious manhunt that captured the entire nation’s attention, with big-city newspapers dubbing Durand “The Tarzan of the Tetons.”
A few days later, Arthur Argento of Meeteetse and Orville Linaberry of Cody, trying to get the drop on Durand, were killed by the vigilante and wilderness-savvy fugitive southeast of Clark. Then, after Durand held up the First National Bank in Powell, bank teller Johnny Gawthrop was accidentally killed by a mob surrounding the bank in an effort to shoot Durand. Durand then was shot and killed.
Albert wanted to see the dead desperado.
“We’re going in to see Earl Durand,” Albert said. “They shot him,” Ken recalls Albert saying.
They went to Easton’s Mortuary on Second Street.
“We were gonna see Earl, which a lot of people did then; there was a line going by to see,” LaVern said.
Earl became a major attraction in a town still steeped in its frontier roots.
“Everybody in town walked down there,” Ken said.
“We couldn’t go in there for a while; they were preparing him, I guess. When we went in there, finally, and we walked right past Earl, who was laying on a table.” LaVern said.
Durand was propped up in an open casket outside the mortuary, Ken said.
Rumors circulated that Durand rode the outlaw trail before the tragic events unfolded in 1939. Was it Durand or someone else who hit Sawyer’s?
The Johnson brothers are convinced it was Durand.
“Yeah,” Ken said. “He looked right at us.”