How to tell if you need a new jail


To tell the truth, I don’t know how the state decides if Winona County needs a new jail. Sometimes it seems state bureaucrats simply swoop in on a predetermined timeline and demand new buildings no matter what. Maybe it has something to do with creating construction jobs. Or perhaps they are trying to avoid a catastrophe.

Back in August 1977, the president of the now defunct Downtown Business Association hired a guy to kill his wife. He was having a torrid affair with one of the employees at this store, a former homecoming queen, and the wife was apparently the sticking point in the quest for true happiness for the lovers. With her out of the way, he wouldn’t have to share the profits from the store with anyone but his new honey.

Unhappily, the killer was successful in murdering the young mother of two. However, the Winona police are no dummies, and they figured out that the husband was the guilty party. It might have been a clue when the husband went out and bought a new truck a couple days after his wife died. Or the fact that everyone who worked at the store knew the giddy couple (each married to another) were carrying on in the storeroom and presumably other places. Probably, it was because in 75 percent of murders, the victim knew the murderer, and in 30 percent of those murders, it’s the surviving spouse who is the guilty party.

The police sent a guy wearing a wire to visit the grieving widower, and they waited outside listening to the conversation. The widower told the wire-wearer what a mess the killer had made, complaining that it was supposed to look like an accident.

That was enough for the waiting constabulary, and they swooped in and arrested the soon-to-be-disgraced downtown businessman. From there, they took the husband, now under arrest for the murder of his wife, to the Winona County Jail. They put him in a second-floor cell that was usually used to house juveniles. Their reasoning was that they didn’t want him having contact with the hired gun, also in the jail, or other prisoners. He was a wily guy, our husband.

While awaiting trial, the widower was still in contact with his lover, however. Somehow, he convinced her to help him break out. He had noticed that the old jail windows were rather deteriorated, and figured he could saw his way out.

The girlfriend stood under his jail window one night, and threw him a hacksaw, or some such tool. It took her a couple tries. She was a beauty queen, not a star athlete. I think it’s amazing that she could throw it to him at all, and that he caught it. More amazing is that when all this was going on, there were no witnesses! So, the husband sawed the lock off the window of his cell, and escaped, replacing the lock so it looked intact. The lovers then took off.

This was the day after the groundbreaking for a new jail to replace the almost 60-year-old jail from which he escaped.

The escapee got a bit of a head start, since the jailers didn’t realize he was gone for half a day. When the jailer brought a breakfast tray in the morning, he left it without checking the prisoner after seeing shoes under the partition to the toilet. He assumed that the prisoner was using the facilities, and didn’t notice the untouched tray until he went back to deliver the next meal. The shoes were still visible under the partition.

A manhunt ensued, and within two months the lovers were back in Winona and in jail. This time, the husband was put into a cell that had a video camera, so he could be watched more closely. Eventually, everyone involved in the murder was tried and sent off to prison.

That old jail was demolished, and the new jail, which is currently on the chopping block, was built. It’s interesting that the discussion between Winona County and the state back then was as protracted as the current wrangling over whether and when to build a new jail.

It rankles that it costs so much in public money to build a place to put bad people. Maybe a nice jail could be made out of the recently sold Government Center on Main Street. It does have a certain “prison” look.


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