A Public Hanging in Columbus, Montana, 1938
BY PAT HILL
Stillwater County, Montana’s first public execution took place Jan. 15, 1938, and was also the county’s last. The affair was not open to the general public, however; as was the custom in the Treasure State, invitations were issued to witness the execution, of Frank Robi-deau, who murdered a married couple the preceding November.
My maternal grandfather, who lived in Billings, was one of about 400 people who received an invita-tion to Robideau’s hanging, which took place in Columbus, 42 miles west of Billings. It’s not certain why my grandfather, Jake Crystal, received such an invite, or whether he attended the event, but the original document is still retained by the family.
For better or worse, justice was swift in those days. The gruesome murder that precipitated the invitation took place less than two months before the execution. On Nov. 26, 1937, Robideau, by his own admission, shot and killed Mike and Frieda Kuntz.
Mike Kuntz had moved his family from North Dakota to the now-non-existent town of Wheat Basin, then located between Molt and Rapelje, in northern Stillwater County, to operate the grain elevator there. Frank Robideau was a Wheat Basin area farmer, and the two men were not unfamiliar to each other. Robideau sold the wheat he harvested at the Wheat Basin Elevator. In early summer, 1937, Robideau bought a new pickup truck from another man also familiar to the murderer and his victims: Harold Nordahl, a Dodge/Plymouth dealer in Colum-bus. That new pickup probably led to the Kuntz murders.
In 2004, the then-90-year-old Nordahl told the Billings Gazette that early in the summer of 1937 Robideau “came in and said he had a pretty good crop of wheat and he wanted a new pickup.” Robideau got his new truck, but the deal went sour when his second pickup payment came due. Nordahl said Robideau paid him with a check he had received from Kuntz for his wheat at the Wheat Basin Elevator. But the owner of the land Robideau farmed was due part of that payment and alerted the bank to put a stop on the check, so Nordahl went up to Wheat Basin to repossess the truck.
“I told him when he got things squared away, he could come down and get his pickup,” Nordahl told the Gazette.
Robideau did square up his business, and once again took possession of the vehicle. But when the next payment came due, he found himself in the same boat. And Nordahl learned that the stakes had been ratcheted up a bit.
“About six a.m. one morning, my uncle, who lived just outside Wheat Basin, came and told me I had better watch my step, because Robideau had bought a gun and told him he was planning to kill me and Pat Heily (the county attorney who was involved in the repossession),” Nordahl told the Gazette. “I slept with my eyes half-open.”
Things were getting tense in Wheat Basin as well. Robideau had more than the pickup truck on his mind. His wife, who hailed from a prominent family in the area, was pregnant with their fourth child. On Nov. 26, Robideau went to the Wheat Basin Elevator to demand payment from Kuntz for 180 bushels of wheat he had stored there. Kuntz was reluctant, wanting to check first with the owner of the land Robideau was farming, but the Gazette reported that “Robideau, perhaps at gunpoint, coerced Kuntz into writing checks for the wheat and ordered him to keep quiet.” But the drama didn’t end at the elevator.
The only witness to the murders, and himself a lucky survivor of the incident, was Larry Kuntz, the then-5-year-old son of Mike and Frieda. In 2010, a 78-year-old Larry Kuntz, on a visit to Columbus from Spokane, Washington, told the Gazette what he remembered about what happened next. He said Robideau came to the Kuntz house that night while they were eating dinner, holding a gun in both hands pointed at the floor between his knees as he sat. Larry Kuntz told the Gazette he remembered that the gun “terrified his mother,” and that his father finally persuaded Robideau to put the weapon away. Larry also recalled his family boarding the car to take a trip into Columbus that night, and though he is not sure if Robideau got in with them or flagged them down shortly after, the obviously desperate wheat farmer ended up in the car with the Kuntz family.
During the trip, Robideau asked Mike Kuntz to stop the car, and then shot him in the back of the head. He shot Frieda Kuntz in the heart as she turned toward him from the front seat of the car, and then Robideau hit the young Larry Kuntz in the head with the butt of the pistol, leaving fragments of the pistol grips lodged in the unconscious boy’s head.
Larry Kuntz woke up the next morning inside the car, which Robideau had driven back inside the grain elevator. The bodies of his mother and father were in the vehicle with him. He told the Gazette he got out of the car and tried to leave, but the elevator doors were locked, and he returned to the vehicle, “screaming, yelling, crying,” until he remembered a back door he could get out of. The young Kuntz then made his way to the Wheat Basin general store, where Frank Robideau happened to be hanging out, as were several other men who knew the Kuntz boy. In its 1937-38 coverage of the murders, the Gazette reported that Robideau asked Kuntz if he’d been attacked by a dog. Some of the other men offered to take the lad home, but Kuntz reportedly said no one would be home. “They shot Mama and Papa,” he said.
Kuntz told the Gazette during that 2010 visit to Columbus that he doesn’t remember anything after making his way to the store—not the hospital or the police questioning him. The Gazette reported that the boy fell unconscious at the general store without identifying Robideau, and that Robideau himself tried to cast blame for the killings on a pair of hitchhikers that had recently been in the area.
Not knowing Robideau had just committed cold-blooded murder, yet fully aware of the man’s murderous threats against him, Nordahl headed out to Wheat Basin, traveling with another man, to once again repossess the pickup truck. Robideau came outside to meet the two men when they arrived at the farm.
“I told him I had to take the pickup back,” Nordahl told the Gazette. “He told me, ‘You can’t leave us out here without any way to get around.’” So Robideau’s pregnant wife and three children took the trip back to Columbus with Nordahl’s friend, and Robideau rode in the repossessed truck with Nordahl, who told his friend to stay close on his tail in case there was trouble. But nothing transpired on the journey, and Robi-deau and his family were dropped off at a relative’s home south of Columbus.
Nordahl learned of the murders the next day. Larry Kuntz had identified Robideau as his parents’ killer, and Sheriff Jack Benjamin arrested the accused killer and locked him up.
“I was pretty relieved,” Nordahl told the Gazette. “But they still had to get a confession. He swore up and down he didn’t do it.” The county attorney Robideau had threatened, Pat Heily, continued to question the accused without a break.
“They didn’t hurt him, but they didn’t give him anything to eat or drink and they just kept at him,” Nordahl told the Gazette. “It went on all day, until 10 or 11 at night. I was there when Robideau broke down and said, ‘I did it.’”
Robideau was shipped off to jail in Billings to await his fate. On Dec. 11, he plead guilty to first degree murder before Judge Ben Harwood, who sentenced the confessed killer to be hanged Jan. 15, 1938. During the arraignment, Robideau declared that his real name was Joseph H. Liberty, a man who was no stranger to murder. He and his brother were found guilty of killing a man in New York State in 1910.
Robideau escaped from a chain gang in that state in 1912, changed his name, and migrated to Montana. Robideau would not confess to another unsolved murder in the area that had taken place years before. A taxi driver was shot to death a few miles west of Billings, the same night Robideau showed up at home wet and covered with mud, telling his landlord he had walked all the way from Billings. The caliber of the murder weapon was the same as the gun used to kill Mike and Frieda Kuntz.
“I have nuthin’ to feel sorry about them people—Mr. and Mrs. Kuntz,” said Robideau after being sentenced. “They put me in this mess I’m in now.”
Montana counties were respon-sible for imposing the death sentence until the 1940s. The Stillwater County seat of Columbus was reportedly a hopping place the night before the execution, scheduled to take place between 1 a.m. and 11 p.m. on the 15th. Robideau was reportedly in fairly good spirits on the trip from Billings to Columbus, alternately joking and being serious.
“My worst day was Thursday, when my wife and babies visited me (in jail in Billings),” Robideau reportedly said. “This is the easiest part of the whole thing…if taking my neck pleases them and eases the feelings against me, my conscience is clean…I’m not the first man to be hung and I’m not the last.”
As the death caravan drew near just before 1:00 a.m., there were dozens and dozens of cars parked near the Columbus machine shop turned into a place of execution. Montana’s Galloping Gallows, a moveable affair, was in place inside the shop awaiting Robideau.
At 1:08 a.m. the caravan arrived, and a minute or two later Robideau, wearing a new green polka-dot shirt and blue coat, began his walk up the 13 steps leading to the noose, escorted by Sheriff Benjamin and undersheriff Paul Rosean.
“All I wish to say is if you have any sympathy to show, show it to my wife and family, as they need it,” Robideau said at the last. “I don’t. That’s all I have to say.” A black hood was placed over Robideau’s head, the noose fastened, and when Sheriff Benjamin snap-ped his fingers at 1:11 a.m., the trap door of the Galloping Gallows opened. Robideau dropped through and met his maker.
There would not be another public execution in Stillwater County, and the last hanging in Montana took place in Missoula in 1943. There would not be another execution in the state until 1995, when Duncan McKenzie, on death row for 20 years, was executed by lethal injection, the only way the death sentence can now be imposed in Montana. Only Washington State still allows those sentenced to death to choose hanging instead of lethal injection, though New Hampshire retains hanging as a backup method.