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The Major Call case

April 11, 2009
By Howard Riley

The original lead paragraphs on the story of the indictment of James A. Call for first-degree murder in the shooting of a Lake Placid police officer, as published in the Enterprise in 1955, was carried in this space last week. So we know the end of that event, but here are excerpts from a story written by Rosario (David) Riotto about the great manhunt that ensued after the shootings. Dave had been Enterprise advertising manager; he later owned and published the Argus Courier in Pentaluma, Calif.

Let's hope this short version of Dave's story, written in the third person, will do justice to the excellent manuscript from which it is taken. The story opens during an ordinary morning in the Enterprise newsroom.

"Then all hell broke loose. The wire was going crazy; Harry Nason was barking orders left and right. (Nason had been editor of the New York World when there were seven daily newspapers published in NYC; he had arrived in Saranac Lake to cure for TB at Will Rogers Hospital and that was his route to becoming editor of the Enterprise). It was Aug. 5, 1954. The day an AWOL Air Force Major, James Arlon Call, shot and killed one police officer and seriously wounded two others. It was the start of a massive man-hunt that would end several months later in the gambling town of Reno, Nevada.

"Call was a degenerate gambler. He was also the holder of the Air Medal with 17 Korean missions to his credit. As part of his military training, he had become an expert in escape tactics. Only 29 years old, Call was personable, articulate, intelligent, and handsome and assured of a brilliant Air Force career.

"With his gambling debts mounting and the pressure to square himself increasing, the sudden burden of his wife's untimely death drove him over the edge. He drifted to the Adirondack Mountains where well-heeled high stake gamblers could be found. He became a check forger, a burglar and an armed robber. He was sought by the Air Force and police authorities and he stole wherever, whenever and whatever he could. He built an ingenious lean-to, stocked it with stolen food and camping equipment and built his fires in deep holes covered with foliage that dispersed the smoke preventing it from going upwards. The location of the lean-to was so cleverly concealed that it was never found by the 300 law enforcement and deputized civilian man hunters until Call left the woods.

"Versions of the shootout vary but during his forays, Call got into the habit of staying in one particular cabin. The police, however, had been watching this one cabin, and as Call entered a rear door, he heard a commotion out front. It was the police with orders to surround the cabin. Call dropped into the cellar, crawled into a shower stall, pulled out his Lugar and waited."

The news coverage

Now we are switching the story from Dave to the actual press coverage, at that time taken from news clippings in the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library.

The cabin in the story was located on West Valley Road and owned by Dr. James Perkins, a dentist from Watervliet. In July, Dr. Perkins went to his camp and discovered an intruder there making coffee that ran out the back door.

Figuring correctly that the intruder would return, police obtained a key from Dr. Perkins and left the camp door unlocked. On Aug. 5, the Lake Placid police checked the door shortly after midnight and found it locked; their trick had worked. Only three days previous, on Aug. 2, a burglar had stolen about $100,000 in jewelry from the Lake Placid Club, so the police were looking for a prowler or a burglar, not a cold-blooded killer. The following is from a news clipping:

"After summoning police backup to the camp officers J. Bernard Fell, 31, and Richard Pelkey, 31, unlocked the door and walked in. Sgt. Dominick Valenze, 38, and Officer John Fagan were outside watching the exits.

"When nobody was found on the main floor the officers started down the stairs with revolvers drawn. A volley of gunshots rang out (versions I have read claimed Pelkey fired at least five rounds into the shower stall when he spotted Call there with a gun). Call jumped out firing his Lugar hitting Pelkey in the chest and leg and Officer Fell was hit twice in the stomach. (Fell was Chief of the Lake Placid Volunteer Fire Department at that time.)

"After the gravely wounded Officer Pelkey retreated up the stairs, the gunman picked up Officer Fell and using him as a shield went up the stairs. Sgt. Valenze responding to the gunfire rushed in the front door and was shot twice in the chest. The gunman still using Officer Fell as cover made his way to the door and warned Officer Fagan not to fire. He then dropped Fell and ran into the woods.

"The officers fired as the fugitive ran into the woods. They were uncertain if any bullets had hit him. Sgt. Valenze staggered to the patrol car and radioed for help." Officer Pelkey died eight days later. Valenze and Fell recovered.

To be continued next week ...



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