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Follow up on the Call case

April 18, 2009
By Howard Riley,

Here is a recap of last week's column James A. Call, 29, a decorated Air Force major who had flown many missions in Korean War was a gambler and heavily in debt. Then despondent when his 24-year-old wife, Muriel, died of a liver ailment he went AWOL, failing to show up for an assignment at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. It was Aug. 5, 1954.

He headed for the Adirondacks stealing from camps and empty homes until he was trapped in a cabin on West Valley Road in Lake Placid. There he shot and killed one police officer and wounded two others, escaped into the woods and started the most massive manhunt every seen in the Adirondacks.


Article Photos

Call arriving at the Town Hall in Lake Placid in November 1954. Maybe you can find yourself in the crowd.
(Photo from the Watertown Daily Times)

More from Dave Riotto

Some of last week's column was taken from a story Dave had writ10 years after his stint at the Enterprise during the time the Call case erupted. He was then in transition from editorial work to advertising and later owned and published his own newspaper in California. Here is a bit more of Dave's narrative, written in the third person:

"Call was nervy alright. Weeks later, he emerged from the woods into the village of Tupper Lake and boldly joined a group of lads in a softball game. They considered him a nice guy and brought him food after a lunch break. One of the mothers, however, called the police warning them that a stranger was asking for food. They found him enthusiastically coaching the kids in pitching and fielding.

"To the request to identify himself, Call, smiling and appearing puzzled by the questioning, stated he was from Massachusetts on vacation to do some hiking. He apparently satisfied the police with some bogus identification and his easy manner. He was also clean shaven, neatly clothed, very cooperative, self assured and amiable.

"The police at this point had no idea of Call's identification. They had no prints and descriptions of the killer were sparse and conflicting. Explaining to Call the necessity for detaining him, one officer, in his naivete detailed the manhunt stating the killer had been in the woods for over a month, that he was still there and warned the stranger to be careful as he hiked the trails. 'Look,' he apologized, 'we had to check you out, we're checking everybody, but the killer certainly wouldn't look like you. After several weeks in the woods, he must be filthy and bearded. Besides, he's armed and would probably shoot on sight.' "


From Gene Walsh in California

I heard from another Enterprise alum out in California, Gene Walsh, who has ink in his veins. He sent this vignette about Editor Nason and the Call case:

"Your describing the actions of Harry Nason are very memorable. I was with the paper, covering local sports and grinding out a column three days a week. Never had a great deal of contact with Harry (more with Art Rogers, sports editor and Yale grad who came to Saranac Lake with TB). Harry was a fascinating guy

"On that August 5, 1954 at about 7 a.m. I was in dreamland at 7 Olive St. (Gene worked mostly nights; the sports pages were the first made up) when my phone rang. It was Harry. 'Get you're a-- in here; we've had a police shoot-out in Lake Placid; I need you.'

"About 20 minutes later I was face to face with him. 'Three Lake Placid cops have been shot. Get up to the General Hospital and get me the status of Officer Valenze.' In another 20 minutes I'm outside the hospital room of Officer Valenze. I ask a nurse, 'how's he doing?' She responds: 'Not good but it doesn't appear to be a fatal wound.'

"I find a pay phone to pass that info to Harry. His wife, Helen, an editor answers the phone and calls to Harry. 'Walsh on one.' Harry asks, 'How is he?' I quote the nurse, Harry says, 'Hang around. Call me if he gets off the death watch.'

"I hung around a few hours until a doctor told me the officer was going to make it. I passed the information to Harry who said something like, 'got it.'

"I went back to the office. He had everything under control. He told me to go home. He didn't need me any more and proceeded to produce one of journalism's best reports of a police confrontation. Harry was at his best."

(Gene went on to a big job with NBC in New York City as PR guy for the Johnny Carson show.)


The great escape

Before getting into more details of the manhunt, it was Lake Placid police officer Richard Pelkey, 31, who was shot by Call and died eight days later, Officer J. Bernard Fell, also 31, and with Pelkey first into the cabin to capture Call, was shot twice in the stomach, and then Sgt. Dominick Valenze, 38, was shot twice in the chest as he responded. Officer John Fagan, still outside, did not fire then, in fear of hitting one of the officers. Call came out of the cabin using Fell as a shield, until he reached the edge of the woods close to the cabin. The officers fired into the woods in the dark at the fleeing gunmen, not knowing if they had hit him. Apparently they did not.


Call dodges the dragnet

Dave Shampine in a column dated October 2006 in the Watertown Daily Times entitled "Times Gone By," wrote a well researched and detailed story about the Call case. It was one of the best I have found. Here, with Mr. Shampine's permission, are excerpts:

"On this night, Nov. 20, 1954, James Arlon Call, who had slipped through the searcher's web to reach Reno, Nev., was to be committed to the Essex County Jail in Elizabethtown, charged with first degree murder in the shooting of a police officer.

"Had he not been carrying a newspaper clipping about the manhunt in New York, police in Reno might never have learned that their suspect in four house burglaries was a cop killer from the East."

These quotes about the manhunt in the Shampine story are attributed to Capt. Harold Muller:

"He carefully surveyed the roadblocks and learned that the roads were effectively being patrolled he remained for several hours, well concealed among the foliage at a vantage point and actually clocked the troop cars patrolling a road he had to cross."

Last week's column not only quoted Mr. Shampine but there were quotes from Enterprise and Post Standard clippings of the event that I should have credited but simply lumped together as clippings from the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library.


(Next week: Call's 300-mile walk through the Adirondacks)



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