Rhonda's View Rendezvous: Drug store robbery a mystery for a month

11:01 AM, Jan. 21, 2013  |  Comments
Rhonda Whetstone
Rhonda Whetstone
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Edward Coyle, a pharmacist by trade, owned the Wood County Drugstore on Vine Street in Grand Rapids. It later would become Coyle's Drug Store, 130 East Grand Ave., Wisconsin Rapids when the street and city names were changed.

On the night of April 5, 1921, the Coyle Drug Store was robbed.

Thieves broke in sometime after midnight, cracked a safe containing $500, and made off with the money, Camel cigarettes from the tobacco case and a lot of flashlight batteries from another show case.

At 7:30 the following morning, a clerk entering the store by the front door found things in general disorder. The back door was found open, the safe open, cases ransacked and other items missing. While the safe itself was not harmed, the security box within was pried open, and the money taken.

As soon as the robbery was reported, Police Chief Payne and County Sheriff Mueller decided to send to Mauston for a bloodhound.

The dog, arriving at noon, first was hindered by the large crowds that had gathered, but when he found his scent, he headed right to the Wisconsin River behind the Elk's Club.

The Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune reported the officers held the opinion that the thief either came up the river or had a car waiting in back of the store.

Payne held the theory that it was an inside job as the door was not forced and the safe seemingly was opened by combination. He was right, but it would be a month before the mystery was solved.

The break in the case came when George Weaver, Ed Burns, Almond Le Claire and Ralph Jewel, all of Milwaukee, were arrested and held in Elkhorn after the same sort of burglary there April 13.

This time, the men broke into a hardware store, taking knives, tools and other items, then went to a garage where they were in the process of stealing tires when apprehended.

In a scene right from a movie, a running gunfight ensued. The Le Claire auto died, but Burns ran to a passing freight and hopped on. He was captured at Burlington.

According to the Grand Rapids Wood County Tribune, after a confession was wrested from the three, the Coyle robbery was mentioned as one the men committed, and Payne was notified in early May.

Weaver had been a former employee of Coyle's, living in town and working at the drug store for half a year, after which time he joined the service. Upon his discharge, he often visited the area and Coyle's store.

Coyle said he felt the young man was very trustworthy. This seems to be borne out in the fact that several prominent Wisconsin Rapids people wrote letters to Judge Lyons in Walworth County, asking for leniency in Weaver's sentencing, citing the 26-year-old as a "good" man.

Weaver and Jewel both pleaded guilty to the charges in Elkhorn and said they would testify against Burns and Le Claire who were pleading innocent.

Warrants were issued here charging the men with the Coyle burglary, but nothing could be done until the Elkhorn sentences were served.

Judge Lyons, unswayed by the public outcry from Wood County, sentenced Weaver and Jewel to 23 years at hard labor in Waupun.

Soon after, Weaver applied for a pardon, and in February 1922, Gov. Blaine commuted the sentences of both Weaver and Jewell, effective May 9, 1922, one year from the beginning of their incarceration. Later that year, Burns and Le Clair also were pardoned. Blaine cited "excessive sentencing" as his rule for release.

There is no record of Weaver ever being charged with the Coyle burglary. He returned to Milwaukee where he died in 1986.

Coyle sold his store in December 1944.

Rhonda Whetstone is a columnist for Daily Tribune Media, News-Herald Media and Stevens Point Journal Media. Rhonda's Twitter ID is TribRendezvous, if you wish to follow her musings there. You also can get previews to upcoming columns by clicking "like" Rhonda's View Rendezvous on Facebook. If you have story ideas of a historical nature, email her at Rhonda.Whetstone@gmail.com.

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