Rhonda's View Rendezvous: The Long Island Gang terrorizes Grand Rapids

1:14 PM, Oct. 7, 2013  |  Comments
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Author's note: First of two parts.

It was October 1908 when the arrests were finally made, after an autumn of arson and burglaries. The four boys, ranging in age from 11 to 15, had held Grand Rapids in some fear with their fires and other actions.

Headquartered on Long Island just above the Green Bay and Western bridge, the boys plotted their crimes. The ring leader appeared to be Earle Hein, but Henry Podawiltz, Leo Caine and Francis Sell all were eager to go along with Hein.

The fires, which spanned four weeks, did damage estimated at $10,000. As fire after fire occurred without a cause or theory, it finally was assumed there were firebugs operating in the city. The Grand Rapids Wisconsin Valley Leader said it was the "work of either an insane person or an idiot."

The first fire occurred on a Tuesday night when a barn on the Roenius farm was destroyed. The second fire took place two days later when the old foundry and machine shop belonging to Mr. Roenius burned.

The thought that perhaps only Roenius was being targeted was proved wrong when on Sunday night, October 18, not far from the foundry, the old Pioneer Wood and Pulp Mill built in 1882, the oldest mill in the Wisconsin River Valley, went up in flames. While the mill had been idle for a couple months, it nonetheless was still a functioning company. Unfortunately, not covered by insurance it was never rebuilt.

During the third fire however, Dwight Huntington's hardware store was robbed. A case containing guns was broken into and two revolvers, several boxes of cartridges and knives were taken. Things had taken a turn for the worse.

Even before the last fire, Sheriff Welch felt this band of boys from the island was somehow connected to what was happening, so he began to investigate their whereabouts during the hours of the previous fires.

The first thing Welch learned was that Heins was not at home at the time of the fires, but after the third fire he had more evidence and in a page taken right from the CSI units of today, the wily sheriff got the boys to confess with evidence found at the scene of the crimes.

At the rear of Huntington's store there were several plain footprints and the sheriff took careful notes and measurements of them. Returning to the jail, Welch decided to see if the boys would give themselves away.

At this same time, Henry Podawiltz's sister Vinnie from Milwaukee, had sent a letter to her brother and it fell into the sheriff's hands. Henry Podawiltz was brought to the jail to talk about the letter. After a few minutes of talking, Welch had the boy put his foot upon his knee and measured the shoe carefully. It matched perfectly with the tracks found at the store. The sheriff then said he had Hein in jail and that Hein had confessed it was the two of them who broken into the store, and then he showed the boy how the measurements taken confirmed Podawiltz was there.

The ruse worked and Henry Podawiltz admitted to the robbery but said Hein was the one actually setting the fires. After that, it was easy to find out who else was involved and once arrests were made, all the boys came clean, with Earle Hein telling the clearest story.

Calling themselves "The Long Island Gang," with Caine as captain, Hein as lieutenant and Sell and Podawiltz as "slaves," they planned all sorts of deviltry, although they did not always act in concert.

Hein and Delbert Bliss, a younger member of the gang burned the barn just to see the fire. They set the fire with a burning straw.

As for the foundry fire, that was Leslie and Delbert Bliss, together with Hein. They stole gasoline from the Bliss house and poured it on the elevator and lit the fire.

Relative to the pulp mill, Hein, Podawiltz, Francis Sell and Leo Caine planned to rob Huntington's store and met outside the Christian Science Church to arrange details. Huntington was a member of the fire department, so they burned the mill to be sure that he was fighting the fire, not still at his store. At the last minute, Sell and Podawiltz lost their nerve and twice put out the fires that Hein set, but after they went outside, Hein fired the building alone. While Huntington was fighting the fire, Hein and Podawiltz robbed his store and returned to their hideout to divide the plunder with everyone.

But there were more confessions to come - more boys involved, more robberies, and a certain "sickly sentimentality" as the newspaper called it - that threatened to keep the boys from punishment.

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