TOLNA, ND — As the residents of Tolna, North Dakota prepared to celebrate America’s Bicentennial in 1976, they marked the occasion by publishing their own city’s history. Only 70 years old, Tolna, about 45 minutes southeast of Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, was in its infancy compared to colonial-era towns on the East Coast. Nevertheless, the 247 people who lived there were proud of the community they had built.
On the first page of the bicentenary book, which contained biographies of local families and stories of the city’s early businesses, the authors noted that Tolna was built by “stable and ambitious people” from Scandinavia, Germany, from England, Ireland and France. .
But they noted that navigation was not always easy for the early pioneers of the late 1800s and early 1900s: “With such a mix of people, one can understand that there were often disagreements, but luckily nothing too serious.”
However, less than three months later, with red, white and blue bicentennial merchandise still cluttering the shelves of the city’s five hundred, something very serious happened in Tolna.
Local farmer Engolf Snortland, 68, was shot dead on his land north of the town. In the years to come, the fallout from this unusual case would reach the Supreme Court and inspire groundbreaking legislation in Bismarck.
And it all started with the adventures of a 14-year-old smuggler.
Tolna’s Teenage Smuggler
Engolf Snortland was born on January 6, 1908 to Norwegian parents Simon and Malena Snortland. The fourth of eight children, at the age of 14, Snortland had started running with unsavory characters, moonshine-making smugglers near Tolna. Perhaps looking for more adventure than little Tolna could provide, Snortland got away with the gang.
The next time Snortland appears in the historical record was in the early summer of 1929, when at the age of 21 he added kidnapping to his criminal resume.
In the late 1920s, Snortland was part of a gang led by 47-year-old “Seattle George” Norman, a well-known North West mobster. The gang also included Albert Reynolds, 24, of Missouri, Robert Livingston, 18, of Alabama, and Frank Lane, 24, of Wisconsin. They were living in Idaho at the time and decided to rob a bank in Pierce, Idaho. But first, they needed a getaway car.
They were standing on a road outside Arrow, Idaho, waiting for a car and the victim inside. This victim would come in the form of William B. Kinne who later told an Associated Press reporter about his run-in with the gang.
“I had driven about half a mile past Arrow when four men, all brandishing pistols, came out from the side of the road and arrested me,” he said.
Kinne went on to say that the men forced him into the back of his car as a gang member began to drive away at “breathtaking speed”. As they reached 60 miles per hour, a tire exploded, knocking the car off the road and flipping it over.
Kinne said no one was seriously injured. As the group got out of the overturned car, another car stopped and two men got out hoping to help. But the gang, including Snortland, pulled out their guns and started shooting at the good Samaritans.
“In the ensuing battle several shots were fired,” Kinne recalled. He said one man was shot and beaten in the head with guns, while the other was badly beaten.
The gang ended up tying Kinne and his two rescuers to a tree while they took him away in the Good Samaritan’s car. Kinne and the other two men eventually freed themselves from the tree, but the suspects were long gone.
But Snortland and his gang of hooligans wouldn’t be free for long. They had chosen the wrong victim. Kinne was no ordinary Idaho motorist driving down the road. He was the state’s lieutenant governor.
Citizens were outraged by the kidnapping of a senior official.
“All able-bodied men who could leave their jobs in Nez Perce, Lewis, Latah, and Clearwater counties joined the search,” wrote Idaho history researcher and blogger Rick Just. “Indian trackers and scouts joined the farmers and loggers. Bloodhounds were flown in from Yakima.
The kidnappers were described as between 18 and 25 years old, armed and “desperate”. Later descriptions of Snortland, standing 6ft 2in and weighing 153lbs, included the phrase “tall, blond and lanky”.
After two days of searching, the four suspects were found. But they would not go down without a fight, trying to confuse the authorities about their true identity.
“Most of the culprits used pseudonyms, but Engolf Snortland was the name champion,” Just said. “He also passed through Egnos Snortland, Enos Snoysland, Robert Livingston, Frank Lane and Albert Reynolds”,
(Note that the last three names used by Snortland were the names of his partners in crime. This made the situation even more confusing for reporters who often used variations of the men’s names and aliases when listing them.)
It turns out that Snortland and his gang mates were victims of bad luck. They hadn’t planned to kidnap the lieutenant governor. They just needed a car and he showed up at the right place at the right time. But the heightened focus on crime could have led to their capture.
Snortland, Livingston, Lane and Reynolds were all sentenced to up to 25 years in prison, while ringleader Norman was sentenced to two years.
Unfortunately, after surviving his harrowing ordeal that summer, Lieutenant Governor Kinne would not survive the year. Only a few months after his abduction, he died of appendicitis.
After serving only five years, Snortland was released from Idaho State Penitentiary in 1934. He returned home to Tolna, for a fresh start on a farm with his wife Mae. According to the 1950 census, he and Mae had five children. Roger Snortland, third child and eldest son, picks up the story in a candid book he wrote about his father, “From Graystone to Tombstone”.
At around 8:30 p.m. on the evening of October 8, 1976, Engolf was in the kitchen of his farmhouse when he was struck and killed by two rifle bullets fired from outside the house. Just two days later, Nelson County officials issued an all-points bulletin for Roger’s brother and Engolf’s youngest child, Robert Snortland, in his father’s shooting death. Authorities said the two men argued over whether to shoot a dog that was disturbing their sheep.
Despite the all-points bulletin, arrest warrant, and searches, the years pass with no sign of Robert. Police believed he had fled the area. But in 1983, children playing near the Snortland property found his skeletal remains in a windbreak a few miles from the farm. Robert had died by suicide shortly after shooting his father.
Case law and legislation
In 1980, three years before Robert’s remains were discovered, the family went to court over property that father and son had once co-owned. The family objected to a Nelson County court ruling that Robert or his only child still had a claim to the land.
The following year, the state Supreme Court agreed with the lower court and ruled that Robert’s 2-year-old son Robbie had the right to share the estate because, despite the murder of his co-owner, North Dakota law had not deprived Robert of his rights to the property.
“For us it was just one more bad dream in a nightmare cycle,” wrote Roger Snortland in his book. Roger’s son Steve told the Jamestown Sun when he learned of the court’s decision: “It struck me as a very strange result.”
However, the matter was not settled for good. In 2007, 31 years after Engolf’s murder, the North Dakota Legislature unanimously passed “Killer’s Law”.
Its concept is “the prevention of unjust enrichment” which occurs when wrongdoers are allowed to profit from their actions. In other words, as soon as Robert “intentionally and criminally” killed his father, he lost all rights to the lands they once shared. Consequently, upon his presumed death, his heirs could not inherit it.
Roger Snortland died in 2001 shortly after completing the book about his family. Robbie sold his ownership of the farm property after he grew up and took possession of the trust that held his share.
The life of the teenage smuggler from Tolna ended in tragedy, but will forever be remembered by North Dakota law.