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'Yeah, that was a homicide': Long-delayed honor to be bestowed on slain St. Croix County cop

The Hudson Star-Observer was one of several newspapers that documented the shootout that left one officer dead and another with wounds that would later contribute to his death. Image courtesy of St. Croix County Sheriff's Office1 / 3
Lee Murphy2 / 3
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There is a special place in Washington, D.C., dedicated to law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty, but you won't find Lee Murphy's name there.

Not yet, anyway.

But after more than six decades since his death, the necessary combination of perseverance and influence was achieved to include the late St. Croix County highway patrolman's name on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial wall.

"It's historically important that we got it right," said St. Croix County County Sheriff Scott Knudson, one of several people involved in the effort to have Murphy memorialized on the wall.

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Murphy will be among those fallen officers recognized during National Police Week in May, when officials from around the country will gather at the wall to honor those killed in the line of duty.

Lee Murphy"It is sort of hallowed ground," said former St. Croix County sheriff's deputy Tom Vandeberg, who led efforts to recognize Murphy before his retirement.

Though Murphy died as a direct complication of injuries he sustained from an assailant's gunshot, his original death certificate lists natural causes. But since National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial officials require strict documentation proving someone died in the line of duty, it took a death-certificate change and political connections to see the effort through.

The slayings

Murphy was one of two officers shot June 14, 1953, in St. Croix County. The incident, later splashed across the front pages of the Hudson Star-Observer, the Minneapolis Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, began when Murphy and another officer, Harry Dieltz, stopped a man sought for an armed robbery in Amery.

Murphy approached the driver on Landing Hill between Somerset and Houlton on Highway 35/64. He asked him what some license plates were doing in the back seat.

"This is what they're doing," the man replied before opening fire on Murphy, wounding him in the shoulder, according to the account Dieltz gave the Minneapolis paper..

In spite of the wound, Murphy and Dieltz pressed on after the gunman sped off. They later caught up with him just south of the Lake Mallalieu bridge, where they were joined by Hudson Police officer Clarence Erickson Jr.

The suspect crashed into the concrete wall beneath the railroad bridge just south of the North Hudson line. He shot Erickson dead before jumping into a Hudson police car, where the other officers shot him to death.

To make things worse, Erickson's father had dispatched the entire ordeal for the highway patrol.

Mike Murphy knows the story well.

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The grandson of Lee Murphy, he said he is "very impressed with how dramatic that incident was in Hudson."

Mike Murphy, a lieutenant with the Wayzata (Minn.) Police Department, said he is acquainted with the colorful prose newswriters of the day used in telling the violent tale.

"If that thing," he said of one article, "is close to factual, that thing was awful."

Getting to the wall

Lee Murphy spent his remaining years in and out of hospitals and nursing homes. He had a stroke during surgery and never recovered. He died Sept. 22, 1955.

Over time, Erickson, who died on the scene, had his name added to the wall.

An illustration compares the site with a clip from the Minneapolis Tribune. Image courtesy St. Croix County Sheriff's Office

But Vandeberg and Knudson knew someone else from that violent day also belonged on the memorial.

Vandeberg submitted paperwork to the national police organization, but it was rejected for insufficient documentation connecting Murphy's death to the gunshot wound.

"There it laid dormant" for more than a decade, Knudson said.

That's when he decided to give it another push. After efforts to get documentation from hospitals and nursing homes turned up empty, Knudson turned to St. Croix County Medical Examiner Patty Schachtner and explained the situation.

Using old newspaper articles and a sworn affidavit from Harry Dieltz Jr., she successfully petitioned St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Michael Waterman to change the death certificate's cause to complications due to a gunshot.

"So yeah, that was a homicide," Schachtner said last week.

Knudson sent the amended death certificate up to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial with renewed hope for Lee Murphy's inclusion on the wall.

It still wasn't enough, Knudson explained. He figured he'd reached the end of the line.

"And then Patty becomes senator," he said of Schachtner's election to the Legislature in January 2018.

She said Lee Murphy was on her mind from Day 1.

"My No. 1 top priority was to get Lee Murphy's name on the wall," Schachtner said.

She enlisted the help of Senate staffer Amanda Tomten, who went to work.

"She got it done," Schachtner said.

Knudson got a letter in September from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial announcing that Lee Murphy's name would be formally dedicated at the May 13, 2019, annual candlelight vigil in Washington.

"To honor and to give that recognition — that's long overdue," Knudson said.

He quickly shared the news with Vandeberg.

"We were very, very happy that Sheriff Knudson ran with it and enlisted the help of Patty," he said.

Schachtner said that if she accomplishes nothing else in her time as a senator, she'll always be proud of helping to get Lee Murphy's name on the wall.

"Now that family, the Murphy family, can get the closure they need for that part of the story," she said.

Mike Murphy said he's deeply appreciative of the effort to place his grandfather's name on the wall.

"This should have been done a long time ago," he said.

He said he plans to visit the wall at some point. But as someone who shies away from fanfare, he said he might not do it as part of the May ceremony.

"It's a private and a humbling experience for me because it was a pretty dramatic incident," he said.

Knudson said fundraising efforts are underway to send St. Croix County officers to the ceremony in Washington.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

(651) 301-7867