New book recounts a 1970 St. Paul murder

“Black White Blue” follows the 35-year investigation of police officer James Sackett’s unprecedented death in 1970.

Joseph Kleinschmidt

 

What: Author William Swanson discusses “Black White Blue”

Where: Coffman Union Bookstore, 300 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis

When: 4 p.m., Tuesday

Cost: Free

 

On the evening of May 22, 1970, a single shot killed St. Paul police officer James Sackett. The murder would remain unsolved for 35 years.

The unusual homicide captures a turbulent period for the St. Paul police department and surrounding community. Many police officers still refer to the murder as a “defining moment.”

Patrolman Sackett responded to an emergency phone call for a woman in labor — a deception used to bring an officer to the door of 859 Hague Ave But without physical evidence, the assassination-style murder remained a mystery until the efforts of investigators tied the event back to two suspects many years later.

As author and journalist William Swanson explores, in his new nonfiction account of the case, “Black White Blue: The Assassination of Patrolman Sackett,” the resulting investigation into the mystery of Sackett’s murder in no way resembled anything like a fictional hour of crime drama syndicated on basic cable.

“This is not the glamorous quick-solve police work that we’re led to believe exists on television,” Swanson said. “I hope people appreciate the amount of effort that good investigators put into a case.”

Years of police work, knocking on doors and sifting through mountains of files and reports finally brought two suspects — Larry Clark and Ronald Reed — to prosecution in 2006. The two are believed to have conspired to kill the police officer to impress the national leadership of the Black Panthers. Reed was later convicted of first-degree murder and is currently spending his life in jail for the assassination of Sackett, while Clark’s conviction was overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Later, prosecutors struck a plea deal and freed Clark in 2010 for conspiracy to commit murder. Swanson describes Reed and Clark’s motives in light of the historical context of the period.

“It was a wild time in American history,” Swanson said. “There was a lot of racial discord. There was a lot of animosity towards the police.”

“Black White Blue” attempts to explain the unrest in the Summit-University neighborhood by understanding the racial dynamics of the time. With only four black officers on the St. Paul police force in 1970, the local black community was sorely underrepresented. These and other factors contributed to a volatile relationship between police officers and the mainly black neighborhood.

“It’s a crime story, but it’s in the context of the always-difficult challenge of race relations,” Swanson said.

As a white writer detailing the investigation of a white officer’s death in a largely black neighborhood, Swanson’s narrative in “Black White Blue” and the resulting conviction represents a continuing controversy for those unwilling to accept the years of investigation.

“There are still a lot of people that feel justice was not done in this case,” Swanson said.

Because the case lacks concrete evidence, it continues to spark debate.

“There was never a murder weapon found. There were never any eyewitnesses to the shooting itself,” Swanson said. “And of course, there were no confessions.”

The story of “Black White Blue” chronicles a tragic death only amplified by the political context of an era where members of the black community were reluctant to speak to the police for fear of brutality. Swanson notes two shootings in February  1970 where white St. Paul police officers shot and killed young black men in deaths deemed justified.

 “That certainly stoked the anger at the time,” Swanson said. “Those two cases really stand out partly because of their proximity to the Sackett murder.”

“Black White Blue” includes perspectives from the Sackett family, police officers and members of the black community at the time, presenting a multilayered chronicle of an investigation. Swanson’s account attempts to recognize the murder both as historically and personally distressing.

“I think talking to people and approaching strangers and asking them to talk about the worst moments in their lives — that’s always difficult,” Swanson said. “I don’t care how many times you do it, that’s always difficult.

 “Black White Blue” aims to encapsulate the complex and heartbreaking story of a murder and its broader implications for a community; Swanson tries to reconcile a weave of conflicting narratives..

“I think as a writer it allows you to explore a lot of subjects and relationships,” Swanson said. “It allows you to talk about ordinary people who are in extraordinary circumstances and how they respond.”