Nebraska Publisher

The day Duane Pope was sentenced to death

Thirty-five years ago — June 4, 1965 — Duane Pope entered the Farmers State Bank in Big Springs and killed three staff members, leaving another one for dead.
Bob Pinkerton, then publisher of the Western Nebraska Observer at Kimball, covered the sentencing hearing on Jan. 29, 1970, at Chappell.
Pinkerton is co-publisher and works part-time at the newspaper. He is a 1954 graduate of the NU School of Journalism. This is his account of a camera in the courtroom.

By Bob Pinkerton

The deputy sheriff turned suddenly toward us. Eddy just stared straight ahead, as did I, but I could feel the beads of sweat forming on my forehead.

After what seemed like minutes, the courtroom in Chappell returned to normal. Then another loud noise permeated the room: the same noise that had earlier gotten the deputy’s attention.

"Ka chunk!”

Photographers knew it as the loud noise of a focal-plane shutter as its metal parts moved across the film plane. Oh, what Eddy would have given for a somewhat quieter, interleaved, between-the-lens shutter on that day!

This is a confession of sorts. The statute of limitations should protect me. Most of the principals, with the exception of a man imprisoned for life and one of his victims, are dead.

Eddy Sykes, who had worked for me at the Western Nebraska Observer in Kimball in 1964-65, was freelancing as a photographer that day and publishing a monthly publication called Western Outlook that a number of weekly newspapers, ours included, inserted in their editions.

We were at the sentencing hearing for Duane Pope, a Kansan who cold-bloodedly murdered three persons and left another to die. The survivor took a bullet in the back and was paralyzed and has used a wheelchair since that day.

I had decided to cover the hearing partly because it occurred on a Thursday. In the weekly newspaper field, one could cover news 65 miles away without too much trouble if it wasn’t on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, the latter our printing day. I was especially interested because presiding Judge John C. Kuns was from Kimball.

Sykes told me before the court proceeding that he was going to take photographs inside the courtroom, a practice banned in those days. If Eddie were caught, he would get a contempt of court citation and a tongue-lashing of extreme proportions from Kuns, known for his acerbic judicial style.

But Eddy said an Associated Press man in Omaha had told him AP would pay $100 for photos inside the courtroom, and Sykes wouldn’t be denied.

We were standing at the back of the room so that, theoretically, Sykes could shoot pictures unnoticed. He kept the camera hidden under his jacket and would periodically pull it out, hold it chest high and click. He hadn’t counted on a deputy’s standing so close, probably eight feet away.

I wasn’t sure how this would play out, but I didn’t want anything to do with it. I was uneasy even standing beside Eddy. The camera noise was deafening to us but probably pretty much unnoticed by everyone else except the deputy. Each time the shutter went off, the uniformed officer looked over, puzzled. Because of slow film speed, the shutter made an even louder and more prolonged noise than usual. After each shot the 35mm camera went back inside Sykes’ jacket.

After surviving three or four “shots” we knew we were home free when no one handcuffed us and dragged us from the room.

Judge Kuns sentenced Duane Pope to death that day. His parents got back into their Chevy for the long drive home to Kansas. I dutifully recorded the look on their faces as they ignored reporters’ questions.

I returned to Kimball and began writing the events of the day, recounting the horrific details of the bank robbery in Big Springs and the execution-style murders by Pope. It was a troubling story, and I became engulfed in it.

Pope was one of eight children of farmers in Roxbury, Kan., had attended McPherson College and earned a degree in education. He had refused to take a practice teaching course, so his teaching degree was useless. One report listed his IQ at 123.
About the time I realized I had written a feature story long enough to take up nearly a full page, I got a call from Eddy. On the advice of attorneys, AP had reneged on the deal, he said, and wouldn’t touch the photos “with a 10-foot pole.” He was sending the prints to me to use if I wanted them.

Knowing it would bring the wrath of Kuns and other jurisprudence gods on me, I wasn’t about to publish the pictures, either. It was indefensible, and not even Sigma Delta Chi, the fraternity of news journalists, would have gone to bat for me. I would have rotted in some cell, and the death sentence probably would have been overturned because of the folly of the Observer. (It was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court anyway, as were all death penalty sentences of the time, and it would be years before states started executing convicted inmates again.)

I did need more art to illustrate my full-page story, however. I had shot a couple of outdoor photos as deputies brought in the killer and of Pope’s parents leaving the courthouse after sentencing.

An idea struck me as I worked late at night putting the page together.

I would trace lightly on top of the pictures with sketching motions. Voila! A perfectly acceptable pen-and-ink sketch of the courtroom scene. In those days, and still in some “no-cameras” courtrooms today, artists are employed to sketch or paint the scene. While I have always enjoyed doodling, I was never much good at art. But I can trace!

The tracings of Kuns on the bench in a crowded courtroom and a profile of Pope appeared with my story, and I was quite proud of the result. Of course, I couldn’t admit tracing over photos or attributing anything to Eddy, and I didn’t credit the sketches with my name.

The story won a first place feature story award in the National Newspaper Association contests.

My “sketches” were rough enough that they seemed plausible, I’m sure. And they did add an element of interest to the page.

But I’ll never forget the “ka chunk” of a shutter in a somber courtroom that day when Duane Pope was sentenced to die.

Most of those involved in trial are dead
Pope is imprisoned in a federal correctional institution

Pope entered the Farmers State Bank in Big Springs, not far from Chappell, June 4, 1965. He gunned down Andreas Kjeldgaard, 77, Glenn Hendrickson, 59 and Lois Ann Hothan, 35. A nephew of Andreas Kjeldgaard, Franklin Kjeldgaard, then 25, was paralyzed from the waist down.

Today Kjeldgaard is president of the Farmers State Bank. The bank built a new building about 15 years ago that is handicapped-accessible, and Kjeldgaard goes to the bank daily and gets along “pretty good,” a co-worker said. He never married.

Victim Glenn Hendrickson’s only son, Ron, lives in Big Springs and is involved in an agency named Kjeldgaard-Hendrickson Insurance. The third victim, Lois Ann Hothan, had two sons, Rick and Kim, who live in Ogallala.

Thirty years after the sentencing, everyone principally involved is dead: Judge John Kuns, Eddy Sykes, Pope’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Earl Pope. Bob Richards of Chappell was prosecutor; he died about a year ago. Walt McKinney, court reporter from Sidney is deceased. So is former Gov. Bob Crosby, one of Pope’s attorneys who argued for life, not death.

Duane Pope languishes in a prison at Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla. He also served time in Leavenworth, Kan., and Washington state. Reports were that he was offered a move to a Nebraska prison, but he demurred.

Pope had been tried in federal court for bank robbery in which a death occurred. He was sentenced to death, but the Supreme Court later vacated that sentence, and he was given three life sentences instead. After that the state decided to prosecute for first degree murder. Pope waived his right to a jury trial and chose to face only one judge: John Kuns. He pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. While Kuns had heard the arguments earlier, he delayed announcing the verdict until that day 30 years ago in a Chappell courthouse.

Pope was motionless as he heard the words from Kuns:

“The court comes to the conclusion, when taking all circumstances together, that they require that the severe penalty of death be imposed in this case. The decision is not taken lightly.”