North Dakota kidnappings ended in Fargo-Moorhead border shootout 40 years ago
A man and his grandson from Bismarck, a farm family of six from rural Adrian and an Osnabrock family of five, stopped at a rest area near Valley City, were all kidnapped and released by two escaped Nevada convicts during a daylong crime spree and pursuit on Oct. 21, 1981. The chaos ended in a shootout with police on the I-94 bridge.
FARGO — People think Brian Jansen is fibbing when he says he was kidnapped at gunpoint from his North Dakota farmhouse as a child, which led the escaped murderers from Nevada who took him and his family to a shootout with police in the end.
Sometimes he shows them a newspaper clipping about it from 40 years ago.
“It's true. Just mind-blowing,” Jansen said, recalling the ordeal.
It began the morning of Oct. 21, 1981, lasted more than nine hours and covered about 200 miles, from Bismarck to the Minnesota side of the Interstate 94 bridge between Fargo and Moorhead.
The escapees stole vehicles and took 13 people hostage at various stops, releasing some along the way before any shots were fired.
A man and his grandson from Bismarck, six members of Jansen’s family from rural Adrian and a family of five from Osnabrock, whose van was commandeered at a Valley City rest area, were among the victims.
The van, on the I-94 bridge with the family still inside, was the spot of the final standoff, where more than 40 shots were fired between the suspects and police.
Miraculously, no one was injured, but there was blame to go around afterward about how the developing chaos was handled.
Sandy Jansen, now 74, who was taken hostage with husband Bruce and four of their five children, including Brian, is grateful to this day that no one was killed or hurt.
“I think about how fortunate we were. They never threatened us,” she said.
The hostage-taking, chase and border shootout was voted the top story of 1981 by the state’s news organizations.
David W. Rice, 42, and Michael E. Schellenbarger, 28, were both serving life sentences for murder in Nevada.
At age 18, Schellenbarger was convicted of killing two people in a dispute over a car.
Rice was convicted of killing a female traveling companion and was serving a concurrent sentence for kidnapping.
The inmates became close friends and on Oct. 18, 1981, walked away from a prison work camp near Carson City.
They held up customers at a lodge at Lake Tahoe, stole a car and took a woman hostage who was later released in California, according to later news reports.
Before the men’s North Dakota exploits came to light, controversy over their escape erupted in Carson City.
The district attorney who prosecuted Schellenbarger for his crimes and later, as a judge, became Schellenbarger’s chief advocate during his probationary period, expressed disappointment over the escape, according to a United Press International story at the time.
“I regret this for his sake,” said then-Nye County District Judge William Beko.
Beko had kept in touch with the young man, and after he became a district judge, he asked for clemency for Schellenbarger from the Nevada Board of Pardons.
The board voted to allow Schellenbarger to apply for parole two years early.
He was released in spring of 1980 but was back in prison over parole violations the month before the escape.
“Obviously, I made a mistake,” said Beko, according to the UPI story. “I never thought he would go sour, especially doing this.”
'Don't look back'
On that October day, Rice and Schellenbarger made their way to North Dakota in a stolen car.
Leslie Grotewold, 75, of Bismarck, was doing bookkeeping at his son’s home when the doorbell rang around 10:30 a.m.
The suspects claimed to need a doctor, and once Grotewold opened the door, they robbed him of $500 and his credit cards at gunpoint, according to Forum reports.
“I foolishly tried to wrestle with one of them and broke my glasses and tore my new sport coat. He was going to kill me, so I behaved,” Grotewold said at the time.
When Grotewold didn’t come home for lunch, his 26-year-old grandson Keith Grotewold came to check on him and got swept up in the ordeal.
The suspects forced the men into Grotewold’s new Buick Skylark, with Keith at the wheel, leaving the other stolen vehicle behind in the neighborhood.
The car headed east on I-94 from Bismarck, traveling about 70 miles before stopping just shy of Medina, where the suspects released grandfather and grandson.
Grotewold said the men walked them into a field and yelled, “Don’t look back.”
He and his grandson feared they would be shot; instead, the suspects drove off and the Grotewolds made their way to Medina to alert authorities, who would soon be on the trail.
From I-94, Rice and Schellenbarger headed south on Highway 30, then east along Highway 46, where they pulled into the long driveway of a dairy farm near Adrian around 5 p.m.
Bruce Jansen was in the farmhouse garage, searching for a part to fix his milking machine.
It was a Wednesday, with the Jansen kids looking forward to a four-day weekend due to teachers’ conventions.
Brian, 13 and Kelly, 11, were getting ready to milk cows. Brother David, 7, came out to the barn, claiming there were guys in the yard with guns.
“We’re out in the middle of nowhere on the farm. There can't be. It’s got to be a story,” said Brian Jansen, now 53 and living in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area.
Inside the farmhouse, Sandy Jansen was in a bedroom changing clothes while 2-year-old daughter Kerri Jo was in the kitchen.
Her husband has since died, and Sandy moved off the farm only a few months ago.
Now 74 and living in Jamestown, she said she heard some odd noises that afternoon 40 years ago and went to investigate.
“There’s this man standing in my kitchen with my daughter in one arm and a gun in the other,” she said in a recent phone interview with The Forum.
The gunmen rounded up the family except for Jason, 5, who happened to be staying with grandma at the time.
All eight people piled into the stolen Buick Skylark with Bruce Jansen at the wheel and headed north, back to the interstate.
Sandy said she was scared when the men said they were escaped convicts doing time for murder.
Brian Jansen remembers the men talking about wanting to disappear in a large city.
He pictured his 13-year-old self, sitting next to one of the men with a gun on his lap.
“Do I want to chance grabbing this gun I don't know how to use? So I just kind of was quiet,” Brian said.
The car pulled into a rest area near Valley City so one of the kids could use the bathroom.
There, the suspects saw opportunity in a blue and white 1969 Ford van in the parking lot, and plans changed.
At the rest stop, the suspects ditched the Buick and made a move for the van, letting the Jansen family go in the process.
Kelly Jansen was mistakenly herded into the van at first but was released to rejoin his family after a few panicky moments.
Jerome and Diane Swanson of Osnabrock, with sons Kori, 12, Kelly, 9, and daughter Becky, 4 months, in their van, became the next hostages.
By now, law enforcement vehicles were posted nearby, but they didn’t intervene.
As the van pulled out, one suspect fired a shot over the heads of pursuing officers.
Law enforcement trailed the van over the 60-mile stretch toward Fargo, occasionally pulling up alongside and dropping back when a suspect flashed a gun.
When the van stopped just short of a police blockade on the Moorhead side of the I-94 bridge, a shot from inside was aimed toward officers, according to previous Forum reporting.
Police fired back, and Rice pulled Kori Swanson onto his lap to use as a shield.
The noise of a North Dakota Highway Patrol airplane overhead added to the challenges, obscuring some communications on the ground.
Officers blew out the van’s tires, and a shotgun blast blistered but didn't shatter the van’s windshield. It wasn’t long before the suspects surrendered around 8 p.m.
Rice and Schellenbarger faced charges in Minnesota and North Dakota, including kidnapping, aggravated assault and attempted second-degree murder.
Both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a total of 30 years each, to be served concurrently with life sentences for murder in Nevada.
After the incident, 12 law enforcement agencies met to critique their handling of the incident and decided to hold a mock hostage-taking to practice their responses.
Brian Jansen said his family didn’t talk much about the incident afterward, in an effort to try to put it behind them.
“We were celebrities when we went back to school that Monday, though,” he said with a laugh.