He fired multiple shots at one man and left him on an office floor for dead. Moments later he coldly executed another. Richard Lee McNair says he would have killed a third man who stumbled onto the scene if the opportunity was right. Fortunately, very fortunately, another murder was narrowly avoided that night in Minot.
Details of McNair's horrendous actions that November 1987 night in Minot are brought forth in a book authored by Byron Christopher of Edmonton, Alb. The veteran crime reporter titled his publication "The Man Who Mailed Himself Out of Jail," a reference to one of McNair's several escapes from custody. The book was digitally released by Amazon.com on June 20.
Today the man known as much for his escapes as his cold-blooded killing in Minot endures a lonely existence inside a very small cell in a prison named ADX Florence in Colorado. Known as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," the "supermax" facility is often cited as the most secure and most escape-proof prison in the world. McNair shares his harsh environment with a hideous list of many of the cruelest, most dangerous and most despised criminals in U.S. history. It is a place McNair earned through his own actions.
Retired Ward County Sheriff Vern Erck, left, and
Whitesell, are outside the home where escapee Richard Lee McNair
attempted to take refuge in 1988.
McNair's tightly enclosed neighborhood includes Thomas Edward Silverstein, currently the longest held prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States. The convicted murderer has been in prison since 1977 and in solitary since 1983. Silverstein has been convicted of four additional murders while imprisoned. One of those cases was overturned.
The list of other notorious prisoners at ADX Florence sharing time with McNair includes 2012 Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad, 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, serial bombers Ted Kaczynski and Eric Rudolf, shoe bomber Richard Reid, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols, and Robert Hanssen, the former FBI agent who informed the Soviet Union and Russia of several spies.
McNair's road to the supermax cell began in Minot with a series of burglaries, one of which went terribly wrong. McNair had broken into Farmers Union Elevator in east Minot, now SunPrairie Grain, when he was surprised by Richard Kitzman. The unsuspecting Kitzman was an elevator employee who entered the office area for the purpose of helping a truck driver fill a late night load of grain.
Using a .38 snubnose revolver, McNair shot at Kitzman through a glass door. The bullet grazed Kitzman's head and knocked him to the floor. Then McNair approached the fallen man and fired four more shots while standing over him. Believing he had killed Kitzman, McNair reloaded his revolver and stepped outside the elevator where the grain truck waiting to be loaded was idling.
Jerry Thies was behind the wheel of the truck, awaiting Kitzman's assistance in loading grain. The Minnesota trucker dimmed his lights as a courtesy to McNair. It was then that McNair realized the man he shot inside the elevator was not the driver of the truck. McNair approached the truck and fired several shots into Thies. Thies was killed instantly.
Inside the elevator, miraculously, Kitzman remained alive. He survived by playing dead despite being shot at four times at close range. Kitzman had a wound to the side of his head. Another bullet went through a wrist. A third through his thigh and into his calf. Despite his wounds, Kitzman was able to make an emergency call to law enforcement. The shots that killed Thies were heard during Kitzman's phone call for help.
At the time of the murder and attempted murder McNair was no stranger to law enforcement. He had been a military police sergeant at Minot Air Force Base and had previously been engaged in undercover work for the Minot Police Department and Minot AFB. He had also been removed from his military police position due to suspected theft and reduced in rank.
"He was taken out of the cop force, cross-trained to another field," said Steve Whitesell of the Minot Police Department.
Whitesell was a security police investigator at Minot AFB at the time of the shootings and was somewhat familiar with McNair.
"I met him a couple of times," recalled Whitesell. "I knew what he looked like, what he drove. I knew he had gotten away with some theft, mailing footwear and stuff like that to Oklahoma to sell it."
Although it was not known to local law enforcement at the time, it was McNair who had been busy doing robberies in Minot for several months. While they didn't know McNair was the perpetrator, they did know that footprints discovered at the elevator were similar to those left behind at other break-ins. Authorities considered the footprints to be significant evidence.
On the night of the elevator break-in and shooting, McNair had secreted his vehicle at the Grain Hopper Bar, a short distance away where he thought it would not raise any suspicion. After the murder he returned to his vehicle, drove to his Minot home and waited there until his girlfriend arrived. Ironically, she worked at Trinity Hospital and was on her shift when Kitzman was brought into the emergency room with his bloody gunshot wounds, so she had heard a little about what had happened during the night.
When she asked McNair why he was unusually nervous, he responded that a killer was loose in Minot. She had no idea she was talking to the man who killed one and nearly killed another earlier the same night. Together they watched local television reports of the murder and subsequent manhunt.
Oddly, the case got a break a few months later when Signal Management requested assistance in seeking payment for overdue rent on a storage unit. The renter was Lee Richards of Minot AFB. Whitesell remembered receiving a phone inquiry about airman Lee Richards.
"We didn't have a Lee Richards but I checked a roster and knew it was Richard Lee McNair. The Social Security number was off in two places, but I knew his blue Dodge Ram pick-up and knew it was him who rented the storage unit in a fictitious name."
Boyd Galgerud of the Minot Police Department searched the storage unit and found some papers with Richard McNair's name on them. Also found were some new computers still in the box, rolls of carpet with tags attached, .38-caliber shell casings and an air compressor.
The air compressor was a critical piece of evidence. It was believed to be the one taken months earlier during a break-in at Smith-Rolles. Footprints from that crime scene appeared to match the ones left at the murder scene. It was the break investigators had been hoping for.
Retired Ward County Sheriff Vern Erck was a captain in the sheriff's office at the time of the murder and was heavily involved in the subsequent investigation.
"We knew if we found the air compressor we had our killer," said Erck. "He left a lot of evidence when he was doing burglaries and at the homicide, a very distinct foot pattern. It was a great physical evidence case."
With the discovery of evidence in the storage unit, authorities had plenty of reasons to suspect McNair was the killer. Believing police wanted to once again use his services for some undercover work, McNair drove himself to the police station. Upon arriving he was taken to the detective's area where the subject matter was anything but doing undercover work.
While undergoing questioning McNair asked to use the bathroom. He was accompanied by Galgerud.
"By the way, I have this gun," remarked McNair.
According to McNair, detectives ran their hands over his concealed holster while frisking him but failed to detect it. Disarmed, moments later McNair found himself handcuffed to a chair. He remained there while detectives left for a weekly luncheon session with other area law enforcement. Even though other officers were present, McNair was able to use lip balm to coat his wrist enough to slip out of the handcuffs.
The suspect fled the building, but not before slamming a door on officer Debbie Ness, seeing Galgerud fracture an ankle in pursuit and ignoring a "stop or I'll shoot" order from officer Michael Knoop. McNair scrambled up a stairway leading to the parking lot of the Minot Municipal Auditorium and Armory. He quickly stole a jacket from a coat rack in the armory. In a pocket was a set of keys bearing a Lincoln emblem.
A few seconds later McNair was behind the wheel of the Lincoln which was easy to locate in its parking spot outside the armory. Police cruisers had quickly cordoned off the exits to the parking lot but, seeing a man in a camouflage jacket, backed away to allow McNair to exit.
A few minutes later the stolen Lincoln stalled on Broadway near the post office. At the time, according to McNair, a Highway Patrol trooper was immediately behind him McNair stepped out of the Lincoln and pounded on its roof in disgust. He gave a friendly wave to the trooper who simply drove around him, unaware a fugitive was on the loose.
The escapee call reached law enforcement conferring at Minot's Homesteaders Restaurant. They immediately joined in the chase. McNair was surrounded at a vacant house at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Second Street Southeast behind St. Paul's Lutheran Church. The suspect was captured when he attempted to jump from the roof of the three-story home to a nearby tree. A branch broke and McNair fell hard on his back. The chase was over.
After being taken to Trinity Hospital for undisclosed injuries due to his fall, McNair feigned paralysis. When the ruse was discovered he was transferred to the Ward County Jail. While there he managed to chisel two blocks out of a cell wall. The attempt at escape was discovered shortly after McNair was assigned to another cell.
Not wishing to challenge the evidence against him, including the .38-caliber casings that matched the murder weapon, McNair pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder. He received two life sentences in the N.D. State Penitentiary in Bismarck. While there McNair participated in two escapes. The first was discovered. McNair got away in the second escape. Two other prisoners who participated in the breakout were captured outside the penitentiary grounds. McNair was not.
McNair managed to elude law enforcement long enough to stage a break-in, steal a pick-up truck and make his way to South Dakota. He was recaptured 10 months later in Grand Island, Neb. Now considered an "escape artist," McNair was incarcerated at a federal penitentiary in Pollock, La., for safe keeping.
It was from that facility in 2006 that his escape grabbed national headlines that resulted in more than a dozen appearances on the television program, "America's Most Wanted". McNair would be on the loose for 18 long months and commit dozens more burglaries before being caught for what authorities believe is the final time.
Erck said it was with great interest that he read Christopher's book which provides thorough details of McNair's crimes, escapes and time on the lam.
"The author has put together a very accurate account of the crime scene and escapes," said Erck. "This book also gives a rare look at the mind-numbing existence in ADX Florence. After thirty-five and one-half years in law enforcement, it gave me satisfaction knowing that our punishment is a living hell. I've mainly known what the victims went through. Now I know there is some measure of justice for these crimes."
According to Christopher, the book was five years in the making. Much of the material came from nearly 300 letters that McNair wrote to Christopher from behind bars.
"I think he's smart, maybe too smart for his own good at times," said Christopher. "He's quite clever, far more clever than the average person and certainly a lot more clever than the average con. I was on a prison beat for 25 years. There's not a lot of Einsteins in there."
Christopher said McNair certainly knew right from wrong. McNair's father was a deputy sheriff.
"He was very cold blooded," said Erck. "He stood over a man and emptied his gun on him. He was a thrill seeker who went to the dark side."
"I really thought he would kill again," said Whitesell. "I wonder if it wasn't the thrill. Gotta' be."
In one of his letters to Christopher, McNair wrote, "What I did I did out of boredom. It makes me ill. There's no excuse for the atrocity I alone committed."
"McNair is a convicted murderer," reminded Christopher in conversation with The Minot Daily News. "He shot one guy from behind and another guy like a mob-like execution. Richard Kitzman is lucky to be alive."
Unquestionably McNair had his share of luck in his escapes and evasion of law enforcement. Incredibly, he was within a few days of leaving Minot when he was arrested. McNair had taken an early out from the Air Force and had planned to take the contents of his storage unit with him to his home state of Oklahoma.
"If he would have cleared out that storage unit and left, what would there have been to tie him to the murder?" stated Whitesell.
"He almost got away from us," added Erck. "He was a week away from driving to Oklahoma. We probably never would have solved that one."
If McNair had served his time quietly in the N.D. penitentiary there is the possibility that he would have, or soon would be, released on parole. Now though, because of his history of escapes, dying behind prison walls seems a more likely fate for Minot's most infamous escape artist and killer Richard Lee McNair.