Saturday, October 16, 2010

Stillwater's Caton Felix murder: Unsolved after 30 years




Neighborhood grocer was stabbed to death in the back of his Greeley Street store in October 1980, but no one has ever been charged in the crime.

By Karl Bremer

The blood of Caton Felix has long been scrubbed from the floor in the back of the old Stillwater neighborhood grocery and radio/tv repair shop that bore his name. Pre-schoolers romp today where the crumpled body of the 79-year-old storekeeper lay on that October night in 1980, dead from a single stab wound in the back that pierced his heart.

Three decades later, Felix’s killer still walks the streets, and the murder that robbed Stillwater of a little of its innocence remains unsolved—or at least unproven.

It’s not for lack of suspects or leads. There have been plenty over the years: a jailhouse confession overheard; a 17-year-old suicide victim; neighborhood youths who hung around Felix’s shop on South Greeley Street; a convicted murderer in another Stillwater homicide that took place less than a year later.

In some cases, even though the alibis for their whereabouts during the time the murder occurred just didn’t add up, there wasn’t enough physical evidence to conclusively tie them to the crime. In others, the source for the lead was not trustworthy or the motivation for offering it was suspect.

What’s lacking in every lead or person of interest is a clear motive. If it was robbery, the perpetrator almost certainly got less than $150. If not, well, there are theories about that too.

The murder weapon was never found. The case was further hampered by sloppy handling of what little physical evidence there was. The few fingerprints that were lifted from the crime scene were accidentally destroyed while in the hands of the St. Paul Police Department and had to be re-taken years later. And in at least one instance, a key report from a nearby neighbor appears to have been dismissed as inconsequential.

The reopening of the case in 1996 came to a standstill at one point when the lead investigator on it was thrown off the police force due to an unrelated matter. It has remained open in Washington County ever since. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s (BCA) Cold Case Unit has officially closed the case.

While the investigation has taken several twists and turns and meandered down a few dead ends along the way, there’s one theory on which everyone agrees: Felix’s killer was someone he knew in this small town.

YUKON TERRITORY TO STILLWATER
Caton H. Felix was born Dec. 12, 1900, in Dawson City in Alaska’s Yukon Territory. His father was a gold prospector. Their family lived in a log cabin and traveled by dog sled.

After Caton’s mother died when he was six, he and a sister took a boat down the Yukon River to the Pacific Ocean and then down the coast to Seattle. An uncle met them there and sent Caton on to Stillwater to live with another uncle.

Caton grew up working on a farm there and at 19, he left Stillwater and returned to Alaska to work for the railroad. After two years, he returned to Minnesota a skilled mechanic.

Felix continued working as a mechanic and eventually married his wife, Catherine Rettinger. In the late 1930s, they bought the tiny grocery store on South Greeley in Stillwater. Caton went to night school to learn radio and tv repair and, as with his auto repair business, soon gained a reputation for quality work.

Felix Grocery and Radio Repair—known at one time as Black Cat Grocery after the famous cartoon feline—grew into a Stillwater institution. Like many of Stillwater’s neighborhood groceries, Felix stocked a tantalizing array of candy—gooey marshmallow-chocolate Valomilk cups, chewy-caramel Slo-Poke suckers, splintery peanut-butter logs—and a galaxy of gumballs—turquoise licorice Sputniks, lip-puckering Sour Apples and tart-sweet Sour Grapes.

Felix kept a dog close by, either in the store or chained to the sink in back. He had at least three over the years. They were always black, always named “Smokey,” and all knew the same tricks. Like retrieving pennies off the floor and placing them on the counter, then waiting patiently until Felix tossed them a malted milk ball. Or growling a gruff “Hi ya” at Felix’s command.

Underage smokers came to know Felix’s as an easy place to buy cigarettes, or a Schmidt Select “near beer.” Countless hours were spent sitting on one of the old pop crates in back reserved for visitors, smoking and howling with laughter as Felix held court and issued his ribald take on the news of the day, spun tales of Alaskan mining towns or heaped abuse on some unsuspecting rube who walked through the door. A kid could get quite an education in the back of that old store—and often did in place of Sunday School.

A favorite target for Felix’s rancor was his nemesis the Hooleys, whose family owned two of the town’s large grocery stores and later went on to found megagrocers Cub Foods in 1974.

“All those sons o’ whores down at St. Mike’s on Sunday, you think they’re saying ‘Holy, holy, holy’ when they bow down and pray? Hell, no!” the pint-size Felix would bark, his voice rising as he paced the floor. “They’re saying ‘Hooley, Hooley, Hooley!’”

One day, a poor lost soul wandered in looking for directions to the local hospital a few blocks away.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Felix snapped. “Do you see a sign on the door that says ‘Free Information’? I don’t make anything off free information, for Christ’s sake!” When the man offered to buy a pack of cigarettes, Felix retorted that he didn’t make much off cigarettes, either, and sent him out the door with neither directions nor smokes.

Paul Junker, a candy wholesaler who called on Felix for about 10 years, remembered an elderly woman who came in looking for some canning lids in a year when they were in short supply. Like most everyone else, Felix was out of them and couldn’t make a sale, so he gave the old woman a piece of his mind instead.

“You’ve never been in this gawddamn store before, and you’ll probably never come in here again,” he railed. “I had a whole basement full of lids last year. Where the hell were ya then?”

The woman turned on her heels and left without saying a word, Junker chuckled.

“He really intimidated me the first time I stopped there,” Junker said, “until finally I just hollered back at him. He grinned ear to ear. The more you hollered at him, the better he liked it.”

When a customer came in for something out of the slant-faced glass dairy cooler, Felix would slide open the back door to retrieve it, send a blast of cigar smoke into the cooler from the smoldering stub between his lips, and slam the door shut. Some swore it was the only place in town where you could get cigar-flavored milk.

To get an item off the high shelves, he’d enlist the aid of a ladder or a visitor. After pulling it down, Felix would subtly turn his back to the customer as he wiped a layer of dust off the item with his sleeve. It wouldn’t have mattered to most of them anyway. They were just glad Felix had that extra can of green beans they needed for their casserole that night.


OCTOBER 1980
Caton Felix was one of the last of a vanishing breed of neighborhood grocers in Stillwater. At one time, no matter where you lived in town, you could find one of a half-dozen or more within easy walking distance. But by 1980, most had succumbed to the growing Hooley-Cub empire.

Felix had all but shut down the grocery end of his business since 1978, stocking only enough candy, cigarettes and other essentials to keep the occasional customer coming by. Slowed by arthritis, he used a walker to get around. He still did some radio and stereo repairs from his white-frame combination business and residence. And for the fortunate few who still dropped in the last couple of years hungry for a helping of Felix’s salty philosophy, he kept a stash of pop and beer in a cooler by the back door.

On Wednesday, October 22, a 28-year-old friend who did odd jobs for Caton stopped by the store around 11 a.m. with a piece of apple pie for him. The large young man was a regular visitor.
Jack, Felix’s son, spoke to Caton around 6 p.m. Later that evening, Felix called Paul Junker’s wife and asked her to have Paul stop by the store the next day for a candy order.

Around 7:30, another young male friend of Felix’s—a 20-year-old who also did some work for him from time to time—stopped by to pay Caton $70 down on a stereo he was buying from him and stayed for about an hour. He was the last person known to have seen and talked with Felix in person, and would become a person of interest in the killing.

At 9:50 p.m., Caton’s pie-bearing friend from that morning called and the two chatted for a little over a half hour. At 10:28 p.m., Caton’s friend told him he had just two minutes to do what he needed to do before Johnny Carson was on. He was the last person known to have talked to Felix, and also remained a person of interest for many years.

About 11 p.m., a boy next door came home and saw Caton inside sitting in his chair. His dog was still chained outside and very docile, which seemed unusual to the boy. Another witness said Felix always put his dog out at 9:30 in the morning and 9:30 in the evening, and agreed that it was odd to find it still outside at 11 p.m. Still another witness claimed he walked by Felix’s about 11:30 p.m. that night and saw no dog outside. And a man who returned from the 11 p.m. shift at Andersen Windows drove by Felix’s around 11:15 and saw a pickup truck parked outside.

One witness reported that Caton came into St. Croix Rexall Drug downtown Stillwater “after dark” that night accompanied by a male wearing a plaid “Pendleton” shirt.

The next day, October 23, Paul Junker stopped by Felix’s store around 11 a.m. He knocked at the side door and got no response. The doors and windows were all locked, so he peered in the window on the south side of the house and saw Caton lying on the floor “toes down.”

Recalled Junker in a 1982 interview: “I knew he didn’t pray, so he wasn’t kneeling.”

Junker called Stillwater Police at 11:19 a.m., and they broke a window to get inside. Felix’s dog was chained to the sink, where he usually put her to keep her out of the store in front. Caton was lying on the floor of the living room in a large pool of dried blood, his bloody left hand still gripping his walker.

The television set was on and tuned to Channel 11 (NBC). The heat was turned up to 80 degrees.
Felix was dressed in his usual attire: white shirt, black pants and belt, long underwear, wool socks and bedroom slippers. The Ramsey County Medical Examiners report noted a single stab wound just to the left of the spine 8 inches below the nape of his neck, 2/3 inch wide and 2.5 inches deep. The wound angled downward, and blood splatters on the floor and chair indicated that Felix was either sitting or getting out of his rocker when he was stabbed. Felix’s injuries were not life-threatening, the report stated, and he may have laid there for a period before dying.

Nothing in the house or store appeared to be disturbed, other than a tin cash box containing $16 in one-dollar bills and change. It was found sitting on the counter next to the cash register in the store. Caton always kept it under the counter to make change from so he didn’t have to use the clunky old cash register.

The only thing missing—besides the murder weapon—appeared to be Felix’s tri-fold wallet, which he always carried in his left rear pocket with no more than $50-$70 in it.

An ash tray with a Benson & Hedges cigarette butt was found on the counter by the cash register. A cigarette pack and an empty Tiparillo cigar box were also found in the store. Fingerprints were lifted from the cash box and cigarette pack in 1980; a fingerprint from one "person of interest" was lifted from the Tiparillo box in 1997.

Two knives—a Rapala filet knife and a kitchen knife with a red substance on the blade—were taken for evidence but both tested negative for blood.

Two days later, a woman on W. Myrtle Street a few blocks away reported that she found a 4-5/8-inch Regent Swords brand knife in the rose bushes in front of her house. That, too, eventually tested negative for blood.

One report of suspicious activity in the neighborhood the night Felix was murdered was seemingly dismissed by police.

A 75-year-old woman who lived on Owens Street 1.5 blocks south of Felix’s store called police after she heard about the murder to pass on what she thought was valuable information. Around 3:50 a.m. on Oct. 23—the night of the murder—she and her husband awoke to voices outside their bedroom window on the north side. Both sounded like they were in their late teens—one male and one female.

The female’s voice “had an urgent tone to it,” she reported, and it sounded like they were “planning something” or “hiding from someone.” At one point, the woman reported, the girl said “This is the last time we’re going over this.” Her husband went outside to look around but saw nothing. When he returned, she told him “not to be surprised if we had a burglary or robbery in the neighborhood the next day.”

Surprisingly, she told investigators in a 1996 interview, the police officer at the time “seemed unconcerned” but agreed to take her statement anyway. “He asked no questions,” she said.

WRONG FUNERAL, WRONG NAME?
Caton H. Felix was buried in Stillwater’s Fairview Cemetery on October 28, five days after he died at the hands of a friendly assailant who remains unknown 30 years later.

Barbara Felix, married to Caton’s other son, Chris, described her father-in-law’s funeral in a eulogy written shortly after his death.

“The reverend who delivered the address spoke of angels winging skyward and the soul’s eternal resting place. Many thought his works were inspired; others thought he’d mistakenly come to the wrong funeral.”

In an oddly prescient interview with St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch columnist Don Del Fiacco in 1978, Felix reflected on his life:

“Life hasn’t been easy. But I don’t have a hell of a lot to complain about. Why do I stay in business? I’ll be damned if I know. I don’t know what else I’d do. I suppose I’ll go until I drop. Some day I’ll just be layin’ there on the floor and the dog won’t have anybody to feed her.”

When Felix’s death was reported in the local Stillwater Gazette, the paper misspelled his first name as “Cayton.” Misspellings of his name so irritated Felix that he eventually began going by “C.H. Felix” to avoid the whole issue.

“They’ll probably spell my name wrong on my gawddamn tombstone when I die,” Jack remembered his father saying once.

Caton would have flashed that impish grin of his knowing he was right again. The first tombstone for his grave had to be returned to the monument maker. It was engraved “Cayton H. Felix.”

WHODUNNIT?
The early investigation into Caton Felix’s murder was beset by dropped clues and mishandled evidence. Witness reports were ignored or forgotten about. The original fingerprints were destroyed while in the possession of the St. Paul Police Department. A knife confiscated from a young suspect in another incident was destroyed while in the possession of the Stillwater Police Department. Even the Medical Examiner’s report had the wrong date on it.

“Between the city and the county, they really botched that investigation,” Jack Felix asserts. “They went around in circles.”

Law enforcement agencies and Crimestoppers have received dozens of leads and names of suggested suspects over the years. Four suspects percolated to the top of the list, but the investigation ultimately has come down to one.

The individual who had the last known contact with Caton Felix remains the primary person of interest in this small-town murder mystery. His stories of where he was the night of the murder shifted from one version to another, and he could never fully account for about an hour and a half during the time the murder is believed to have taken place.

The 20-year-old male was a regular visitor to Felix’s. He lived about three blocks away from the store and did occasional odd jobs for him. He even accompanied Felix in his Thunderbird on trips to Lerk’s Bar in Afton.

Two to three days after the murder, the young man came to the door of Felix’s son, Jack, next door to Caton’s. His eyes were puffy like he’d been crying and he pleaded that he had nothing to do with Felix’s murder. Jack found that odd, because at that time, he hadn’t discussed that at all with the young man.

On Oct. 22 around 7:30 p.m., the young man told police that he put $70 down on a $150 stereo Felix had for sale, with the balance to be paid when Felix replaced the turntable needle. He laid the money on a desk next to Felix’s rocker in the three-room apartment behind the store and bought three packs of Tiparillos and a bottle of pop.

After leaving Felix’s, he told police he made the rounds of a couple of local bars and a friend’s house for a few beers, stopped at Ember’s to eat for an hour and a half, and went home about 11 p.m. In an interview three weeks later, he said he ate at Burger King the night of the murder, not Ember’s. His girl friend placed his time of arrival at home at around 12:30 a.m.

The young man’s girl friend left work early that night because she said she had to meet her boyfriend at the apartment as he had the only key. She punched out at 10:05 p.m.

In a 1997 interview, the person of interest gave still another version of events from that night. He said he went straight home after going to the bars. His girlfriend wasn’t home yet, so he stopped by her work, watched her leave and then followed her home. He claimed that he got home about five minutes before her, around 11 p.m.

The whereabouts of the couple for the remainder of that night before and after midnight remain murky. So does the explanation for the story the person of interest’s girlfriend gave to her boss for not coming to work the next day. She phoned in and claimed she and her boyfriend had gone to pay back her boyfriend’s grandfather some money they owed him and found him stabbed to death at his home after he didn’t answer the door. However, there was no relationship between Felix and either of the two. She told a co-worker when she returned to work the following day that they were suspects in the stabbing death of her boyfriend’s grandfather.

The 20-year-old male was re-interviewed at the crime scene a week later, and a Washington County deputy wrote that he “shivered and shook and acted like he was going to give it up, but he never did.” He refused to submit to a polygraph test, initially agreed to a stress test, and then abruptly cancelled an appointment for one.

He has since “lawyered up” and quit talking, investigators say.

The murder weapon was never recovered. Always assumed to be a small knife between 4" and 5" long, one witness’s statement suggested another possibility.

The witness, a longtime friend of Felix’s who still did his bookkeeping, told police that Caton always kept a letter opener on a desk next to his pipe stand. However, there is no letter opener in any of the photographs taken of the crime scene, including the desk with the pipe stand. One investigator confirmed that based on the size of Felix’s wound, the letter-opener could have been the murder weapon.

In June 1997, police got a tip from a man in prison serving a life sentence for another murder in Stillwater that occurred nine months after Felix’s. The convicted murderer, who was a person of interest in the Felix case himself at one time, claimed he knew who killed Felix and where the murder weapon was buried. If the cops looked in the ravine on the west side of Everett Street on Stillwater’s North Hill, he said, they’d find a one-sided, 4.5- to 5-inch folding Buck-type knife with a broken tip and the initials “H.B.” on it. The Medical Examiner said a knife of that description could have been the murder weapon.

Investigators excavated a 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot area in the ravine but found nothing.

He continued to feed investigators tips about the case, but none ever bore fruit.

When the case was reopened, investigators obtained court orders to attach a “pen register” to the phones of some suspects before they were re-interviewed. The device records the phone numbers of all outgoing calls from a telephone line. However, there is nothing in the record that indicates that exercise produced any useful information either.

A number of theories about Felix’s killer and the motive for his murder have been advanced. Robbery was one of the first.

Although it was rumored that Felix had a couple hundred thousand dollars squirreled away, Jack told police that was “laughable.” His father didn’t make $200,000 in his lifetime, let along have enough to stash, Jack said in a 1982 interview.

Police estimate Felix had no more than $150 in his wallet when he was killed—the $70 or so that he normally carried, plus the $70 he got as down payment on the stereo that night. Nothing else in the house appeared to be disturbed or missing. That lead investigators to believe that a planned robbery may not have been the primary motive for the murder, and that the theft of Felix’s wallet was merely incidental to the deed.

There was no sign of forced entry, and Jack said no one besides Caton, himself and possibly Jack’s brother, Chris, had keys to the place. Felix’s assailant almost surely knew him, and probably very well, for him to unlock the door and let him in late at night. Felix’s dog wouldn’t have let just anyone bring her in either.

Knowledge of the cash box under the counter also suggests someone who was familiar with the store. Felix never would have left it out, says Jack. “He wasn’t going to go in that house and leave that tin box out on the counter. He was a creature of habit.”

Junker agreed. During the initial investigation, he told police, “If Felix did something a certain way today, he had done it the same way for 10 years and would do it the same way for 10 years into the future.”

Washington County Sheriff Deputy Ike Risenhoover noted in the initial investigation that the knife didn’t “bottom out” in Felix’s body. That suggests that the killer acted impulsively—not with pre-meditation—and when he realized what he had done, tried to retract the knife before it went all the way in.

That fits the scenario of what likely happened that October night as put forth by one Washington County Sheriff deputy during the original investigation:

The primary person of interest used his and his girlfriend’s rent money to buy a stereo from Felix. When his girlfriend found out, he returned to Felix’s that night to get his money back. An argument ensued, and Felix either caught him trying to steal money from his cash box or tried to get him to leave. As Caton got out of his rocker, he headed for the dresser where he kept a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver when his assailant stabbed him in the back with a knife or his own letter-opener.

“He died right there in front of the dresser where he kept the gun,” says Jack.

The Caton Felix murder case is officially closed at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, says Special Agent Gary Swanson. “When we’ve exhausted all leads and have no more evidence to examine, it’s closed.”

Swanson says they were stymied by the fact that police didn’t have the technology back then to examine what little evidence they collected. And, he notes, “There’s evidence that is missing in this case. I don’t know if some of it was ever taken.”

He knows fingernail scrapings were collected from Felix, but they were never found in the evidence when the case was reopened. Felix’s pants, too, could have contained important clues. With today’s DNA collection methods, they might be able to gather evidence from the pocket from which Felix’s wallet was taken. But Swanson assumes the pants were destroyed. With three different law enforcement agencies and four different labs handling evidence, it wasn’t the best of situations.

Swanson was a Washington County Sheriff deputy when Felix was murdered but wasn’t involved in the initial investigation. When he came to the BCA, one of the first things he did was review the entire case.

“I did the few things I thought we could do,” Swanson concluded. “This is one I really wanted to solve. I grew up on Pine Street about three blocks away and went in that store as a kid all the time … You and I know who did it. We just can’t prove it.”













Anyone with information related to the Caton Felix murder should contact Special Agent Gary Swanson at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension at 651.793.7000.


Top photo: Caton Felix, 1979. Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society
Felix portrait: Courtesy of Jack Felix
Felix Radio sign: Courtesy of Mike Hurley
Photo above: A pre-school occupies the former Felix's Grocery today.

13 comments:

  1. I remember when this happened.I could not believe someone could of done this to Felix,sure he was gruff but that was just his way of telling us kids how it was. It truly is very sad that this was never solved!!!

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  2. Fascinating, too bad the keystone cops were called in, seems like a perfectly solvable case.

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  3. We lived directly behind Felix's. I didn't remember the Police ever talking to us ans my Dad confirmed that. We didn't hear or see anything; I don't think they did any questioning of neighbors. Why wasn't/isn't there any accountability for the investigation that was so poorly done?

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  4. CSI Stillwater. I love it. I drive by the pre-school almost every day and I can never think of it in the same way again. Great story-telling, btw, Karl!

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  5. I grew up on churchill st. I heard a lot of stories over the year's. The kid who hung himself. some kid's who shot out a bunch of window's by felix's place with bb gun's. And they were mad at him, Because they thought he told on them. I worked at bar in Stillwater in 1997 when a detective came in asking about the murder. He said someone in the bar was saying they knew who killed felix. Never found out who this person was. Felix was alway's fun to talk to. I liked going in there for cold candy and a pop.

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  6. I know who killed Felix, Harley Haine.

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  7. I heard some time ago,who killed him,but they could not prove it. then to find out the guy that killed him, killed himself! what a easy way out!! and being so young myself at the time, I just did not say anything on what I heard so who knows.. just so sad.

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  8. I HAVE LIVED HERE MY WHOLE LIFE & THIS SHOULD NOT BE GIVEN UP ON! I DONT CARE IF THE MURDER KILLED HIMSELF OR IS NO LONGER ALIVE! FELIX DESERVES THE RITE TO JUSTICE!!! DO WHAT IT TAKES! JUST DO IT! CLOSING THE CASE IS "NOT" RITE!!!

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  9. I Heard that Gregg Herd had killed him, then killed himself

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  10. Police NEED to check out Greg J. HURD! He admitted to doing it

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  11. Russel Hurd! Stillwater police NEED to check out Russel Hurd!

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