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NASELLE NOIR: Deadly robbers terrified tellers in 1984 heist

Natalie St. John

Published on September 26, 2017 3:06PM

Gary Krueger posed with an assault rifle in this Vietnam War snapshot.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Gary Krueger posed with an assault rifle in this Vietnam War snapshot.

Gary Krueger, left, with a Vietnam buddy, experienced horrific violence during the war. After returning to the States, he robbed banks, including one in Naselle, and was implicated in murders.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Gary Krueger, left, with a Vietnam buddy, experienced horrific violence during the war. After returning to the States, he robbed banks, including one in Naselle, and was implicated in murders.


NASELLE — Lying face-down on the carpet in the Naselle Bank of the Pacific on Nov. 1, 1984, tellers Debi Tolva and Diana Lindstrom thought they were going to die.

“When they made us lie on the floor and put guns to the backs of our heads, we both looked at each other and said ‘I love you,’” Tolva recalled.

Both women were working in October 1983 when two Montana men herded the staff into the bathroom while they looted the vault. The first pair of robbers scared them. A year later, the second pair — retired Seattle cop Gary Curtis Krueger and Tacoma contractor Karl Joseph Keller — terrified them.

“You just felt like they’d shoot you in a minute if you pushed them the wrong way,” Lindstrom said.

A Grays Harbor County deputy ended Krueger and Keller’s long crime spree in 1986, but very little news about the pair made it to Pacific County. So the tellers never learned about the arrest, much less the stunning truth about Krueger, when it came out 25 years later.

After his bizarre 2010 death, investigators found evidence that the former Marine, cop, husband and father who robbed the little bank in the woods was a suspected contract killer who likely murdered at least four people.


Men in masks


When the two men in Halloween masks stormed into the bank demanding “Big money” on that blustery afternoon, Lindstrom took in their cartoonish rubber “old man” faces, and figured it was some local boy’s idea of a joke. It was not.

Training a revolver on them, a huge man in a red wool shirt ordered the tellers to open their tills, then made them get on the floor. A smaller man with a semi-automatic rifle guarded the door.

In 1983, robbers made off with about $20,000, but tellers no longer had instant access to that kind of cash. When the big man realized there wasn’t going to be an easy payday, he began demanding access to the vault and threatening to shoot the staff if they “acted up.”

“I can remember thinking that if they couldn’t get into the vault, we were really in danger,” said Lindstrom, who still lives in Naselle.

Krueger and Keller gave up on the vault and demanded travelers’ checks, which they got. They kept their weapons trained on the staff as they headed for the door.


‘STRIVE’


In the late 1960s, robbers escaped in a stolen airplane after holding up an Ilwaco bank. The 1983 robbers got away in a stolen skiff. With a ferocious storm tearing through the valley in November 1984, however, Krueger and Keller made a conventional overland getaway in a stolen white ‘65 Dodge with a vanity plate that said “STRIVE.”

Wahkiakum and Pacific County deputies quickly sent a description over the radio and locked down the logging roads. Police searched everywhere, but the storm slowed the hunt. An hour later, deputies found the car abandoned on a logging road.

The FBI quickly got involved because it bore a striking resemblance to other recent robberies. In June, two men held up a bank east of Aberdeen. On Oct. 1, they tried to rob the Harbor Community Bank in Grayland, but failed, because it had closed an hour before.

“We feel they were definitely amateurs,” the bank president told the Willapa Harbor Herald. Krueger may have been new to bank robbery when he hit Naselle, but he was already an accomplished warrior, hero and murderer.


Khe Sanh and everything after


As soon as Gary Krueger set out to see the world, it began to beat him down. Born and raised in the Seattle area, he was a Navy cadet in high school. Before his June 1967 graduation, his brother-in-law, a career Marine, convinced him to enlist. Krueger “somehow persuaded seven other close friends to enlist in the Marine Corps,” Veterans Administration therapist Judson Scovill said in a 1993 letter.

In November ‘67, all nine men arrived in Vietnam as combat infantrymen. Things happened fast — within a year, Krueger was part of a “Combined Action Group,” an elite team of Marines and Navy corpsmen who lived in remote villages, doing humanitarian and “psy-ops” work.

Krueger was in Khe Sanh, near the Laotian border in late January 1968, when the North Vietnamese opened fire on the base. Officially, 1,600 Marines were wounded, and 205 killed in the siege, which marked the beginning of the bloody Tet Offensive. Krueger turned 20 on the sixth day of battle.

“Over and over again, he helplessly witnessed the horrible deaths of many friends, observed atrocities committed against Vietnamese villagers by other Americans,” Scovill wrote. His brother-in-law was killed by a 1,000-pound land mine. When he returned to the U.S. in December 1968, six of the seven friends he recruited had been killed.


Vet against vet


Krueger was honorably discharged in January 1969 and joined the Seattle Police Department six months later. Over the next four years, he married his wife Betty, had a daughter and joined the Army Reserves.

It might have seemed like a smooth transition, but Krueger had changed during the war, and Seattle had too. As a 21-year-old rookie officer, he “found himself abruptly assigned to riot duty” at an anti-Vietnam protest, Scovill said.

In April 1970, he used a wrestling hold to restrain a “violent and unmanageable” fellow vet who was allegedly threatening hospital staff. The man died as a direct result of Krueger’s hold.

The hospital director commended Krueger and his supervisors kept it quiet. According to a psychologist’s 1980 letter, the death “was likely even hidden from the press,” but it haunted Krueger. In a letter years later, he would say his policing career had been “full, mostly rewarding, and often traumatic.”


Write-ups


Evidence of Krueger’s achievements would eventually crop up in the unlikeliest of places — his criminal files. Citizens praised him for his kindness, courtesy and professionalism when he was a beat cop. The Seattle Times wrote about him when a prostitute slashed him with a razor blade, and again when a wife-beater nearly pushed him off of the roof of a downtown hotel. He was recognized for his work on the DUI and tactical squads, and as an undercover vice and drugs officer. He was also chosen for high-profile security details — Israel’s chief rabbi and foreign minister praised Krueger in letters, after visiting Seattle.

Before long, however, he was getting write-ups that didn’t sit so well with the brass. In 1974, Seattle PD paid $3,000 to a young man who said Krueger and his partner badly beat him in a police parking garage. In 1977, Krueger, then 29, was sitting in his patrol car when prowling suspect Roger Lee Stanley, 31, suddenly lunged in through the driver’s side window and tried to stab him with a large kitchen knife. Krueger pulled his revolver and fatally shot Stanley four times.


Liability


A jury deemed the killing justified, but after the shooting, Krueger’s health, career and marriage all fell apart in short order.

In 1979, a PCP-user tried to shoot Krueger with his own gun. He brutally beat the man, only stopping because other officers showed up, a psychiatrist said. He was removed from active duty and referred to a psychologist. A worried friend took his guns for safekeeping.

The president of the Seattle Officers’ Guild said he’d “see to it” that Krueger was taken off the street if he didn’t quit. Friends advised him to leave before he hurt himself or someone else.

“Officer Krueger was becoming increasingly unable to control his temper and was becoming physically abusive to suspects and exercising excessive force,” psychiatrist John Berberich said in a letter that called Krueger “a liability.”

In early 1980, he left the police force and the Army Reserves on a disability retirement. He did not weather the transition well. He had spent his whole adult life wearing uniforms, always part of a chain of command, trying to perform his duties “with machine-like consistency and excellence,” according to one doctor. And then suddenly, he was discharged, disabled, divorced and dissolute — and not even 40 yet.

He went into real estate, but by 1982, he was unemployed and in bankruptcy.


At loose ends


Around 1980, Krueger told one of his doctors he was afraid he “would in fact, kill someone unnecessarily.” Within a year, he allegedly did.

In February 1981, former Seattle police officer Terry Dolan was shot multiple times at his Everett gas station. It looked like a robbery, but police thought otherwise.

In February 1984, Bellevue attorney Jim Barry was shot five times and stabbed 11 times in his office. Barry specialized in real estate and fraudulent bankruptcy cases. Before his death, he told friends he had damaging information about a prominent person. Bellevue detectives believed that person hired a contract killer to silence Barry, the Times said.

Like so many other investigators in Western Washington, Pacific County deputies plugged away at their Krueger case in isolation. Two deputies had quickly solved the 1983 robbery using skill, persistence and luck. But by 1985, severe budget problems and political infighting were taking a toll on the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices.

The robbery investigation floundered, but the tellers still thought about it. Who were the men that had terrorized them that day? Were they out there doing the same thing to other people?

Lindstrom and Tolva both quit the bank after that. Tolva moved to Astoria and “just sort of disconnected” from her life in Naselle.

“You know, I never really said too much,” Tolva said. Once, she asked a deputy if they had learned anything about the robbery.

As Tolva remembers it, “He said, ‘Deb, I just don’t know.’”


Fever of unknown origin


Sometimes, the jungle decay took hold in obvious ways. While they were stationed near Da Nang, Krueger’s friend Robert O’Neill lost most of his bottom teeth. Then he got deathly sick and had to hitch a ride to a hospital. Like hundreds of other men, he came home with service records that documented bouts with “Fevers of Unknown Origin.”

Krueger’s particular strains of fever incubated for years, quietly poisoning his body and mind.

“I had a diseased liver and resulting hepatitis — most likely from chemicals dumped in Vietnam,” he wrote in a 1984 statement, following his first arrest.

Another kind of sickness was also wreaking havoc in his life. He called it his “gambling fever” in the statement, and acknowledged it had been one of the major factors in his divorce. When he and Betty got back together in 1979, he tried “to cut down on [his] gambling for good.” But even when they remarried in August 1984, he couldn’t stay away from the tables.

In 1986, his accomplice and longtime friend Karl Keller told his judge that he first began to see “another side” to Krueger around 1983 — a “compulsive gambler” who “talked of physical harm to anyone who put him or his family in jeopardy.”

Keller claimed he’d reluctantly agreed to do one robbery after falling on hard times. But after each hold-up, Krueger would gamble the money away, and then bully Keller into committing another.

Three days after they tried to rob the Grayland bank, a reunion with an old gambling buddy led to Krueger’s first arrest.


Sentences


Lynnwood mall clerks caught Krueger using stolen credit cards on Oct. 4, 1984. He gave arresting officers the name he’d used as an undercover cop — “Ronald Turner.”

Later, he claimed he’d lied to keep his name out of the news. He said he got the cards from a gambling buddy who had borrowed $1,500 during a trip to Vegas. When Krueger pressured him to repay the debt, the friend offered to let him shop with the credit cards.

Krueger applied to be part of a first-time offender diversion program, using as his character references Keller; Tom Grose, an old friend whose wife Cheryl vanished under suspicious circumstances in 1991; and Joe Massimino Sr., an Army buddy whose boss Krueger would murder the following year.

Krueger was released, and he and Keller robbed an Island County bank on Oct. 26. Six days later, they hit Naselle.

His caseworker for the deferral program called the illicit shopping spree an “isolated incident.” It was “highly unlikely that Mr. Krueger is involved in any further criminal activity,” she wrote. He was given a suspended sentence and probation.

Someone else had recently given Krueger a much more serious sentence: According to one detective, a doctor told Krueger he had less than six months to live around the time he began robbing banks.

“It is possible Mr. Krueger felt he had nothing to lose, and was determined to secure the financial situation of his family,” he wrote.


Links


In August 1985, Mario Vaccarino, the controversial president of the Seattle Hotel Employees and Restaurants Employees Union was found face-down in his bathtub, still wearing his bathrobe. He had been beaten. He was covered in grated parmesan cheese.

Vaccarino’s abrasive style had earned him “a long list of enemies,” a friend told the Times. Furthermore, the international chapter of his union had been investigated for ties to organized crime on the East Coast. Detectives thought Vaccarino had been interrogated before he was drowned.

In December 1985, Krueger and Keller hit the Island County bank for the second time, taking more than $70,000 in cash and travelers checks.

Although investigators in several counties were working to solve Krueger-related crimes by then, it was a rural deputy who nabbed him for the robberies, quite by accident.


Road trips


Oct. 21, 1986 was an unseasonably warm day. Grays Harbor County Deputy Don Blumberg had rolled down the windows of his patrol car, so he had a good view of the driver when a blue ‘66 Chrysler blew past him on State Route 104.

“What really got me curious was that as the car went by me, the driver would not look at me — just sort of straight ahead,” Blumberg, 64, of Hoquiam said. “And he was wearing an overcoat.” Blumberg called the car in. A few minutes later, dispatchers told him it had been stolen near Seattle.

He stayed on the Chrysler as the driver sped toward Humptulips, skillfully navigating a series of dangerous curves at 100 miles an hour.

“I thought, ‘Somebody taught this guy how to drive,” Blumberg said. He knew that six miles from where the chase started, there was a sudden, sharp bend in the highway. “I just kept on him,” Blumberg remembered. “Close enough to keep pushing him.” That was where Krueger lost control and crashed into a stump.

“I took my time advancing toward the vehicle,” Blumberg said. Krueger was bleeding and unconscious. Blumberg kicked the car, and got no reaction. He radioed for help.

When he opened the passenger door to administer first aid, he noticed two duffel bags on the floor. Inside, he found two rubber masks, a police scanner, ski caps, a blue revolver and a smaller handgun.

Krueger was rushed to the hospital with a badly broken leg, fractured ribs and head and chest injuries. While doctors patched him up, the sheriff’s office sent out a teletype, asking other police departments if there had been any robberies involving men in “old man” masks. It didn’t take long for Pacific and Island County authorities to get in touch.

FBI agents called a meeting with the local detectives. They had noticed “a multitude of similarities” in heists occurring between 1984 and 1986. In addition to the incidents in Aberdeen, Grayland, Freeland and Naselle, the “old men” had also hit banks in Rochester and Graham. The apparent leader always carried a police radio and used a blue revolver. He always demanded “big money” and travelers checks, and the pair almost always drove off in a recently stolen ‘66 or ‘67 Plymouth.

The detectives learned Krueger had been living in Ocean Shores, and got a warrant for his house. Inside, they found a briefcase filled with travelers checks from banks that had been robbed. He’d recently used those checks to take his family on a cross-country road trip.

Keller turned himself in at his lawyer’s office on Nov. 19. He was taken to the Tacoma FBI office, where he “gave detailed descriptions of eight armed robberies he and Krueger had committed together.”


‘Homicidal thinking: ABSENT’


Keller pleaded guilty to one count of armed robbery. He was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison, and ended up serving about half of that. He died while living in Tacoma in 2015.

Krueger pleaded too, getting 15 years. During his roughly seven years at various federal prisons, his wife and daughter suffered severe financial hardships, but stuck by him. He worked at rehabilitating himself physically and mentally. He took classes, taught other inmates and participated in counseling. Before his release in 1992, a prison psychologist wrote a glowing evaluation, noting, “Homicidal thinking: ABSENT.”

In January 2001, Woodinville real estate agent Mike Emert was stabbed 20 times while showing a home. Like Vaccarino, he was left in the bathtub.

The very next month, Krueger robbed an Issaquah bank, taking $3,130. In April, he hit the same bank again, getting away with $6,500. He was arrested as he tried to flee.

He received a relatively light robbery sentence of 70 months, due to his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. As a condition of his plea deal, he was ordered to submit a DNA sample.

He was released in 2004. A few years later, his probation officer lobbied for Krueger’s early release from supervision, saying he “was not considered to be a danger to the community.”


Underwater


Thirty years after a psychologist said he was “explosively angry,” Krueger’s rage drove him to commit the vicious act that would prove his undoing. On the night of March 26, 2010, he and an ex-con named John Alan Bradshaw attacked orthopedic surgeon Craig McAllister as he arrived at his home on Lake Washington. They left the pistol-whipped and bleeding McAllister in the driveway when they fled.

Months later, Krueger’s body was recovered from the lake, along with a stolen boat and a duffel bag that contained zip-ties, duct tape and a stun-gun. Bradshaw was never found.

At first, investigators thought it was a botched home-invasion, but they eventually learned the real reason for the attack.

“The motive was that the doctor would not do Betty’s knee replacement surgery,” Detective Scott Tompkins of the King county Sheriff’s Office said on Sept. 23. As an experienced cold-case investigator, Tompkins was assigned to the Mike Emert murder. He noted that the attack on McAllister bore certain similarities to some of Krueger’s alleged murders — in particular, planted evidence that made it look like a robbery.

“Gary — a murderer. Who would have thought that?” his Army friend Robert O’Neill, 70, said in a September interview from his home near Boston. He’d been trying to locate Krueger for more than 20 years. When he finally learned what had become of him, he said he’d known a very different man — a “real good kid,” who was “kind and generous.” He asked to tell a story about the Gary Krueger he knew.

Their days in the “Combined Action Group” were a surreal gauntlet of hardship, cruelty, camaraderie and sometimes, unexpected beauty. One afternoon they were trudging along a dirt berm that ran through a valley of rice paddies, when a typhoon blew in.

“It rained and rained and rained,” O’Neill remembered. They sought shelter in a schoolhouse. As the floodwaters rose, they climbed into the rafters, where the rain was deafening on the corrugated tin roof.

They couldn’t make sense of what they saw when they emerged the next morning.

“It was like the valley was filled with milk,” O’Neill said. “You could not see anything.” Millions of water-logged rice kernels had swollen, turning everything white.

Weighed down by his enormous pack, a Marine fell into the water and disappeared. The men searched and searched, each coming up empty-handed. Krueger went in. He was gone a very long time before he reappeared with the missing man.

“Gary brought him up,” O’Neill said. “He got him and he saved his life.” His save was especially impressive because, as a gunner, Krueger’s own pack weighed more than 100 pounds.

“He had more weight than anyone,” O’Neill said.


Missed connections


Due to a huge backlog of cases, the FBI didn’t test Krueger’s DNA sample for several years. In 2011, staff at the national CODIS DNA database made a startling discovery: Krueger’s blood had turned up at Mike Emert’s murder scene. Eventually, he was also linked to the murders of Terry Dolan, Jim Barry and Mario Vaccarino.

Investigators thought Krueger’s friend Joe Massimino, who worked for Vaccarino, had told Krueger that Vaccarino was going to fire him. Massimino stayed in the job though, and eventually took over Vaccarino’s role as union president.

After Kreuger died, the detectives went to Betty Krueger.

“We told her, ‘Look, we can’t do anything to Gary — he’s dead. We’re just trying to get answers to the victims,’” Tompkins, the King County detective said. “We asked her, ‘Did he kill Mario?’” According to Tompkins, Betty Krueger replied, “Of course he did.”

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, federal agents were looking into a Philadelphia mob-boss named Joe “Mousie” Massimino, whose organization, “La Cosa Nostra,” appeared to have ties to a chapter of the Hotel Employees and Restaurants Employees Union. The coincidence is uncanny, but Tompkins said that while detectives at various agencies had speculated about a mob connection, they were never able to find any proof.

The Mike Emert investigation is still open because investigators don’t know what connected Krueger to Emert, or why he might have killed him.

“What we still don’t know on the Mike Emert case — and why we can’t close it — is because of the motive,” Tompkins said. “It kind of smacks of a murder-for-hire case.”

He still hopes to find a connection.


More flawed than others


“When you’re 20 years old, you think you’re unbreakable. You think nothing could never hurt you,” O’Neill said. He went to war with “absolutely no idea” how thoroughly the experience would reshape him. It took him many difficult years to overcome the psychological trauma and Agent Orange-related illness he brought home from Vietnam. That gives him a measure of compassion for friends who never found their way out of the darkness.

“I accept people now. I accept their shortcomings, all that stuff,” O’Neill said. “We’re all flawed people, some of us more flawed than others, I guess.”

“Oh my God,” former Naselle teller Diana Lindstrom said slowly, when she learned of Krueger’s history. “That makes me feel pretty doggone lucky. No wonder we felt so scared of him!”

Tolva was silent for a long moment while she processed the news.

“Oh my God. Wow. Wow,” she said. “That’s something. You know, I didn’t even know they caught them.” Like Lindstrom, she felt a mixture of shock and relief. The second robbery affected her for years, she said, making her less trusting of strangers, more wary of potential threats.

“Not knowing who someone is that victimized you is unnerving,” she said. “I’ve got to say that I feel like I can close the book on that memory. I’ve needed to do that all these years.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This two-part series was inspired by the July 24 robbery of Bank of the Pacific’s Naselle branch. The same facility was robbed twice in the 1980s by two different sets of criminals. The first of those robberies was detailed in a story on Aug. 9. The suspect in this year’s robbery remains at large.



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