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South St. Paul police remember 80th anniversary of fallen officer
The Thompson submachine gun that hangs in South St. Paul Police Chief William Messerich’s office isn’t an interesting curio from Gatsby days or a movie prop.
It’s a reminder that a police officer could be cut down at any time, even on a routine assignment in a bustling business district.
Friday, Aug. 30 marks the 80th anniversary of Officer Leo Pavlak’s death in a gang robbery outside the South St. Paul post office.
“He gave the ultimate sacrifice: his life,” South St. Paul Chief of Police William Messerich says.
A hail of bullets in the heart of town
The South St. Paul Daily Reporter, published the day of the shooting, reported breathlessly, “Blazing their way with death-dealing gunfire, six bandits in a big black sedan” pulled up to the post office and stole $30,000 in cash from two bank messengers transferring money from the daily train delivery to the Stockyards National Bank.
The pair were being escorted by Pavlak, who was left dead on the sidewalk.
Pavlak was 38 years old and had only worked at the South St. Paul Police Department for about four months before he was killed. He had a wife and two children.
According to a history of the South St. Paul Police Department published at www.southst.paul.org, machine-gun fire from the sedan raked the front of the post office, a car dealership, a beverage bottler and a shoe manufacturer as passersby dove for cover.
A second officer, John Yeamen, wasn’t even able to get out of his car to help Pavlak; he was seriously wounded while still in the cab and a passing gangster even grabbed his weapon before fleeing. Although Yeamen survived, he “was never truly well again,” according to his son Jack, who also served as a South St. Paul police officer.
Yeamen’s gun -- a Thompson used by local police to match gangsters’ firepower -- was recovered by the FBI 18 months later, in a raid of a Chicago apartment tied to the infamous Alvin “Creepy” Carpis-Ma Barker gang.
Though it was never determined who fired the killing shots, the Thompson tied the gang to the crime.
It now helps tie the past to the present.
‘An exceptional privilege’ of service
The trauma of losing a young father might have made police work the last career to attract his children’s interest. And many family traditions fade before they involve three generations.
But Pavlak’s children and grandchildren followed in his footsteps by entering law enforcement.
His son Robert, just 9 years old in 1933, was a South St. Paul police officer for 32 years, served as a state representative and was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to be a U.S. Marshal.
“It’s an exceptional privilege to not only follow in our grandfather’s footsteps, but follow in our father’s as well,” Robert Pavlak, Leo’s grandson, says.
Looking back on that legacy, Robert notes his grandfather’s commitment to his profession “was nothing short of 100 percent.”
What could be a half-remembered tragedy needs to be retold, Messerich says, not just to remind present-day residents of Pavlak’s sacrifice but to remember the risk police officers take daily.
Even if visitors don’t make it back to Messerich’s office to see the “Tommy gun,” they can read the original article from the day of the tragedy, posted prominently in the police department’s lobby.
The phrasing is dramatic and the clothing and cars in the photos look dated, but it’s an ever-present reminder of how unexpectedly a life can be taken, even on a routine summer weekday.
Jill Yanish can be reached at email@example.com or at 651-748-7825.
Holly Wenzel contributed to this story.