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Escape-prone killer returns to prison, again

Associated Press

The first gunshot grazed Richard Kitzman’s head, knocking him to the floor of the grain elevator where he worked.

Curled in a fetal position, he glimpsed the man looming over him with a snub-nosed .38. As the man squeezed off four shots, two of which missed, Kitzman stared at the gun.

“I saw more of the revolver than I saw of him,” he said, standing recently in the spot where he was shot in the Farmers Union grain elevator office the night of Nov. 17, 1987.

“When the man finished shooting, he could see that I was bleeding. I lay there and didn’t move,” said Kitzman, now the plant manager.

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“He thought I was dead.”

When the shooter walked out, Kitzman crawled under a desk and called 911. During the call, he heard more shots.

“I think he’s shooting Jerry,” Kitzman told the operator.

He was referring to a longtime friend, Jerome Theis, who was shot to death as he sat in his truck outside, eating ice cream while awaiting a load of grain.

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By the time police arrived, the shooter had vanished. But who was he? And why did he attack?

Why is hard to say, but investigators soon established who.

Richard Lee McNair, originally from Oklahoma, came to Minot with the Air Force and was in the military at the time of the killing. He had worked as a military police officer and an informant for the Minot police.

McNair was arrested several weeks after the shootings when police found stolen goods in a storage locker he had rented under a false name.

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Among the most damning pieces of evidence were 10 shell casings from the grain elevator shootings, Ward County Sheriff Vern Erck said.

“He kept them as trophies,” Erck said.

McNair, now 48, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1987 shootings. He escaped three times -- the last time from a federal prison in Louisiana more than a year ago.

The escapes fit with qualities described by many who knew McNair: He’s smart and wily and personable when he needs to be.

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“He was good,” said retired Minot Police Sgt. Mike Knoop, who had worked with McNair when he was an informant. “He contributed to at least one sizable cocaine bust.”

He described McNair as “the kind of guy who would steal your car, sell it back to you, and you’d think you got a heck of a deal.”

Psychological tests in prison determined that McNair has “above-average intelligence,” said Deputy U.S. Marshal Glenn Belgard, in Alexandria, La., head of the last manhunt for McNair.

“Intelligence with an ability to con is a deadly combination,” the marshal said.

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McNair grew up in Duncan, Okla., where his younger brother, Phil McNair, owns a tire and car lot.

“He always thinks he’s too smart,” Phil McNair said in a phone interview. “And he is about the smartest person I’ve ever met. But he’s used it to his disadvantage and not to his advantage.”

McNair’s mother and father and his three brothers disowned the eldest son and had little communication after the Minot killing, Phil McNair said.

“Of course he needs to pay his time,” Phil McNair said. “He’s caused a lot of shame and heartache to our family that seems like it never ends.”

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Phil McNair said he had idolized his big brother “until he made bad choices.”

In February 1988, months after Richard McNair was convicted, he used lip balm to grease his hand and slip out of handcuffs at the Minot police station. He was captured after he jumped from the third floor of a building.

Erck said McNair nearly escaped from the Ward County Jail while awaiting trial for the grain-elevator shootings.

“He chipped out two cinderblocks in his cell,” Erck said. Behind the cinderblocks, authorities found a deputy’s flashlight and sheets and towels tied to make a rope, which he intended to use to rappel to freedom.

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His second successful escape was from the North Dakota State Penitentiary on Oct. 9, 1992. Officials said McNair slipped out with two other prisoners through a ventilation duct. He was on the lam until July 5, 1993, when he was captured in Grand Island, Neb.

North Dakota Warden Tim Schuetzle recalled that McNair was the editor of the prison newspaper, the Inside Times. “I think he’s a smart guy,” the warden said.

After escaping from the penitentiary, McNair sent a Christmas card to Schuetzle, as well as other notes to prison administrators. Schuetzle was not amused; he doesn’t like to talk about the correspondence.

After McNair’s later escape from the Louisiana prison, he used Schuetzle’s name on an application to purchase a cellphone.

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“I think he’s a psychopath who likes to think he’s smarter than police and corrections people,” Schuetzle said. “Maybe that’s why he used my name.”

McNair pulled off the escape in Pollock, La., on April 5, 2006. He smuggled himself out of prison in a pile of mailbags that were shrink-wrapped on a pallet.

Later that day, a police officer questioned him but let him go, saying he did not fit the description released by prison officials. McNair told the officer that he was just jogging.

Federal marshals listed him among the nation’s 15 most wanted criminals. A $25,000 reward was offered for his capture.

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McNair was finally captured last month in Canada.

Kitzman has tried to block out the shootings, which occurred when he came to work while McNair was burglarizing the grain elevator.

McNair fired a shot from behind him. That bullet passed through a window and grazed Kitzman’s right temple.

“I never noticed him” until then, said Kitzman, who lifted a pant leg to show where a bullet had pierced his calf before entering his thigh. Another shot shattered his wrist.

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Kitzman was relieved to hear of McNair’s capture, nearly two decades after the shootings.

“It’s good to have him back in jail where he belongs so he can’t hurt anybody else,” he said.


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