The phone rang at the Burlington Police Station about 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, May 26, 1934, and was answered by Desk Sgt. Bill Anderson. The caller was Mrs. Faith Hanson, who lived above the Woolworth Store on Jefferson Street.
Mrs. Hanson explained she had gone to bed the previous evening with her window open because of the unusually warm spring weather. Shortly before dawn she was awakened by a suspicious noise from the Economy Store across the street from her apartment.
Mrs. Hanson went to the window and in the faint gloom of the street light, she could make out shadowy figures moving through the store.
Police Capt. Bill Sauer and Officer William Garret were on patrol when the radio of their squad car crackled to life with Sgt. Anderson’s warning of suspicious activity at the Economy Store.
The two veteran officers parked their car at the end of the alley on Jefferson Street and quietly walked up the dark passageway to the rear of the Economy Store. Here, Capt. Sauer directed Garrett to watch the back door while he guarded the front of the building until other officers would arrive from the nearby station house.
Garret watched as Sauer walked up the alley and took up a station across Jefferson Street facing the front door of the Economy Store.
Inside the store, two men were emerging from the basement, where they had just succeeded in cracking the safe and removing $600. This unexpectedly large haul stood in pleasant contrast to the meager $70 they had removed from the safe at the Hatch Motor Co. earlier that month.
But there was little time to congratulate themselves, because much time had been lost breaking into the last safe and now dawn was awakening the town. As the two men moved toward the front door they suddenly froze, because in the shadows across the street stood a uniformed figure.
From his post half a block away, Garrett also was watching. Suddenly, he saw Sauer stiffen and then race across the street while attempting to draw his holstered revolver.
The sound of the shotgun blast suddenly echoed unnaturally loud in the narrow alley. But Garrett had lost sight of his fellow officer. In an instant, Garrett had his gun out and was racing toward the front of the store.
When he turned the corner he nearly tumbled over Sauer who was lying in a pool of blood on the Jefferson Street sidewalk. Garret paused knelt over the softly moaning Garrett for a moment and then ran to the corner of Third Street, where he saw two men walking rapidly up the hill toward Washington Street.
The excited officer emptied his revolver at the vanishing figures but to no effect. Then he turned and raced back to the sidewalk. Officer Nelson had just arrived from the station house and the two men quickly brought the patrol car up and placed the injured Sauer in the back seat and rushed him to Burlington Hospital.
Authorities later surmised that Capt. Sauer, waiting outside the store, had heard the store’s door click open and had rushed forward. Without any warning, one of the bandits stepped through the door and cut the advancing policeman down with a single blast of a sawed-off shotgun fired at close range.
Horace Emerson lived at an apartment at Third and Washington streets and was standing unseen in the shadows of his doorway when Officer Garrett’s wild shots struck the nearby Union Tire Shop and the two men walked by.
Emerson was to later report that the lead figure carrying the shotgun, coolly turned to his companion and laughingly said, “Tell those fellows to quit shooting back there.”
Other witnesses watching from darkened windows told how the two men walked to a Ford V-8 coup parked at Fourth and Columbia streets and loaded their weapons and loot. They paused and bent the car license plate in such a manner as it could not be read and only then did they drive deliberately and slowly away.
Capt. Sauer’s wife rushed to the hospital and her husband told her, “I’m badly hurt but I’m going to fight it. Just have the doctor tell me how bad it is.”
It was very bad, because Sauer had more than 200 shotgun pellets lodged in his body. A few hours later and in great pain, the police office died.
The search for the assailants swung into high-gear as the day wore on. The description of the killers and their car was flashed over a three-state area. Witnesses were brought to the station, where they pored over mug shots in an attempt at identification.
Emerson was the first to come up an “ID.” He picked the photo of Gale Johnson as the man who carried the shotgun past him on Sunday morning. Johnson’s last address was in Des Moines and phone calls were immediately placed to officers in that city.
The hurriedly dispatched Des Moines police arrived at the Johnson home as he was leaving. Upon spotting the approaching officers, Johnson made a break for his car, but he was intercepted and hauled away.
Johnson was returned to Burlington, where numerous witnesses placed him in the community at the time of the shooting and others pin-pointed him as the man carrying the shotgun away from the Economy Store.
Johnson went to trial but never gave up his companion. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment as his wife loudly protested the verdict.
Hundreds attended Capt. Sauer’s funeral. There were contingents from the local Cavalry Troop and Order of the Eagles. The policeman left behind a wife and three children and became the second Burlington officer killed in the line of duty.