The Robber’s Third Chance

When the facts warrant, [we] take a calculated risk — to give a young man or a young woman an opportunity to redeem himself.
– Associate Dean James Robertson
  1. Chapter 1 “They Never Asked”

    This story ends with an embarrassing moment in February 2004. That was when executives at Smith & Wesson, the firearms manufacturer, found out their new board chairman, 74, had spent a dozen years in prison for armed robbery — armed with a Smith & Wesson pistol, actually.

    Naturally, the board chairman faced some questions. For one: Why didn’t you mention this to the company?

    “They never asked,” he said.

    Plus it may have occurred to him that one question would lead to another, and if he told them everything, nobody would believe him.

    It was a strange story, all right, and the University of Michigan played one of the stranger parts in it.

    It had started more than 50 years earlier at an intersection in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights, where police were called to the scene of a traffic accident.

  2. Chapter 2 Crime Spree

    Right around Christmas 1950, a string of hold-ups were reported around Detroit — $300 stolen from an A&P grocery in Garden City; $300 from another A&P on the east side; a few hundred more from a bar at Southfield Road and Six Mile.

    At a bank branch in Detroit, the robber pulled a pistol on the manager but fled before he took anything. Police suspected that one young man, who wore dark glasses and a trench coat during his capers, was behind the crime spree.

    When $1,500 in cash and checks was stolen from a Kroger cashier in Allen Park, witnesses saw the thief racing away in a high-powered car.

    Then, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 1951, a car matching the description of the Allen Park getaway vehicle crashed into a truck at a traffic light in Dearborn Heights. The young man driving the car was trapped in the wreck.

    Officers got him out and asked him his name.

    “James Joseph Minder, Jr.,” he said. Age: 20. Residence: Ann Arbor.

    Police looked through his pockets, then checked the car’s plates. It had been stolen in Massachusetts. Inside they found a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver, $444 in checks made out to Kroger, and some law books. They arrested Minder on suspicion of armed robbery.

    At the station, he said yes, he’d done those jobs — the grocery stores, the bar, the bank. (He’d chickened out at the bank, he said.)

    What’d you do with the money? the cops asked.

    “I spent some of the money buying jewelry and new clothes and I needed more money for a new car,” Minder said. “I’ve already got a down payment on a convertible.”

    “I really didn’t need the money,” he said later. “I just wanted to live better.”

    Who was the jewelry for?

    His girlfriend, 17.

    What about the law books?

    Well, he said, he had those because he was a law student at the University of Michigan.

    Police called Ann Arbor to check. He was not a law student, they were told. James Minder was an undergraduate in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

    A very, very bright undergraduate.

    I just wanted to live better.
    – James Minder
  3. Chapter 3 “A Wise and Kindly Counselor”

    James Minder had been born in 1930 in Clinton, Massachusetts, an old, struggling mill town. His parents divorced when he was 3, and his mother turned him over to an elderly grandmother. He bounced from relative to relative, though he mostly grew up on the streets. He got in trouble and wound up back with his father, an industrial engineer, who took a job with the Ford Motor Company after World War II. They moved to Detroit.

    * * *

    Minder was convicted in the Allen Park Kroger case. He served three years of a 15-year sentence at the state penitentiary at Ionia, then was paroled. He’d been “a model prisoner,” authorities said.

    Shortly thereafter, on April 2, 1954, with a friend, he robbed a branch of Manufacturer’s National Bank in Dearborn. The two walked out with $52,000.

    Minder was caught, convicted and sentenced to a term of 3 1/2-13 years.

    He had robbed several other places this time, too. “It was simply too easy,” he said later. He was never dramatic. He would just go in, show a gun, quietly explain what he needed, and leave.

    This time he was sent to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. He started to correspond with a professor at Michigan, Arthur Van Duren of the German Department.

    Van Duren had grown up in the small Michigan town of Holland. He went to U-M for college and graduate school. He became one of those faculty members who focus more on students than research.

    As chair of LSA’s Freshman-Sophomore Counseling Office, he formed connections with many students. He had “a special sympathy and understanding for the freshmen, many of whom falter in their initial struggle to come to terms with themselves and with the College,” colleagues wrote of him later. “Literally thousands of these young men and women and their parents [have] found in Professor Van Duren a wise and kindly counselor.”

    That’s probably how Professor Van Duren and James Minder had met. Now, through letters, Van Duren urged Minder to enroll in college correpondence courses, and he soon did so. He earned more than 30 credit hours from the University of Missouri and Kansas University, getting As and Bs in history, economics, psychology, philosophy and math. He was transferred to the federal prison at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, but he kept up his course work.

    When he was close to coming up for parole, he and Van Duren discussed re-applying to Michigan. Van Duren spoke about it to James H. Robertson, professor of English and assistant dean of LSA.

    Then, in 1958, Van Duren died at the age of 57. Dean Robertson took over his correspondence with Minder.

    Robertson was no soft touch. He’d served on Gen. Omar Bradley’s staff in World War II, landing on the Normandy beachhead shortly after D-Day. But he thought highly of Van Duren’s judgment about students. So he went through Minder’s file — his transcript; intelligence tests (he ranked very high in I.Q.); and letters.

    “His frequent letters to Professor Van Duren revealed him to be an intelligent, perceptive, articulate young man who seemed to be genuinely grateful for the interest shown in him by Professor Van Duren,” Robertson wrote later. In Van Duren’s last letter to Minder, he had told the young man he was ready for a useful life, and that he would help him however he could. Now, with Van Duren gone, Dean Robertson decided to do the same.

    “Because of my deep and genuine admiration for Professor Van Duren’s humane insight and sympathetic concern for students in trouble,” Robertson wrote later, “I had no hesitation about trying to help Mr. Minder.”

    Robertson invited Minder’s father, who had remarried, to come to Ann Arbor for a chat. He got letters from Minder’s professors, the warden at Leavenworth, and the judge who had sentenced him. He talked it over with the dean of LSA, the dean of men, the probation officer for Washtenaw County, and LSA’s 10-member Administrative Board.

    All agreed: Let him come back to Michigan and try again.

    I had no hesitation about trying to help Mr. Minder.
    – Dean James Robertson
  4. Chapter 4 Second Chance

    Now 29, Minder was paroled from prison and accepted for re-admission at Michigan. He decided to major in journalism. He told people he wanted to be a sportswriter. “I’ve got a pretty good knack for writing,” he said later. He moved into his father’s house in Dearborn and arranged to borrow the family car for commuting to Ann Arbor.

    Dean Robertson became Minder’s parole supervisor. They met twice a week. Minder started to see a psychologist and he made a little money selling shoes part-time.

    But he had to pay his tuition, and Christmas was coming.

    This time he tried to be more careful. First he stole a car and parked it near his father’s house. On mornings when he planned to stage a robbery, he would leave in the car his dad lent him. Then he’d use the stolen car for the robberies, switch cars again, and drive back home. “That way my folks never knew I wasn’t studying.”

    It worked for eight heists — seven pharmacies and a jewelry store. He carried a sawed-off 16-gauge shotgun, though he told police later that he wasn’t going to shoot anybody. “I always believed the gun was enough to scare them.”

    On December 20, 1959, two Detroit officers in an unmarked car saw him pull into the alley behind the Hush Drug Store on Schoolcraft. When one of the officers approached on foot, Minder drove off. A chase ensued over snow-slick roads. Three miles away, Minder crashed into a schoolyard fence. He jumped from the car and ran. One of the cops fired his pistol in the air.

    “Don’t shoot!” Minder shouted. “I surrender!”

    * * *

    “The news hit me like a ton of bricks,” Dean Robertson told a reporter from the Michigan Daily. “You go out on a limb to give somebody a chance and then they saw it off.”

    In a memo for his superiors, Robertson noted LSA’s long-standing practice in cases of student misconduct — that is, “when the facts warrant, to take a calculated risk — to give a young man or a young woman an opportunity to redeem himself. Although no accurate records have been kept of the number of such ‘chances’ we have taken, the overwhelming majority have been successful.

    “Mr. Minder was a spectacular failure. I sincerely trust, however, that the College will always have time to consider extraordinary appeals from students seeking a second chance.”

    Dean Robertson read his statement to the regents of the University at their monthly meeting on January 22, 1960.

    The meeting minutes read: “The Regents warmly congratulated the Dean on the policy and extended him their thanks. They furthermore praised the counseling system of the College and paid high tribute to the work done by the late Professor Arthur Van Duren.”

    I always believed the gun was enough to scare them.
    – James Minder
  5. Chapter 5 Spur of the Moment

    Minder was sent back to the state prison for high-risk offenders at Ionia, this time for ten-to-twenty. He tried to get transferred to the federal system, where he said the psychiatric help was better. But it was no go.

    He got a job as clerk for the deputy warden. He joined the prison debate team. For 1962-63, the official National Debate Tournament topic was: “Resolved: That the Non-Communist Nations of the World Should Establish an Economic Community.” Minder studied hard.

    “He doesn’t belong in a place like this,” said Warden George A. Kropp. “He’s got too much on the ball.”

    In early December, the Ionia Reformatory team traveled to Ann Arbor to compete against the Michigan Debate Squad. During a break, Minder went to the men’s room. Another inmate, Thomas Hodges, 24, went, too. A minute later, Hodges said: “Let’s go.”

    “It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing,” Minder said. “I said, ‘Okay,’ and off we went.”

    They stole a car and headed east. In a small town in central Massachusetts, not far from Minder’s hometown, they broke into an old man’s cabin, tied him up, then stole his clothes and a shotgun.

    A cop stopped them for speeding. Hodges ran. Minder was arrested.

    A reporter was allowed to interview him.

    “Boy, I don’t know why I goof up,” Minder said. “Everything goes back to a situation of getting to know myself.” In jail, he always did fine. “Everything just seems to back up when I get out.”

    Warden Kropp was not sympathetic.

    “Minder had all kind of counseling help here,” he told a reporter. “The man’s problem is that he simply has never learned that when you’re a free man, you don’t hold people up and take their belongings. His crimes are of the violent type and it’s lucky he’s never killed anybody.

    “It’s a tremendous waste, a man like Minder. But he didn’t run away because he couldn’t get psychiatric treatment. He just went because he wanted to get away.”

    He simply has never learned that you don’t hold people up and take their belongings.
    – George Kropp, warden of the Ionia State Reformatory
  6. Chapter 6 Third Chance

    Back to Ionia.

    Minder thought about the letters Professor Van Duren and Dean Robertson had sent him.

    “They would tell me again and again that I should be using my talents and intelligence to do constructive things,” he told a reporter later. “I realized, ‘Look, this is ridiculous, I’m killing myself. The person getting beat up here is me.’”

    He wrote to the University again. This time the letter went to Professor Eugene Nissen, another assistant dean of LSA.

    When Minder was released in 1969, Dean Nissen helped to get him admitted to U-M for a third time.

    He finished his bachelor’s degree in sociology, then earned a master’s degree in social work. At the urging of a professor, he made a study of juvenile delinquency. That led to a job at Boysville of Michigan, the Catholic agency that ran a system of centers for wayward teens.

    In the 1970s, Minder married a U-M law student. Together, in northwest Detroit, he and his wife founded an accredited nonprofit agency that would become Spectrum Human Services, Inc., which provided therapy, housing and job training for troubled children and families. Much of the funding was provided by state agencies. By the 1990s, Minder was recognized as a highly effective administrator of child welfare programs.

    But that’s not the end of the story.

    I realized, ‘Look, this is ridiculous, I’m killing myself.'
    – James Minder
  7. Chapter 7 The End

    “I don’t think he walked around with a sign on his chest saying, ‘I am a reformed criminal,’” a member of Spectrum’s board told a reporter. “But we all knew about it.”

    But the state of Michigan, Spectrum’s chief source of funding, didn’t know about it. When a Detroit reporter recognized Minder’s name from bygone days and asked the state about it, Minder had to submit to a painstaking inquiry into his fitness to run programs for delinquents. He got a clean bill of health and kept on working.

    He and his wife retired from Spectrum in 1997. They moved to Arizona. There Minder met a businessman, Mitchell Saltz, who had started a company called Saf-T-Hammer, which made gun hammers — removable ones, to make pistols safer.

    Minder liked the idea of safer guns. So he put $25,000 of his savings into the start-up and wound up joining the board. Pretty soon he agreed to serve as the board’s chair.

    Saf-T-Hammer did well, and in 2001, the owner, Saltz, pulled off an ambitious and unlikely coup — he purchased the legendary gunmaker Smith & Wesson from the British conglomerate that owned it. Smith & Wesson was then merged with Saf-T-Hammer, and now James Minder found himself chairman of the board of the company that made the gun he had once used to commit armed robbery.

    Then, in February 2004, a reporter from the Arizona Republic called and asked: Was this the same James Minder who used to rob banks and stores in Detroit? The “Shotgun Bandit” of Michigan?

    He talked to his wife, and they agreed he’d better tell the company the whole story.

    He hadn’t violated any corporate rules. When he’d joined the board, the questionnaire only asked if he’d ever been convicted of securities fraud.

    He volunteered to step down as chair. “I felt it was the best thing for the company, given the circumstances,” he said. The company accepted his decision but gave him high praise.

    “While recognizing the very serious mistakes in his early life, the board believes that Mr. Minder has led an exemplary life for 35 years and has provided tremendous services to the community,” said the company’s statement. “Based on this, and other successful business experience, the board believes he should and can continue to provide invaluable input to Smith & Wesson.”

    Minder died in 2014. He is buried in Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery. 

    Sources included Vanessa O’Connell, “How Troubled Past Finally Caught Up With James Minder,” Wall Street Journal; Michigan Daily; Detroit Free Press; U-M Board of Regents records, Bentley Historical Library; and the James H. Robertson papers at the Bentley Historical Library.