Wearing masks in a bank may be common, even required, during a pandemic. Bank tellers may not be alarmed by mask-wearers on Halloween, but on October 31, 1986, at Eitzen State Bank, a rubber mask and a sawed-off shotgun had nothing to do with a holiday.
Bank robbers have three times targeted that site. There was limited success during a 1964 burglary, but swift justice followed 1986 and 1991 robberies. In all three instances, the lifted loot left town. The first criminal crew escaped with some cash. The other two robberies involved considerably more money — but also apprehension and conviction.
There is no police department in town (recent population of 250), and the Iowa state line is just down the street. After the last two heists, county sheriffs made arrests across the border. It took only 90 minutes of bi-county cooperation to apprehend the 1991 pair of perpetrators.
During his 35 years at the bank, now retired bank president Don Meiners has memories of all three thefts but was present for only one. In 1964, he was an assistant cashier when the bank staff opened one morning to discover an overnight break-in through a backroom window. With an acetylene torch, stolen in Decorah, Iowa, burglars eliminated the lock on the vault. The thieves knocked the combination lock off the safe, but they could not conquer the time-controlled lock.
The burglars absconded with a cash box and a surprising amount of cash left in some of the safe deposit boxes. They left with far less money than they had envisioned, but the case was not solved.
Two decades and two years later, Meiners was away at lunch on Halloween, 1986 when a masked man, brandishing a sawed-off shotgun, ordered tellers to put cash into paper bags, imprinted with the name of a Waukon, Iowa, supermarket.
Soon thereafter, two farmers noticed a young man get out of a car and bury something under a rural brush pile. Investigators found work clothing from a factory in Waukon, imprinted with the name of Randall O. Smerud. That 26 year-old rural Decorah resident would lead investigators to a remote area of Allamakee County, where he had buried the $10,000 holdup loot.
A previously arrested La Crescent suspect was released, and Smerud was sentenced in June 1997 to three years in prison.
Meiners was in his office during the May 15, 1991, robbery, but he was not noticed by two thieves who wore white dust masks and baseball caps while armed with a sawed-off shotgun and a handgun. They had no bags, so they stuffed as much money as they could into their shirts and pants.
The bank president heard one robber call the other “Steve.” At 12:17 p.m., Meiners called Houston County Sgt. Mike Lee and supplied the Iowa license plate number on the dirt-covered Chevrolet Impala getaway car. Allamakee County, Iowa, deputy Tim Heiderscheit soon arrived at the scene from his home in nearby Dorchester, Iowa, and radioed to his office in Waukon the description of the vehicle.
In the La Crosse Tribune, Glen Gimble of Spring Grove said he saw the robbers, carrying guns as they got into their car and sped away toward New Albin. He and area farmer Charles Schroeder followed the getaway car but could not keep up. Returning to the bank, Schroeder said they found a $100 bill and four $1 bills in the street.
After stopping to wash the car, Steven. L. Beisker, 22, of Waukon, and his cousin, Jerry M. Mattson, 21, of Virginia, were arrested within 90 minutes of the robbery by Allamakee County deputies at the Village Motel in Waukon, 20 miles south of Eitzen. The desperados were in possession of the two firearms, an Eitzen State Bank ballpoint pen and more than $13,000 in cash.
They were jailed overnight at Waukon before being picked up by FBI agents. They were tried and convicted in St. Paul of a federal crime.
Beisker, son of an area farm family, was described by the motel owner as a “nice kid,” who worked at a Waukon grocery store and had lived at the motel for about eight months. His cousin from Virginia visited frequently.