David Collins, a student fulfilling a writing assignment in Ocie Kilgus’s English Comp class at Nicolet College, was curious about a bank robbery that took place in Laona during the 1950s. As it turns out, the robbery had an unusual twist.
On the morning of October 19, 1951, the Laona State Bank was ready for a busy day. It was payday for the Conner lumber mill, so the bank had plenty of extra money on hand to cash paychecks for the lumbermen. Shortly after the bank opened its doors, what was described as four jittery men drove up to the front entrance in a 1947 gray and brown Oldsmobile. All were wearing knitted hoods, blue jeans, and blue jackets. Three entered the bank, while the fourth remained with the vehicle. There were no customers in the bank yet, but the bank employees were ordered to lay on the ground while one bandit went to the cash drawers and started scooping bills into his pockets. A second bandit with a .45 handgun stood guard at the door, while a smaller and obviously younger bandit armed with a .22 pistol stood watch at the counter.
Frank Aschenbrenner, a clerk at the time, noted the bandits’ unpreparedness in the fact that they neglected to bring a bag with them. The ringleader just stuffed cash into his shirt and pants until no more would fit. It started running down his pants legs and fell out on the floor. Nevertheless, they managed to grab nearly 11,000 dollars. As the bandits rushed out of the bank, they nearly knocked over school principal Carl Robinson as he walked by. It was Robinson who later identified the Oldsmobile and got its license plate number.
The police and FBI were immediately notified, and blockades were established on all roads leading out of Forest County. In Langlade County a car matching the description of the getaway vehicle pulled up to a police roadblock. While the vehicle looked right, the license plate did not match. Furthermore, the car did not have four young men in blue jeans, as the bandits had worn. Instead, there was a well-dressed woman, her daughter, and two men in well-pressed suits. Still, the suspicious police took down all identifying information about the car and occupants before allowing it to go on its way.
It was not long before the license plate from the robbery was found tossed in the brush near Roberts Lake. This warranted further investigation of the vehicle that passed through Langlade County. The vehicle was traced to Green Bay and the home of Esther Whiting, who worked as a part-time waitress. Buried in her backyard police found $9,930 of the bank loot squirreled away in a tin box and jar. Police also found evidence that tied the family to half a dozen other burglaries in the Green Bay area.
What everyone believed to be a nervous young man with a .22 turned out to be Whiting’s fourteen-year-old daughter Patsy. The others accused were Whiting’s twenty-four-year-old son Charles French. French’s buddy Albert Small of Appleton was the getaway driver. A fifth accomplice, Wilfred Smith of Sturgeon Bay, was charged with receiving money from the holdup. Patsy, a junior high school student, plead guilty to juvenile delinquency while the remainder of the gang were charged as adults.