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ND survivor of 1937 double murder returns to Montana

COLUMBUS, Mont. (AP) -- The survivor of a notorious double murder in Stillwater County returned to Columbus recently to reconnect with fragments of his past.

COLUMBUS, Mont. (AP) -- The survivor of a notorious double murder in Stillwater County returned to Columbus recently to reconnect with fragments of his past.

Larry Kuntz, a 78-year-old retired pharmacist, came to Columbus from Spokane, Wash., with eight members of his family.

Kuntz was just 5 years old on Nov. 26, 1937, when his parents, Mike and Frieda Kuntz, were shot and killed by a local farmer with a criminal past.

The couple had moved from their native North Dakota to Wheat Basin, a homesteader-era community between Molt and Rapelje, for Mike's job running the grain elevator.

On the morning of Nov. 27, a young boy, his head bloodied and eyes swollen, walked into the Wheat Basin general store.

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Local farmer Franklin Robideau was at the store and asked the boy if he'd been attacked by a dog, according to The Billings Gazette.

Others at the store told the boy, whom they recognized as Larry Kuntz, that they would take him home, but the boy said that no one would be there.

"They shot Mama and Papa," the boy said.

Details of Robideau's confession to the murders, the revelation of his previous conviction of second-degree murder in New York state and Robideau's hanging in Columbus on Jan. 15, 1938, filled local papers for months.

A photo of Larry Kuntz in a Columbus hospital bed ran on the front page of The Gazette two days after the murders. The boy's head was bandaged, and a toy truck was nearly hidden in the bed sheets.

Then the boy largely disappeared from news accounts, which, as it turns out, was the way his extended family wanted it.

Mike, 34, and Frieda Kuntz, 27, both came from large families. Several of their siblings asked to adopt the orphaned boy. A judge split custody between Larry's maternal grandmother and paternal uncle, both of whom lived in or near Richardton, N.D., 80 miles across the Montana line.

During the school year, Kuntz lived with his grandmother in town. Summers, he was on his uncle's farm along with several cousins.

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His family always shielded him from intrusions by the press.

But that didn't erase the memory of what he had seen.

On the day of the murders, Robideau had come to the grain elevator and demanded that Mike Kuntz pay him for 180 bushels of wheat stored there. Kuntz said he couldn't pay Robideau because the ownership of the wheat was in question.

Robideau, whose wife was pregnant with their fourth child, was desperate.

Authorities believed that Robideau, perhaps at gunpoint, coerced Kuntz into writing checks for the wheat and ordered him to keep quiet.

Larry Kuntz remembers only bits and pieces of that day, including that Robideau came to the Kuntz family's house that evening while they were eating dinner.

Robideau had a gun, holding it in both hands with the barrel pointed down between his knees as he sat.

That terrified his mother, Larry Kuntz said.

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Mike Kuntz persuaded Robideau to put the weapon away, Larry Kuntz said.

The family left home to drive into Columbus for a social visit, possibly to celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary that day, and perhaps to report threats from Robideau.

Larry Kuntz isn't sure if Robideau got into their car before it left the house or if he flagged them down on the road.

A ways down the road, Robideau asked Mike Kuntz to stop.

Shortly after that, Robideau shot Mike Kuntz in the back of the head. Frieda, probably to protect Larry, came over the front seat into the back seat at Robideau, who shot her in the heart.

Robideau then beat the boy with the butt of the gun, so severely that fragments of the handle lodged in the boy's head.

Kuntz blacked out, remembering nothing more until the next morning when he awoke inside the car, which was parked in the grain elevator with his parents' bodies still in the vehicle.

The boy got out of the car and tried to leave the grain elevator, but all doors were locked. He returned to the car, "screaming, yelling and crying," he said.

Then he remembered a back door that was fastened from the inside with a hook latch. He got out that door and made his way to the store.

After that, he doesn't remember being in the hospital or the police questioning him.

Kuntz considers himself fortunate to have grown up in a loving family. But the murders were never far from his mind, particularly during early childhood. He had nightmares and occasionally broke into tears in elementary school.

While he felt welcomed by his extended family, he always missed his mother and father.

With an insurance policy he received after his parents' deaths, Kuntz went to Gonzaga University in Spokane one year before returning to North Dakota to finish a pharmacy degree. He took a job in Spokane and spent 54 years as a pharmacist until he retired a couple of years ago.

When he began dating his wife, Janet, he told her without elaborating that his parents were dead. A cousin later told her about what had happened to his parents.

Married 52 years, Larry and Janet raised three daughters and a son, Mike, named after Larry's father. They also have nine grandchildren and seven great-grandsons.

The family is close.

"His kids are his best friends," Janet said.

Kuntz never spoke much with his family members about the deaths of his parents, and they never asked because they wanted to protect him from further hurt. But many questions remained.

Kuntz's grandson, Ambrose Cavegn III, curious about his great-grandparents, began looking for information about them on the Internet.

He ran across a Wheat Basin reunion planned by Ken Mesch, Stillwater County fire warden who now owns the land where the town once stood.

Only a few foundations are left. The grain elevator that figured into the Kuntz murders burned several years ago.

Cavegn began corresponding with Mesch, without telling his grandfather at first. When Larry did find out, he said that he might like to attend one of the periodic reunions.

Not wanting to wait for the next reunion, Kuntz and his family drove to Columbus the weekend of Oct. 16.

This was Kuntz's second return to Columbus since his childhood. In 1956, Kuntz stopped to get court records about the case, but was brushed off by courthouse employees, he said.

The family had several reasons to come to Columbus this time. It was a way that Kuntz's children and grandchildren could learn more about Larry's parents and to see the Museum of the Beartooths exhibit about the murders.

For Kuntz, it also was a way to set the record straight. Accounts of the murders that he has read usually are told from Robideau's point of view. Some are even sympathetic to the murderer.

The visit would be a way to get his family's side of the story on the record.

Museum director Penny Redli recorded Kuntz talking about his parents and the case. Kuntz also is sending Redli photos of his parents.

In a somber and reflective mood, the Kuntzes spent the morning quietly looking through historical records at the museum and visiting at the exhibit, which includes the hood worn by Robideau during the execution, the rope with which he was hanged and the murder weapon.

Surrounded by artifacts of a story that could have destroyed Larry's life, his family was quick to point out that it did not.

The thing they are most proud of that he is a wonderful person after the horror he experienced as a child.

"He is someone who has a reason to be hateful and angry," said his daughter, Kristi Kuntz. "But, instead, he's loving, kind, easy-going and resilient."

As a son who grew up without his own parents, Kuntz can sympathize with another group of children forever changed by his parents' murder -- Robideau's young family.

Robideau and his wife, who didn't know about his criminal past when she married him, had four children, aged 3 weeks to 7 years at the time of his execution.

"They were as much victims as I was," Kuntz said.

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