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GUEST COMMENTARY: Recalling another wild manhunt

September 3, 2015
By JOE PETE WILSON , Lake Placid News

Approximately 60 years ago, there was another serious manhunt in this area all but forgotten now, but it was big news at the time, equally as exciting and drama filled as the Dannemora escape in June of this year.

In this instance, a man was spotted by the Lake Placid police in a little camp on the very edge of town, what is now known as the Wes Valley Road. The small camp sat in the woods on the west side of Wes Valley Road immediately at the bottom of Oneida Avenue.

The date was Thursday, Aug. 5, 1954. A gun battle ensued. Three Lake Placid policemen were critically injured, including Bernard Fell and Nick Valenze. Patrolman Richard E. Pelkey died from his wounds a week after the shootout.

Article Photos

Joe Pete Wilson
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

The fugitive, Maj. James Call, an Air Force officer gone AWOL, escaped unharmed, thus starting the largest manhunt in the Adirondacks until that time.

News was not as readily available as it is these days, but word quickly spread.

Lake Placid was a sleepy little vacation town, and at the time the only big event of the summer was the Fourth of July summer ski jump held one month and one day before the shooting.

There were only enough state policemen around to catch the occasional speeder, if there was a car that could go that fast.

Volunteers were quickly called up. The response was impressive. Of course, in a small town the joke was that everybody was related to everybody anyway.

I was enjoying the summer keeping my horses, and my father was happily waiting for school to start. I was 19 years old. Imagine my surprise when my older brother comes to breakfast and instructs me to get my favorite little sporting rifle and my Colt .45. The last words I heard as I headed for the gun closet was, "And bring plenty of ammunition." That was one statement never spoken at our house. It seemed that ammo just melted into the woodwork. Ammo was expensive for us and not readily available.

I was charged with excitement! It was unbelievable! Hunting for a man. All manner of thoughts flew into my head, cooked a minute, then left, leaving space for the next fantasy.

When we arrived at the rendezvous spot, my brother chatted with some men, including some uniformed state police. They would occasionally look in my direction, making me feel quite self-conscious. Eventually I even checked to make sure my pants were zipped. Apparently part of the debate was what to do and who to do it. I was 6 feet tall, weighing in at 175 pounds. When my brother assured them that I could shoot, that apparently assured me a job. I could chase a can along the ground with my pistol shooting from the hip.

I was put with four other men, one a uniformed state policeman named Russ Slingerland. Russ is pictured in the highly acclaimed 2002 book, "Tailspin: The Strange Case of Major Call," by Bernard F. Conners.

I soon learned some of the nitty gritty details of a serious manhunt. I could not have been thrown into a more exciting job. Imagine searching remote homes. A couple of street walkers searching large camps and houses, miles from nowhere, going into rooms, looking in closets. Even Russ just had the basic training how to dress like a cop and act like a cop.

In retrospect, we made so many mistakes. Call would have been laughing as he gunned us all down, if he had been there.

During the three weeks I was on the team, there were numerous instances that occurred that made our hearts beat faster. At least mine did. One strange thing was that soon after the scare was over, I was looking for the next one. One other interesting fact was that these scares were not the subject of any discussion after they were over.

Two "scares" in particular stand out.

The first occurred in the first camp we searched. I was already thinking how the process was going to transpire, who was going to do what. At the first camp, I found myself going up on the porch with Russ. I was either too close to the front line, or the others were too far back from the front line.

That was pretty easy. Then entry! Who was going to open the door? Then enter! That was easy. No Major Call, just an empty house. Then the first room with furniture, other rooms leading off! That was easy. Then, upstairs. Russ and I started up. It was at that moment we both realized we were a team. How that happens is a miracle. There are no words to explain it. During the few minutes entering the house, we had established a bond of mutual trust.

By now, confidence had developed. The first bedroom was easy. No Major Call. Then on came the brakes! An obvious closet with a wide door that was closed. I believe it is called one of those situations where you have to get ahold of yourself. Russ and I had developed a system of alternation by now. It was my turn to open while he stood behind me with a weapon drawn.

I positioned myself in front of the door, feet spread apart and weapon ready. I think I may have gulped once before I leaned forward, grasped the door handle and swung the door wide open. I had the shock of my life and came very close to emptying my pistol at the figure in the full-length mirror on the back of the wall closet.

Standing in a slightly crouched position in his classic New York State Police uniform, black knee-high leather boots and a pistol drawn was Russ. Talk about a rush! It took me a minute to get my arms around that one. Why he didn't shoot is anybody's guess. He had a clear field of fire on my right side.

I can still vividly remember the confusion in my mind of seeing the man I know is behind me suddenly in front of me looking straight at me.

I believe it is one of the five most hair-raising experiences of my entire life. It could be No. 1, but I'm not dead yet!

The search emphasis in the Lake Placid area faded, and Call was eventually brought to justice. In November of that year, he was arrested on burglary charges in Reno, Nevada, and extradited to New York on the murder charges from the Lake Placid incident. He was sentenced to 20 years to life but only served 13 years. Call died in 1974 in an automobile accident.

(Joe Pete Wilson, formerly of Keene, now lives at Saranac Village at Will Rogers in Saranac Lake.)



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