An Innocent Man? The Russell Boles Case, 0420 COBJ, Vol. 49, No. 4 Pg. 17

Position:Vol. 49, 4 [Page 17]

49 Colo.Law. 17

An Innocent Man? The Russell Boles Case

No. Vol. 49, No. 4 [Page 17]

Colorado Lawyer

April, 2020



On New Year's Eve 1901 a teenaged girl named Florence Fridborn was sexually assaulted at a neighborhood pond in the City of Denver. When her brother tried to stop the assault, the rapist killed him with an ax. These brutal events set off a frantic manhunt for the killer, leading to a shootout with an innocent man in a local canyon. Eventually Russell Boles, a transient who was living in Canada under an assumed name, was arrested and convicted of the slaying. Boles's conviction for first-degree murder earned him a sentence of life imprisonment at hard labor. Although the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed his conviction, some have questioned over the years whether he was actually guilty, or merely the scapegoat for a heinous crime.

The Assault

On December 31, 1901 at 8:20 p.m., Florence Fridborn left her house at 2734 Gray Street to go ice skating. She was 16 years old. Her brother Harold, age 14, accompanied her.

On their way out of the house, the siblings passed by their mother, who was sitting in the parlor. She looked up at the clock, saw the time, and told them they shouldn't go out because it was so late. Harold replied that they would just skate around the pond two or three times and then walk home. He pleaded with her, saying they had had a "lovely time" there the night before, and there were "plenty of children down there."[1] She let them go.

The pond where they planned to skate was a few blocks from their home. The pair walked by vacant lots, making their way first down Lake Avenue and then Firth Court. They walked alone on the night streets. They saw no one.

Soon they arrived at the south side of the pond. Electric light, some of it coming from a nearby church, provided some illumination at the scene, lust across the pond, to the north, it was darker. On that side of the ice was a trash heap that locals called the dump: a pile of rubbish and ashes.

As he approached them, he let his hands drop to his sides. That's when Florence saw the ax, held in his right hand.

Florence sat down on an overturned can and began putting on her skates. Harold helped her with them. As he worked, she looked up and saw a man walking slowly down Lake Avenue with a shuffling gait, staring down at his feet.

Florence told Harold, "That man looks suspicious and I am scared of him."2Harold told her not to be afraid. "He just wants to see us skate," he said.3That quenched her fears for the moment. Harold finished putting on her skates.

When she stood up with her skates on, Florence saw the man again. He was closer now, shuffling down Firth Court toward them. She saw that he had on a long overcoat and a cap.

"Harold," she said, "There is that man again."[4]

By now, like his sister, Harold was becoming suspicious. He jumped up and called out to the man, "What do you want down here?"5

The stranger asked them if the skating was any good. Florence noted his strange voice, soft and effeminate, which contrasted with his rough appearance. They both assured him that no, the skating wasn't any good here.

The man came closer anyway, sliding toward them on his feet over the ice. He had his hands behind his back. As he approached them, he let his hands drop to his sides. That's when Florence saw the ax, held in his right hand.

The man was upon them now. He asked them if they had any money. They both said no. He told them he didn't believe them. He kept asking them if they had money, and they kept insisting they didn't. Finally, he said, "Well if you be still I won't hurt you, but if you make any noise I will kill you."6

Florence remembered something her father had said. Several women had recently been assaulted in the Capitol Hill area of Denver. He'd remarked how strange it was that none of diem could give a description of their assailant. She decided to look carefully at the stranger who had threatened them, so that she could identify him later. She looked him over from top to bottom in the light cast by the electric streetlights. She noticed his frowning face and die gold ring on one of his fingers. The man had a "short stubby beard and a moustache."7

The man ordered diem to walk over to the north side of die pond, by die dump, where it was darker. Florence's skates had become untied. She took diem off and left diem in die mud. They begged die man to let diem go. He told diem to sit down and put their hands up. He said, "I will have to search you."8

Then he told Florence to lie down. As she did, he straddled her body, pinning her arms. Harold pleaded with him, "Please, mister, don't disgrace my sister—I will give you everything I got."9He offered die man his knife and die few other things he had in his pockets, including some peanuts. At this, the man became enraged. He yelled at Harold to shut up. Then he swung the ax, hitting the boy twice on the left side of his head. The powerful blows, which fractured Harold's temporal bone and ruptured his carotid artery, were almost immediately fatal.

The man grabbed Florence's throat, choking her. She struggled until she passed out. When she came to, he was still on top of her, but her hands were free. She hit him as hard as she could in the face with both her fists. She grabbed at his mouth and caught his tongue, skinning two of her fingers on his teeth. She managed to kick him and screamed as loud as she could. He grabbed a handful of weeds and dirt and stuck it in her mouth, put his hands over her mouth, and swore at her. She bit his fingers as hard as she could. Then she fell unconscious again.

When Florence awoke, the man was gone. Her clothes were torn, rumpled, and covered with dirt. She got up and stumbled across the ice, falling down repeatedly and calling out for her brother. He did not respond, and she assumed he had gone home. Somehow, she made her way home, rang the bell, and asked if Harold was there. Her sister told her no. She told her sister and her mother Harold had been struck with an ax. Then she fainted.

The next few weeks were a daze for Florence. She gave her story to police and at inquests. But later, she would claim to remember few details of what she had said. The trauma, she claimed, had left her barely conscious during this time period. She did not even know she had been sexually assaulted until a medical examination revealed that fact.[10]

The Investigation

After Florence returned home, disheveled and bleeding, and told her story, her father Frederick Fridborn went looking for his son. His neighbors accompanied him. They climbed down into an area north of the pond known as the "hole" or the "pit."11 There they found Harold, lying on a dark mound of ashen dirt and rubbish about 20 or 30 feet from Firth Court on the northeast side of the pond.[12] Though only starlight illuminated the scene, it was plain that Harold Fridborn was dead.

An ambulance came. In addition to doctors, it carried a policeman and a reporter for the Denver Republican. Other police soon arrived, some on horseback. In the following days the police went from house to house in the area, looking for suspicious characters who might have committed the crime.

Denver Detectives Ed Carberry and George Sanders were assigned to the case. Over the succeeding months they brought many men, perhaps as many as a hundred, to Florence to see whether she could identify them. She always stated that they were not the man who killed her brother.

Tomaso Minci's Suspicious Behavior

The detectives soon received a tip that led them to an Italian immigrant named Tomaso Minci.13 The initial description of the assailant dispatched to officers had included a suggestion that he might be an Italian or German immigrant. Minci's suspicious behavior had incited the citizens of Bellvue, Colorado to attempt a citizens' arrest of him for the Fridborn murder. He had escaped the mob and headed north.

Carberry and Sanders began searching for Minci all over Northern Colorado. They scoured the area between Larporte and Boxelder and even alerted ranchers up in Tie Siding to be on the lookout. Eventually, acting on a tip, they caught up with the fugitive near Six Mile Canyon.

Minci had built a fire near the mouth of a cavern in the rocks, where he was warming his hands. The officers, along with the Larimer County sheriff, quiedy surrounded him. Detective Carberry made his way behind Minci to cut off his line of retreat. Then the sheriff called out for him to surrender. Minci yelled back that he would never be taken alive. He pulled out a double barreled shotgun, pointed it at the sheriff, and snapped both barrels. Fortuitously, neither cartridge went off.

Minci put aside the useless shotgun. He drew a pistol, held it under his own chin, and pulled die trigger. This time die gun fired. The bullet broke his jaw in three places and lodged under his left eye. When die sheriff heard Mind's gun go off, he thought he was under fire, and he shot off a round at Minci's head. But Minci was already collapsing from his wounds, and die bullet missed. Detective Carberry tackled die suspect without further incident and die officers took him into custody.

The officers bound up Minci's wounds as best they could and transported him first to Fort Collins by horse, then to Denver by train. But after arriving in Denver they discovered that Minci had an airtight alibi. He was in Central City at his home on die night of die murder and could not have committed die crime.

It seemed Minci, a miner from Central City, had recently suffered a crippling mental breakdown. His bizarre behavior, which had caused Bellevue citizens to believe he could be die Fridborn murderer...

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