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Through cunning, killer escaped time and again

The first gunshot glanced off Richard Kitzman's head, knocking him to the floor of the grain elevator where he worked.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The first gunshot glanced off Richard Kitzman's head, knocking him to the floor of the grain elevator where he worked.

Curled in a fetal position, he glimpsed the man looming over him, holding a snub-nose .38. As the man squeezed off four shots, two of which missed, Kitzman stared at the gun.

"I saw more of the revolver than I saw of him," he said, standing recently in the spot where he was shot in the Farmers Union grain elevator office the night of Nov. 17, 1987.

"When the man finished shooting, he could see that I was bleeding. I lay there and didn't move," said Kitzman, plant manager of the grain elevator today.

"He thought I was dead."

When the shooter walked out, Kitzman crawled under a desk and called 911 — and during the call, he heard more gunshots.

"I think he's shooting Jerry," Kitzman told the operator.

He referred to a friend of many years, Jerome Theis of Circle Pines, Minn., who was shot and killed as he sat in his truck outside, eating ice cream while awaiting a load of grain.

Series of escapes
By the time police arrived, the shooter had vanished. But who was he? And why did he do these terrible things?

The why question is hard to answer, but investigators soon established the who.

Richard Lee McNair, originally from Oklahoma, came to Minot with the Air Force and was in the military at the time of the killing. He had worked as a military police officer and as an informant for the Minot police.

McNair was arrested several weeks after the Minot shootings when police found stolen goods in a storage locker he had rented under a false name.

Among the most damning evidence were 10 shell casings from the grain elevator shootings, Ward County Sheriff Vern Erck said.

"He kept them as trophies," Erck said.

McNair, 48, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1987 shooting. He escaped three times — the last time from a federal prison in Louisiana more than a year ago.

‘Deadly combination’ of intelligence, cunning
The escapes fit with qualities many who knew McNair describe: He's smart and wily and personable when he needs to be.

"He was good," said retired Minot Police Sgt. Mike Knoop, who had worked with McNair when he was an informant. "He contributed to at least one sizable cocaine bust."

He described McNair as "the kind of guy who would steal your car, sell it back to you, and you'd think you got a heck of a deal."

Psychological tests in prison determined that McNair has "above-average intelligence," said Deputy U.S. Marshal Glenn Belgard, in Alexandria, La., head of the latest manhunt for McNair.

"Intelligence with an ability to con is a deadly combination," the marshal said.

McNair grew up in the Duncan, Okla., where his brother Phil McNair, who owns a tire and car lot, said he idolized his big brother "until he made bad choices."

He continued in a phone interview: "He always thinks he's too smart — and he is about the smartest person I've ever met but he's used it to his disadvantage and not to his advantage."

‘He's caused a lot of shame and heartache’
McNair's mother and father divorced, and they and his three brothers disowned the eldest son and had little communication after the killing in Minot, Phil McNair said.

"Of course he needs to pay his time," Phil McNair said. "He's caused a lot of shame and heartache to our family that seems like it never ends."

In February 1988, months after Richard McNair was convicted, he used lip balm to grease his hand and slip out of handcuffs at the Minot police station. He was captured after he jumped from the third floor of a building.

Erck said McNair nearly escaped from the Ward County Jail while awaiting trial for the grain elevator shootings.

"He chipped out two cinderblocks in his cell," Erck said. Behind the cinderblocks, authorities found a deputy's flashlight and sheets and towels tied to make a rope, which he intended to use to rappel to freedom.

Rubbing it in
His second successful escape was from the North Dakota State Penitentiary. Officials said McNair slipped out with two other prisoners through a ventilation duct on Oct. 9, 1992; he was on the lam until the following July 5, when he was captured in Grand Island, Neb.

North Dakota Warden Tim Schuetzle, recalling that McNair was the editor of the prison newspaper, The Inside Times, said what others did: "I think he's a smart guy."

After escaping from the penitentiary, McNair wrote Schuetzle a Christmas card, as well as other notes to prison administrators. Schuetzle was not amused by the correspondence, and doesn't like talking about it.

After his later escape from the Louisiana prison, McNair used Schuetzle's name on an application to purchase a cell phone.

"I really don't know what his issues are," Schuetzle said. "I think he's a psychopath who likes to think he's smarter than police and corrections people — maybe that's why he used my name."

Memories linger
McNair pulled off the escape in Pollock, La., by smuggling himself out of the federal prison there in a pile of mailbags that were shrink-wrapped on a pallet on April 5, 2006.

A police officer later that day questioned him but let him go, saying he did not fit the description given by prison officials. McNair had claimed he was just out jogging.

Federal marshals listed him among the nation's 15 most wanted criminals. A $25,000 reward was offered for his capture.

And McNair was finally captured last month by Canadian officials in New Brunswick.

Kitzman has tried to block out the shooting two decades ago, which occurred when he was called into work late and surprised McNair burglarizing the grain elevator.

McNair fired a single shot from behind him. The bullet passed through a window and grazed Kitzman's right temple. "I never noticed him," said Kitzman, lifting a pant leg to show where a bullet pierced his calf before blowing through his thigh. Another shot shattered his wrist, and an egg-size scar remains.

Kitzman was relieved to hear the news of McNair's capture, almost exactly two decades after he was wounded and his good friend murdered.

"It's good to have him back in jail where he belongs so he can't hurt anybody else," Kitzman said.