He had been a 14-year-old bootlegger, but wanted a fresh start. His murder sparked the 'slayer law' in ND
In the 1920s, Engolf Snortland started running with a bad crowd, later kidnapped the wrong man, and went to prison. He moved home to North Dakota for a fresh start, only to be shot dead. In the years to come, the fallout from his unusual case would reach the state Supreme Court and inspire groundbreaking legislation in North Dakota.
TOLNA, N.D. — As the townspeople of Tolna, North Dakota, prepared to celebrate America’s bicentennial in 1976 they marked the occasion by publishing their own town’s history. Having only been around for 70 years, Tolna, about 45 minutes southeast of Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, was in its infancy compared to the East Coast's colonial-era cities. Nonetheless, the 247 people living there were proud of the community they had built.
On the first page of the bicentennial book, which contained biographies of local families and stories of the earliest businesses in town, the authors noted that Tolna was built by “stable and ambitious people” coming from Scandinavia, Germany, England, Ireland, and France.
But they noted it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the early pioneers of the late 1800s and early 1900s: “With such a mixture of people, it can be understood there were often disagreements, but happily nothing too serious.”
However, less than three months later, when the red, white and blue bicentennial merchandise still cluttered clearance racks at the town’s five and dime, something very serious happened in Tolna.
Local farmer Engolf Snortland, 68, had been shot and killed on his land north of town. In the years to come, the fallout from this unusual case would reach the Supreme Court and inspire groundbreaking legislation out of Bismarck.
And it all began with the adventures of a 14-year-old bootlegger.
Tolna’s teenage bootlegger
Engolf Snortland was born on January 6, 1908, to Norwegian homesteaders Simon and Malena Snortland. The fourth of eight children, by the time he was 14, Snortland had begun to run around with some unsavory characters, bootleggers who had been making moonshine near Tolna. Perhaps looking for more adventure than tiny Tolna could provide, Snortland ran away with the gang.
The next time Snortland surfaces in historical records was in the early summer of 1929, when at the age of 21, he added kidnapping to his criminal resume.
Trouble in Idaho
In the late 1920s, Snortland was part of a gang led by 47-year-old “Seattle George” Norman, a well-known mobster from the Northwest. The gang also included 24-year-old Albert Reynolds of Missouri, 18-year-old Robert Livingston of Alabama and 24-year-old Frank Lane of Wisconsin. They were living in Idaho at that time and decided they’d rob a bank in Pierce, Idaho. But first, they needed a getaway car.
They stood on a road outside Arrow, Idaho waiting for a car and the victim inside. That victim would come in the form of William B. Kinne who later told an Associated Press reporter of his run-in with the gang.
“I had driven about a half mile past Arrow when four men, all brandishing pistols, stepped out from the side of the road and halted me," he said.
Kinne went on to say that the men forced him to get into the back of his car as one gang member started driving away at “terrific speed.” As they hit 60 miles an hour, a tire blew hurtling the car off the road and flipping it over.
Kinne said no one was badly hurt. As the group climbed out of the overturned car, another car pulled up and two men got out hoping to assist. But the gang, including Snortland, took out their pistols and started shooting at the good Samaritans.
“In the battle that ensued, several shots were fired,” recalled Kinne. He said one man was shot and beaten over the head with the guns, while the other was beaten badly.
The gang eventually tied Kinne and his two rescuers to a tree while they high-tailed it away in the good Samaritan’s car. Kinne and the other two men eventually broke free from the tree, but the suspects were long gone.
But Snortland and his gang of hooligans wouldn't be free for long. They had picked the wrong victim. Kinne was no ordinary Idaho motorist going down the road. He was the state's lieutenant governor.
The manhunt ensues
Citizens were outraged about the kidnapping of a high-level official.
“Every able-bodied man who could take off work in Nez Perce, Lewis, Latah, and Clearwater counties joined the search,” wrote Idaho history researcher and blogger Rick Just. “Indian trackers and Boy Scouts joined farmers and loggers. Bloodhounds were flown in from Yakima.”
The kidnappers were described as being between 18 and 25 years of age, armed, and “desperate.” Later descriptions of Snortland, at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 153 pounds, included the phrase, “tall, blond and gangly.”
After two days of searching, the four suspects were found. But they wouldn’t go down without a fight, trying to confuse authorities about their real identities.
“Most of the culprits used aliases, but Engolf Snortland was the champion at names,” said Just. “He also went by Egnos Snortland, Enos Snoysland, Robert Livingston, Frank Lane, and Albert Reynolds,”
(Note that the last three names Snortland used were the names of his partners in crime. That made it even more confusing for reporters who often used variations of the men’s names and aliases when listing them.)
It turns out Snortland and his fellow gang members were victims of bad luck. They hadn’t set out to kidnap the lieutenant governor. They just needed a car and he showed up at the right place and time. But the increased attention on the crime might have led to their capture.
Snortland, Livingston, Lane and Reynolds were all sentenced to prison for up to 25 years, while ringleader Norman was sentenced to two years.
Sadly, after surviving his harrowing ordeal that summer, Lt. Gov. Kinne would not survive the year. Just a couple of months after his abduction, he died from appendicitis.
Trouble in North Dakota
After serving just five years, Snortland was released from the Idaho State Penitentiary in 1934. He returned home to Tolna, for a fresh start on a farm with his wife Mae. According to the 1950 Census, he and Mae had five children. Third child and first-born son Roger Snortland picks up the story in a candid book he penned about his father, "From Graystone to Tombstone."
Around 8:30 the evening of Oct. 8, 1976, Engolf was in the kitchen of his farmhouse when he was struck and killed by two rifle bullets shot from outside the home. Just two days later, Nelson county officials issued an all-points bulletin for Roger’s brother and Engolf’s youngest child, Robert Snortland in the shooting death of his father. Authorities said the two men had been arguing over whether to shoot a dog that had been bothering their sheep.
Despite the all-points bulletin, arrest warrant and searches, years went by with no sign of Robert. Police believed that he had fled the area. But in 1983, children playing near the Snortland property found his skeletal remains in a shelterbelt a couple of miles from the farm. Robert had died by suicide shortly after shooting his father.
Court cases and legislation
In 1980, three years before Robert’s remains had been found, the family went to court over property the father and son had once co-owned. The family objected to a Nelson County Court’s ruling that Robert or his only child still had a claim to the land.
The next year, the state Supreme Court agreed with the lower court and ruled Robert’s 2-year-old son Robbie had a right to share the estate because, despite murdering its co-owner, North Dakota law had not stripped Robert of rights to the property.
"To us, it was one more bad dream in a nightmare cycle," Roger Snortland wrote in his book. Roger’s son Steve told The Jamestown Sun, when he learned of the court’s decision, "It struck me as a very strange result."
However, the matter wasn’t settled for good. In 2007, 31 years after Engolf’s murder, the North Dakota Legislature unanimously passed the “slayer law.”
Its concept is "the prevention of unjust enrichment" that results when wrongdoers are allowed to profit from their actions. In other words, as soon as Robert “intentionally and feloniously” killed his father, he lost all of his rights to any land they once shared. Therefore, upon his presumed death, his heirs could not inherit it.
Roger Snortland died in 2001 shortly after finishing the book about his family. Robbie sold his ownership of the farm property after growing up and taking possession from the trust that had held his share.
The life of Tolna's teenage bootlegger had ended in tragedy, but will forever be remembered in North Dakota law.