According to neighborhoodscout.com, Rexburg is safer than 84 percent of United States cities. Major crimes, especially murder, are rare in this quiet community.
That wasn’t the case about 100 years ago. In late October 1917, Rexburg had its first murder trial, and just the year before, it was caught in the midst of a murder case that left a man with 10 bullet wounds in his body and two fugitives on the run. The crimes were recorded in the March 30, 1916, issue of The Idaho Falls Times and the following information comes from various articles throughout the case.
“I think it’s crazy that something like that happened in such a small city like Rexburg,” said Celeste Allen, a sophomore studying psychology.
Allen said she was glad the murder happened such a long time ago.
“It would be really scary if something like that happened today in Rexburg,” Allen said.
On March 24, 1916, two masked men entered a laborers’ bunkhouse on the irrigation district’s ranch. They drew their guns and ordered the laborers to put their hands up.
One of the laborers, Dan Evans, thought it was a joke and refused to do as ordered. In response to his disobedience, a heavy revolver was bashed against his head with a force so great it broke off the gun’s handle. Shortly after, a warning shot was fired barely missing his skull and leaving Evans rendered unconscious with a deep gash in his scalp.
After taking care of Evans, the two criminals bound, gagged and robbed the four men.
The robbers were in search of several hundred dollars that was known to be kept by Evans in his trunk at the bunkhouse. After nearly an hour of raiding the bunkhouse, only $50 was found and the two criminals decided to vacate the crime scene.
The bandits fled but ran straight into Wilbur Breckenridge who was standing 50 feet from the bunkhouse door. In a panic, the criminals quickly eliminated the witness and fled the scene.
“He had been shot five times, there being ten holes in the body made by the bullets,” The Idaho Falls Times reported. “He was shot through the chest, head, arms and leg.”
Within a week, a $1000 reward was offered to anyone who could capture the killers. The then-Idaho Governor Moses Alexander also offered an additional $250-per-man reward. In today’s dollars, the combined total of rewards would be over $33,000, according to the inflation calculator on in2013dollars.com.
The robbery victims provided a brief description of the two outlaws. The irrigation district then hired Luke May, a Pocatello detective, to investigate the murder.
After a restless investigation, May identified the suspects as Bill Bantz and a 16-year-old local boy, Albert Metzner. Metzner met Bantz when responding to an ad in the Idaho Falls Daily Post requesting a partner to help him trap animals during the winter.
Supposedly, Breckenridge hired Bantz to trap muskrats that were digging holes in irrigation canals. When Bantz and Metzner left the crime scene, they took off their masks and killed Breckenridge because he recognized them.
May began working with a pair of trackers to hunt down Bantz and Metzner, but the case went cold. Then, in June of the same year, an unexpected turn could have closed the case.
Both Bantz and Metzner were arrested for pilfering supplies from a sheep camp and were jailed in Rexburg. The Madison County officials had a description of the Breckenridge murderers but failed to connect the convicted sheep camp robbers with the murders.
Later, Bantz escaped from jail, “with a key made by himself or obtained from an accomplice,” and Metzner was released to his parents on parole, according to the Idaho Falls Daily Post.
After Bantz escaped, the Rexburg jail officials alerted the area law enforcement agencies with a description of the escapee. Bonneville County Sheriff Mulliner knew who it was.
He went to the Rexburg jailers to collect Metzner but was informed he had been released. Metzner was soon taken into custody and before long, confessed to the murder, claiming he was forced against his will.
A July 7, 1916, Idaho Register article stated that the news of the confession quickly surfaced and as the community was deeply relieved, law enforcement knew Bantz would read the paper and make every effort to leave the country, which was exactly what he did.
Bantz fled to Montana and eventually crossed over into Canada. It was later learned through interviews conducted for a book, “The Mad Trapper of Rat River: A True Story of Canada’s Biggest Manhunt,” by Dick North that he made his way to Dease Lake, British Columbia, in the 1930s, and reportedly changed his name to Bill Elder. He died in a cave-in while working in a mine in the 1940s.
After his confession, Metzner pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison, according to the Times article.
It’s safe to say although Rexburg is considered a safe place to live, it was not always a top-scoring city in the U.S. During this Thanksgiving season, we can all be thankful that Rexburg hasn’t seen a murder case like this in a long time.