A town’s tragedy
Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part
series looking back at the double murder
that occurred 30 years ago Sunday outside of Ruthton.
Long before there was O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase, there was a nationwide search for a white pickup truck with Texas plates.
The occupants of that truck back on Sept. 29, 1983, were 46-year-old James Jenkins and his 18-year-old son, Steven, who were on the run after committing a double homicide at a farmhouse amidst the corn fields and rows of soybeans that surrounded a small farming community in southwest Minnesota.
Posing as prospective buyers, the Jenkinses had lured Ruthton bank president Rudy Blythe, 42, back to the family’s abandoned farm, which Blythe had foreclosed on three years earlier, and then murdered him, along with the bank’s loan officer, Deems “Toby” Thulin, 37, who had accompanied Blythe to the Jenkins farm that day.
The murders shocked the community, southwest Minnesota and the nation, having occurred in rural America during the farm crisis of the 1980s.
Rhonda (Weets) Vos was a senior at the high school in neighboring Tyler when the murders took place. It’s something she has never forgotten.
“It was shocking,” Vos said. “Nothing like that ever happens in a small town. But, unfortunately, it did.”
As the 30th anniversary of the tragedy draws near, memories of the murders came flooding back for LeRoy Burch, then-mayor of Ruthton.
“A lot of people really couldn’t believe it happened,” Burch said. “But it did. I don’t think hardly anybody locked their doors back then, but after this, everybody in town locked their doors. You’re not used to anything like that happening so close to home. It scared everybody in town.”
Burch remembers sitting at the cafe having coffee with Blythe and Thulin mere hours before they were shot and killed.
“We were sitting in the cafe at the bowling alley having a cup of coffee, like we usually did in the morning, and Rudy got up and said they had to get going because they were going to meet some people out at the (Jenkins) farm,” Burch said. “The people wanted to look at it. So they got up and left. They didn’t know it, but it ended up being a set-up.”
Soon after learning of the double murder, the Buffalo Ridge State Bank was locked down and its employees, including Blythe’s widow, Susan Blythe, who was the bank’s vice president at the time, were put under protection.
“They didn’t know who was out there or who did it at first,” said Burch, who was the town’s mayor for 20 years. “They didn’t know if other bank employees were targets or what. Later, word got out that they were looking for the Jenkinses. Then, of course, there were all kinds of stories.”
While several media reports linked the murders to the farm crisis of the time, those who knew James Jenkins did not consider him a farmer at all.
The 10-acre farm had been purchased by Jenkins in 1977. It was not a family farm, nor was it even suitable to sustain 60 dairy cows on.
“They wanted to really push it towards the farm crisis that was going on at the time, but that wasn’t really what it was about,” Burch said. “It was about Rudy borrowing him $40,000 to start milking out there. That Rudy, he’d help anybody. So he got him going. Long story short, it wasn’t going so good for Jim. He got behind on payments, and he wasn’t taking very good care of the cattle he had.”
About the same time, James Jenkins and his wife Darlene started having marital problems.
“One thing led to another and all of a sudden, Jim got it in his head that all his marriage problems and his family problems were all Rudy’s fault, that he was the one making it so tough for him,” Burch said. “Then, he started in on the kid, saying it was all Rudy’s fault. He kept grinding that into Steve. Pretty soon, Steve believed that was what had happened.”
Burch pointed out that Jim Jenkins had not only fed his cows poorly – using primarily free sweet corn silage from Sleepy Eye – he had also cut their tails off.
“Jim got mad because the cows would swat him with their tails when he was milking,” Burch said. “He milked by hand. So the cows only had short, stub tails.”
In speaking with area farmers throughout the years, Burch found that sympathy for James Jenkins was hard to come by.
“He didn’t have any land to raise crops or anything to feed those cows with,” Burch said. “He couldn’t afford to buy corn and stuff like that. From the word go, it wasn’t going to work.”
In 1980, Blythe was forced to foreclose on Jenkins. It was the same year he and Darlene divorced, defaulted on the loan and declared bankruptcy. Afterward, Steven alternated living with his mother, paternal grandparents (Clayton and Nina Jenkins) and his father in Minnesota, Ohio and Texas.
“Steve hooked up with that retired Army trainer down in Texas,” Burch said. “I think they followed Rudy down there. They were going to get him.”
Along with his wife and son, Blythe had moved to Texas to work while still maintaining ownership of the Buffalo Ridge State Bank. He returned to Ruthton when the bank began having troubles. It was then that Thulin was hired.
“I believe Jim had been planning this (murder) for a long time,” Burch said. “Toby hadn’t been here that long, and he had nothing to do with it. I don’t think he even knew Jim Jenkins or Steve. He was just there with Rudy and got shot.”
After the shootings, the Jenkinses had headed for Texas but not before stopping in Luverne to pick up shells for their guns and at a junkyard in South Dakota, a calculated move that would make the trip south easier.
“They pulled into a junkyard and swiped the plates off a white pickup and put them on theirs,” Burch said. “People were looking for a white Chevrolet pickup with Texas plates, but they had South Dakota plates on by then. That’s how they got all the way to Texas.”
For nearly four days, the Jenkinses avoided apprehension, leaving those in and around Ruthton with more questions than answers.
“It was a sad deal,” Burch said. “It really was. It put Ruthton on the map but not in a good way.”
After reportedly running out of gas and money, and with reality likely setting in, father and son came to a crossroad at an abandoned farm in Texas on Oct. 2, 1983. With nowhere to go, Steven Jenkins left his father at the farm where they were hiding and surrendered to Paducah police officials. Some time that evening, it was determined that James Jenkins had killed himself, leaving his only son to answer for their misdeeds.
“I’m not blaming it on things of the past, but Steve was so brainwashed by his dad,” Steven’s mother, Darlene Taveirne said. “None of that could come out in the trial because you can’t speak about someone that is dead. They have to be able to get up there and say it for themselves. But his father had full control over Steve, and Steve wanted his dad’s approval so bad. But he never did get it. Never.”
Steven Jenkins, who was barely 18 at the time of the crime, stood trial at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Ivanhoe.
He continued to assert that it had been his father who had fired the fatal shots that damp and foggy morning, though physical evidence throughout the trial indicated that the killer shot quickly and with great accuracy, something experts said James Jenkins could not have done because of his extremely poor eyesight.
“They dug Jim up just to check his eyesight,” Burch said. “They took his eyes out and said that there was no way he could see to shoot. And Steven was right on with his shooting.”
Thulin was killed instantly with a shot to the throat while sitting inside Blythe’s vehicle, while Blythe was shot once as he was exiting the vehicle and three more times as he was running for his life. Still wearing his bright yellow rain jacket, Blythe fell to his death in a ditch adjacent to the county road.
“I think people had an idea of what Steve went through with Jim and that he had more to do with it than Steve did,” Burch said. “Jim had to have told him his mother left because of Rudy. But what got Steve was that Jim was nearly blind and couldn’t see, so they thought Steve had to have pulled the trigger. And if he pulled the trigger, then he was guilty. That’s the way it went.”
As the victims’ families began picking up the pieces after the devastating loss of their loved ones, the community also seemed to try putting the past behind them. But the tragedy never fully seemed to fade away for those who lived in the area back then.
“This was just a quiet little farm community,” Burch said. “We were probably 75 percent senior citizens, and most of those people are all gone. There’s not many people left, but life does go on.”
Though Blythe’s widow, Susan, and their son, Rolph, moved away from the Ruthton area soon afterward, as did Thulin’s widow, Lynnette, and their daughters, Linda, Deanna and Kara, it’s likely that they’ve carried the sorrow with them these past three decades.
So no one would forget Blythe and Thulin, Burch saw to it that a small memorial was erected in remembrance of them.
“They gave their lives for this little community,” Burch said. “The least we could do is recognize them. That’s my feeling anyway.”
It took 17 years, but Steven Jenkins, who was adopted by his defense lawyer and now goes by Steven Anderson, eventually admitted in a nationally-televised documentary on the Arts and Entertainment channel in 2000 that he had been the one to pull the trigger that day.
“Steven was a good kid that did a bad thing,” Taveirne said. “And a lot of people suffered for it. I don’t think he’s ever going to get over it. He knows now how bad it was, what a real, real tragedy it was. The kids all grew up without their dads, and that bothers him a lot, I know that.”
By many accounts, Anderson is also a victim, though not in the same sense as Blythe, Thulin and their families. But he, too, has suffered. According to a number of supporters, they’ve seen Anderson make a major transformation during the past 30 years, evolving from a misguided young man into a compassionate, intelligent, responsible adult who not only came to understand his past but has also taken full responsibility for his actions.
“He has a totally different mindset,” Taveirne said. “That old part of him is gone. The minute his dad died, Steve was free.”
While he is still incarcerated at Lino Lakes prison, Anderson is on the path to successfully transition out on parole in about two years.