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"You're darn right I've got a license," Bryant Baumgartner told the three unarmed Minnesota game wardens.

Baumgartner went into his house and returned with a semi-automatic shotgun.

"It's no use getting smart with that thing," one warden said.

Answered Baumgartner: "I'll show you whether I'll get smart."

Then he gunned down all three officers -- a single shotgun blast to each.

It was one of the deadliest days in Minnesota law enforcement history, but it is little-known and long forgotten.

Seventy years ago this month, three unarmed state game wardens were shot to death on the shores of Lake Sakatah in Waterville, Minn., by a commercial fisherman whose license was being checked. After killing them, he turned the 12-gauge on himself.

Now, these many decades later, a memorial might be established to recognize the fallen officers.

The killings, said Jim Konrad, Department of Natural Resources enforcement chief who was a field officer for 22 years, underscore the danger that game wardens -- now called conservation officers -- face. And the deaths prompted major changes.

"It was the impetus to give officers uniforms and guns," Konrad said, noting that 10 months after the slayings, the state's 135 wardens were issued green uniforms, caps and .38-caliber revolvers. Until then, they wore civilian clothes and patrolled mostly unarmed.

"It was a big deal," Konrad said.

According to a national registry of peace officer deaths, only one other time has Minnesota lost three officers in a single confrontation: Three Hibbing police officers were shot and killed by a crime suspect in 1921.

The wardens killed on July 12, 1940, were A. Melvin Holt, 55, of Worthington, Marcus Whipps, 45, of Kasota, and Dudley Brady, 50, of Windom.

"This was a cold-blooded killing," Konrad said. "It ranks with the worst tragedies in state law enforcement history."

This week, Konrad will ask members of the Minnesota Conservation Officers Association when they meet in St. Cloud if they would help fund a memorial for the three wardens. "It wouldn't be all that expensive," Konrad said.

When the murders occurred, the Battle of Britain was being waged, the nation was on the brink of joining World War II and President Franklin Roosevelt was considering a third term. But the officers' slayings topped Page 1 of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune. Here's what happened:

Two of the wardens drove to a commercial fish operation run by Bryant Baumgartner, 54, on Lake Sakatah to check his license and sales records. His business was buying and selling bullheads, which at the time were netted around the state and sold for food. But the state worried that lakes were being overfished, and the Conservation Department (predecessor to the DNR) in 1939 restricted possession and transportation of bullheads to no more than 50 per day.

The regulations weren't well received, and officers had mixed it up with some operators in northern Minnesota, where shots had been fired. And one of the wardens, Brady, had previously been shot by illegal netters near Windom.

Baumgartner wasn't of a mind to talk with the officers, and he ordered them off his property. Later, with the third warden, the officers returned, asking to see Baumgartner's license. They waited while the fish dealer entered his house. He returned with a shotgun that the officers apparently doubted he would use. After all, they were hardly alone: At least five people were nearby cleaning fish.

But Baumgartner shot quickly.

"Those wardens didn't have a chance," one witness said.

Said Konrad: "They were caught completely unaware; they had no inkling this was going to happen."

With the officers on the ground, Baumgartner walked to a fence, leaned the gun against the pickets and pulled the trigger, killing himself. "I guess he just cracked when he saw it [his business] dwindling away," a neighbor said.

Today, conservation officers have the same authority as other law enforcement officers. They respond to emergencies -- crimes, car accidents and natural disasters -- along with police and sheriff's deputies. And they are armed.

But a newspaper account when the killings occurred told how differently wardens and their jobs were viewed then:

"Wardens ordinarily do not carry guns during investigations made in the daytime because there had been some criticism that guns were not required for the type of investigation and education work that wardens are instructed to do. When investigations are made during the night, guns usually are carried."

The three wardens are among five Minnesota conservation officers murdered in the line of duty. One was stabbed in 1897 and another was shot in 1930.

Konrad thinks the time finally might be right to honor Whipps, Brady and Holt.

"The anniversary has rekindled our thoughts regarding a memorial," he said.

Doug Smith •