It was Oct. 5, 1957, an idyllic autumn Saturday in Foley, an east-central Minnesota town of 1,100 people, and Roger Vaillancourt, 17, was goofing around with his younger brothers and sisters — playing hide-and-seek and setting up a bowling game in their alley.
“He was a great big brother who actually included us and played with us,” said Judy Fernholz, 69, who was just shy of 6 years old on that day. “This was before housing and schools replaced the farms up here, when Highway 169 was two lanes, not four, and we ice skated on the roads and played hide-and-seek in the woods. Roger always kept us safe.”
Vaillancourt worked at the local shoe shop and wanted to go out that night to the Kitten Club, a dance hall about 25 miles southeast of Foley and four miles north of Princeton on Hwy. 169. Fernholz remembers one of Roger’s friends “arrogantly poking his head in the door, his hair all greased” and urging her brother to join his waiting peers. Vern Vaillancourt, the family’s truck-driving father, didn’t like the guy but relented and allowed Roger to go on condition that he return by midnight.
“Of course,” his sister said, “that never happened.”
Just before 1 a.m. on Oct. 6, according to reports, a hit-and-run driver struck Roger on Hwy. 169 outside the dance hall. Minutes later, a 43-year-old man from Foreston, Minn., who was driving the same route spotted Roger lying in the road too late and hit him again.
Roger was still alive, and the second driver flagged down another motorist who called police. But he died on the way to the hospital in Princeton.
No autopsy was conducted. But the case was far from over.
After decades of rumors, the Rev. Charlie Kunkel published a book in 2005 titled “Raising Roger’s Cross.” While the general theory from that night suggests that Vaillancourt wandered onto the highway and was struck and killed, Kunkel’s book tells a much darker story.
“We can’t prove anything, but the story goes that drugs and drinking were involved and his friends took him to a nearby cornfield, where he was beaten, sodomized, castrated and stabbed by the high heels of girls dancing on his chest,” Fernholz said. “Drug use was more common in the 1950s than people think.”
When Vaillancourt’s family asked that the case be reopened following Kunkel’s book, authorities exhumed Roger’s skeletal remains in 2005 from St. John’s Catholic Cemetery in Foley. A long-delayed autopsy discovered skull fractures and rib injuries from a blunt force — possibly a fist — that were “unlikely to be the result of being hit or run over by a car,” according to the autopsy report. Fernholz said his injuries included a broken jaw, cracked teeth and skull fractures behind the nose.
Despite those signs of an assault, the Mille Lacs County attorney decided in 2007 there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone in the death of Roger Vaillancourt. And much of Kunkel’s account became discredited when three people mentioned in the book (by pseudonyms) filed defamation lawsuits against the priest, the Crosier order to which he belonged and the publisher, who stopped distributing the book. The case was settled for a confidential but “significant cash payment,” according to Minneapolis attorney Marshall Tanick, who represented the plaintiffs accusing Kunkel of defamation.
Tanick said Kunkel’s defense lawyers claimed the book was fictional, in part because of the pseudonyms. But in a small town like Foley, folks quickly realized who was who. The main suspect in the book, a Vaillancourt peer referred to only as “Mack,” has since died after working on the Iron Range before retiring to New Mexico. Tanick also represented a friend of Roger’s who went on to become a longtime schoolteacher.
“There was some risk for these plaintiffs to bring up defamation because it opened them up to further police investigation,” said Tanick, who said he doesn’t know what truly happened that night.
With the decision to close the case without charges in 2007, the truth of what happened to Roger Vaillancourt remains a mystery.
“It doesn’t go away; it never goes away,” said Fernholz, who lives in Rice, about 40 miles west of where her brother died. “I think about Roger on a daily basis, especially this time of year because it happened in the fall and he was our big brother.”
Vern Vaillancourt died of a heart attack at 46 in 1963, six years after his son’s death. Their mother, Carol, “never got over” Roger’s death, Fernholz said, but lived until 2012 when she died at 93. Kunkel presided at her funeral; he died in 2014 at the age of 73.
Along with twins Carol and Bruce, who died as infants in 1950, and the youngest sibling, Randy, who died from cancer at 33 in 1993, they’re all buried together at St. John’s Catholic Cemetery.
“Mom had eight children and outlived four of them,” Fernholz said. “Everybody loved Roger.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.