CASSVILLE — As Walter Riedl and his wife, Linda, stared at the loaded 9mm handgun aimed at them in their own driveway Tuesday morning, he figured the only way to keep his wife safe was to give the gunman the keys to his truck and volunteer to become his hostage.
James Kruger, 36, accepted the offer and tucked his gun into his waistband. The 69-year-old Riedl told Linda, his sweetheart since high school, not to cry, that everything was going to be OK.
“I never was really scared of him,” the soft-spoken, smiling Riedl said Thursday from his farm east of Cassville .
But before he got free in Dodgeville after a perilous, nearly two-hour journey through Grant and Iowa counties, Riedl wondered more than once if he would see his wife, three daughters and five grandchildren again.
Driving Riedl’s 2004 GMC 2500HD pickup truck — a cattle trailer still attached with a cow inside of it — Kruger drove erratically and acted irrationally as he sought to elude police, Riedl said. Opportunities to escape eluded him.
As they approached Dodgeville on Highway 18, he knew the city’s two traffic lights would give him a chance to jump out.
“First time in my life we got two green lights,” Riedl said.
Still, he never panicked, which law enforcement officials said played a key role in keeping him alive and leading police to Kruger. Iowa County Sheriff Steve Michek said the hostage’s constant smile caught everybody’s attention.
“Everyone was pretty impressed with his demeanor. He did the right things,” Michek said. “We’re awfully glad he was able to get away from the guy.”
Riedl’s primary emotion toward Kruger was annoyance, he said. The convicted felon, who police say was on a two-day violent crime spree, was taking drugs and threatening Riedl’s life one moment, then preaching “religious stuff” the next.
“He was way out there,” Riedl said.
Kruger also appeared prepared for a potential standoff with police, he said. A shotgun police say Kruger had just stolen from his uncle, Dale Kruger, rested between his seat and the driver-side door, Riedl said. The handgun, also stolen from Kruger’s uncle, was in Kruger’s waistband or next to him on the seat, and a silver box that Kruger said was full of explosives sat on the middle console.
A shattered peace
Relaxing on the porch of his home Thursday with his border collie mix, Tipper, at his side, Riedl struggled to understand why Kruger decided to stop at his farm, located on a dirt road, while trying to flee police after his uncle reported being attacked and robbed.
“This ain’t supposed to happen out here in the country,” Riedl said.
Linda Riedl saw Kruger first, around 7:15 a.m., watching from the kitchen window as Kruger backed his black Honda Civic into a space in her husband’s workshop. Thinking he was an area agronomist, she walked outside and was surprised to find Kruger putting hundreds of silver coins into a toolbox on the back of Riedl’s all-terrain vehicle.
Startled, Kruger pointed his gun at her, Riedl said.
“He told her he was going to kill himself,” he said. “My wife told him to calm down, and he did.”
At the time, Riedl was elsewhere on the 331-acre farm loading a Black Angus cow on his cattle trailer, which was hitched to his truck so he could take it to be slaughtered in Bloomington. Linda waved him over, and when he pulled up to his workshop, Riedl said he saw Kruger with the handgun pointed at his own head.
“I thought he was talking on his cellphone,” Riedl said.
Riedl got out to get a closer look and heard Kruger say that he was going to kill himself. “Don’t do that here!” he said emphatically.
To defuse the situation, Riedl told Kruger they wouldn’t call the police if he just left quietly. But Kruger kept his gun on his head and went on a religious rant, Riedl said.
“He told us to read the Bible and that he was going to save the world,” Riedl added.
But his mood changed after he asked for a drink and the Riedls led him to a water pump behind the workshop. Kruger suddenly waved his gun at them and said, “I could kill both of yous,” Riedl said.
“He was really edgy,” Riedl added. “He was bothered by an airplane that he heard, and the cow that was bouncing around in the trailer making a racket.”
Plotting his escape
It was 9 a.m. and Riedl feared Kruger could snap at any moment. Riedl proposed he and Kruger drive together to the market in Bloomington and that he’d drop Kruger off near the home of some of Kruger’s relatives there. Kruger agreed.
Kruger allowed Linda to go to the house and bring him back two cold cans of soda but ordered her not to call the police. “He said, ‘If I see a cop behind us, I’ll shoot your husband.’ She believed it and that’s why she didn’t call the cops until 11 o’clock,” Riedl said.
As they drove away, Kruger stopped at the end of his driveway to smoke some drugs that he took out of a small bag and put in a crushed soda can with four small holes in it, Riedl said. “It was a pipe, I suppose,” he added.
They drove to Bloomington, but Kruger didn’t stop as Riedl had proposed. But a few miles later, in Mount Ida, Kruger spotted a black 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle for sale. The owner wanted $14,000 for it.
“He told me he was going to buy the car and I could take the truck and trailer and take it back to Bloomington,” Riedl said. “I thought, ‘That was a good idea.’”
But the owner wouldn’t take the silver coins Kruger offered him and left after he spotted the gun in Kruger’s waistband. Riedl gave up any ideas of running and climbed back in the truck.
The rest of the journey, Riedl said, all he thought about was how he was going to get away. He knew his best chance lay with a promise Kruger had made at one point to let him call his wife and tell her he was safe.
‘More or less a hostage’
By now, it was past 11 a.m., and Linda was worried sick. They’d been gone 90 minutes, and Kruger had told her she’d get a call from Bloomington, a 20-minute drive from their farm. Fearing the worst, she called her sister-in-law, who came over and called 911.
Riedl kept asking Kruger to stop so he could call Linda. Kruger finally pulled the truck and trailer into the Rayovac parking lot on the east end of Fennimore, but he cut a corner with the trailer and it clipped a parked car, Riedl said.
“That set him off,” Riedl said.
Kruger drove to a side road just outside Fennimore and unhooked the trailer. Riedl asked Kruger if he could stay with the cow. “Whose life do you value more?” Riedl said Kruger replied. “Yours or the cow’s?”
After they drove through Montfort, Kruger started smoking drugs again from the crushed soda can, Riedl said.
“That’s when he was driving badly,” said Riedl, who said he wore his seat belt the whole time. “He was crossing over the center line on the two-lane road. It wasn’t good.”
After they got through the two green lights in Dodgeville, Kruger stopped at a Shell gas station, but it was no longer in business, so he turned the truck around, stopping again when he spotted Rickey Ridge’s Taxidermy Studio in an adjacent parking lot.
“He said, ‘I need some pop. Go get me some pop and call your wife,’” Riedl said.
“He never thought I’d bolt on him. He wasn’t thinking too clear,” said Riedl, who had the temerity to ask Kruger for money for the soda because he wasn’t going to pay for it himself.
Riedl’s luck suddenly changed, as a customer walked out just as he approached the door, allowing him to get the attention of the owner, Clint Rickey. Rickey normally keeps the door locked and opens it only for customers who make an appointment.
“I told him I was more or less a hostage and that guy in my truck has a gun,” Riedl said.
Rickey said he almost didn’t believe Riedl because he was acting too calm to be a hostage. “And he was smiling,” Rickey added.
Rickey called 911 and loaded his shotgun, planning to confront Kruger, who was outside ringing the doorbell, Riedl said. But Kruger ran to the truck and drove away after he heard the police sirens.
For police, drama not over
Riedl was safe, but it would be another hour before Kruger finally was in police custody. After abandoning Riedl’s truck near Hollandale following a high-speed chase, Kruger stole a Chevrolet Impala and then drove the wrong way down the westbound lanes of Highway 18-151 at speeds of more than 100 mph, police said. The car overturned near Mount Horeb after it hit stop sticks put out by Dane County Sheriff’s deputies, police said.
Among the 15 felony counts law enforcement officials are seeking in Grant and Iowa counties are a charge of attempted first-degree intentional homicide stemming from Kruger’s alleged attack on his uncle, Dale Kruger, in Cassville early Tuesday morning, and kidnapping stemming from the hours police say he held Riedl.
Kruger also could face another attempted first-degree intentional homicide charge in Dane County because Madison police say he stabbed a 48-year-old man in an East Side residence Monday afternoon. And he faces charges of operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs in Iowa County, according to reports.
“A deputy told me we could
get him for rustling too,” Riedl said.
Riedl’s nerves stayed frayed through a sleepless Tuesday night. “It was like a bad dream and you wake up and it’s gone,” he said. By Thursday, it had settled in just how lucky they were.
“I learned my lesson,” Linda Riedl said. “I won’t go outside when somebody comes up the road again. They have to come to the door and ring the doorbell.”
Before he was finally free to go home around 5 p.m. Tuesday, Riedl learned the silver box Kruger put in his truck was not full of explosives. His brother picked up his trailer and his cow and drove it to Bloomington.
So he breathed a sigh of relief and walked into waiting arms of Linda and two of his daughters at the offices of the Grant County Sheriff’s Department.
“We hugged for a long time,” Riedl said. The couple have been married 48 years and cherish their children and grandchildren. “You’ve got to appreciate them every day.”