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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Murder of Officer Petersen

In honor of National Police Week, this post is in memory of Officer William Petersen (1893-1922) of Winthrop Harbor, Illinois.

Officer William Petersen on his Harley Davidson, circa 1922.
Courtesy of the Westerman Family.

On Friday, January 13, 1922, William Petersen, a farmer and the only law enforcement officer for Winthrop Harbor, was killed while on patrol. 

As he stood in Art Christensen’s auto repair garage along Sheridan Road near the WI-IL Stateline, he observed a speeding vehicle. 

During Prohibition (1920-1933) bootleggers traveled through Lake County, Illinois along Sheridan Road from Wisconsin to Chicago. In addition to the vehicle going over the speed limit, Officer Petersen may have suspected the occupants of the "blue touring car" of being whisky runners. 

Petersen pursued the vehicle on his motorcycle (which he owned personally), chasing the car for five miles through Winthrop Harbor and the City of Zion. Just south of Zion near Sheridan and Yorkhouse Roads, local farmers: George Pavlik, Lyle Fast and Melvin Jordan heard the sound of approaching vehicles and watched the chase. 

As he drew close to the vehicle, Petersen yelled for the driver to stop. Just then a man wearing a Derby hat leaned out the back window with a shotgun and fired twice. Petersen was shot in the stomach, his motorcycle swerved into a ditch and he was hurled into a field. 

The "murder car" drove away, and the onlookers ran to assist Petersen, and to telephone authorities in Waukegan. 

Waukegan police said the register on Petersen's motorcycle showed that it had reached a speed of 72 mph in the chase.
Local farmer, George Pavlik (1898-1962) witnessed the murder of Officer Petersen.
Deputy Sheriff Wilson of Kenosha and his wife were driving to Waukegan when they happened on the scene. Petersen was placed in Wilson's car and driven to Victory Memorial Hospital in Waukegan (now Vista East) where physicians said he was dead before being placed in the deputy's car. 
Headlines in the Waukegan Daily Gazette, January 14, 1922.

George Pavlik went with police to Chicago to review mug shots while authorities in Lake and Cook Counties launched a massive manhunt. 

On January 17, Petersen’s funeral was held in Kenosha at the Danish Lutheran Church where he and his parents attended services. It was the largest funeral the city had ever seen. Law enforcement officers from around the region attended, as well as friends, family, and World War I veterans with whom Petersen had served. He was only 28 years old.

On February 4, it was announced that three "foreigners" were arrested for Petersen's murder at Koller's Tavern at 1920 Allport Street, Chicago. The accused were John Bartole (driver of the car), Michael Radich and Ignatz Potz. Previously, three other men were arrested and released. 

The shooter, Ignatz Potz, a woodworker by trade and native of Hungary, was a member of a Chicago gang with plans to rob a bank in Kenosha. In a Chicago Tribune article, Potz claimed he was drunk on "moonshine" when the incident occurred, and that when someone in the car said they were being followed by a policeman: "I turned around and shot him. That's all I know. I was dazed for three days after that." 

Lake County jail where Potz was held for trial. The jail was built in 1895
Photo taken in 1952. Dunn Museum Collections.

Potz was detained in the Lake County jail. Friends of Petersen from Benton and Newport Townships made plans for a lynching party to take justice into their own hands by going to the jail and forcibly removing Potz and killing him. When Sheriff Elmer J. Green got word of the men’s plans, he talked them out of it.

Potz was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. The gallows were brought to Waukegan from Chicago for the hanging, which was to be held on June 16, 1922. Invitations “to witness the execution” were sent out by the Sheriff’s department. 

Invitation sent out by Lake County Sheriff announcing the execution of Ignatz Potz.
Private collection.

As preparations were underway for the hanging, Governor Len Small, commuted the guilty man’s sentence to life imprisonment. The governor initially stated that "important alleged circumstances not hitherto brought out had come to his attention." 

During this time, Governor Small had his own troubles. He had been indicted for embezzling $600,000 from the state. On June 24, 1922, Small was acquitted of all charges, and later, eight jurors got state jobs. 

In 1928, Governor Small pardoned Potz, who was released. Potz left Illinois for Los Angeles, California where in the 1930s he was working as an iron worker. Later, in 1928, Governor Small was indicted for having sold an estimated 500 pardons. He never went to jail, but was voted out of office. 
Gravemarker of Officer William Petersen. Green Ridge Cemetery, Kenosha, WI. 
Photo by Kenosha County Genealogical Society.

Through the efforts of Winthrop Harbor Deputy Chief Rick Concepcion, Detective Sgt. Jim Vepley and Officer Sharon Churchill, Officer Petersen was memorialized. The Winthrop Harbor Police Station has been dedicated in Officer Petersen’s honor. 

On May 13, 2002 Marshal William Petersen's name was added to the wall of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC.

Diana Dretske


"Police Seek Cop Slayers," Waukegan Weekly Gazette, January 14, 1922
"Motor Cop Slain in Chase," Chicago Tribune, January 14, 1922
"Three Arrested as Slayers of North Shore Cop," Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1922
"Auto Speeders Admit Murder of Motor Cop," February 4, 1922
"Pot Confesses Killing Motor Cop, Court Told," Chicago Tribune, March 31, 1922
"Reprieve Saves Potz, Due to be Hanged Today," Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1922
1930 & 1932 Index to Rigister of Voters, Los Angeles City Precinct (
"Len Small: Perhaps the Dirtiest Illinois Governor of Them All" by Stephan Benzkofer for the Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2011
Arnold Westerman, oral history
Virginia Pavlik Bleck, oral history


Anonymous said...

I love the stories of Lake County. There is just so much history. Thank you for sharing. I can't believe how the officer gets shot, they find the shooter, and then the shooter is pardoned. Crazy Illinois system.

Diana Dretske said...

Thank you! I appreciate you reading the blog and commenting.


Anonymous said...

This was fascinating history, Diana. Thank you for sharing it with us!