Dinner was done. Rita and Frank Hittle had just pulled out the cribbage board Thursday evening when the shooting started next door at the Schloegl place.
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Frank Hittle was out the door, up the hill and as far as his woodpile when he saw the bodies and heard the moans.
He raced home and called police. Then he and his wife looked out the door to see another neighbor, 72-year-old Paul Crawford, returning to the spot where he’d just shot Warren Schloegl, 41, and Schloegl’s 12-year-old daughter, Jody.
“I looked up, and I saw him coming up the hill with a rifle,” Rita Hittle said Friday. “He aimed it at Warren and shot twice again. Then he walked in the house like he knew what he was going to do.”
In the house, Crawford went after Marcella Schloegl, Warren’s wife, and their 11-year-old son, Eric. They were shot to death, too, the victims of an apparent property-line dispute.
Another daughter, Nicole, 16, had left the house only a few minutes before the shootings. She was staying with relatives Friday at her grandfather’s farm near Sauk Centre.
Crawford, who moved in next to the Schloegls last year, also shot the family dog before returning to his house. He called his ex-wife and asked her to “come up” to his place as soon as possible, then went into his back yard and killed himself.
“This certainly is, in my 23 years as sheriff, the most dramatic and senseless crime that I’ve seen,” Todd County Sheriff Dave Kircher said. “It’s just a waste. It does appear to me that it was a cold-blooded act.”
The bodies were taken to the Ramsey County medical examiner’s office in St. Paul for autopsies.
The incident occurred about 15 to 20 minutes after a Todd County deputy had left the houses, located on Big Sauk Lake, about 3 1/2 miles north of Sauk Centre.
Kircher said Crawford had called authorities to complain that the Schloegls were trespassing and that the children had pulled up surveying stakes that divided their land. It was the second time in less than a week he had made that claim. Kircher said the deputy left after he thought the situation had calmed.
Shortly before 7:30 p.m., however, a Stearns County dispatcher took a 911 call from someone – authorities think it was Eric Schloegl – at the Schloegl residence. A minute later, the Hittles reached the dispatcher in Todd County, where the shooting took place.
“The only way my dad would have done that is if he was extremely provoked,” Crawford’s son, Eric, said Friday from his home in Waite Park, Minn.
Eric Crawford, 27, said his father had called his ex-wife Thursday night “to say he had had a confrontation with the neighbors and could she come up there as soon as possible.”
He said that when family members arrived they found the houses surrounded by ambulances, police tape and law-enforcement officers. Paul Crawford had been shot, they were told, but it was not until later that they discovered what had happened.
Two guns were recovered at the scene. Both were being tested Friday to confirm that they were used in the shootings, Kircher said. Police believe that Crawford shot Schloegl and his daughter with a pistol, then returned to his house to get a rifle, which he used to shoot Marcella and Eric Schloegl.
Crawford, who was retired, lived alone in a single-story house; his house and the Schloegls’ house face the lake and are located just off Hwy. 71 in a hilly stretch north of Sauk Centre, a city of 3,581 people about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
The property-line dispute began late last year, after Crawford bought the lakefront house and property immediately south of Warren Schloegl’s.
According to neighbors, the Schloegl property was 93 feet wide at the highway, but narrowed by 5 feet at the shoreline, where the family docked its boat.
Crawford had the property surveyed last fall and blamed the Schloegl children for removing one of the survey stakes and playing on his dock, authorities said.
According to a police report filed this month, Crawford said he noticed in November 1995 that the stakes had been moved. He contacted a Long Prairie attorney about the issue, but was told not to report it to police.
Going for help
Late last week, Crawford notified Chuck Rasmussen, the Todd County attorney, that the stakes had been moved again.
Rasmussen said Friday that Crawford walked into his office without an appointment.
“He just said he was concerned about his neighbors,” Rasmussen said. “He’d spent $300 to $400 on surveyors, and he was concerned that the metal posts had been pulled out.”
Crawford told Rasmussen that he thought the Schloegl children had pulled the posts, but couldn’t prove it because he hadn’t seen them do it.
“He didn’t seem to be angry,” Rasmussen said. “He was more frustrated. But he was concerned it would cause more trouble. He was almost hesitant to complain to the Sheriff’s Department.
“There was no reason to intervene. There were no warnings at all.”
On June 13, Crawford notified Todd County authorities of the problem. On Wednesday, Rasmussen said, Crawford met with a private attorney to discuss the matter.
“You can see this in his mind,” Rasmussen said. “He meets with me, then the sheriff and then a private attorney. It’s like he wanted to do something.”
Property disputes are “almost routine” calls in Todd County, Kircher and Rasmussen said.
Kircher said deputies responded to three such calls at the Schloegl and Crawford residences in the past year; police records indicate that only one of the incidents was recorded.
“We get an awful lot of property disputes,” Rasmussen said. “And they are tense. [Crawford] spent $300 or $400 on a survey. And you pull those stakes, you have got to get it resurveyed. And that costs money.”
Eric Crawford said his father mentioned the dispute several times. He also said that his father apparently feared Warren Schloegl’s temper, especially when Schloegl had been drinking.
Shots fired previously
Eric Crawford said that on one occasion, his father was working on his dock and Warren Schloegl fired shots over his head. Although his father did not know if he was the intended target, it apparently rattled him, his son said.
“He was worried about where the shots were going,” said Todd County investigator Wesley Klema, who confirmed shots being fired over Crawford’s head.
But he said Crawford did not file a report with the Sheriff’s Department or indicate that he was concerned for his safety.
“He never told us that he was afraid of Schloegl,” Klema said. “There was never any report of threats, assaults or verbal assaults.”
Klema also confirmed that after getting a new survey, Crawford moved the dock from its original point to a spot abutting the new property line. Schloegl then put his boat right next to Crawford’s dock, and his family used the dock to get on the boat. That apparently escalated tensions.
Former neighbors gave mixed descriptions of Warren Schloegl, who moved his family into the lakeshore home about three years ago. Some called him nice; others called him argumentative and hot-tempered. Two former neighbors who described him in unflattering terms didn’t want to be identified for this article.
Schloegl, who grew up on a farm northeast of Sauk Centre, had taken residents in the area to court over land issues and had argued with neighbors who refused to let him hunt on their land.
For the past year, he was employed as a maintenance mechanic at Long Prairie Packing Co.
“He did have some problems, I guess, with his neighbor,” said Bruce Bode, his supervisor. “He was just trying to handle it through another surveyor. . . . He did say, though, that he felt [Crawford] was a little strange at times.”
Jean Schloegl, Warren’s sister-in-law, said Friday that Warren spoke of the dispute from time to time, but “just said he would not fight an old man. He said he [wanted] to settle it peacefully.”
Of Crawford, she simply said, “He lost his mind.”
Frank Hittle, the neighbor who called authorities Thursday night, said he only spoke with Crawford a few times, most recently this spring when Crawford wanted to know if the “crappies were biting” and if Hittle wanted a fishing partner.
Rita Hittle said she saw Crawford and the Schloegls often, but mostly just waved or shared small talk. “Once in a while they’d come in and have a beer or so, but we were not close,” she said.
“It’s terrible,” she added. “We knew the kids; they were nice kids. We miss seeing them over there. It seems so empty.”