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More than 51 years ago, U.S. Marshals brought Duane Earl Pope to Lincoln for safekeeping as he stood trial in one of the bloodiest bank robberies in Nebraska's history.

"Pope Arrives," the headline of the Lincoln Star read. "Accused Slayer at Pen."

Now 73, he's back in Lincoln.

Pope was released from federal prison Friday and is being held at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center pending classification and assignment to a state prison where he'll serve three life sentences plus 20 years for shooting four employees of the Farmers State Bank in Big Springs on June 4, 1965.

Three died that day; the fourth was paralyzed.

Pope walked out with $1,598, later telling authorities he robbed the bank to settle a $1,300 debt.

"Three innocent and wonderful people died, and another has had to endure long years of suffering -- and will continue to do so -- just because of the greed of one man for a few paltry dollars," Deuel County Sheriff Floyd Stahr said in 1990. 

A Roxbury, Kansas, native, Pope was a 22-year-old former football player who had just graduated from McPherson College in Kansas when he walked into the bank on a warm, rainy morning wielding a .22-caliber pistol with a homemade silencer and ordering the four bank employees to lie face down on the floor.

"I shot each of them in the center of the back and again in the back of the head," he reportedly told the FBI after turning himself in a week after the robbery.

Bank President Andreas Kjeldgaard and cashiers Glenn Hendrickson and Lois Hothan died in the bank. Kjeldgaard's nephew Frank survived but was paralyzed.

Authorities attributed Pope's ability to stay free for a week after the robbery to his knowledge of back roads that came with five years of work as a farm hand in the area.

The manhunt for him stretched from western Nebraska to Fort Worth, Texas, and the FBI plastered 250,000 wanted posters across the country.

On June 11, Pope surrendered himself to the FBI in Kansas City.

At the federal trial for the robbery and the murders, Pope's defense team -- led by former Nebraska Gov. Robert Crosby -- argued he was insane at the time.

The shy young man, they argued, suffered from an acute schizophrenic reaction that drove him to commit the bloody act of violence.

Pope was sentenced to death by both the federal and state court systems.

"The penalty of death will be inflicted upon you by causing to be passed through your body, Duane Earl Pope, a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death, and the application of such current shall be continued until you, Duane Earl Pope, are dead," U.S. District Judge Robert Van Pelt said after a 1965-66 federal trial.

He got a state death sentence in 1970 as well. but a series of stays and federal court rulings delayed execution. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, and the sentence in the state case was changed to three consecutive life sentences.

Pope was sent to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, and transferred several times until he ended up back at the Kansas prison.

"If my brother had still survived, he would have been happy that (Pope) got transferred to Nebraska," Frank Kjeldgaard's sister Joanne Eoff of California said Thursday.

She remembers flying to Denver to be with Frank, who was driven to a hospital in a station wagon.

"He was barely alive when he got there," Eoff said.

His spinal cord remained intact, so doctors were hopeful Frank would walk again, but nerve damage was so severe he would use a wheelchair for the rest of his life, she said.

Still, he returned to the bank and served as its president until the family sold it in 2004. He never married, Eoff said, and lived with his parents until their deaths.

"He was very courageous and made the best of everything," she said.

Frank Kjeldgaard died in 2012 at 72.

Eoff said she knew he was OK with Pope serving life instead of being executed, but the family didn't talk much about that fateful day.

"Life goes on."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

Reporter

Riley Johnson reports on breaking news and public safety issues in Lincoln and southeast Nebraska.

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