George Bendt’s life story makes a perfect movie scriptThe old black-and-white photograph could be a scene out of the 1950s television series “Dragnet.” Four police officers stand smiling behind a metal desk stacked high with brown paper packages full of marijuana, celebrating the spoils of a massive drug bust. Looking at their suit coats and fedora hats and the pipe jutting out of one officer’s mouth, it seems Sergeant Joe Friday could come through the door at any moment. For George Bendt, it was just another day in a long and rewarding career on the Minneapolis police force.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
The old black-and-white photograph could be a scene out of the 1950s
television series “Dragnet.” Four police officers stand smiling behind a metal desk stacked high with brown paper packages full of marijuana, celebrating the spoils of a massive drug bust. Looking at their suit coats and fedora hats and the pipe jutting out of one officer’s mouth, it seems Sergeant Joe Friday could come through the door at any moment.
For George Bendt, it was just another day in a long and rewarding career on the Minneapolis police force.
Retired for 30 years this month, the Nickerson resident has a zillion tales to tell about his time on the force, and evidence to back them up in three tattered scrapbooks filled with yellowed newspaper clippings.
He has other stories, too, about growing up during the Great Depression eating lard sandwiches, repeated trips to Colorado to hunt and snowmobile, recent outings with fellow members of the Sno Sharks snowmobile club, time spent on his houseboat, raising three kids and enjoying 60 years of marriage with his beloved wife, Eileen.
They met after Bendt got out of the Navy. He laughed when asked for details and launched into the story.
“She was my friend’s girlfriend,” he said. “I got out of the Navy before he did. I told her, ‘I saw your boyfriend in Hawaii a couple weeks ago … so what are you doing tonight?’ There was a carnival in town and I took her up on the Ferris wheel. I guess I asked what she was doing Saturday night then and just kept going. Of course, we [the ex-boyfriend and Bendt] had to fight over it later on, [laughs] I had to give him a black eye. She did take off to him a couple weeks once, I don’t know what the deal was, but she came back.”
They got married and Eileen never left him again, until three years ago when she passed away from of pulmonary fibrosis. They had three children together – Raymond, Duane and Sherry – and Bendt said she was a wonderful wife. Tiny but tough, broke the same leg four times and never complained.
Bendt is somber for a moment, then he chuckles and points to the picture on the wall of the basement bar in his house. In it, his wife is sitting in a wheelchair with a broken leg while Bendt pushes her underneath a hot dog hanging from a string, during a “weenie bite” contest. A group of motorcycle riders were having a party at their cabin – for the contest the driver had to drive under the string while the person on the back tried to take a bite out of the ketchup- and mustard-slathered hot dog – and Bendt couldn’t resist the fun and games, so he took his wife on her own wheels.
Fun is important to Bendt.
“My goal in life is to have a good time,” he said. “You are only here one trip, so you’d better enjoy it.”
The 85-year-old Bendt embraces life. Whether it’s playing Texas Hold ’em at a local bar, snowmobiling with his daughter Sherry in wind chills of minus-60 degrees or running a narcotics squad of 12 officers, Bendt is never half-hearted in his approach.
The Morals Squad
Bendt tells the stories of his time on the force with candor and a trace of humor. Like the time he was stabbed in the shoulder by a female prisoner, an incident his wife found out about while watching the television news.
“Back then nobody handcuffed anybody,” he said, noting that they were taking the woman to jail in the squad car. “She had a knife in her bra and she pulled it out, she was sitting in the back and reached over and tried to stab me. I pushed her hand away and she stabbed me in the shoulder. We had to handcuff her. Then we had to tape her mouth shut because she kept spitting on us. She was a wild gal. … From then on, I looked in bras.”
Bendt still has a copy of the police poster advertising for men in good health and of excellent character between the ages of 25 and 30 who were 5-foot-10 or taller to apply. The only qualification missing was a high school diploma – he left school before graduation to fight in the war – a problem quickly resolved after he got his GED.
After spending his first three years in a squad car, Bendt was transferred to what was known as the “Morals Squad” in 1959. The squad’s officers dressed in plainclothes and handled everything from prostitution and gambling to bootleg whiskey to illegal drugs.
It was “a dirty rotten business,” Bendt said.
He loved it.
“If I could go back to work today on the same job, with the same people, I’d do it,” Bendt said.
It beat driving a truck for a living, something he’d done for eight years after serving as a U.S. Navy radio operator in the South Pacific during World War II.
When the department created new divisions for vice and narcotics in 1962, Bendt was one of three officers assigned to narcotics. Later that same year he was named supervisor of the department.
“It was interesting,” Bendt said. “You do the whole thing. We worked with a lot of informants, and you’d have to prepare search warrants, make undercover narcotic buys. You generally liked to buy at least twice, that kind of indicates the person is a dealer.”
In the beginning, the narcotics division dealt with smaller amounts of mostly heroin and marijuana, but as the ’60s drug culture blossomed, marijuana spread from inner city neighborhoods to the college crowds, and LSD entered the picture.
“They would put the LSD on a sugar cube and that’s how they carried it around and sold it,” Bendt said, noting that the manmade hallucinogenic was actually legal for a short time. “Sometimes they would put it on a little purple pill; they called it ‘purple haze.’ All kinds of drugs appeared, peyote, then hashish – refined and more potent marijuana – then cocaine entered the picture; it was used more by the affluent people but it drifted down.”
Bendt did more in the fight against illegal drugs than run the narcotics squad. He would speak at schools or clubs about the dangers of drug use, and led classes at other police departments, training them what to look for with narcotics. He put together a leaflet, “The Living Dead,” about drug addiction and different types of drugs and their effect – that was distributed to young people as part of a public education campaign. He even spoke at an international conference in Toronto.
“That was quite an experience,” he said.
Bendt headed the narcotics division for nearly 20 years.
When he retired, the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a full-page feature story on the man who had been a part of so many of their crime stories over the years, detailing how the drug scene changed over his career and how remarkable that career really was.
Unlike the Twin Cities drug task force that made headlines over the past couple years for its excesses, Bendt and his officers got high praise from his supervisors.
“If there are two areas where police departments get in trouble, it’s either vice or narcotics,” said James Braseth, then supervisor of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Twin Cities office. “His [Bendt’s] men kick in more doors than any other unit in the area, and there’s never any trouble, never even a rumor of trouble.”
It wasn’t all roses, of course. Bendt remembers an officer under his command who was shot and later died while working narcotics on a search warrant; the drug dealer who shot him had gone to school with Bendt’s daughter. The informants weren’t angels, in fact, most were prostitutes. The addicts were a mess; Bendt said he felt sorry for them sometimes, but added that it was their own fault they were in that situation.
As for the dealers, well, they were mostly scum.
“You’d go in with a search warrant and the first thing the dealer would say is ‘Who’s the dirty rotten so-and-so who snitched me up? I hate snitches,’ they’d say,” Bendt said. “Then you’d arrest them and the first thing, he’d say, ‘If I tell you where I got it will that help me?’ He’s snitching right away.”
One drug dealer even turned in his own mother, Bendt said.
Then there was the woman who was interfering with an arrest – getting in the way and swearing at the officers – who made an obscene gesture at Bendt with her middle finger. He arrested her for indecent conduct for interfering “and giving me the finger,” he said. The case went to the Supreme Court and the police won.
While he acknowledges many things have changed since he retired – Bendt refers to medical marijuana as “hocus pocus,” – Bendt’s belief that marijuana is a gateway drug which leads to other drug use hasn’t changed.
“You would ask addicts how they got to the point where they were taking heroin, and pretty much all of them said it started with marijuana,” he said.
He looks back at his career with satisfaction.
“I remember one fellow we dealt with a lot; he’d hide in drugstores and steal drugs when they closed and then break out,” Bendt said. “It seemed like we were constantly after him. He was just a pain. Then, on the day I retired, a young guy hollers, ‘Mr. Bendt!’ He comes over and says, ‘Remember me?’
“He’s got a nice-looking turtleneck shirt on. I said ‘David Cluck?’ He says, ‘You probably saved my life, you were after me all the time.’ He whips out his wallet, says ‘I’m married now, got some kids,’ and showed me. That’s a story that came good.”
Still going strong
On the day he retired, the members of Bendt’s narcotics division arrested him and a judge sentenced him to a happy life.
Bendt has done his best to fulfill that sentence.
With the help of many co-workers, he and Eileen built a home in Nickerson, not far from the vacation cabin they’d shared with four other families during his career. He still lives there, right off the snowmobile trail. He snowmobiles in the winter and rides his four-wheeler in the summer. He plays cards and spends much of the summer on his houseboat on the St. Croix River. He entertains people in his basement bar, which he has named The Starlight Lounge.
Jim MacDonald is quick to point out that Bendt also has his “round table” at the Nickerson bar, where folks like to congregate around the master storyteller.
Bendt had to play bouncer at the local watering hole at least one time, intervening when a man he’d once arrested was causing trouble.
“I told him, ‘I know who you are and you know who I am, so quit causing trouble and get out of here,’” Bendt said, nodding affirmatively when a friend asked if he keeps up his permit to carry a weapon.
Retirement, like his working life, has had its ups and downs. Eileen died three years ago; his son Raymond passed away two years ago from cancer.
Bendt himself has had a total of 10 operations, including a ruptured appendix and both prostate and colon cancer. Still, he doesn’t take a single pill – no high blood pressure meds, nothing – and he walks tall and strong when visitors roll up to his rural Carlton County home.
“I feel more like 18 or 20,” he said.
Nickerson bar owner Michelle Lappegaard said Bendt took her under his wing when she moved there 17 years ago.
“He’s definitely the party of the neighborhood,” she said, “our Energizer bunny. He just keeps going.”
Lappegaard tells about the snowmobile club’s Booya, or outdoor winter picnic, and how Bendt cooks up all the meat and buys all the supplies for the annual event.
Bendt isn’t the president of the Sno Sharks, but he is the leader of the pack.
“Nobody seems to get moving until George stands up and yells ‘Saddle Up!’ Then everyone jumps,” Phyllis Rousseau said about her friend.
There is another sentence Bendt is known for, one that pretty much sums up his attitude about life, with all its messiness.
“But look at the fun that we had,” is Bendt’s famous refrain.
Sitting at his basement bar Monday afternoon with the music playing, walls covered with pictures of long-ago drug busts and snowmobile trips, funny pictures and mementos from his past, Bendt seems pleased with the first eight and a half decades of his life.
The retired policeman and outdoor enthusiast said he knows how he’d like to go, when it’s finally his turn.
“When my time comes, I want to fall off my snowmobile with a heart attack,” he said with a smile. “I used to say at the age of 92, but since
that’s getting close, I’ve moved it