Armed intruders held Minnesota family hostage for 14 frigid hours 25 years ago
One assailant used a 10-year-old girl as a human shield before a Clay County deputy ended things by shooting the suspect in the face. The suspect survived and was sentenced to life in prison. The deputy and the girl whose life he saved became friends and remain so to this day.
RUSTAD, Minn. — It was late in the afternoon on Jan. 29, 1996, during a frigid cold snap in the region when two men and a 13-year-old boy decided to rob the John and Mayme Bye residence in rural Clay County.
Over the course of many hours, the Byes and relatives from nearby farmsteads — 10 people in all — were taken hostage, with the ordeal coming to an abrupt end when a Clay County deputy shot one of the gunmen in the face who was threatening to kill a 10-year-old girl he was using as a human shield.
The deputy's action cut short what could have been unending pain for the Bye family.
But it also was the start of something — a deep friendship between the deputy and the family of the girl whose life he saved, a bond so strong that it continues to this day.
Dead of winter
The invasion of the Bye family's home near Rustad began around 4 p.m. on Jan. 29, 1996, when three assailants wearing masks and armed with guns pushed their way into the house located about ten miles south of Fargo-Moorhead.
The attackers tied up and gagged three people who were home at the time and over the course of about 14 hours other family members, as well as a number of relatives who lived nearby, were also rounded up and held captive.
After night fell, two assailants took a pair of hostages to Fargo, where the captives were forced to remove money from an ATM using bank cards taken from family members.
While two of the three invaders were away, one of the hostages left behind at the Bye residence freed himself from the basement where he had been confined and made his way upstairs to where radio reception was better and he could make a 911 call using a relative's cell phone.
When the two assailants who had gone to Fargo returned, they angrily took the phone away, but the alarm had sounded, according to Craig Baker, a former chief deputy with the Clay County Sheriff's Office now retired.
Baker said law enforcement agencies initially weren't clear on where the 911 call came from, as cell phone technology was new at the time and the emergency call was routed to the Minnesota State Patrol in Detroit Lakes, Minn.
The State Patrol reached out to Moorhead police for assistance and a local dispatcher was able to pin down the source of the call as having come from the Bye residence in rural Rustad, according to Baker.
Meanwhile, the outdoor temperature had plunged to about minus 28 degrees as deputies and other law enforcement officers gathered at a nearby residence to figure out how they were going to approach the Bye property.
Their efforts, however, were soon discovered by the people holding the Bye family hostage.
"It's so flat out there, the bad guys apparently saw some of that activity and that's what spooked them," Baker said, adding: "Once they started moving, we just didn't have any choice but to go after them."
One suspect took off in a vehicle heading north and was soon captured after running into a roadblock.
The other two perpetrators, including Darrell Lawrence Thompson, 50, headed south in a different vehicle, taking 10-year-old Kristen Erickson with them.
That vehicle also encountered a roadblock, but Thompson threatened to kill the girl and was allowed to escape in a sheriff's Jeep, taking his young hostage with him.
During the chase that ensued, Thompson broadcast over the Jeep's radio that he would kill the girl if officers tried to stop him.
Authorities pursued the fleeing Jeep across the Red River into North Dakota, were the Jeep became stuck in a snowbank in a residential cul-de-sac south of Fargo.
As officers drew their weapons, Thompson stepped out of the Jeep holding Kristen Erickson in front of him with one hand and pointing a gun at the girl's head with the other, still threatening to kill her.
That's when Clay County deputy Jeff Brown shot Thompson in the face.
"He (Brown) couldn't have been more than four feet away from the guy and he shot him right in the middle of the face," said Baker, who had a sit-down conversation with Brown in his office shortly after the shooting.
"He (Brown) said, 'I was trying to kill this guy, but I'm glad I didn't.' He was happy the guy survived," Baker said, recalling the debriefing.
The fact Thompson wasn't killed was a miracle, according to Baker, who said the bullet fired by Brown struck Thompson just to the side of his nose and under one eye before traveling around the outside of his skull and lodging under the skin at the back of his head.
Thompson not only survived the gunshot to his face and kept the vision in his eye, he continued to resist officers immediately after being shot, according to Baker.
"They had to fight him, they had to cuff him. That's how little impact that shot had. It's just kind of amazing," Baker said.
Attempts to reach Brown and Erickson for comment were not successful, but Baker and fellow retired Clay County deputy Brian Norberg said the deputy and the girl whose life he saved have stayed close over the years.
When Erickson got married about a year ago, Brown was invited to the wedding and given a place of honor at the family table, according to Norberg, who accompanied Brown to the wedding.
"She has been a little bit like a daughter to him," said Norberg, who added: "I think he (Brown) actually bought her her prom dress."
Ken Bye, the son of John and Mayme Bye, was among those taken hostage in 1996.
He said in a recent phone interview that all members of his family remain deeply grateful to Brown for what he did that day, as well as to "every member of law enforcement" who helped end the family's ordeal 25 years ago.
Bye said he was the one who made the 911 call using a phone that Kristen Erickson's father, Terry Erickson, had hidden in his pocket.
He said when the two assailants who went to Fargo to gather ATM money returned to the farmstead, they were very angry to discover he had a phone and they forced him to give it up.
According to Bye, the robbers apparently tossed the phone away before they left the farmstead for good, because it was later discovered in a garden on the property long after the incident happened.
Bye said his father was able to forgive Thompson when Thompson pleaded guilty for his role in the home invasion, but for him it took longer.
"My dad was able to, in court, forgive Darrell Thompson. It took me years, I guess," Bye said, adding that the incident was hard on many family members, particularly his sister, Carolyn, the mother of Kristen Erickson, his niece.
"Having your daughter taken from you..." Bye said, pausing to find the right words. "From the time they left (the farmstead) until Jeff Brown's shot was fired, it was pretty intense," he said.
The 13-year-old boy who was arrested in the incident and whom authorities did not identify at the time ultimately pleaded guilty to several charges in juvenile court.
The other two assailants, Thompson and his son, Anthony Joseph Summers, who was 21 at the time of the incident, were charged in federal court.
Summers ultimately pleaded guilty to three of six charges against him and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Thompson pleaded guilty to five of seven charges he was facing .
During his plea hearing, he told U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Webb that he and the other assailants stopped at the Bye farmstead because it was there and because they wanted gas.
When it turned out the family didn't have any, they decided to take money, Thompson said.
"It just went from there," he said. "I'm happy today that nobody got hurt except me," he added.
At the time, authorities said chance may have played a role in why the trio chose the Bye home to rob, as about two hours before the ordeal started a rural Rothsay, Minn., man helped three people free a car from the ditch.
The man later learned they were probably the same three that hit the Rustad farm.
In exchange for Thompson's guilty pleas, federal prosecutors withdrew a request they had made asking the court to sentence Thompson to a mandatory life sentence if he was convicted.
Nonetheless, after Thompson pleaded guilty, Webb imposed a life sentence that did not permit Thompson any time off for good behavior.
Thompson appealed the sentence but it was upheld.
Baker said it is his understanding that Thompson died in custody in 2016.
Since being release from federal prison, Summers has been convicted in state courts of a number of offenses, including burglary and theft convictions.
Last summer, he was convicted in Cass County District Court of failure to register as a predatory offender and was sentenced to two years in prison.