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Smith & Wesson chief's past returns

When he picked up the phone at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., last month, James Joseph Minder realized it was the call he'd been dreading for the past 20 years.

A reporter with the Arizona Republic had an urgent question for the 74-year-old chairman of Smith & Wesson Holding Corp.: Was he the notorious felon known as the "Shotgun Bandit" in Michigan decades ago?

Minder felt a flash of fear. At first he insisted the reporter had a case of mistaken identity. "I told him, 'I'm not that person,'" he recalled. He confirmed his name and date of birth. Then, they hung up.

But after talking to his wife of 28 years, Minder said he decided that "I had better tell the truth."

Minder quickly informed the other members of the company's board and, at the next meeting, tendered his resignation as chairman.

While his wife, son and some old acquaintances were aware of his past, the news has shocked friends, associates and board members. They can't reconcile the affable, grandfatherly chairman with the bandit described in decades-old news clippings.

As a serial armed robber in Michigan, Minder used a revolver -- for a while it was a Smith & Wesson -- and a sawed-off 16-gauge shotgun. He stole getaway cars and disguised himself with dark glasses, a trench coat and a flat-top hat. He escaped from prison and once terrorized employees at a branch of Manufacturers National Bank before stealing $53,000.

The dozens of holdups, some done while he was a student at the University of Michigan, earned him notoriety: "U-M Genius Can't Stay Out of Jail," the Detroit Free Press wrote in 1962.

"Those years are very fuzzy to me," Minder said recently. "I have repressed the memories."

Turning life around

His story is all the more remarkable for what he has done since.

After his final prison stint ended in 1969, he decided to turn his life around, he said. Before becoming chairman of Smith & Wesson, he spent more than two decades setting up programs and group homes for delinquent, abused, neglected and developmentally disabled children and young adults in Michigan.

By the mid-1990s, a nonprofit he started with his wife was providing board, counseling or foster-home placement for more than 1,000 young people a day.

"If my work in the field changed the lives of those children, then I accomplished what I set out to do and this is the legacy I leave behind," he said.

Minder said he has had a clean record since 1965, but there have been many times when he struggled with the secrets from his past.

"Obviously, the early years were nothing to be proud of," he said. "Unfortunately, that's the cross I bear, I guess."

While much of Minder's account is confirmed by newspaper reports, some of it couldn't be independently corroborated.

A 'vagabond existence'

Born in 1930 in Clinton, Mass., Minder said he lived a "vagabond existence" early on. "Any social worker in the country could write the scenario of my early life," he said. "It was a terrible childhood."

His parents divorced when he was 3 years old. His mother, who had just had twins, sent him to live with his grandmother, an immigrant from Italy, who was in her 80s at the time.

"She was a loving, wonderful person, but exerted little or no parental control," he said. "I learned about life on the streets with gangs."

After his grandmother died, Minder lived with uncles and aunts. When he was about 11, he lived briefly with his mother, who had remarried and was raising two sets of twins -- his sisters and half-brothers. He and his stepfather "didn't get along at all," Minder said.

His stepfather and mother, who now are deceased, turned him over to his father, who remarried several times. The family moved throughout New England, as the textile conglomerate that employed his dad, an industrial engineer, set up new plants.

While still in high school, Minder said he began hot-wiring cars and swiping food from supermarkets. When he was a high-school senior and the treasurer of the school newspaper in Manchester, N.H., he says he stole $800 or $900 from the paper's treasury. (His father replaced the funds after the crime was uncovered.)

'Rob the bank and then retire'

By the time he began college, Minder had a juvenile record that included three or four arrests, he said. When his father went to work for Ford Motor Co., in Dearborn, Mich., Minder transferred to the University of Michigan. He bought his first gun, a Smith & Wesson snub-nose .38 revolver, from a dealer on the street in Detroit, and started on a robbery spree.

The teen-ager spent his money on cars, girls, clothing and rent.

"The idea was to rob the bank and then retire," Minder said. He would wear a silk stocking or pillowcase over his head, he said, sometimes reaching inside it during the holdup to adjust his glasses.

According to stories in two Detroit-area newspapers in early 1951, Minder stole $1,500 from a grocery store and confessed to as many as four other holdups, including an attempt to rob the Grand River branch of the Michigan Bank. He was caught after his stolen car smacked into a truck. He pleaded guilty to a grocery-store holdup and spent three years in a Jackson, Mich., prison.

In 1954, at age 24, he was on parole when he and an accomplice robbed a branch of Manufacturers National Bank, stealing $53,000. During the heist, the pair drew guns on terrified bank employees and scooped loose money into a wastebasket, according to subsequent Detroit News stories. The Federal Bureau of Investigation tracked the pair to their hideout apartment just nine blocks from the bank, according to Minder and a newspaper account.

"We made the mistake of going out and buying a new Lincoln" with the stolen loot, he said recently. He recalls agents converging on his flat, with guns drawn. He surrendered.

'Simply too easy'

While incarcerated, he enrolled in correspondence courses and did well, he said. But he usually went directly back to crime when he got out of prison. "It was simply too easy," he says.

After getting out of federal prison, he continued to steal, robbing jewelry stores, drugstores and grocery stores, according to the news clips.

"You see too many of these movies, these people go in half crazy and they are screaming and yelling and so forth," Minder said. "I would just very quietly tell them it was a robbery and would show them the gun and that was it."

At age 32, while serving a 10-year sentence, he participated in the Ionia State Reformatory debate team. During a 1962 debate against the University of Michigan's team, he escaped.

"I just walked away," Minder said. After stealing a car and driving to Worcester, Mass., he was recaptured.

Finally in the late 1960s, during his last prison stint, the felon resolved to give up his destructive ways. Minder said he had been inspired a few years earlier by getting encouraging letters from counselors at the University of Michigan overseeing his correspondence work.

"They would tell me again and again that I should be using my talents and intelligence to do constructive things," he said.

"I realized: 'Look, this is ridiculous, I'm killing myself. The person getting beat up here is me,'" Minder said. He asked the college for permission to have his correspondence credits counted toward a bachelor's degree. The administrators agreed, according to Eugene Nissen, then an assistant dean at the University of Michigan's undergraduate school in Ann Arbor.

"We finally decided that here was a bright, intellectual man," Nissen recalled. In 1969, when Minder was released from prison, he finished his undergraduate work, majoring in sociology. He got his master's degree in social work at the University of Michigan, relying on grants to pay his tuition.

Helping children

On advice from a professor, he began working for a national assessment study of juvenile delinquency, a federally funded project to evaluate programs for troubled youth in 18 states. Convinced he could help kids, he also began working for Boysville of Michigan, a Catholic-run nonprofit agency, helping to develop facilities for kids.

Many people in Michigan's social-work community vaguely knew he had spent time in prison, Minder said. But they often didn't inquire why, and tended to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Former Michigan juvenile-justice official William Lovett had assumed the prison stint stemmed from a minor incident, like a political protest, when he recommended that the state crime commission give Minder's Boysville programs federal grants for juvenile delinquency programs.

Lovett said he didn't know Minder was a convicted armed-robber. "A lot of people had been picked up for antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s," he said. "It wasn't unusual for people to have a criminal record for civil disobedience."

In 1976, Minder married Susan Davis, whom he had met in graduate school. The couple got about $60,000 from Michigan to set up a group home for about 13 developmentally disabled boys. That enabled them to create their own nonprofit, Spectrum Human Services Inc., initially run from the basement of their home.

Later in its own offices, Spectrum expanded into programs for children who suffered from mental illness, parental abuse, neglect or other problems.

Spectrum began renting houses and apartments in middle-class neighborhoods for its programs, financed by local counties, as well as by federal and state grants.

"If you return a child to the 'hood, you're just going to have problems," Minder said. Spectrum was running more than 50 group homes by the late 1990s, he said, most for young adults in the 18-to-30 age range.

The past catches up

After only a few years, however, Minder's past caught up with him -- in a way very similar to his most recent exposure.

A new administration had come into the Michigan government, including Harold Gazan, who was responsible for adult-foster-care and child-welfare programs. While working in his office one Friday afternoon, Gazan received a call from a reporter at the Detroit News wondering whether Jim Minder -- a man the state had licensed -- was the same Jim Minder who was convicted of several armed robberies.

"You could have knocked me off my chair," Gazan recalled.

Alarmed, he called a professor at the University of Michigan, who confirmed that Minder, the 40-something social worker, was also a notorious ex-con.

Gazan arrived at Spectrum's offices demanding an explanation, both men recalled. Minder responded that he hadn't divulged his crimes to the state because his licensing application at that time required a criminal history be disclosed only if it was within the last five years.

"I felt betrayed in a way," Gazan recalled. "There are some things that exceed the letter of the law. This is one of those circumstances."

He asked Spectrum's board to put Minder on leave.

"I want him taken out of the picture in terms of any operational responsibility," Mr. Gazan said he told them. State staffers then conducted an investigation of Minder's programs. The state review "felt like two weeks of hell," Minder said.

Ultimately, Minder was given a stamp of approval by the state and didn't have to give up his license. But social services officials later changed their adult-foster-care and child-welfare-agency license application form and rules, so that all criminal convictions had to be divulged.

Gazan went on to befriend Minder, saying he urged him to be more forthcoming about his past.

"I don't think he walked around with a sign on his chest saying, 'I am a reformed criminal,' but we all knew about it," said Elizabeth Davenport, one of Spectrum's founding board members and its chairwoman during the nonprofit's early years.

She said Minder was a "marvelous manager" with a talent for choosing effective social workers. She occasionally would discuss his past with the board, she said, but nobody was concerned.

"We thought it was ridiculous," she said. "He had paid his debt."

By the mid-1990s, Spectrum had 860 employees and an annual budget of $30 million, mostly financed by the state. Spectrum paid Minder a $100,000 salary, and his wife, Susan, an attorney, a $60,000 salary. Minder later retired from the nonprofit, and it is now run by a successor.

Retired in 1997

Minder and his wife retired to Scottsdale in 1997 to be near their son, who then was attending Arizona State University. It was there that Minder met Mitchell Saltz, founder of Saf-T-Hammer Corp., a fledgling gun-lock manufacturer. A former small-business consultant without gun-industry experience, Saltz had designed a safety device after watching a TV report about a football coach getting caught in an airport with a loaded handgun in his duffel bag.

He decided to market a gun hammer -- a critical part of the firing mechanism -- that can be removed to disable the gun.

Saltz took on his friend Minder as an investor, and later as a board member. Minder initially invested just $25,000 in the fledgling company, he said, though he later increased his investment.

In early 2001, Saltz approached the Saf-T-Hammer board with a radical idea. He had become aware that then-Smith & Wesson parent, the British conglomerate Tomkins PLC, was looking to unload its 150-year-old gun-manufacturing unit.

Saf-T-Hammer agreed to buy Smith & Wesson for $15 million: $5 million up front, the rest later. Saltz found a private investor to put up most of its down payment.

After the deal, Minder remained on the board. In December he started receiving a $60,000 annual board fee. (He now owns about 60,000 shares of Smith & Wesson stock.)

He said he never mentioned to anyone, including Saltz, that he used to own a gun, or gave any hint of his past crimes, even during his 2002 visit to the company's expansive gun plant in Springfield, Mass.

Saltz, then chairman and CEO of Smith & Wesson Holding and a good friend of Minder, said he asked all Smith & Wesson directors and officers to fill out questionnaires for insurance. But the questionnaire asks only about securities-fraud issues -- not armed robberies.

Minder is "very good," on the board, Saltz noted. "He has been through the gamut, the fund-raising side of it, and the political issues," dealing with state officials.

Outsider's perspective

As an outsider on the board, Minder particularly was valued when boards faced tough new rules intended to protect shareholders from corporate conflicts of interest.

After three years on the board, he was appointed chairman on Jan. 16 after the company decided to separate its chairman and CEO roles. The company at the time had just finished reauditing its books and restating past earnings because of accounting problems.

"We were going through a really difficult time," Minder said. "When I took [the chairmanship] I told them: 'I'm not going to stay in this job because I have too many other interests. I will stay in until the annual meeting," scheduled for this summer.

That plan was interrupted after the reporter's Feb. 11 phone call.

Coming clean

Minder said he decided he had to divulge his secret to Saltz and Colton Melby, both Smith & Wesson directors and its largest shareholders. He called and asked them to come over to his house.

When they arrived, the men sat down in the kitchen. Minder's wife was at his side. As he began describing his crimes, the two men at first thought he was setting them up for a joke.

"We didn't believe it," Saltz said. "You would think somebody would be nervous or fidgety. But we didn't see any change in his behavior. He laid it all out just like a history professor would have done."

After Minder assured them he was serious, they patted him on the back and told him they still backed him as the company's chairman, according to Saltz.

"That's something that happened 40 years ago," he said. "Here's a guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps. If we were in the hat business, and not in the firearm business, this wouldn't be an issue."

Minder tendered his resignation as chairman of Smith & Wesson on Feb. 23, following a regular board meeting.

"I told them it's much too damaging to the company if I stay on," he said. "The chairman is always targeted."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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