Then and now: North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation

Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 5:53 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) -More than 100 years ago a Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent was killed in the line of duty in a Minot. Although law enforcement is a dangerous job and officers in other North Dakota departments have given their lives, many are surprised to learn that Kersey Gowin was the only ND BCI agent to pay the ultimate sacrifice as he worked to protect the public. Your News Leader takes a look back at the tragedy from 1918 and how the department’s changed over the years.

The city of Minot sprung up as if by “magic” around the freshly laid railroad track in 1886. By 1905 it was known as the “crime capitol of North Dakota” before the attorney general at the time worked to clean up the town in 1917. Although evoking imagery of the “wild west,” the precursor to the BCI was established. The Bureau’s first employee was Gunder Osjord; North Dakota’s single “Bertillion Officer” who worked to identify criminals.

“It was a brand-new agency at that time that was pretty much based in fingerprints with the FBI and identifying inmates for that federal need at the federal bureau,” said ND BCI director Lonnie Grabowska.

In 1918, special agent Kersey Gowin was on duty with Patrick Devany of the night police force. According to a newspaper story, they were killed by a “thug, automobile tire robber, and general burglar” as they attempted to make an arrest.

“Gowin was shot numerous times. He died of the wounds after briefing the attorney general who came up to meet with Gowin. So, even with his dying breath, he was administering to the case and talking about what he had seen, what had happened, to try to catch the suspects,” said Grabowska.

The man convicted of the murder served two years in prison before he escaped.

Articles at the time show what life, and crime, were like more than 100 years ago, but those words are also evidence of how things have changed.

Now the department’s 102 members, including 57 agents, work thousands of cases a year, from death investigations to crimes on the internet.

“That is probably one of our largest growing areas: is our concern for how cyber-crimes are happening, how they are affecting our agencies in North Dakota and how we can get ahead of those as the technology changes,” said Grabowska.

Director Lonnie Grabowska also says, the oil boom contributed to growth of organized crime in the state. But as crime grows, agents go through more training.

“There’s always something changing and evolving,” said Grabowska.

He says still, some things in the department have stayed the same.

“We are extremely proud of being North Dakota law enforcement because I think we have some of the best in the country,” said Grabowska.

In the department’s halls each day, agents pass a reminder of Gowin’s sacrifice all those years ago.

Gowin is buried at the Bethany Lutheran Cemetary in Minot.

At the legislative session, BCI is asking for additional agents due to increases in cyber-crimes.