Kaleva Bank Robbery of 1933: The rest of the story 

Lake County Star reader knew one of robbers later in life

LAKE COUNTY — In the article, "Recalling the Kaleva Bank Robbery," printed Jan. 29 in the Lake County Star, readers learned about one of the biggest manhunts in western Michigan, occurring Jan. 5, 1933, with vigilante forces and police officers perusing four bandits who robbed the Kaleva Bank and left a bank cashier dead. 

While a few readers have asked for a follow up, one reader, David Oros, who grew up in Kent County, reached out to share what he knew about the bank robbery from one of the four bandits himself. When Oros read the article and saw the picture of three of the  bandits who were arrested in the Colfax Swamp in Oceana County, a flood of memories came back when he recognized Elmer "Mike" Zellers in the photo. 

From being captured in that cold icy swamp in 1933, exhausted and hungry with frozen, swollen feet, time had "worked on" and warmed the heart of Zellers, who a little more than three decades later became a very positive influence in young Oros's life, leading him in a good direction. 

'Mike kept me out of trouble'

Oros was 13-years-old, living at a residence on Fulton and Lake Drive in the Grand Rapids area, when Zellers (about 60-years-old), answered an ad for caretaker in August 1967.  At that time, Zellers had been out of prison for four years, working different jobs, after serving 32 years from the original 60-year sentence at the state prison in Marquette. 

"Mike got out of prison after 32 years, and had changed a lot in that time," Oros said. "He had a fishing pole and would take me fishing on his day off. If it weren't for him taking me fishing I probably never would have been fishing. Mike kept me out of trouble. He told of how he went from stealing candy as a kid, to robbery, which cost him time in prison. He made me promise to never get in trouble. "

Oros said how Zellers became a trustee in prison after a while, and helped with tasks such as working with clothes and operating the sewing machine. 

"I would skip school and went from home to home. Having Mike in my life kept me out of trouble," Oros said.

Oros would spend a lot of time at the duplex Zellers rented on Wealthy and Henry Street. He remembers Mike's baby blue Chevy Truck, a station wagon, and how he rode motorcycles. 

With the bond of friendship that formed between Oros and Zellers, the reformed man would confide to young Oros some of the details about the robbery, including how on the bandits’ trail of crime from Indiana all the way up to Manistee, a man also was shot in Grandville by the same bandit who later killed the bank cashier (Ellsworth Billman) in Manistee. 

"I am probably the only one who knew this, Mike told me a guy also was shot in Grandville. The one who pulled the trigger also deliberately shot the guy in Kaleva. Mike told me everything. No guy bumped into the clerk and the trigger went off. He killed before," Oros said, pointing out how Billman's death certificate indicated he was shot in the heart, and the cause of death was labeled as murder. 

Zellers told Oros that the bandit who was shot by the farmer during the manhunt was the actual one who pulled the trigger. Zellers also said the stolen money (more than $2,000) was buried in the Colfax Swamp. When officers were narrowing in on the three bandits, they used their hands to dig and bury the money.  

"I was the only friend Mike had after he got out of prison. He said if he had life to do over, this wouldn't have happened. Not because he sat in prison, but because he regretted the kind of life he had. He felt just as responsible as the trigger guy. He felt bad for the victims' families. 

"When Mike's parents died, he only knew because the prison guard told him. He wasn't sure on the whereabouts of his siblings. He said he hurt three families: the family of the guy in Grandville, the family of the guy in Manistee, and his own family. At one time he wanted to say sorry to the people he victimized, but the courts said to never contact any of the people at all. He said there will be a judgement some day for him.  He did turn out okay, but what he did wasn't right. He never got held on anything else" 

Oros said how, as a smoker, Zellers ended up on oxygen, and for better treatment became a resident at nursing home on Leonard Street in Crestview in Wyoming.

Zellers passed away March 26, 1974, and is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Grand Rapids, at the age of 70. 

"I was the only friend he had. I used to visit him all the time at the nursing home. He knew he was dying, During our last conversation, he held my hand and made me promise him to never get in trouble — and I never did. It brings tears to my eyes," Oros said, reflecting on all the good times they had. 

"God has blessed me with a pretty good life. I am 67 now, and am in Puerto Rico. Mike was really good to me. If it was not for him, I would probably be in jail. I was skipping school, and in foster homes. Mike was there to help me," Oros said, mentioning how he was able to give back during recovery of one of the worst hurricanes in Puerto Rice shortly after he arrived there. 

"Life went fast for me, riding motorcycles and traveling different places. I had kind of a rough childhood, but I turned out okay. I met President Ford in East Grand Rapids, once," Oros said, describing how Ford had a rough start to childhood. "You can be really, really poor, but end up with a really good life. What happened to me? I have a really good life."

Oros said he is hoping to travel back to Michigan in June to see old school friends. 

The aftermath

Here is a quick summery of the victim and bandits. 

• Ellsworth Billman, the 51-year-old bank cashier who was shot and killed at the Kaleva holdout, had four pastors pay tribute to him at his funeral at the Finnish Lutheran Church. There was standing room only at the church, which seated 1,000 people, according to the Northport Leader. The procession was led by the Michigan State Police, and interment was in the Oakwood Cemetery in Traverse City. 

• During sentencing of the four bandits, they were each given a 60-year-term by Hon. Hal Cutler, who criticized the state for its lack of capital punishment, saying, "It is almost as great a crime as they committed, that the state should be required to keep them for the rest of their lives." Northport Leader, Jan. 12, 1933. 

• Robert Veneman: Released before the 60-year-term, and died Feb. 10, 1994, in Muncie, Indiana. 

• Henry Shelton: Escaped from prison in 1949. Before midnight Sept. 17, 1949, he and another man hijacked a vehicle and kidnapped an electrical worker, in Amasa, Michigan, and traveled to Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana stealing three more vehicles, threatening each owner with a knife. He was apprehended June 23, 1950 by FBI agents. He drew a .45 caliber automatic weapon on agents during the arrest, and they shot and wounded him. He was incarcerated the remainder of his life. 

• Wayne Robinson (alias Wayne Thompson): a former stone cutter from Bloomington, Indiana, turned bandit, was shot by a farmer during the manhunt. At the time of publication, newspaper reports stated it was thought there was little chance of survival. More research determined he did survive. He was arraigned Feb. 17, after being hospitalized from his wound. In 1940, he is recorded in the census at Marquette Prison.