Published Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 4:17 pm
Gun or no gun?
Police report, witness accounts at odds with Johnny Rodgers' pardon request

Document: View Johnny Rodgers' application for a full pardon.

* * *

LINCOLN — Johnny Rodgers calls the night he stole money from a Lincoln gas station 43 years ago a drunken mistake, an embarrassing lapse in judgment, a stupid freshman prank.

One thing the Cornhusker football legend says it wasn't: an armed robbery.

In about two weeks, the State of Nebraska will hear Rodgers' request to have his felony conviction pardoned.

Where the pardon request form asks if a gun was used in the crime, Rodgers checked the blank next to “No.”

But the original offense report says the gas station attendant reported there was a gun.

The details of what happened inside the Derby station south of downtown Lincoln have largely remained out of the public light. Three young men arrested a year after the crime quickly pleaded guilty to felony theft and were sentenced to probation.

With legal trouble behind him, Rodgers went on to have starring roles in the 1970 and 1971 Husker national championship teams. He capped his 1972 senior season by winning the Heisman Trophy.

Meanwhile, Rodgers has been the only one of the three convicted to publicly discuss the theft at the gas station.

Until now.

The World-Herald has interviewed the two men who also carried the burden of felony convictions as a result of the theft.

“The story never got out there,” said James Glass, now 62 and living in Omaha. “Most everyone doesn't know that I never even set foot in that gas station.”

Glass said he clearly remembers that Rodgers used a gun to rob the gas station attendant.

“Just a malicious lie,” Rodgers responded. “That's straight-out false.”

Rodgers pointed out he was charged with larceny from a person, not armed robbery. And he quoted from the formal charge, which stated the crime took place “without putting the said (victim) in fear by threats or by the use of force or violence.”

Prosecutors have the discretion to file the charge they believe best fits the crime, even if it differs from how police investigated it. Rodgers argued the prosecutor must have decided armed robbery couldn't be proven in his case.

Police affidavits, in which investigators write short narratives intended to justify a suspect's arrest, were filed in the case but apparently were not saved.

That leaves the original offense report, which was taken shortly after the incident and would have included any follow-up information.

Lincoln police found the 43-year-old offense report and supplemental reports in their microfilm library.

They help tell an interesting story.

Document: See the original incident report.

* * *

Johnny Rodgers and Jimmy Glass were standout athletes and best friends at Omaha Technical High School. So of course they would be roommates when they went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

On the evening of May 19, 1970, Rodgers and Glass, both 18, decided to celebrate the last day of their freshman year with orange juice and vodka.

As the evening wore on, they were joined by a couple of students from Ord, Neb., who lived across the dormitory hall. They introduced Glass and Rodgers to a buddy from back home, a 19-year-old UNL student named Randy McCall.

Eventually they ran out of booze, but Rodgers had a Ford Mustang, Glass had money and McCall wanted to keep the night going. They headed out for beer.

Rodgers has long said the three were itching to do something daring that night. Glass said when they stopped at a package store, where the clerk also had to tend bar at the attached tavern, he commented how easy it would have been to steal money from the register.

That comment seemed to plant a seed.

After buying a 12-pack, they got back in the Mustang, and McCall started wheedling his drinking companions: “ 'You black guys are always talking about what you can do,' ” Glass recalled. “He said 'I double-dog dare you.' Well, to an 18-year-old, you don't double-dog dare them.”

Rodgers and McCall both said they can't recall the details of what was said in the car. But Rodgers agreed that, at that time, he would have been susceptible to a dare.

Rodgers drove until they came to the Derby station at the corner of Ninth and South Streets. They parked out of view from the station so the car wouldn't be seen.

McCall got out of the car first. Glass said he wasn't going in, and he tried to talk Rodgers out of it. Then, he said he saw Rodgers reach into the glove compartment and pull out a pistol, although he thought it was a starter's pistol that fired only blanks.

Rodgers denied it.

“Why would I have a starter's pistol? I wasn't in track,” he said. “That is straight-out false.”

Shortly before 3:15 a.m. on May 20, McCall walked inside the gas station and asked the older male attendant for a pack of Winstons. While he waited for change, Rodgers joined him at the counter.

Rodgers demanded cash. The attendant promptly handed over a leather pouch containing $91.50.

The two students made for the door.

“I just remember outrunning Johnny Rodgers from the gas station to the car,” McCall said.

Glass said he watched it all from a yard across the street. While his companions ran to the car, he walked. In his mind, he had nothing to do with the robbery.

Back at the dorm, they split up the money. Glass disputes the $91.50 figure, saying there was only $45 in the pouch.

After sobering up the next day, McCall said he was “horrified” over what he had done. But none of the students fessed up. For several days they nervously watched news reports and gradually began to believe they had gotten away with it.

Glass and Rodgers never saw McCall again after that night.

* * *

A year later, almost to the day, police started making arrests.

They first snatched Rodgers. By now, his skills as a punt returner, wide receiver and running back had been on display for a national championship season, so his arrest made big news.

When initially questioned by a World-Herald reporter, Lancaster County Attorney Paul Douglas said the station attendant was robbed by three men, one of whom had a pistol.

The next day, the prosecutor backtracked somewhat. After revealing that a confidential informant tipped off police, Douglas told a reporter he couldn't discuss whether a gun was used while the cases were pending.

By then police had also shown up on McCall's doorstep. In the year since, he had married. Now he had some serious explaining to do.

Glass had left UNL and was taking computer tech courses in Minneapolis. He saw a picture of his high school friend in the news and assumed Rodgers had committed a second robbery.

Then Glass' mother called. Police wanted to talk to him.

Glass drove to Lincoln and turned himself in. He was booked into jail, and although his father offered to pay bail, Glass said he would sit it out.

On his third day of confinement, a jailer led him to the visiting room. There, behind a Plexiglas window, were the prosecutor and Nebraska head football coach Bob Devaney.

The prosecutor told Glass if he pleaded guilty to larceny, he would get two years' probation, just like Rodgers and McCall. If he refused, he would face a more serious charge of armed robbery.

Glass balked. He told the prosecutor his side of the story — how he didn't participate in the robbery, and tried to talk Rodgers out of it. That gave Devaney an opening.

“His line was, 'Don't rock the boat for Johnny. Johnny's on the verge of doing great things.' ”

“I said, 'What about me, coach?' ”

Devaney and Douglas are both deceased. Former Husker coach Tom Osborne was an assistant under Devaney, and he posted $2,000 bail for Rodgers the day after his arrest.

Osborne said last week he and Devaney never discussed whether the late coach attended a meeting with Glass and Douglas. In fact, Osborne didn't recall Glass, period.

“If Bob was involved, I really don't know,” he said.

Osborne said he did recommend that Rodgers serve some sort of suspension during the 1971 season. Devaney opted against such a suspension.

Glass intended to fight the charge, but he changed his mind a few days later, following an incident at the jail.

He said a young hippie, who had been picked up for hitchhiking, had his head shaved by jail staff. That night, four inmates sexually assaulted the hippie.

Glass had his father call the prosecutor. He took the deal.

* * *

As promised, each of the three men was sentenced to two years' probation.

McCall resumed his studies and went on to pursue a career in accounting. He practiced his profession for a time in Colorado before returning to his hometown of Ord to raise his children and care for his parents.

He's grateful employers were willing to take a chance on him even though he's a convicted felon. Now 62, he said he has always tried to reward their trust.

“It taught me a lesson, but it's been a tough one,” he said.

Glass said he left a good job and training program in Minneapolis to serve his probation in Nebraska. With a felony on his record, he struggled to find a job. But when word got back to Devaney, the university quickly found a position for him on a building maintenance crew, he said.

UNL spokesman Steve Smith said last week a preliminary check showed employment records date back to 1999. Prior records have likely been destroyed.

Glass has since owned several businesses and currently works in the paper industry in Omaha. He and his sister are raising the children of a niece.

He carries resentment over the fact that he was punished as severely as the other two. But he said the felony record hasn't prevented him from having a good life.

Glass and McCall both said they do not want to stand in the way of Rodgers' pardon request. McCall said that in 1991 he successfully petitioned the court to have his full civil rights restored “as though a pardon had been issued.”

Rodgers, 62, a self-employed marketer living in Omaha, said his civil rights were restored in the same fashion in 1973 after he completed probation. But he has since learned that other states are not bound by that order, and the felony can sometimes lead to questions when he's leaving or entering the country.

His pardons file contains six letters of support, including from Osborne and Hal Daub, a former Omaha mayor and current member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

They pointed to Rodgers' commitment to his community, his concern for at-risk youths, his dedication to family.

“He has indeed conducted himself in a noble and unselfish way for the citizens of Omaha,” Daub said.

* * *

That leaves the police records.

Lincoln Officer Katie Flood gave the following account based upon the original offense report and additional information contained in supplemental reports.

Gas station attendant Glen Griggs, 64, reported two men — one white, one black — came into the station. The white man asked for cigarettes, and the black man held a small-caliber gun and demanded cash.

One of the men said they had an armed accomplice outside, who would be watching to make sure he didn't call police.

After about five minutes, Griggs reported the incident. The investigating officer listed it as an armed robbery.

The investigation stalled until May 14, 1971, when a confidential informant contacted police and said Rodgers and McCall were involved. The informant didn't know the name of the third person.

Five days passed before police arrested Rodgers and McCall. Rodgers agreed to contact the third suspect.

Police interviewed Griggs several more times. He never wavered from his original story that one of the robbers carried a gun.

“Through further evidence and interviews, we believe a black, .22-caliber pistol owned by Johnny Rodgers was used during the crime,” Flood said. However, no gun was recovered.

In addition, state records contain a letter in support of the Rodgers pardon from Tom Ash of Lincoln. A former World-Herald reporter, Ash said he interviewed Rodgers about the robbery in 1972. During that interview, Rod≠gers told him he went into the station with a handgun that did not work.

For his part, McCall said he never looked closely enough at Rodgers during the robbery to tell if he was armed. He said he was too scared.

None of the records, letters or accounts budged Rodgers last week from his contention that he did not have a gun.

“I've been haunted and disturbed all my life because people have said I committed an armed robbery,” he said. “We didn't have a gun. We didn't have weapons. We were kids. We didn't have access to guns.”

He argued he would not have had a place to safely store a gun while living in a dorm room. Nor would he have kept one in his car, he said, where, if he was stopped, it likely would have been found by police.

The gas station theft was a stupid, unplanned lark, not a robbery, he argued.

“Nobody had anything malicious in mind,” Rodgers said. “There's no sense in saying we're sorry, because everybody knows we're sorry.”

Rodgers' pardons hearing is Nov. 14. During the hearing, the board will consider both support and any opposition to the request.

Staff members for the State Pardons Board investigate records before they take action, said Secretary of State John Gale, who serves on the board along with Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning.

“It should likely be a pretty strong case for pardon,” Gale said. “Even with this new disclosure, which is going to have to be explained.”

Contact the writer: Joe Duggan

joe.duggan@owh.com    |  

Joe works in the Lincoln bureau, where he helps cover state government, the Legislature, state Supreme Court and southeast Nebraska.

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