After the sun has dropped below the Iowa hills, it is the habit among the farmers of tiny Eddyville (pop. 1,000) to drive their pickup trucks to Elmer’s Tap on Main Street. They gulp shots of whiskey, chased by beers, and grumble over the troubles of the day—the plunging prices for hogs or the soggy ground that has slowed the corn harvest. But, after all the hard luck stories are told, the talk usually turns to poor old farmer Edward Briney and local boy, Marvin Katko, who had his leg nearly blown off by Briney’s 20-gauge shotgun.
Eight years ago on a hot summer night, Katko, a junk collector, entered a deserted farmhouse on the Briney property. Katko says he was looking for antique fruit jars. The house was filled with antique furniture, left behind by Mrs. Briney’s parents. It had been broken into before—even Katko later admitted he had done so. “It seems to me,” says farmer Briney, “that a boarded up house ought to be like a bank. It shouldn’t make any difference if you live there or not—a man’s got to have a right to protect his property.”
After some 40 break-ins, Briney lashed his shotgun, “Old Betsy,” to an iron bedpost in the house, strung a trip wire from the trigger to the knob of the bedroom door, and aimed the barrel where the burglar’s feet would be. “I would have aimed it at his belly button, but my wife talked me out of it,” says the 5’6″ Briney, whom the farmers at Elmer’s describe as a bit of a hothead. “I didn’t really want to kill him, just scare him.”
Groping through the dark that night, Katko, who was then 28, did not know of course about “Old Betsy.” “I’ve been a Lutheran all my life,” says Katko, who pumps gas at his father’s DX station and lives with his wife of 15 years in one of the nicest new homes in town. “I never even drank or smoked. This is just a case of where curiosity got the cat and I was the cat. Hell, I was dead wrong. I know I maybe got what I deserved—a lot of folks still think it’s too bad it didn’t blow my head off.”
When Katko opened the bedroom door, the shotgun pellets ripped away a good portion of his left leg above the ankle, leaving him with a two-and-a-half-inch dent in his shin, bird shot embedded forever in his calf and a permanent limp.
Admitting his guilt in court, Katko paid a $50 fine for petty larceny and went back to pumping gas. He also was out $3,200 in medical bills. Katko claims that one evening Cornie Bambrook Jr., a neighbor of Briney’s, stopped by the station. “We were talking about my leg,” Katko says. “He sat there right against the stove and said, ‘You ought to sue the S.O.B.’ ”
Katko did, for $60,000. Bambrook, who denies encouraging Katko, thought it would be neighborly to help-out farmer Briney. So Bambrook and two other farmers—Gysbert Groenenboom and Ben Janssen—raised $11,000 for Briney’s defense. The trial that followed was one of the liveliest ever in those parts. Katko’s lawyers characterized their client as a boy any mother could love. Briney’s lawyers told the court he was just an old farmer trying to protect his worldly goods. In the end, the all-woman jury liked Katko’s arguments better and awarded the burglar $30,000. In order to raise the money, Briney was forced to sell some land. In the dead of winter, 1970, the sheriff auctioned off 80 acres that had been owned by Mrs. Briney’s family for seven decades.
Figuring that Briney would appeal the decision to the state supreme court and that the verdict would be overturned, the three neighbors—Bambrook, Groenenboom and Janssen—decided to buy Briney’s land and hold it for him.
Katko’s lawyer opened the bidding at $10,000 to establish a minimum price. The neighbors, the only parties interested in the acreage, upped the bid to $10,001. The sheriff rapped his gavel three times and sealed the purchase. Briney’s neighbors leased the land back to him for what it cost to cover the taxes and the interest on the loan they had taken out to buy the tract. (Briney, however, mistakenly thought his payments were being applied to the principal of the mortgage.)
In 1971 Briney filed his appeal, but the Iowa Supreme Court eventually ruled against him. Later that year, he was ordered to sell off another 35 acres, which went at auction for $3,202. (What’s left of the farm is owned jointly by Briney and his father and is therefore more difficult to attach.) Last year the three owners of the original 80 acres decided to sell. They offered the land to Briney, but he could not afford it. So Groenenboom bought the acreage for $16,001 and sold it to his son for $16,500. That presumably was the end of the complicated transaction. But no. Last fall, Briney and Katko, shotgun owner and victim, previous opponents in court, got together in a move that astonished the town. They sued the three good Samaritans, demanding the $6,500 profit they insist was made on Briney’s property. (The three owners argue that their profit is less than $3,000 due to back taxes they paid in order to take title.)
Some of the farmers down at Elmer’s Tap think Briney is suing because of unwise advice from Katko’s lawyer. “He don’t have nothing to gain from it,” says one farmer, “he’s a whupped kind of man.” While most Eddyville citizens used to sympathize with Briney, now they are confused over his alliance with an admitted thief, against some upstanding citizens. “Used to be some favored one, some favored the other,” says the barkeep, who seems to be a barometer of town opinion. “Now most just don’t take sides no more.”