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February 23: Bar Bandits

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Two young men, one short and one tall, sat in a booth at Friendly Tavern in Minot, North Dakota, around 10pm in the early days of February in 1955. Both wore Levi jeans and made unremarkable conversation with one another. The bartender, Tommy Oster, made his way over to the pair. One of the two looked young, so Tommy asked for his ID. It was a North Dakota license, and it said the man was born in October of 1933. The men politely ordered their drinks and played a few songs on the jukebox. They stayed until close and drank three beers a piece.

At the end of the night, one of the two men approached the bar and drew a .38 caliber automatic pistol. He aimed it at Tommy Oster and his fellow bartender and ordered they put their heads down on the bar while the other went around the back and removed $160 from the till—and an additional $15 from the bill fold of one of the bartenders. After the unmasked robbers ran out of the bar Tommy Oster picked up the phone and called the police.

The police took statements from the two bartenders, and Oster admitted that although he saw the ID of one man, but he did not make a note of his name or his place of residence. The police sent out word of the robbery and attempted to seal off any getaway route. It wasn’t long before two men were identified as the likely suspects—in not only this case but in other robberies around the state. Their names were Jack West and Phillip Penry.

The two had made a series of errors that helped lead to their arrest. For example: prior to a crime they committed in Minot, the two men checked into a hotel using their real names, and then immediately switched hotels, possibly to throw the police off their trail. Additionally, police towed the pair’s car, and they went to the station to claim it with their real names. The police now had the suspects’ real names from the hotel, license plate number from the towed car, and even a month and year of birth thanks to the ID check at the bar. Since the two were not masked during the robbery, police also knew what they looked like. It was discovered that the perpetrators had been dating two girls from Minot and intended to meet them in Miles City on February 26. The police planned to spring a trap, but this was ultimately unnecessary as the duo admitted to the Friendly Tavern robbery on this date in 1955.

Dakota Datebook by Colby Aderhold


  • Minot Daily Optic Reporter February 11th, 1955, pages 1 and 6
  • Minot Daily Optic Reporter February 23rd, 1955, page 1

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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