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Small Town in Disbelief over Elderly Man’s Slaying for Jar of Pennies

January 20, 1988

AUSTIN, Minn. (AP) _ Neighbors of an 86-year-old man who police say was killed by two teen-agers for a jar of pennies shake their heads in disbelief when they talk about the victim and the two 16-year-olds.

″You feel it’s going to happen in Chicago or New York; now it’s next door,″ said Jane Felten, a secretary at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, where both the victim, Michael L. Fink and the suspects attended services.

″They murdered this man for a jarful of pennies. Isn’t that sad,″ said Carol Kuettner, executive director of the Mower County Senior Center, where Fink was a frequent visitor.

Police arrested the teen-agers, whose names have not been released because they are juveniles, on Monday, three days after a neighbor found Fink’s home on fire. Authorities believe the young men set fire to the house after the robbery to disguise the crime, Police Chief Donald Hoffman said.

The Rev. Charles Collins, of LeRoy, has known both youths since his days as an assistant pastor at St. Augustine from 1981-86. He now teaches next door at Pacelli High School, the parochial school that the teen-agers attended.

″One was in constant trouble. Some even pinned his early problems on the fact he was super-bright. The other one, everybody was just stunned. He was never a discipline problem,″ Collins said.

″There’s a sense of community shame in that we are one family and that this could have happened,″ said the Rev. Charles Quinn, who has been pastor at St. Augustine for eight years.

Quinn said he saw Fink, a widower with three children, at Mass a few times every week.

″He was this tall, gangly man who shuffled along. I think people would think he was crotchety because he was tone deaf and wouldn’t answer,″ he said.

That image belied Fink’s true nature, Quinn said. ″He was a gentle man.″

As for the teen-agers’ families, the priest described them as ″very fine people and I am sure traumatized by the whole thing.″

Each youth has been charged in juvenile court with two counts of first- degree murder, one count of aggravated robbery and one count of arson, said Mower County Attorney Nancy Evans. They are to be transferred from the Mower County Jail to a juvenile detention center in Red Wing pending further court proceedings.

The two were arrested Monday afternoon when their parents took them in to be interviewed by authorities. The pennies and a hunting knife, which authorities say was used to stab Fink, were found during a search of the boys’ homes, Hoffman said.

An autopsy showed that Fink, who had multiple stab wounds and his throat cut, died of a stab wound to the heart.

Evans said the teen-agers told police they went to Fink’s home with the intention of robbing and killing him. She said her office is considering trying to have the youths certified for trial as adults.

″People always in a smaller community spot somebody like a widow or widower living alone. They always assume they have a lot of cash available,″ Hoffman said when asked about the boys’ motives.

The police chief said there was no truth to a neighborhood rumor that Fink had papered a room with dollar bills.

Tim Hoag, 29, a neighbor of Fink’s, said one of the teen-agers used to complain about the old man’s decision to erect a fence so he couldn’t cut through his yard, and said Fink would holler at boys for using his yard as a shortcut. Still, Hoag said he thought they had enjoyed a good relation with the older man.

″It doesn’t make any sense,″ Hoag said, shaking his head. ″I’ve been walking around all day going, ’I don’t believe it.‴

Collins said he’s worried that this case would reflect badly on Austin, a southern Minnesota city of 22,000 residents, and the 160-student Pacelli High.

″As a teacher, I rarely have to think about discipline. They are easy-to- get-along-with kids,″ Collins said.

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