Anoka County History: PTA president kills school principal

Imagine picking up your morning paper and reading a headline like this: “Principal Slain by Former PTA President.”

You might shake your head and wonder what the modern world is coming to, and in what kind of communities these terrible things happen.
But this isn’t a story from today’s headlines. It happened 53 years ago, right here in Anoka County.

On June 8, 1960, the No. 1 movie was “Pollyanna,” but it would soon be supplanted by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” The Everly Brothers had the nation’s top hit recording with “Cathy’s Clown.”

And former PTA president Lester Betts, a 37-year-old mail carrier, confronted principal Carson Hammond, 33, in his office at Blaine Elementary School and killed him with two blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun.

School officials and PTA members have been known to disagree, but it wasn’t a difference over policy that provoked the assault.

Betts thought the principal was taking too much interest in Betts’ wife.

Contemporary newspaper articles described the men as close friends who had worked together on school affairs.

Blaine Elementary, located just west of Highway 65, near the present-day fire station on 89th Avenue, had finished the school year a few days earlier.

Hammond was in his office shutting things down for the summer. Just after 8 a,m., Betts left his car and entered the school carrying the weapon.

He was seen by several witnesses, including Hammond’s secretary and two boys, ages seven and 11.

The boys’ names and addresses were listed in the newspaper account. That’s something you certainly wouldn’t see today.

Hammond was seated behind his desk when Betts walked in and shot him in the neck. Hammond rose, walked around his desk, and collapsed.

Betts went to his car, reloaded and returned and shot the prostrate Hammond in the back.

Hammond was still breathing when police arrived but died shortly thereafter.

Betts drove home, told his wife he had killed Hammond, washed the dishes, played with his children, and waited for the police. He surrendered without incident.

In July, a grand jury indicted Betts for first-degree murder and Betts was transferred to the University of Minnesota hospital for psychiatric examination.

“Shotgun Slayer Begins Psycho Exams at U,” the Anoka Union proclaimed. By that time the Hitchcock movie had been on the screens for a month, and the word “psycho” was taking on new levels of meaning in the public imagination.

In fairness to yesteryear’s Union, this was its only headline that tended toward sensationalism; the paper was generally restrained in reporting the slaying and its legal aftermath.

Betts’ trial was scheduled for December, 1960, but in October he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter.

He was not sent to the principal’s office, but instead was sentenced to Stillwater Prison.

Editor’s note: John Evans is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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