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Gary Waller, Glensheen investigator and former sheriff, dies at 72

Gary Waller, then a Duluth police detective who was a candidate for St. Louis County sheriff, waves from a car on Nov. 4, 1986 — Election Day — as he rides to various radio and TV interviews in Duluth. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
St. Louis County Sheriff Gary Waller is pictured in 1994. (News Tribune file photo)2 / 2

As a Duluth police officer, Gary Waller investigated the 1977 murders of a wealthy heiress and her night nurse at Glensheen Mansion — a case that remains one of Minnesota’s most infamous and intriguing crimes.

As St. Louis County sheriff, he was credited with ushering in a modern age of law enforcement training and technology, improving investigations and overseeing the construction of a new jail.

Waller, a familiar face in the local law enforcement community for more than 40 years, died Tuesday at his Moose Lake home. He was 72.

“He was one of the best law enforcement officers in Duluth that I’ve ever known,” said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who knew Waller for 40 years. “He had high expectations of himself and high expectations of the people he supervised. I learned so much from him.”

A cause of death was not immediately identified, but Waller had been ill in recent months. He was hospitalized earlier this summer, missing events commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Glensheen case in June.

John DeSanto, the former St. Louis County chief prosecutor who later became a judge, teamed up with Waller for a number of homicide cases. But their careers are forever tied through the six years they spent together on the Glensheen investigation and legal cases.

“He was a cop’s cop,” DeSanto said. “I loved working with Gary. We really became like brothers over the years through those close relationships.”

Waller came from a large law enforcement family. His father, Donald Waller, was a longtime Duluth police officer. His uncle, Floyd Bowman, also served on the Duluth police force before becoming a special agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

He worked alongside his brother, Roger Waller, who went on to become chief of the Duluth Police Department in the early 2000s. And his son, Sean Waller, also worked in law enforcement, first in Duluth and then in Oklahoma.

“I know he was very proud of his career, working with his brother and having his son follow him into law enforcement,” said St. Louis County Undersheriff Dave Phillips, who was one of the first deputies hired by Waller. “It’s like a family legacy of enforcing the law and impacting the region.”

Waller, a Denfeld High School graduate, spent more than 20 years with the Duluth Police Department, rising to the rank of lieutenant. DeSanto said he was always on the cutting edge of investigatory techniques — becoming an expert in latent fingerprints and, in one case, obtaining bite mark evidence that led to murder charges against a suspect.

But Waller became publicly recognizable for his work as the lead investigator of the slayings of 83-year-old heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse, Velma Pietila, at the historic Duluth estate.

The investigation led to charges against Elisabeth's daughter by adoption, Marjorie Caldwell, and her husband, Roger Caldwell, in a murder-for-inheritance plot. But Marjorie was acquitted of murder charges and Roger only served five years, taking a plea agreement and getting released from prison after his initial conviction was overturned.

Waller continues to be associated with the case through a comprehensive book, “Will to Murder,” that he started putting together with DeSanto in the 1980s. The book finally got its release in 2003, co-authored by former News Tribune reporter Gail Feichtinger, and it remains a top seller in local and regional gift shops and bookstores.

“We spent a lot of time together,” DeSanto said. “I just want to relish all the good times and laughter we had. I get tearful just as I talk about it. I really loved him and I’ll truly miss him.”

Waller shifted gears in 1986, winning an 11-way race for St. Louis County sheriff just months after incumbent Ernie Grams, a close friend, died in a car crash. He was twice re-elected, retiring from a 32-year law enforcement career in 1999.

Phillips, who has more than 28 years of service with the sheriff’s office, said he was impressed by Waller when he first interviewed for a job with the agency and was “thrilled” to be hired.

“He was newly elected, but he was incredibly progressive,” Phillips said. “He was impacting everything from equipment to policies and procedures and really just modernizing the agency.”

Waller’s signature accomplishment as sheriff was the construction of a new county jail on Haines Road, which opened in 1995 and replaced an antiquated facility downtown. Building on the experience, Waller spent time in retirement working as a freelance consultant doing assessments for county jails across the country.

He also established the St. Louis County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy with local clergy members. That organization continues today, offering spiritual assistance to law enforcement officers and civilians after critical incidents.

"He hired me and a number of our now more senior deputies and staff, so his lessons and legacy are still very much with us,” said current Sheriff Ross Litman. “Because of his background, he strongly supported investigations and brought a modern ethic and new direction in the way we do our work."

Funeral services are planned for Aug. 25 at Evangelical Covenant Church in Moose Lake. A gathering for family and friends will begin at 10 a.m., with the memorial service to follow at 11.

Honor guards from both the Duluth Police Department and St. Louis County Sheriff's Office will be in attendance.

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