Harold Hanser was Yellowstone County’s chief lawman, prosecutor and county attorney in an era when all those titles meant something. He died last week at the age of 84.
During his first race for county attorney, Hanser handed out cards with the inscription, ”Hanser’s the Answer.” Reporters counterfeited campaign cards with copies that read: “What’s the Question?”
During his tenure in office, Hanser was the press’ most popular politician. This was because he would talk to reporters. Always accessible, he shared the details of investigations, criminal trials and the histories of thugs arrested and prosecuted. Also because he gave good quote.
A native of Broadview and a Roman Catholic, he fought abortion even after it was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court. He never called termination of a pregnancy “abortion.” Instead, he would accuse a doctor of “killing the kid.” Though a lifelong Democrat, he was no liberal and more than a bit of a puritan.
He frightened juries, confronting them with guilt and with guns and knives used in murders. “Here!” he would shout. “Give this killer back his gun and let him kill again.” Hanser’s histrionics almost always proved effective.
The best trials of the Hanser era featured battles between the county attorney and the lawyer he replaced. In a good murder trial, Hanser would play with guns while the opposing attorney put his arm around the client he was defending.
“I have known this boy all his life,” the attorney would say with tears cascading down his cheeks. His soggy drama was a perfect foil for Hanser’s rant.
There was more truth than poetry in the lawyer’s tearful appeals. In one role or another he may have taken the baby from the crib, prosecuted his junkie mother for child neglect and his wife beating father for assault. The youngster may have grappled with the law throughout his teenage years (with a stop at the reform school in Miles City), packed his toothbrush and was transported to Deer Lodge for two years on a breaking and entering conviction.
Now, he found himself between two lawyers - one waving guns, the other crying. Yes indeed, the lawyer had known the boy since he was an infant.
As I said above, Hanser was one of my favorite politicians. Of course, Mayor Willard Fraser was near the top of that list with a harebrained idea a week. Willard wanted a cable car to transport airplane passengers and to tunnel through the Rims as the gateway to the Heights.
He dreamed of a tram car to show the city off to visiting celebrities. The tunnel through the Rims would have served a similar purpose, although I can’t imagine exactly what.
Mayor Joe Leone - Italian blood to the last drop - guarded the city’s morals while giving excellent quote. When a councilman came to Leone’s office pleading for a zoning change to please a constituent, another alderman piped up, “It’s going to be a dance hall for bare-breasted girls.”
Leone played Solomon. “Aw,” he said. “When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen both of them.”
Hanser took pornography a bit more seriously. When a citizen complained that a new store was filled with smut, the prosecutor called High Sheriff Dean Betzer and we pulled together in a posse (let that read: two officials and a clutch of nosy reporters}. A half block down the street, Hanser took the sheriff’s cowboy hat. Under the hat, Hanser looked like the Sundance Kid. The sheriff, now bareheaded, looked naked.
When we reached the “dirty book store,” Hanser sauntered in, told the owner he best get himself a lawyer and started picking select issues (evidence) from the shelves lining the sales room.
The rest of the smut seller’s case was hardly worth remembering. The smut dealer got himself a lawyer. The lawyer fetched a couple of associates, the whole Harvard-certified gang sat down around a table, exchanged insults and cut a deal.