Officer Wildberger Acquited
On July 2, 1919, St. Louis Police Officer Fred Wildberger of the Deer Street Station was patrolling Easton Avenue, where he encountered a group of young men. A few facts were never in dispute. Wildberger approached the men in an area of known gang activity. It was never established that the men were involved in a gang.
One of the men, Peter Birmingham, a World War I veteran and chauffeur, took exception to Wildberger approaching him. Birmingham hit Wildberger several times and then fled. Wildberger gave chase.
Depending on whose version you believed, Wildberger was firing a warning shot, when a bystander grabbed his arm and he accidentally shot Birmingham. Birmingham’s family believed Wildberger killed their son in anger over being struck. However he was shot, Peter Birmingham died from the gun shot wound.
Initially, a coroner’s jury ruled the shooting justified. However, the St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charged Wildberger with murder after the Birmingham family’s private detective convinced them Wildberger shot Birmingham in cold blood.
Birmingham was suspended in March 1920 but the Police Board paid for his legal defense. The Board continued to maintain Wildberger acted in performance of his duty. They believed Wildberger’s gun had been jerked down by John Groark. Wildberger had also been attacked by the gang in the area several times. Before he was suspended Wildberger was transferred to Mounted Patrol to protect him from reprisals.
When the case came up before Judge Hall on Friday, January 7, 1921, two witnesses backed up Wildberger’s version. Groark and two other witnesses disputed Wildberger’s account. In the end, it took less than three hours for the jury to acquit Wildberger of Birmingham’s murder.
Wildberger was congratulated by Chief O’Brien, who immediately reinstated Birmingham to the St. Louis Police Department. Birmingham received his back pay of $125 a month for a total repayment of $1,250.00. Birmingham had worked as a utility man at the Laclede Station police garage. Chief O’Brien sent him back to work at the Deer Street Station.
Wildberger continued to serve until his retirement in 1939. After retiring from the St. Louis Police Department, he moved to Union, Missouri, where he lived until his death on July 9, 1970. Wildberger was 89 years old.
Sources: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 8, 1921, p. 3 and July 12, 1970, p. 30