Evil Among Us
by Ken Driggs
[p.38] Robert Kleasen was the only child of Elmer and Lydia Kleasen.
Elmer M. Kleasen was born on July 1, 1891, in Buffalo. His parents were Marine and Adrianna Kleasen. (One of the engraved wedding rings taken from Kleasen’s trailer in mid-November was inscribed “M. K. to A. K. June 15, 1887.”) Adrianna was born in Germany; Marine was born in the United States. Until his marriage, Elmer lived with his parents at 20 Milnor and later at 186 Oxford Avenue in Buffalo. He was a twenty-two-year-old store clerk when he married.
Lydia Steck was born in Buffalo a few months after her future husband on October 18, 1891. She was twenty-one when she married Elmer. Her parents were George and Louise Velter Steck. Her father was a realtor. Lydia’s occupation is listed on the marriage certificate as milliner.
The couple married on September 25, 1913. The wedding was solemnized by Rev. Phillip Haendiges at the Riverside German Methodist Episcopal church. This 1872 church was located at 186 Mortimer and was a landmark in the Buffalo German community until it was torn down in 1924 for a commercial development.
By 1919 the Kleasens were living in a three-story wooden house at 39 Victoria Avenue near the center of Buffalo. It was in a German neighborhood once called Kaisertown. In 1925 George Steck sold the house to his daughter Lydia—Elmer is not listed on the transaction—for $3,500.
For many years Elmer worked as a clerk at a paint, oil, and glass store, F.T. Coppins Company, located at 681 Main Street in the center of the old Buffalo commercial district. He worked there at least until 1931, then lost his job in the Depression. By 1939 he found work as a [p.39] gardener. Records from 1948 list him as a laborer with the Department of Public Works. By 1952 he had returned to retail work as a clerk in a Buffalo hardware store, Weed and Company.
The Kleasens had no children for the first nineteen years of the marriage, then on September 20, 1932, their only child, Robert Elmer, was born at Deaconess Hospital in Buffalo. His father was forty-two, his mother forty-one. He was born in an uneventful, full-term, caesarean delivery.
Little information is available about Kleasen’s childhood. There are indications that both he and his mother were abused by his father, whose behavior became increasingly erratic. In September 1936 Kleasen began public education at Public School 54 in Buffalo which he attended through the eighth grade. He began high school in 1944. In June 1949 he graduated from Emerson Vocational High School where he had studied cabinet making.
Reportedly both of Kleasen’s parents were gun enthusiasts, collectors, and hunters. From whatever source, their son had fallen in love with firearms by the time he was a teenager. One mental health expert who examined him recalled hearing stories about how as a youth Kleasen used to go to the Victoria Avenue home attic with his BB gun and plunk away at neighborhood kids up and down the street.
The first indication of Kleasen’s mental problems in the public record occurred in December 1950 when he was eighteen. On Christmas Eve Day, a Sunday, Kleasen was out hunting rabbits with a shotgun near Clarence, New York. He was alone. He later described his rabbit hunting approach as jumping into the brush to flush the animals out, then shooting them. When he jumped into one bush, Kleasen drove a rusted nail through his boot and into his foot. He claimed he then got caught in a blizzard and was lost outdoors for three days, during which time gangrene developed. It is apparent Kleasen was injured somehow, but there is no support for his story of exposure and gangrene.
His mother Lydia, then fifty-nine, took him to the Meyer Hospital Emergency Room in Buffalo. When he was not treated immediately, Kleasen went berserk. He started screaming and threatened a clerk. His mother tried to calm him and he struck her.
[p.40] The youth then rushed out into the parking lot, smashed out the window of his mother’s car, and grabbed his shotgun. A watchman tried without success to stop him.
Kleasen stormed back into the hospital brandishing the shotgun. Terrified patients and staff scattered before him. He cornered a twenty-four-year-old nurse and a doctor in an office and fired the shotgun five times into the walls over their heads. Finally he was wrestled to the floor by an intern, an ambulance driver, and an orderly who held him until the police arrived.
Kleasen would have been a minor at the time, but was charged with first-degree felony assault. He could have been sentenced as an adult had prosecutors sought such a conviction. The Buffalo police secured a search warrant for his home. There they seized thirteen rifles, including one with a telescopic sight, a dozen swords and machetes, several Japanese sabers, and a large quantity of ammunition. This would be the first of several raids on Kleasen’s residences over the years to seize large caches of weapons.
Initially he was held in the psychiatric ward of the Meyer Memorial Hospital. The courts immediately saw him as a severely ill young man and committed him to the Gowanda State Hospital on January 4, 1951. Prosecutors let the matter drop with his involuntary hospitalization, and Kleasen was not prosecuted further. He was held in Gowanda for treatment over the next eight and a half months. On September 15 he was released to after-care lasting another year. He was not completely discharged until August 28, 1952.
According to Gowanda records, Kleasen was diagnosed as psychotic with a psychopathic personality. Hospital staff concentrated on treating his psychosis by keeping him in a calm, controlled environment and giving him insulin and metrosol, an early psychiatric medication. (This was before Thorazine revolutionized psychiatric medications.) They had enough success to lead to his release. They felt, however, that because of Kleasen’s long-standing mental disease, prognosis for full recovery was poor.
Kleasen would later deny that he was prosecuted in the matter and would only say he was in the mental hospital to be “checked out,” ap-[p.41]parently as part of his fantasy career in the CIA. It may not be significant, but Kleasen later would claim 1952 was the year he began working for the CIA. (Not surprisingly, the CIA denies that Kleasen has ever had any association with it.) He claimed also that beginning in 1950 he was a test pilot for Bell Aircraft in the United States and Korea, as well as flew U2s for the military. He claimed he had his pilot’s license by age fifteen, in 1947 or 1948.
In 1951 a cousin, John Townstead Williamson, died. Later in life Kleasen would periodically adopt Williamson’s identity as his own.