Robert "Beefy" Lawson didn't often talk about his work as an Itasca County sheriff's deputy, but one comment will forever remain on the mind of his son, Bob Lawson.
The deputy took a moment during a visit on a summer day in 1981 to caution his son about a guy named Audie Fox, who was living about 4 miles away in the Pengilly area.
"If you ever run into him, you better be careful because he's going to kill somebody someday," Bob Lawson remembers his father saying.
That fall, it was Beefy Lawson himself who was shot and killed by the 27-year-old in an execution-style attack that remains one of the most notorious and shocking crimes on the Iron Range.
"My dad was taken when he was trying to do a good thing," Bob Lawson told the News Tribune this week. "He tried to help Audie, like he did so many others. He was kind of a community leader up here. Not that he was a perfect human being, but his heart was always in the right spot."
Nearly 40 years later, the Bovey man said he is once again reliving the tragedy as Fox faces another opportunity for parole. The Jan. 12 hearing will be his fourth bid to secure release from prison.
"It's been almost four decades now, and in that time most everyone moves on and finds a way to deal with things," he said. "But as soon as it comes up again, it feels like it was just yesterday."
Deputy tried to resolve custody battle
Beefy Lawson, 51, was off-duty on Oct. 29, 1981, when he agreed to go to the Pengilly home at the request of Fox's estranged wife. Pam Fox had requested his help in picking up the couple's two children, who were at the house owned by Audie Fox's parents.
When Lawson entered the home, he found the two young children sitting at the kitchen table with Fox's aunt. Fox then emerged, pointing a .357 pistol at Lawson's head, according to court documents.
The defendant demanded Lawson give him a phone number for Pam Fox, but the deputy said he did not have it on hand. Fox made Lawson lay down on the floor, again demanding the phone number.
When Lawson was unable to produce the number, Fox counted to three and shot the deputy in the head.
A roughly 18-hour standoff ensued, with officers forcibly entering the home at about 4:30 a.m., arresting Fox. The children were uninjured.
At an April 1982 trial in Brainerd, Fox did not dispute that he killed Lawson, but his attorney maintained that he was mentally ill and incapable of understanding his actions. A jury disagreed, finding him guilty of first-degree murder.
Fox has filed several unsuccessful appeals of his conviction and life sentence, along with many civil lawsuits that have been dismissed.
While the killing of a police officer today carries mandatory life imprisonment, state law at the time allowed for periodic parole reviews.
Legacy lives on in Itasca County
Fox, now 66, remains incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Oak Park Heights.
He'll face a parole board that includes five corrections officers tasked with deciding whether to grant his release or extend his incarceration and schedule a future date when he can next seek parole. Fox was previously denied release in 1996, 2006 and 2016.
While the last extension was for five years, Bob Lawson is asking the board to extend it out to the maximum 10 years this time.
"I believe that the family and friends and community have a right to the peace of mind that he'll be kept behind prison walls for the rest of his natural life," he said.
Bob Lawson, who worked in the Itasca County Jail for 25 years, described his father as "truly a fine human being." The Taconite native was an 11-year veteran of the sheriff's office and left behind seven children.
His name lives on through the Beefy Lawson Memorial Fund, which his son said has now given more than $250,000 to youth recreation projects in the area.
"The loyalty to my dad runs deep and well in Itasca County," Bob Lawson said. "I don’t want to present an image bigger than it is, but he affected the community in a deep way, and we'll probably never know the impact Dad would’ve had had he been around all these years."
Bob Lawson is encouraging community members to submit confidential letters to the parole board on Fox's potential release. The deadline is Dec. 29.
Comments can be emailed to email@example.com, faxed to 651-642-0457, or mailed to: Lindsay Gullingsrud, Minnesota Department of Corrections, Life Sentence Review Advocacy, 1450 Energy Park Drive, Suite 200, St. Paul, MN 55108.