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Downfall of Russell Heim, 1947–1952

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Dr. Russell Heim, 1934.

Dr. Russell Heim, 1934.

In 1952 Russell Heim (1886–1960) was a practicing physician and, after 1942, Hennepin County’s elected coroner. The Minneapolis Star called his narcotics prosecution “one of the most sensational trials of a public official…in the history of Minnesota federal courts.”

Hennepin County coroner was a part-time position that involved performing autopsies and supervising the morgue. Even before his arrest in September 1952 Russell Heim’s performance in office had provoked headlines. A Hennepin County grand jury in 1947 blasted him for “careless, wasteful, and indifferent” management. Among other things, he allowed supposedly full-time employees to work other full-time jobs, while other employees got full-time salaries for very little work. Heim called the charges an uninformed smear, and nothing came of them.

But law enforcement was already watching him—not for his official work but in his private medical practice. Federal drug agents had become curious about the unusual number of prescriptions for morphine and other narcotics that Heim issued from his 12 West Lake Street office. A criminal investigation began in May of 1952.

On September 19, 1952, a federal grand jury in Minneapolis indicted Heim on 229 counts of violating federal narcotics distribution laws. Trial came on just one month later. It lasted six days and included nearly 100 witnesses, including Heim.

The crucial witnesses produced by Assistant U.S. Attorney William Essling were several drug addicts, some legitimate patients of Heim’s, and dozens of pharmacists. The drug addicts testified that Heim had been their long-time source. One of them was Heim’s medical office assistant, who testified that Heim paid her partly in cash, partly in drugs. Several of Heim’s patients testified that they had never received narcotics from him, though records showed he had issued many morphine prescriptions in their names. Some twenty-nine pharmacists from fifteen stores scattered around Minneapolis testified that Heim typically both wrote morphine prescriptions and picked them up in person. The former president of the Hennepin County Medical Association told the jury that over the two-year period covered by the indictment Heim had prescribed an unusual amount of the opioid dolophine as well as 1,640 tablets of morphine. A typical physician would have prescribed a bare fraction of that amount in such a period. The prosecution’s theory of the case was simple: Heim ran a business consisting of writing false narcotics prescriptions, then selling the drugs at a hefty markup.

The most remarkable thing about the trial was that though Dr. Heim insisted that he was innocent, he admitted almost all of the facts. In a way, he had to, because he had given an apparently candid interview to federal narcotics agents in June. Trial lawyers tried to get this statement excluded from evidence, but failed. Heim admitted writing all 229 of the narcotics prescriptions charged against him, but asserted that they were all legitimate, and that he was the best judge of the pain medication his patients needed. He did not seem to have an explanation for why he, rather than his patients, retrieved the drugs from the pharmacies.

Narcotics agents had been watching Heim for five years. They had visited him in his office and warned him about the number of known addicts hanging around. And yet, his narcotics license had been renewed several times. At trial Heim’s lawyers argued that this amounted to governmental consent: because Heim acted openly, they maintained, he had no intent to commit a crime. (But one of the narcotics agents testified that Heim told him, “I’ve been expecting you. I have been writing prescriptions in the names of patients and I suppose that’s wrong.”)

The jury agreed and convicted Heim on all 229 counts. Judge Gunnar Nordbye also agreed, dismissed all defense arguments, and sentenced Heim to four years in prison. “I can honestly say I never smuggled or trafficked in any illegal narcotics,” Heim said after sentence.

Prison did not satisfy the federal government. The next year it seized his car. After Heim came out of prison in April of 1954, the government continued its pursuit, seeking payment of $18,650 income taxes it said was unpaid from his narcotics income. When Heim failed to pay it all, the IRS pursued his now ex-wife and held her liable for nearly $3,000. Russell Heim died, living alone in a nursing home, on August 26, 1960.

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“$18,650 in U.S. Tax Liens Filed Against Heim.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, May 26, 1954.

Baily, Charles. “U.S. Seeks Back Taxes on Heim Narcotics Sales.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, November 3, 1954.

“Dr. Heim Elected Coroner.” Minneapolis Star Journal, November 4, 1942.

“Druggist Tells of Trap to Get Heim Evidence.” Minneapolis Star, October 23, 1952.

Fitzmaurice, Larry. “3 Deny Drug Use as Heim Case Opens.” Minneapolis Star, October 22, 1952.

——— . “Heim Gets 4-Year Prison Sentence.” Minneapolis Star, November 10, 1952.

——— . “Heim Plans Appeal, Will Not Resign.” Minneapolis Star, October 30, 1952.

——— . “Heim’s Confession Admitted As Evidence.” Minneapolis Star, October 24, 1952.

——— . “Jurors Start Deliberations on Heim’s Fate.” Minneapolis Star, October 29, 1952.

——— . “Mrs. Heim on Stand; Trial Nears Close.” Minneapolis Star, October 28, 1952.

“Grand Jury Flays Coroner Heim.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, September 6, 1947.

“Heim Accuses Grand Jury of ‘Smear’ Move.” Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, September 7, 1947
“Heim Charged With 229 Drug Violations.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, September 20, 1952.

“Heim May Take Stand, Testify in Narcotics Trial.” Minneapolis Star, October 25, 1952.

“Heim to be Freed After Third of Dope Sentence.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, March 11, 1954.

Minnesota certificate of death #1960-025531.

Muriel Heim v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 251 F.2d 44 (8th Cir. 1958.)

“Russell Heim, Ex-Coroner, Dies in City.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, August 26, 1960.

“U.S. Takes Over Former Coroner’s Car.”Minneapolis Morning Tribune, April 24, 1953.

Related Images

Dr. Russell Heim, 1934.
Dr. Russell Heim, 1934.
Poster calling for the election of Dr. Russell Heim as Hennepin County Coroner, 1934.
Poster calling for the election of Dr. Russell Heim as Hennepin County Coroner, 1934.
Dr. Russell Heim with a baby left at his office (12 West Lake St., Minneapolis), 1947. Photograph by Paul Siegel. Published in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, October 31, 1941.
Dr. Russell Heim with a baby left at his office (12 West Lake St., Minneapolis), 1947. Photograph by Paul Siegel. Published in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, October 31, 1941.

Turning Point

In June of 1952 Heim consents to an interview with federal narcotics agents, and tells the truth.



Russell Rulo Heim, a graduate of the University of Illinois medical school, serves as a surgeon with US forces in France during World War I.


Heim begins practicing medicine in Minneapolis.


Heim is elected Hennepin County Coroner.


In September a Hennepin County grand jury severely criticizes the management of Heim’s office, but no charges are brought, and Heim is re-elected in 1948 and 1950.

May 1952

Narcotics agents open a criminal investigation into Heim’s prescriptions and sales of narcotics.

September 1952

A federal grand jury in St. Paul indicts Heim on 229 counts of narcotics violations.

October 29, 1952

Heim is convicted on all counts.

November 10, 1952

Judge Gunnar Nordbye sentences Heim to four years in federal prison. He is later removed from office as coroner and loses his medical license.

April 1954

Heim is released from prison after serving one-third of his term.

May 1954

The IRS pursues Heim for $18,650 unpaid income taxes.

January 1958

The eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms a judgment against Heim’s ex-wife, Muriel Heim, for unpaid income taxes in the amount of $2.977.44 for the year 1951.