Welcome to Pine County

Some people think crack and furniture-stripping fumes made Chuck Strobel crazy. But it was the rural peace and quiet that drove him over the edge.

On February 20, 1996, the Pine County sheriff's office received a call from a man who identified himself as Chuck Strobel. He said that there were intruders on his property. "Hurry," he implored the desk officer. "They're in the house right now!"

His plea inspired no commensurate sense of urgency at the sheriff's office. Strobel had reported burglaries in progress on many other occasions, and they'd all turned out to be false alarms. Deputies had once responded to a claim that Martians had landed in his yard and were peeking in the window. The only call from the Strobel residence that turned out to have a factual basis had come earlier that year, when Strobel himself had been arrested for assault on a complaint by his girlfriend.

A former Minneapolis resident, Strobel had been living in an old house on 20 acres in a remote area south of Hinckley for the past four years. He was an antique dealer who specialized in restoring furniture. Although he'd taken great pains to isolate himself, he seemed to be spooked by being alone. He informed the officers who responded to one of his early calls that he'd set "man-traps" consisting of spring-loaded shotguns around his property, and that he was prepared to shoot anyone who tried to enter his house forcibly. Nevertheless, deputies Jared Rosati and Steven Ovick were dispatched to check out the latest invasion of Strobel's privacy.

Craig Bares

Strobel, agitated and babbling, met them in the yard. He said that four Hell's Angels had broken into his house. Since he'd earlier claimed that these same bikers had obtained copies of his keys and were making themselves at home in his absence, the deputies were skeptical. They asked why the intruders hadn't just opened the door and walked in. Strobel couldn't answer that question, but he was sure they were robbing him blind at that very moment. He explained that they'd tunneled into the basement, then had managed to sneak up to the second floor past him and his dog before he heard them stomping around up there.

Deputy Rosati noticed a handgun tucked into Strobel's belt. "We'll go in and check it out," he said, "but give me that pistol first." Strobel handed over the weapon, then led the officers on a tour of the premises. There was nobody inside, nor was there any sign of forced entry. The last room they approached was Strobel's bedroom.

"He told our officers to stay the hell out of there," says Lt. Robert Johnson, an investigator with the Pine County Sheriff's Department until his recent retirement. "That kind of piqued their interest, but they really had no right to go in if he didn't want them to."

The officers terminated what was obviously a fruitless search for intruders. "The next time you call us, don't be carrying any weapons when we arrive," said Rosati. "Understand?"

Murder in Minneapolis may make the front page of the New York Times, but rural Minnesota is where the crime rate has really climbed in recent years. Between 1990 and 1995--the last year for which figures are available--total "Part I" (violent) crimes reported by rural sheriff's departments increased 12 percent, while Minneapolis recorded a tiny decrease. Pine County, 80 miles north of the Twin Cities, has seen more than its share of criminal activity. Too far away to function as a bedroom community and too desolate for tourism, Pine County seems to strike some metro thugs as the ideal location to avoid scrutiny.

"We're getting a different type up here now," says Johnson. He's referring to city-bred criminals who often combine a high level of sophistication about their line of endeavor with some naive expectations concerning life in rural Minnesota.

Maybe it's the "portal zones" that fool them. Dense forest borders the gravel roads of rural Pine County, but it's just that quarter mile of illusion the loggers leave after they haul the woods away to make paper. Nevertheless, driving through a gauntlet of thick forest miles from the nearest town seems to foster fantasies of total isolation among criminally inclined ex-urbanites.

Some adopt a reclusive lifestyle that has its own way of drawing the neighbors' attention. Others act as if they are on another planet when in reality their lifestyle makes them far more visible than they would ever be in a city. Either way they are armed and dangerous.

In mid-October, an outdoor marijuana-growing operation was discovered in rural Pine County. "I can't give you the suspect's name because we haven't picked him up yet," says Deputy Thomas Pitzen. "I can tell you he's a biker-gang member, and a white supremacist. He didn't have any of the kind of monitoring equipment we often run into up here, but he was certainly well armed. We discovered a shooting range and lots of expended shells on the property."

According to Pitzen, several methamphetamine factories have been busted in Pine County in the past few years, and recently two North Minneapolis-based burglars were arrested there. "They were responsible for at least 70 burglaries up here, and as far south as Owatonna," he says.

On October 24, Pitzen was part of an eight-man SWAT team that responded to a report of a disturbance in Sturgeon Lake. A woman named Marlys Koza had called the sheriff to say that her boyfriend, Greg Padden, was fighting with a man named Randy Fett in the mobile home Padden and Koza shared. Moments later a second call came, this one from Fett's son, who said his father had been shot.

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