Stool Pigeon

Sure, he's got an unfortunate knack for running afoul of the law. But that's nothing compared to his talent for getting himself set free.

In the years since he first announced his bid for the governor's office, Freeman has frequently appeared at press conferences touting his tough-on-crime policies, specifically his accomplishments cracking down on gangs. What he hasn't said is that many of those accomplishments came by way of rolling out a taxpayer-financed red carpet for the likes of Johnny Edwards.

By the time Edwards began his career as an informant three years ago, he'd already been arrested or noted as a suspect in at least 30 crimes, not including arrests on numerous driving-related offenses. At least five of the incidents involved weapons; seven were domestic-violence cases.

In December 1990, a friend of Edwards's told police that after they argued "over a girl," Edwards--whom he identified as "a runaway" from the juvenile detention center at Red Wing--shot at him. The friend declined to press charges. A month later, Edwards was one of three people arrested in Minneapolis on suspicion of possessing crack and guns.

In October 1991, a former girlfriend told police Edwards waved a gun at her and threatened to "smoke your ass." In January '92, Edwards and another man were arrested for possession of crack and two unlicensed handguns during a traffic stop. Edwards, police reported, accused them of planting the drugs. A month later, his girlfriend told police he hit her in the head with a glass.

On April 12, 1993, police stopped a car with expired tags and arrested all the occupants, including Edwards, after finding five loaded, unlicensed handguns. Two weeks later, Edwards lost a leg in what police described as a gang-related shooting. Police noted that a friend of Edwards's told them the attack came after Edwards was involved in a drive-by shooting.

Edwards's new disability didn't seem to stem the flow of complaints against him. In December 1993, his wife told police he hit her in the face with a crutch. The following month, Edwards's girlfriend told police he had beaten her and his year-old son. A month after that, the girlfriend told police that Edwards assaulted her again, this time using a pair of vise grips.

Thus far, the record does not show Edwards ever being charged with a serious crime. But in October 1995, a woman told police he and an unidentified juvenile robbed her at gunpoint in a parking lot. About a month later, acting on a tip from an informant, Brooklyn Park police conducted a drug raid on Edwards's apartment. He was jailed and charged with the earlier holdup and with possession of marijuana.

To get out of jail this time, Edwards would have to take extraordinary steps. Unable to make bail, he called the Minneapolis Police Department and said he had information about some high-profile murder and attempted-murder cases. He offered to rat on six men police earlier that year had described as the ringleaders of the Rolling 30s Bloods ("Get Out of Jail Free," 1/22/97 City Pages).

The cases were important; nailing the Bloods had become a top priority for cops, prosecutors, and city officials stung by the "Murderapolis" tag the New York Times had bestowed on the city that June. The gang, they claimed, was Minneapolis's most violent, and its members accounted for a good part of the previous 18 months' record homicide rate.

By the time Edwards came forward, county attorneys had already tried the Bloods' reputed leader, Reggie Ferguson, on attempted-murder charges, but the case had ended in a hung jury. Cases against two other reputed Bloods had been dropped. Police had conducted a lengthy surveillance campaign on the Ferguson home, but failed to observe any criminal activity.

Shortly after Edwards's jailhouse call, all six of the alleged Bloods leaders were arrested. County Attorney Mike Freeman and Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson called a joint press conference to herald the end of the gang's reign. They didn't name the citizen who'd helped bring about the arrests, but the cops portrayed him as a hero: "I think everyone out there would like to see these kind of people get caught and put in jail," one of the investigating officers was quoted as saying. "But there are very few people willing to stick their necks out."

Hennepin County has long offered perks for witnesses--small measures, says Deputy County Attorney Pat Diamond, taken to help the timid open up. "People come to us before trial and say, 'I don't feel safe because of what I know and the people around me,'" he explains. "We get involved in very minimalist ways. Often we move people across town. So maybe we'll pay the cost of the truck and the first month's deposit." Diamond says the county typically spends less than $20,000 a year helping witnesses, though in cases of "extraordinary demand" it can dip into money confiscated during arrests.

"Extraordinary demand" clearly applied with Edwards, who had become a VIP of sorts. "The cases were a big deal," acknowledges Diamond. "We're talking about murder."

Prosecutors said it wasn't safe for Edwards to stay in his apartment, because gang members might come after him there, so they paid rent for relatives who put him up. In 1996, the North Side duplex where Edwards had lived burned down under what police called suspicious circumstances; an arson investigation never yielded conclusive results. After that, the county put Edwards up in downtown Minneapolis's Regency Plaza Hotel, where he stayed while testifying in the three most notorious Bloods cases.

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