The Life of Brian Herron

Brian Herron has battled racism, hatred, and self-doubt. But none of that prepared him for the Minneapolis city council.

In hindsight, Marks says the moment seems prophetic. Given everything that's happened during Herron's five years in office, his supporters shouldn't have considered their duty done when the polls closed. "I never understood this when Sharon was down there [City Council], that it's not enough to get him elected. We needed to stick by him every step of the way, because they were going to try to tear him apart."

The year Herron took office, the murder rate in Minneapolis hit an all-time high, and suddenly the names of the first-termer's neighborhoods were common currency in living rooms from Eden Prairie to Crocus Hill. In August 1994, at the end of the summer when the New York Times declared the city "Murderapolis," MPD gang-squad members invited a select handful of reporters to tour an apartment building at 36th Street East and Clinton Avenue South. The cops wanted the media to see graffiti that they said indicated the Bloods gang was staking a claim to an area bounded by Lake and 40th streets, I-35W and Chicago Avenue.

"Tonight's top story: Frightening evidence a gang war may be about to explode in Minneapolis," KSTP-TV (Channel 5) began its 10 p.m. newscast that night. The next day's Star Tribune echoed the cry.

Herron, who owns a house on the 3100 block of Clinton, called a press conference. He and other community leaders decried the police tour as a sensational misrepresentation of the neighborhood. The graffiti was old, they said, and probably the work of youthful wannabes. Gangs were a real problem, but if police really were worried about a turf war, why were they publicizing one gang's territorial claims?

The police chief at the time, John Laux, later publicly conceded that cops didn't really think any such war was imminent. But Police Federation President Al Berryman blasted Herron for not helping the police. The two sparred via the pages of the Star Tribune for weeks before declaring they'd made peace.

The tension lingered. A year after taking office, in January 1995, Herron told some 100 people at a public meeting that he'd been warned by officers that the police were out to get him. "Be careful who you pick up" in your car, Herron says one cop told him during a visit to his office. "You're going to be set up." Another called him at home with a similar warning.

The officers who allegedly warned Herron never came forward with evidence of such a conspiracy. But Hennepin County court files hold an interesting document, the transcript of a 1995 interview conducted by Ofcr. Tom Hussman with a police informant named Johnny Edwards. Hussman asked Edwards whether a series of people who were not being investigated for any crimes--including Herron--smoked crack. Edwards, whose testimony was later deemed less than credible by several juries, said yes each time. (Herron says he never tried crack after that one time in Houston.) Hussman has since left the MPD and could not be reached for comment about why he asked the question.

It was Herron's support for Reggie Ferguson that sparked the first public blowout between the council member and his detractors on the police force. Herron had known the Ferguson family for years--ever since, as a C.C.P. officer, he was asked to document neighbors' complaints about Reggie, his mother Helen, and his brothers Alonzo, James, and Obuatawan Holt. (Police believed all of the young men had gang affiliations; Reggie was later accused in court of being the leader of the Rolling 30s Bloods and is serving a sentence for attempted murder. At about the same time, Alonzo was convicted of murder in a separate incident. James had already begun serving a life sentence for an earlier murder conviction.)

Back then, Herron says, he'd told the Ferguson kids that if they ever wanted out of "the life," he would be there for them. But Reggie says he distrusted the man he'd seen riding around the neighborhood in a police car. "I thought he was just somebody who had an office who didn't care," says Ferguson, reached at Stillwater Prison last month. That changed when 15-year-old Torrey Milon was gunned down in the neighborhood where both Herron and Ferguson lived, in 1994. "I saw Brian Herron at the scene of the crime and there were tears in his eyes and he said, 'Reggie, when is this going to stop?'"

One Sunday morning not long after that, Ferguson showed up at Herron's house. The two say they quickly found they had much in common. Both had struggled with fatherhood; both were unsure anyone would trust their efforts at redemption. "I looked at him and thought, 'He's been where I've been,'" Ferguson says. "He's been to the gutter and lived in the street with his clothes in a plastic bag. He's not just some guy from some neighborhood."

Ferguson got a job, but in 1995 he was charged with the attempted murder of a man who had been harassing his former girlfriend. Bail was set at $375,000. Ferguson called Herron from jail and asked for help.

In August 1995, Herron wrote a letter to Hennepin County District Court Judge Jack Nordby, saying that he believed Ferguson was working at turning his life around and could safely be freed pending trial. It was one of many pleas received by Nordby, who lowered Ferguson's bail to $25,000.

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