Officer Down

Seven years ago Tony DiIoia was a bright-eyed Minneapolis rookie. Then came the beatings, the lawsuits, and the pink slip.

Shortly afterward, DiIoia left the MPD for the Washington County Sheriff's Department. He'd always hoped to end up back home eventually, he says: He'd picked up part-time gigs on a water-patrol detail during the summer months and considered the department "the cream of the crop" in local law enforcement. He calls the day he got the job "one of the best moments of my life."


Bob Bennett doesn't see a good case walking through the door very often. The Twin Cities' most prominent police-brutality lawyer (he built his reputation with the now-infamous Mike Sauro case, which cost the City of Minneapolis $1 million back in 1994), Bennett gets hundreds of inquiries each year from people who say they've been beaten or otherwise abused by police officers. Most of the time he turns them away.

Robert Gherardi

"These cases are credibility-driven," Bennett explains. "We screen for people without a significant criminal or mental-health background. I had one terribly paranoid schizophrenic come to me awhile back. I was sure that he was taken advantage of and beaten by the cops, but his mental health was so horrible, I couldn't in good conscience take the case. To put it in absolutely simplistic terms, the big driving force in these cases is how good the plaintiff is and how bad the cop is."

When John Buelow showed up at his Minneapolis office last spring, Bennett smelled a winner. The father of five had no record. He had lived in Washington County his whole life and for some three decades had run an excavating business. And then there was his mild demeanor, sure to impress a jury: In voice, Buelow is a dead ringer for Mr. Rogers.

Buelow--a trim 51-year-old, similar in size and stature to DiIoia--also had a hell of a story to tell. According to the civil complaint he eventually filed against DiIoia, Frank, and Washington County, it all began on May 20 of last year, when Buelow's 19-year-old daughter Denise threw what he describes as an "unauthorized" party at his home. (Buelow lives next door to his ex-wife Katie and their kids in rural West Lakeland Township.) Buelow found out the next day, the complaint says, and was dismayed to discover evidence of underage drinking and pot-smoking.

After consulting with Katie, he confiscated Denise's 1994 Geo Metro, barricading it behind a shed on his property. Then he called the sheriff's department. A deputy stopped by, collected a bong Buelow had found, and, according to the complaint, told him that he was "doing the right thing."

Three days later Denise called the sheriff's department demanding that her father be forced to release the car. The deputy who responded to that call was Tony DiIoia--and from this point on, accounts of the incident vary wildly.

According to Buelow's complaint, the deputy was belligerent from the outset. "All attempts at communication," the document reads, "were met with screaming and profanities by DiIoia. Eventually, DiIoia screamed unintelligibly at Buelow and Maced him directly in the face when Buelow indicated he did not understand."

Buelow says he never offered any resistance. "I just stood there and looked at him. He wanted me to swing so he'd have a reason to hit me. I wouldn't do it and he still went wild."

In his report on the incident, DiIoia said he "pled with [Buelow] over and over again to just cooperate... He just looked at me and said, 'I ain't going to jail.'" Finally, he wrote, "I pulled out my Freeze Plus P and told him that I would spray him if he didn't submit to arrest."

DiIoia's report continues: "My verbal commands and chemical agent were not having any effect on John, so I started to strike him with my [baton] on his common peroneal nerve [on the lower leg]. The entire time I was striking him, I was yelling as loud as I could for him to lay down on the ground.

"After about 10 strikes, I looked down and saw his right hand digging into his right front pants pocket. Suddenly, I saw what I believed to be a knife in his right hand, and as he pulled it from his pocket, I immediately responded by hitting him in the back of the head... I knew that if I didn't respond immediately to his use of deadly force, I may be killed myself.

"After one blow to the back of his head, he dropped the knife to the ground and I kicked it away from him. I continued striking him on the legs and arms. The entire time I was yelling for him to get down on the ground.

"After about 30 strikes, John fell to one knee. I was then able to force him to the ground. Once on the ground, I tried to handcuff him, but he continued to fight and was trying to get up. I delivered about five more strikes to his right common peroneal as I yelled for him to get down on the ground and put his hands behind his back. He finally yelled, 'All right, I'll do it!'"

At some point during the clash, according to Buelow's complaint, his 17-year-old daughter Janie ran inside the house and dialed 911, frantically pleading for help. After additional squads arrived on the scene, Buelow was taken to the Washington County Jail and, per DiIoia's recommendation, booked for second-degree assault, auto theft, and obstructing the legal process with force. DiIoia also placed Janie under arrest; he claims that she jumped on his back during the scuffle, though in her statement to investigators she said she had simply tried to separate the men. No charges were filed against her.

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