By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Bob Fletcher is a man under siege, but you wouldn't know it by looking at him.
Fletcher proceeds through the Ramsey County Sheriff Department's third-floor offices with the detached ease of a man strolling through his own living room. With his Roman nose and deep-set eyes, he bears a passing resemblance to Fred Gwynne, of Munsters fame.
"This is it," he says, motioning to the fluorescent-illuminated surroundings with a quick sweep of his right hand. Given his reputation, you expect to see a smoke-stained bulletin board scrawled with esoteric flowcharts detailing the internal structures of leftist groups. But no, just a dozen or so offices branching off a tennis court-sized room in which his employees cradle antiquated phone receivers. "This is where it all happens."
During his 15 years manning this post, "it" has entailed many projects. The Metro Gang Strike Force, one of Fletcher's first and most cherished endeavors, is currently the subject of an FBI probe. After a state audit revealed glaring deficiencies in keeping track of seized evidence—guns, dope, cash, and especially cars—the Department of Public Safety announced an investigation. Hearing this, Fletcher's men made haste to the Strike Force's New Brighton headquarters and shredded documents. Fletcher maintains they were just clearing out their desks. Others aren't so sure.
This isn't the first time Fletcher has found himself embroiled in controversy. Those who've crossed his path use words like "ruthless," "combative," and "pugnacious" to describe his personality. When the County Board of Commissioners cut his budget in 1999, Fletcher employed an unusually strong negotiating tactic: He sued the board.
Fletcher was in the national spotlight during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. The weekend before, Fletcher deployed armed agents to raid several houses known to be occupied by protesters, arresting the residents on charges of "conspiracy to riot." Fletcher pointed to three buckets of urine as evidence that anarchists were indeed plotting destruction in St. Paul, but the containers were later revealed to hold discolored water.Yet Fletcher remains unfazed, even defiant.
"Frankly, except for their political party associations, he kind of reminds me of Richard Nixon," says David Gross, a former Minneapolis city prosecutor who first encountered Fletcher in the mid-'90s. "This latest Gang Strike Force stuff kind of reminds you of Nixon's claim of executive privilege. 'It is because I say it is.'"
FLETCHER COULDN'T BRING HIM DOWN.
Every sinew straining under his singlet, the 17-year-old Fletcher heaved his 180 pounds at the opponent across the wrestling mat, to no avail. More than once, his opponent ducked, leveraged Fletcher's own weight against him, and scored a takedown.
That was how Fletcher lost at the 1972 regionals, just one step removed from the state wrestling tournament.
He never got pinned that day, as Fletcher is keen on noting—in fact, he never got pinned during his entire high school wrestling career. His handful of losses all came by points.
"I was a hair on the conservative side," Fletcher says ruefully. "As I look back, I think I could've been a more successful wrestler if I was willing to take some risks."
Upon graduating, Fletcher enrolled at Hamline University, where he studied political science and played linebacker on the football team. Halfway through his senior year, while standing in line at a Burger King in St. Paul, Fletcher noticed a flyer taped to the wall.
The St. Paul Police Department was looking for new recruits.
A career in law enforcement had immense appeal to the ex-athlete: He had both the physical tools and a strong desire to immerse himself in the city's grit.
"I loved working the streets at midnight," he says. "You see a lot of different things. You're out there on your own, so it's a challenging requirement."
After four years of hustling the patrol beat, arresting drug dealers and thieves, Fletcher was ready to start dealing with the disease instead of the symptoms. In 1982, he decided to run for City Council.
It was an audacious move for a 26-year-old who was virtually unknown within St. Paul political circles. If he won, he'd be a decade younger than any other councilmember.
But as unlikely as his campaign may have seemed, it was spectacularly well-timed. To deal with a recession-induced budget shortfall, Mayor George Latimer had cut 100 city cops and firefighters. Fletcher, already plugged into the law enforcement community, courted the public safety vote by promising to oppose any additional cuts.
The campaign pitted Fletcher against incumbent George McMahon. While McMahon was hashing out financial minutiae in City Hall, Fletcher made the rounds, establishing himself as a "neighborhood guy," as he puts it.
It was enough to give him a narrow win.
The freshman councilmember wasted no time making his presence known. Every issue, even those as perfunctory as the renewal processes for cable television franchises, had Fletcher coming down hard on one side or the other. And if you didn't see an issue his way, Fletcher would linger on his point, even after meetings were over.