By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Investigators discovered that the Strike Force couldn't account for 14 seized vehicles and $18,126 in cash. The loose loot, troubling though it was, was indicative of a more systemic problem. The Strike Force, it was learned, had scant in-house record-keeping in place, no way to ensure that highly valuable evidence routinely seized in the field—guns, drugs, cash, jewelry, cars—were properly disposed of.
Calling the findings "serious and disturbing," Legislative Auditor James Nobles announced that a more sweeping probe into the Strike Force would soon be underway.
Hearing this, members of the Strike Force high-tailed it to their office in New Brighton. There, they allegedly shredded documents, tampered with computer files, and were busy boxing up their belongings when West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver, head of the Strike Force advisory board, showed up and confronted the cops. Shaver, in turn, called Omodt, who arrived shortly thereafter to find the aftermath of what appeared to be a hastily carried out cover-up operation.
Fletcher was once again in the headlines. He attributed the unaccounted-for cars and cash to "sloppy bookkeeping," and maintained that the officers were merely "clearing out their desks."
Though he had no direct authority over its operation, Fletcher had always shown a protective interest in the task force. This was, after all, the defining issue that had fueled his first campaign back in 1994, and whose creation was among his top priorities after assuming the post. Former deputies to this day describe the Metro Gang Strike Force as "Fletcher's baby."
"There's no dispute that I spent a lot of my career addressing gang violence and how to fight it," says Fletcher. "It was obvious to me that we needed to break the cycle of how kids get into gangs."
The Strike Force's genesis came about in late 1996, when Fletcher dispatched his inner circle to the state House to lobby hard for the creation of a force dedicated solely to the perceived scourge of gangs sweeping the state.
When it came time to choose a commander for the newly created Minnesota Gang Strike Force in 1997, Fletcher kept it in the family, appointing trusted confidant Ron Ryan to the post. A close friend to Fletcher since their days together on the St. Paul police force, Ryan would go on to preside over the Strike Force until his retirement last December.
During the years that followed its inception, there were times when the Strike Force faced oblivion. In 2003, the state Legislature slashed its budget from $1.5 million a year to $350,000. The Strike Force was able to stave off extinction, however, by relying on funds seized through its operations.
Despite the budget cuts, members had enough money on-hand to schedule expensive trips to far-flung destinations. The first time the Strike Force induced any kind of public ire was in April, when the Star Tribune ran a story about a $17,000 trip to Hawaii that six members of the Strike Force took under the auspices of attending an Asian gang conference.
Three months later came the Legislative Auditor's special report—the latest, and most likely last, chapter of the Strike Force's contentious history. Though investigators haven't found instances of explicit criminality, those close to the investigation describe a setup that all but invited corruption.
"There really wasn't a command structure that ensured that people were bringing back only material from a drug bust that had evidentiary value," says Nobles. "Another vulnerability and risk is that you're funding this force, in part, on what you can seize, in terms of guns, drugs, cash, cars, etc. They can convert this into money that they can deposit into their own account."
Adding to the temptation is the officers' natural disdain for the targets of their seizures, as Ryan himself candidly admitted during a tape-recorded interview on April 21, a month before the audit was announced.
"Some mope, he's a dope dealer, he's never had a job and he's got this whole array of stuff that's really neat, that's better than the stuff the copper's got in his house. And they have this thing that they don't deserve it, so we're going to take it. We're going to forfeit it, you know. That's just the mentality of the coppers. So you almost have to tell 'em, 'Quit taking stuff.'"
Three weeks after their initial May 20 report, state auditors discovered that the Strike Force had "sold" 29 vehicles to Brooklyn Center-based car dealer Cars with Heart, without billing the dealership a single penny. Cars with Heart's owner, Nick Brackey, personally knew Ramsey County Deputy John McManus—the officer in charge of seized vehicles—through their sons, who played sports together, according to investigators. The deal involved no money, and was sealed with nothing more than a smile and a handshake.
"There was no documentation to support this arrangement, which is a big red flag," says David Poliseno, manager of the Strike Force audit. "We expect to see some kind of paperwork, documentation, showing which vehicles went where, for how much, who authorized it. None of that existed."
The FBI is now investigating the Metro Gang Strike Force to determine if there was any criminal wrongdoing regarding the paper-shredding.