Meet Bob Fletcher: Ramsey County's most controversial cop

Ramsey County Sheriff fends off charges of cronyism

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.

"Bob's Bob," says Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett, who sounds exhausted just remembering the suit a decade later. "He'll get there any way it takes to get there."

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.

"Bob is a cop all the way to the core," says Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation. "His main concern has always been public safety."

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.

"He would go after things and not give up," says Jim Scheibel, who was a rookie councilmember that same year. "Bob just sometimes wouldn't let things go while on the council. He and I usually got along, but sometimes after he made his point, he just wouldn't let it go."

Seven years later, the two men found themselves squaring off on a larger public stage. Scheibel, a Democrat, and Fletcher, an Independent, ran against each other for mayor of St. Paul in 1989. The differences couldn't have been starker: Fletcher had prowled the streets as a hardened cop; the bookish Scheibel had canvassed the streets as community organizer. Fletcher perceived crime and corruption to be the biggest threats the city; Scheibel was most concerned with homelessness and hunger. Fletcher played football for Hamline; Scheibel would go on to teach there.

Because of his party affiliation, Scheibel was closely associated with Mayor Latimer, whose popularity was on the wane. Fletcher hammered on the connection. During debates, the former police officer fashioned himself as a change agent, an independent straight-shooter with no allegiance to the entrenched establishment.

The strategy didn't quite work. On November 8, 1989, the citizens of St. Paul took to the polls and elected Scheibel by a margin of 12 percent, 56 to 44. Fletcher returned to the St. Paul Police Department disappointed, but undeterred. Now a lieutenant in the Juvenile Unit, he focused on gang prevention.

Three years in, Fletcher felt he was ready for a cross-departmental promotion—one that would require the voters' approval.

Fletcher's campaign for Ramsey County Sheriff in 1993 was, like his stab at the City Council, impeccably timed. For the first time in 60 years, the last two candidates standing were department outsiders. Fletcher had been a fixture of St. Paul. His gruff rival, Tony Bennett, was a U.S. Marshall and former state representative. It was anybody's race.

The public mood favored a law-and-order type with local, on-the-streets credentials. Violent crime in the metro was rising. In 1987, there were 12 murders in St. Paul. By 1992, that figure had jumped to 33. Across the river, the term "Murderapolis" had just been coined. Gangs, it seemed, were everywhere.

With his firsthand anecdotes about arresting drug dealers and working hand-in-hand with communities on gang prevention, Fletcher had a built-in advantage, and he wasn't above hyping the threat. "This is just a blip on the radar screen," he'd say in both debates and interviews. "We're about to hit a gigantic wave of crime."

Recognizing the political realities of Ramsey County, both Fletcher and Bennett ran as Democrats. But for Bennett, it was a harder sell: This was a guy who'd been an Independent-Republican as a state representative, and whom George H.W. Bush had tapped for the U.S. Marshall post.

At times, the campaign got nasty. Bennett remembers walking outside his house one morning and finding his water pipe bent. He couldn't help but wonder whether a Fletcher supporter had a hand in it.

"Someone had to have kicked it," says Bennett, now a Ramsey County commissioner. "I don't know who did it, but it's strange that the only damage to my house in 25 years came during that campaign."

Fletcher's biggest tactical advantage came from the rapport he established with the rank-and-file. During the months preceding the election, he gathered Ramsey County deputies in groups of five or six at various coffee shops and delis across town and laid out his vision for the department. He told them he wanted to "professionalize" it by adding more patrol units. At the time, the department centered mostly on jail operations; he wanted his men to take a more proactive approach to fighting crime.

The talks resonated with his prospective deputies, most of whom preferred in-the-field action to the dreary monotony of administrative chores. Also, his ambition and enthusiasm struck many as a sure indicator of competence. Their present boss, Sheriff Charles Zacharias, was much more laid back; that contrast alone was appealing.

"Fletcher was more of a go-getter than Zacharias," says retired deputy Mike Tatsak. "He had it in his mind to implement a lot of things, like hiring more Hmongs on board. And he was bigger on the cross-the-T's, dot-the-I's type of stuff."

In the last months of the campaign, about 70 Ramsey County deputies took up the cause, going door-to-door, handing out literature, and getting the word out for Fletcher.

On November 8, 1994, Fletcher was elected sheriff, capturing 58 percent of the vote. With a mandate from the electorate, Fletcher entered the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department with the added bonus of having the majority of subordinates onboard with his ambitious agenda from Day One.

But that nearly unanimous support wouldn't last long.

   

AT FIRST DEPUTY Mike Burke didn't know what to make of Fletcher.

A decorated 15-year veteran in the sheriff's department, Burke understood and accepted the political realities that came with the job. When a new sheriff came in, it was common to appoint trusted intimates—acquaintances made in other departments, or while coming up the ranks—to the inner circle.

But with Fletcher, it was beyond anything Burke had seen before.

"Other sheriffs didn't bring it down to the deputy ranks," says Burke. "Fletcher did. Unless you were a part of his political machine, you got nowhere. The only way you could move up was by selling your soul."

Early in his first term, Fletcher began creating new units that, as promised, introduced more in-the-field positions. He didn't create these jobs out of thin air; he reshuffled personnel from the Detention Division to his newly formed units. It was in line with Fletcher's vow to shift the department's emphasis from jailing to arresting. This included the creation of an Apprehension Unit, a team of a half-dozen deputies sent out to investigate and arrest low- to mid-level criminals. Among others was a newly constructed Fugitive Task Force, which focused on at-large perps, and a Special Investigations Unit, which pursued the kind of high-level criminals you see on The Wire.

The common thread that ran through the newly created positions was that they were highly desirable. They carried with them a certain level of excitement and prestige. And with so many of these jobs suddenly up for grabs, some veterans started to notice a pattern: Seniority played little role in the selections. Fletcher was effectively handpicking the appointees. Political fealty to Fletcher appeared to be the number-one criterion.

"The way he wanted to use personnel made it clear how power-hungry he was," says a retired deputy who asked that his name be withheld. "He wanted total control. People who believed they would be in positions of authority due to seniority were replaced by his supporters."

Further hurting morale was the suspicion that some in the ranks were moles looking for reward by reporting back to the boss. Topics discussed in the locker room came up in staff meetings. The suspicions were so widespread, there was a nickname for suspected snitches. "We called them 'internal informants,'" the retired deputy says.

In 2001, Lieutenant John Moore decided to challenge his boss in the next election for sheriff. A 20-year veteran of the department, Moore supervised the eight-man Patrol Division. With his entrance into the campaign, the divide in the department grew more evident. Sides were chosen, lines drawn.

Burke, for his part, threw his support behind Moore's campaign, of which he made no secret. As he would soon learn, supporting his boss's opponent came with a price.

One day in an elevator, when a Fletcher supporter asked Burke if he was supporting Moore, Burke was honest.

"Yes, that's right," he recalls saying. He then added jokingly, "I guess this isn't a real good move for my political career."

"No," answered the supporter. "It isn't."

Burke received a letter one week later informing him that he was being transferred. His days with the Apprehension Unit, working the street and arresting criminals, were over. He'd been reassigned to the Transportation Unit, a position he bitterly describes as "a glorified cab driver."

In July 2001, Moore was summoned by Fletcher. The sheriff told him that he was transferring him to the Apprehension Unit, a lowly destination for a lieutenant. No officer ranked as high as lieutenant had ever served there. Moore remembered he had informed his colleague Dennis Flaherty, a Fletcher supporter, of his intent to run for sheriff just 10 days earlier. Fletcher's parting words confirmed his worst suspicions.

"By the way," he said. "I spoke to Flaherty."

This exchange would come out in a lawsuit Moore filed in 2006. Joining the suit was Sergeant Joyce Shockency, who had campaigned extensively for Moore and found herself similarly transferred. The case never went to trial. The circumstances and evidence were strong enough in the plaintiffs' favor to compel attorneys for Ramsey County and Fletcher to settle. The settlement cost Ramsey County taxpayers $750,000.

   

MARK NAYLON AND DEPUTY Timothy Rehak entered room 503 in the Kelly Inn in downtown St. Paul and began searching. They checked the closets, peered under the beds. They had been tipped off that a drug dealer named "Vinnie" had been arrested in Wisconsin that night and had left his smack and cash somewhere in this room. They opened the top drawer of a small dresser nestled between two queen-sized beds and found a small black duffel bag. They tossed the bag onto a bed, unzipped it, and peered inside.

No drugs, but wads of unmarked bills. If they took the time to count it, they'd know they were looking at $13,500.

Naylon casually handed a stack of bills to Rehak, who pocketed it.

Little did they know, they were under FBI surveillance.

Naylon had been the subject of a federal investigation for nearly a year. Of particular interest was Naylon's association with the Hell's Outcasts, an East Metro-based motorcycle gang with a history of drug smuggling. For months, local, state, and federal agencies had been flummoxed in their efforts to nab ranking members of the gang. Targets always seemed to slip through their fingers at the last second. Officers began to suspect that Naylon—who was prone to boasting about his close relationships with known high-end criminals—was thwarting their efforts.

On a chilly early-November night in 2004, the FBI had set up a sting operation in the Kelly Inn, what's known in bureau parlance as an "integrity test."

Naylon had failed miserably.

The bust came as no surprise to those who knew him in the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department.

"When Naylon came on board," says a former officer, "the question on everyone's minds was: 'What's he doing here?'"

A former lobbyist for the horseracing industry, Naylon had a conceal-and-carry permit and his own squad car, despite having never attended one minute of Police Academy. An unlicensed civilian, he incited his co-workers' ire and derision by sending them on the law enforcement equivalent of wild goose chases. He'd call from a bar and offer a lead, telling them a highly sought-after suspect was drinking at the end of the bar or shooting pool.

"We'd race over there, and the guy we were looking for was never there," says a former deputy. "'Oh, he left five minutes ago,' he'd say. He always had an excuse."

He also had a connection.

Naylon met Fletcher through a mutual friend within the St. Paul Police Department. Their first encounter came at a 1993 fundraiser while Naylon was mounting a long-shot run for mayor. Fletcher took an immediate liking to the amiable smooth-talker. Although Fletcher describes their friendship between 1993 and 1998 as "sparse," at some point after Fletcher hired Naylon in 1998, they grew tight. In 2004, Fletcher asked Naylon to be the best man at his wedding.

"He handled all of the media calls," Fletcher says of Naylon's job duties. "And I asked him to use any sources that he had on the street to provide our deputies with information. If you knew Mark Naylon, you would know that he has so many friends and associates in all parts of the community."

Eight days after Naylon's and Rehak's March 4, 2008, indictment, Fletcher announced the duo would be put on paid leave and would be fired if convicted. In a released statement, he urged the public to "resist the temptation to try this case in the media."

During the trial in the summer of 2008, Naylon's defense argued that he and Rehak had taken the money as part of an elaborate "practical joke" that they were playing on their immediate supervisor.

The jury didn't buy it. On August 27, 2008, Naylon and his partner were convicted of theft and conspiracy, for which they were sentenced to 30 months in jail. The convictions and accompanying headlines beset Fletcher with charges of cronyism.

But the scrutiny was short-lived. In just five short days, the Republican National Convention was coming to town. As the city geared up, Fletcher prepped for his close-up.

   

ONE DAY IN THE FALL OF 2007, while Fletcher was surfing the 'net, he came across an online video that sparked his imagination.

To the uninitiated, it appeared to be your typical YouTube fare: a crudely edited parody, replete with in-jokes and visual gags. Set to Blondie's "One Way or Another," it portrays a shrouded-in-black anarchist jumping out of bed, slipping into combat gear, and sprinting through the streets of Minneapolis. She lights a Molotov cocktail and heaves it. It lands in a grill and ignites the charcoal, much to the delight of the black-clad cooks. She hurls a bowling ball at a Navy recruiting center. We see the acronym RABL taped to the ball as it topples over bowling pins, a cheeky nod to the '80s-era Minneapolis-based Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League. The video ends with the tagline: "We're getting ready. What are you doing?"

As if to answer the chiding slogan, Fletcher immediately began getting ready in a most unorthodox and ferocious way: He launched an investigation into the group without notifying anyone—not other police departments, not the people who would be tasked with prosecuting any criminals he turned up, not even those on whom his budget depended.

"We did not advise the city of St. Paul or their Police Department on this," Fletcher says. "We didn't advise the City's Attorney's Office, because knowing about this investigation could have complicated this investigation."

He forged ahead, hiring a paid informant to infiltrate the group, in addition to sending his undercover men to major cities across the nation. In doing so, he wracked up more than $300,000 in overtime pay and traveling expenses. And since no one had approved the expenditures—the County Board of Commissioners would have been the entity to do so—he was under unusual pressure to produce results.

Which may be why, during the months leading up to the RNC, Fletcher, more than any other official, remained convinced that St. Paul would be under siege when the convention rolled into town. He sparked an internal yet much publicized debate with St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington over how many officers were necessary. Fletcher was adamant that more bodies were needed and implored Harrington to recruit the difference. As he usually does, Fletcher won the argument, and St. Paul scrambled to hire 350 additional troops during the three weeks leading up to the RNC.

Then he went after the anarchists. On the weekend immediately preceding the convention, Fletcher's agents executed warrants on four residences housing allegedly violent protesters. Armed, riot-gear-clad troopers stormed through the homes, detained dozens of activists, and confiscated political literature as evidence. The raid on the so-called RNC Welcoming Committee's Smith Avenue headquarters in St. Paul resulted in felony charges levied against eight anarchists, later dubbed "the RNC Eight."

That Monday, the first day of the convention, dozens of masked, black-clad anarchists marched down Fourth Street in downtown St. Paul. Arriving at the First National Bank Building on the corner of Robert Street, a protester kicked in one of the bank's plate-glass windows. Spider-web cracks expanded from the impact of the black-booted foot. Another kick. Shattered glass rained down on the sun-roasted pavement. A Macy's window on nearby Cedar Street met a similar fate. Other protesters, meanwhile, knocked over newspaper boxes and turned over garbage bins.

This went on for a full two-and-a-half hours before law enforcement mounted a concerted response.

Crowd control responsibility fell on the Mobile Field Force, a team of heavy-hitters in full riot gear presided over by Fletcher. For most of that day, however, in contrast to their name, they remained rather immobile. St. Paul police were in the vicinity of the chaos, and had radio communication with the Mobile Field Force, and yet no reinforcements came. Fletcher's men remained along the parade route on Kellogg Boulevard, five blocks away.

As a result, the anarchists were allowed to wreak havoc on downtown for the better part of the afternoon, with professional photographers and videographers catching all the action.

Fletcher says the reason for the Mobile Field Force's delayed response was that his men and their St. Paul counterparts were on different radio frequencies. But both units' higher-ups were housed in the same command center, albeit in adjoining buildings. One could walk from one to the other without stepping foot outside. How could they not have caught word of the chaos?

"As it turned out, there was poor communication inside the command center," says Fletcher, quickly adding that he regrets his unit didn't respond sooner.

"However," he continues suddenly, "the good part, on balance, was that by allowing them their quote 'freedom' to destroy property, everyone in town suddenly understood that they were here with criminal intent. The benefit that occurred was that the citizenry and powers that be saw that there were 500 to 800 anarchists hell-bent on shutting down the convention by any means necessary. This was illuminating to the community to see that what we had warned about was, in fact, a true threat."

The totality of it—the clandestine investigation, the police state-like tactics—had many observers wondering how much of the overwhelming force was truly necessary. Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent-turned-whistleblower and a Time Person of the Year, has been especially critical of law enforcement's handling of the RNC, particularly Fletcher's decisions.

"When they started spending the money and started the investigation, they had already started writing the facts," she says. "You look stupid if you have all these robocops, these informants, and a yearlong investigation, and then nothing comes of it. It will prejudice you to expect the worst."

The "preemptive" raids alone were cause for concern among First Amendment advocates. "What happened during those raids is they went in and grabbed any materials they could find, anything Fletcher wanted off the streets," says Teresa Nelson, an attorney with the ACLU of Minnesota. "The First Amendment doesn't tolerate that."

Improper or not, the investment yielded heaps of information on protesters, as a few would later find out firsthand.

On the first day of the RNC, 56-year-old activist Besty Raasch-Gilman was locking up the RNC Welcoming Committee's convergence center when a voice called out.

"Hey, Betsy," she recalls hearing.

A black SUV had pulled up alongside the curb. Fletcher was behind the wheel, accompanied by two deputies.

Raasch-Gilman plodded toward the idling vehicle, sure she was about to be arrested. But Fletcher had a different idea, according to her version of events. He told her that, yes, she was next on the list, but he was willing to make a deal. Knowing her to be the oldest member of the anarchist group, Fletcher said he'd spare her if she would use her influence to quell her fellow anarchists' protesting.

"I think we can agree we don't want anyone to get hurt," he said, according to her recollection.

Raasch-Gilman declined the offer.

"You know, I have a pretty extensive file on you," continued Fletcher, pulling out a white loose-leafed binder. "Let's see...you were at the WTO protest in Seattle in '99...the IMF protest in D.C. in 2000...."

More than anything, it was the Orwellian accuracy of Fletcher's rundown that alarmed Raasch-Gilman.

"He was congenial, but in a threatening kind of fashion," says Raasch-Gilman. "He wanted to scare me with that file."

Fletcher has never disputed Raasch-Gilman's account. A pending lawsuit by Raasch-Gilman may shed more light on the incident.

   

THE ROOM WAS IN UTTER DISARRAY: shredded documents strewn about the floor, a security camera powered off, a dumpster outside brimming with ribbons of paper.

To Commander Chris Omodt, the Metro Gang Strike Force offices had all the appearances of a crime scene. Fearing the worst, he made a call to Hennepin County, his home department, and arranged to have crime technicians come in and collect evidence.

It had begun earlier that day, May 20, 2009, with the release of a damning report. That morning, the Office of the Legislative Auditor made public a special review examining the Metro Gang Strike Force's inner workings. What they found was so disconcerting that the Department of Public Safety immediately called on the Strike Force to suspend its operations.

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.

Against this backdrop, Fletcher strolled casually through his downtown St. Paul offices, leading the way to a sequestered conference room.

   

AFTER ROOTING THROUGH A MINI-FRIDGE, Fletcher takes a seat at the end of long conference table and cracks open his generic-brand diet cola. "You mentioned the issues of promotions," he says, setting down his soda and reaching into a folder. Watching Fletcher sift through paperwork, you half-expect the words "I've got an extensive file on you" to follow. Not today. "We heard complaints back then, during my first term," he continues. "But we resolved that in 2000 by having this agreement."

He produces a contract his department hashed out with the Teamsters, who represent his employees. "The rating process is an oral interview, which counts as 75 percent of the score, and seniority now takes 25 percent. The panel consists of two from management and two from union. So now I think that we have in place an objective process."

He's perfectly calm, almost affable, in his explanations. It's not until the Metro Gang Strike Force comes up that a hint of frustration reveals itself in his face. He's clearly upset by the bad press his most beloved enterprise has received lately.

"Someone should probably report on the fact that for the 12 years it's been around, the Strike Force has arrested 700 gangsters and their associates every year," he says, an edge creeping into his voice. "They've recovered hundreds and hundreds of guns off the street. I mean, they're good cops. They should have had more administrative help, and that's the bottom line. That's the one lesson here: There was sloppy bookkeeping."

An hour into the interview, it's time for a bathroom break. Entering the immaculate restroom, Fletcher opts for the stall, leaving open the solitary urinal. Freed from interview formalities, small talk ensues. Toilets are flushed.

"You're not from the part of Iowa where that tornado tore through a Boy Scout camp, are you?" Fletcher asks, over the sound of water from the faucet washing over his hands.

The answer is no, fortunately not...but how did he know this reporter is from Iowa?

"Oh," he says nonchalantly as he yanks a paper towel from the dispenser, "I think I read that somewhere."

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