By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
"It was just understood by everybody," says Passons. "You know, you could do anything you want, but don't drive. I realized that these kids were trying to be responsible, they were trying to take care of each other. But the drinking was crazy."
The paper published 24 stories, columns, and blog posts about the incident, including one suggesting that the Jude parents must have known about the party. Larson calls it the biggest story the paper has ever seen, at least in his time as editor; their site's traffic spiked 50 percent the week they started covering it. But the work took an emotional toll on the reporters, particularly Larson. He obsessed about it, unable to sleep for days.
"I'm sad," says Larson, in an interview in Passons's garage, visibly choking up. "I hate hurting these people, but I have to do it."
Larson recognizes it's irrational, but he says he began to fear for his family's safety. As the paper continued to get criticism from community members and law enforcement for reporting the story, Larson became haunted with waking dreams of Mille Lacs cops coming for him, armed to the teeth.
"What was going through my mind was me and Rob coming out here and the guys in black — these guys got submachine guns, man," he says. "I pictured them coming down the driveway and me and Rob going down like Butch and Sundance. I didn't give a fuck at that point. I'm ready to die, I did my work."
"I was not ready to die," adds a stoic Passons.
"That's going through my head," continues Larson. "It's irrational, but those thoughts are in my head."
The official investigation wasn't announced until 10 days after the party, but law enforcement knew about the bonfire long before the Messenger published its first article. Just before 1 a.m. on the night of the party, a woman called 911 to report reckless driving outside the Judes' property. She wouldn't give her name, but told the operator her friends had been at the party, and she knew there was underage drinking going on.
"There was just a car that swerved out of the driveway really quick," the caller told 911. "And I seen on — a couple of my friends were there but they left. And they said there was alcohol there so I just — I didn't want to narc in and make everyone get in trouble, but I just wanted to make sure the roads were safe tonight."
Hamilton's parents also called 911 that night to get an ambulance for Bailey. They didn't know it was the Judes' property at the time, but Kim told authorities that her son had been drinking at Kolb's house.
Mille Lacs County Deputy Brad Hunt came to the Judes' house that night, and could hear voices from down by the fire. He tried calling Jan, but didn't get an answer, so he dialed Russ. Hunt explained that he was looking into a report of a kid drinking himself into a hospital at their house earlier in the night.
"Russ asked if I wanted him to come out and help or if I could do it on my own," Hunt later noted in his report. "I was disappointed and frustrated with his response as a parent."
By the time Hunt walked down to the fire, the space was vacant, save for some bottles of booze, which the deputy dumped out.
Two days later, Milaca Police Chief Todd Quaintance met with 17-year-old Ally Mzorik to ask her about the party. Ally answered the chief's questions candidly, naming the kids she remembered being in attendance and noting that many were drinking openly.
"Do you think the kids were doing anything to hide that...that was happening?" the chief asked. "Were the kids trying to make sure the parents didn't know or weren't all the kids worried about it?"
"I'm pretty sure they would know that the parents knew," Mzorik replied. "Because at the beginning, [Megan] said, 'You know my parents do know, like, whatever, and they said that there were cops that were off-duty that were even there that didn't...but weren't gonna do anything, as long as no one, um, drove drunk."
Mzorik admitted that she had been drinking heavily that night, and her mother had to come pick her up from the party.
"Did you walk out? Did you get carried out? How did you leave?"
"Stumbled and then got carried."
Before the interview ended, Quaintance asked her if she clearly remembered being told that the cops knew about the party, and were fine with it providing that no one drove.
"Yep," she confirmed.
"Do you think I knew about the party?" the police chief asked.
"I don't think so," she said.
A few days later, police turned the investigation over to the Anoka County Sheriff's Office to avoid a conflict of interest. Over the next week, Detective Dan Douglas interviewed more than a dozen kids. Of those who agreed to talk, several described the party much as Mzorik had. Though none said the Judes provided the booze, multiple attendees said somewhere between 30 and 50 people were blaring music, parking cars up and down the property, and believed they could drink as long as they didn't drive.