By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Bailey Hamilton wasn't out for a wild evening. It was a bright Sunday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend in rural Milaca, a sliver of land in central Minnesota about an hour north of Minneapolis. The 17-year-old had just graduated from high school a few days prior, and was now driving over to his cousin's house to spend the night around a bonfire.
At about 10:30 p.m., his friend Mike Iler showed up, and someone suggested they go to a graduation party hosted by classmate Megan Kolb that they'd heard about on Facebook.
Hamilton had been aware of past parties at Kolb's house, he says, but had never attended one. Though the two had graduated together, they ran in different crowds, and had hardly exchanged a word over the years.
Hamilton and his friends arrived at the party around 11 p.m. They drove past Kolb's house and into an adjacent field, where cars were already parked, and walked down to a bonfire. At least 40 people were in attendance, says Hamilton, many of them drinking and making no attempt to be inconspicuous.
By the time they arrived, Hamilton had already consumed two beers and a pull of Blueberry UV. He brought with him a half-full 1.75-liter bottle of vodka.
"I started talking to people and I started drinking," he says. "It didn't taste that good, so I sort of slammed it."
In about two hours, Hamilton had almost emptied the bottle, at one point chugging it as others cheered him on. He found himself unable to keep his balance, and staggered over to a nearby truck for support. Hamilton had dabbled with alcohol before, but says he's not "a drinker," and had never experienced anything like this.
"He was just stumbling," his friend Charles Skogman recalls. "He can't stand up straight. He goes to the side, has to catch himself. He has to hold onto a truck. He couldn't really talk that good."
Iler decided it was time to drive Hamilton home. But he was so drunk it was difficult to maneuver him to the car. He fell over at least twice before throwing his arms around the shoulders of his friends and being carried out.
"After I fell the second time I must have blacked out or something, because I don't remember getting up to the car," Hamilton says.
Iler pulled into his friend's driveway around 1 a.m. Hamilton had taken a turn for the worse, now incoherent, vomiting, and barely conscious. Skogman woke up Hamilton's parents, Chad and Kim, and explained what had happened. They walked outside to find their son passed out in the driveway.
"He didn't move," says Kim. "It took my husband and his two friends to get him into the car, because he was basically dead weight. He couldn't help you at all. You couldn't wake him up. You couldn't get him to talk to you. Anything."
Hamilton suffers from a severe blood disorder and was on medications, says Kim, so she feared this wasn't something her son could simply sleep off. "I told my husband, we have to call 911, like now."
An ambulance brought Bailey to the emergency room at Fairview Northland Medical Center in Princeton. By the time he arrived, his blood alcohol content was .21. His blood pressure had dropped. The doctors hooked him up to an oxygen tank and multiple IV bags.
They tried to wake him up, at one point screaming his name into his ear, but Hamilton didn't flinch. After a few hours, a doctor brought Kim into the waiting room, asked her to take a seat, and prepared her for the worst.
"Is my kid gonna be OK?" she asked.
"I don't know," the doctor replied.
Around 7:30 a.m., after Hamilton's BAC had dropped considerably, a doctor tried tickling his feet. Hamilton finally stirred, waking up in the hospital's trauma center with a bad headache and plenty of questions, including the most pressing: "Where's my shoes?"
Teenagers binge drinking at graduation parties isn't exactly shocking. But the unusual circumstances of this particular evening have made for big drama in the community surrounding Milaca.
The day after her son was rushed to the hospital, Kim Hamilton learned the occupations of Megan Kolb's parents. Her stepfather, Russ Jude, is a tribal investigator for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Her mother, Jan Jude, is the Mille Lacs County attorney, with jurisdiction over more than 25,000 people, including a large portion of the Ojibwe reservation. Both parents were home that night, but say they had no idea that kids were drinking on their property.
This isn't Jan's first brush with controversy. Most recently, Jude has been at odds with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe tribe over its request for more federal law enforcement. Jude has argued on behalf of the county that it's not necessary, but also that the 61,000-acre reservation was disestablished in the 1800s, and the tribal land is now only 4,000 acres.
"The Mille Lacs band doesn't feel like there has been a real open-hearted attitude toward them from the county attorney's office, and that's really unfortunate," says Gail Kulick, a former state representative who now lobbies for the band.
Though Bailey is the only one who ended up in the hospital after the party that night, other teenagers were also drinking heavily. Another parent, Lorraine Akemann , says she picked up her daughter, 17-year-old Ally Mzorik, from the party around 2:30 a.m. When Lorraine arrived, Ally was passed out about 10 to 15 feet from a river. "She could have fallen in and drowned," says Akemann.
A friend helped Mzorik halfway to the car, and Akemann carried her daughter the rest of the way. She also gave a ride home to another party attendee, who Akemann says was incoherent and vomiting.
"I have nothing against [Jan]," she say. "Never have. But now she crossed the line by taking away my parental rights by not being a responsible adult enough to monitor this party, contact the parents of these kids who are underage. You know, there's so many double standards here and hypocrisy."
In June, the Anoka County Sheriff's Department announced it would investigate the case. Russ has been temporarily reassigned from his position.
Some in town think it's unfair that the Judes are being targeted by law enforcement.
"If this happened at anyone else's house, this wouldn't be happening," one mother told investigators. "There wouldn't be an investigation. It wouldn't be on the news."
But others say the county attorney should be held to a higher standard. Jan's office prosecuted another mother, Cheryl Miller, just a few years ago for hosting a graduation party involving underage drinking. Though Miller was ultimately found not guilty of the gross misdemeanor charge of procuring alcohol for minors, Jan took the opportunity to publicly point to the case as "a good reminder during this graduation season that we all have to be mindful of underage drinking and take whatever precautions we can."
"I don't feel it's right," says Kim Hamilton. "I don't feel, myself, she should be able to be prosecuting people for things that she's doing."
On a quiet afternoon just outside Foreston near Milaca, Brett Larson drives down a long dirt road called Central Avenue, where the houses sit acres apart, surrounded by miles of farmland. He stops in front of the Judes' house, camouflaged by trees and shrubs grown out at the entrance of a long driveway lined with wire fence. "No Trespassing: Violators will be prosecuted," a sign reads.
Larson points to the Rum River running up the side of the property. "I thought about jumping on my kayak and paddling up there to get a picture of the house," says Larson.
Larson is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger, a small community weekly that is the paper of record for news of fishing and school board meetings in the rural Minnesota towns surrounding Lake Mille Lacs. The paper is not all fluff, however. The area sees more than its share of violent crime, much of it related to criminal enterprises like the Native Mob, and Larson's staff keeps busy following the beat. The politics of a small town can also make for stories worthy of a daytime soap opera.
One morning in early June, Larson was editing from his Milaca home when he got an email from one of his reporters, Diane Gibas, relaying a tip about a party at the county attorney's home. "One boy was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he almost died," reported Gibas. "His mother is beside herself and said her son is being bullied already because he can't hold his liquor." Though Larson hadn't yet heard about Hamilton's trip to the emergency room, he was already well aware of the party's existence — his daughter had also been in attendance.
Larson told Gibas to follow up. He tried to return to his editing, but couldn't get the email out of his head. "It kind of stuck in my craw," he says.
Larson decided to call the tipster himself. He drove up to see Hamilton the next morning. Gibas had contacted the Mille Lacs County Sheriff's Office, and by later that afternoon the sheriff announced that investigators from neighboring Anoka County would take on the case.
In the small town, the news spread fast. At least one police officers went on Facebook and accused the reporters of being biased. Kids who attended the party also aired their grievances on social media, many criticizing Hamilton and others for snitching.
"Hey at my grad party there will be drinking," reads one tweet. "If you can't handle that don't come. #Dipshits."
"It's your fault that you chose to fucking drink until you blew a .2 you fucking dumbass," reads another. "Don't blame it on everyone else."
Within a few days, community members were calling on the paper to stop writing about the case. But it was too late for that.
"It was beyond us at this point," says Larson. "We got kids on the record. That story with Bailey is a once-in-a-lifetime story for someone like me."
The reporters at the Messenger compiled a list of 40 kids who attended the party. Larson and reporter Rob Passons got a few to talk, and slowly put together details of the party. Some told them it was expected that they could drink, as long as no one drove.
"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.
"People were just kinda saying that around," one person told police. "Just like, if you're gonna drink you have to stay here. They didn't want you leaving."
"And when you said 'they,' who was that to assume?" asked Douglas.
One girl, whose name was redacted from police documents, said she gave her keys directly to Jan Jude.
"Okay, all right, when did you turn your keys over to [redacted] or her mom?" Douglas asked.
"Ah, like, before we went down to the fire."
"Okay, and was that because she knew you were drinking or you turned 'em over to [redacted] or directly to her mom?"
"I gave them to her mom."
"Her mom? And her mom asked for 'em?"
But other partygoers Douglas interviewed gave a different version of events, and said they were explicitly told by the Judes that they were not allowed to drink. In Douglas's interview with Kolb, she took the blame for allowing kids to drink, saying her mom and dad knew nothing about it.
"They made it very, very clear to me there was to be absolutely no drinking, but I'm a teenager and I have no sense," Kolb said.
"I personally said I don't want any of you drinking if you've been driving," she said later in the interview. "That wasn't a rule from my mom or Russ or anybody."
"How many kids do you think were at the bonfire?" asked Douglas.
"The most probably at one time: 15, 10 to 15. I'm not sure."
On June 14, Douglas sat down with Jan Jude to get her side of the story. Jan maintained she knew nothing about drinking.
"My understanding is that the kids were just having a bonfire, which was okay with us," she said. "We had discussed that, and it sounds sort of cliché probably, but she had asked me to get a bunch of s'mores stuff. That's the kind of bonfire it was supposed to be."
When Douglas recited statements from others saying it was okay to drink, Jan denied knowing anything about it.
"One young lady I spoke with stated that she gave her keys directly to you in the garage at the house with the understanding that she was going to be drinking and spending the night," said Douglas.
"No," retorted Jan. "That is absolutely not true."
"I'm gonna ask you," Douglas said later in the interview, "did you give alcohol to any of the kids here?"
"No," replied Jan.
On a recent afternoon in rural Milaca, Kim and Bailey Hamilton sit at their kitchen table. Since the party, Bailey says he's been receiving harassing messages on Facebook blaming him for the Judes' troubles. Kim has also been dealing with the fallout, hearing whispers from people in town who think she should be held responsible, given that it was her son who drank too much.
"I notice that I'm getting a lot of looks, like at the grocery store and stuff, but people haven't directly said anything to me," she says.
Meanwhile, Larson recently announced plans to leave his position as editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger, a move that has been a long time coming, he says. "It's more 16 years of chronic stress than one month of acute stress. But during the course of the last month, I've realized that I just don't like my job enough to continue."
Last week, Douglas turned his investigation over to Andover City Prosecutor Scott Baumgartner. Douglas noted the conflicting reports from kids, but said there was no evidence to suggest Jude provided the booze. Baumgartner says he plans to make a decision on how to move forward this week. With potential charges pending, Jan Jude wouldn't comment for this story, other than to reiterate that she didn't know about the drinking.
"I knew of a small bonfire with my daughter's closest friends, and they were told that no alcohol would be tolerated," Jude told City Pages.
If the prosecutor deems no charges are appropriate, Kim says she plans to let the case rest. She takes comfort in knowing the outcome could have been much worse.
"We're just happy Bailey was fine," she says. "It was very scary."
Additional reporting by Brett Larson and Rob Passons of the Mille Lacs Messenger