Deputy Dan Ruettiman's suicide rocks Ramsey County Sheriff's Department

Bob Fletcher foe left files detailing his struggle for justice

By Jessica Lussenhop

published: November 30, 2011

The sedan sat at the end of Hammersma Drive for hours. This was no lovers' tryst. As the sun began to set, the car remained dark and motionless.

When the retiree spied the sedan, he figured the driver must be having car trouble. As he approached, he called to the man he thought he saw tinkering under the green Saturn. No reply.

It wasn't until he got about 30 feet away in the dusky light that he realized what he was looking at, and it stopped him cold. He raced back to his house at the other end of the drive, ran inside, and dialed 911.

"Guy laying beside the car," was all the dispatcher could get out of him.

Pine County sheriff's deputies quickly responded. The man in the road had been dead for hours. A black semiautomatic handgun was found near the body.

After half an hour, the deputies realized that the dead man's description matched a missing-person report that had been sent hours earlier. At about 3:30 p.m., a woman with fire-red hair had burst into the station.

"My name is Susan Deters," she told the officer at the front desk. "My boyfriend is missing."

Deters had looked everywhere, but there was no sign of him. She'd even checked a couple of hospitals to see if he'd been in an accident. He hadn't.

Deters gave the police her boyfriend's name, and they pulled up his license plate numbers. Then she told them something she hoped would make them take the situation more seriously.

"He's a fellow officer," she said. "He's a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy."

On Hammersma Drive, the Pine County deputies searched the scene and found the man's wallet. Tucked inside was a sheriff's department ID card that identified the dead man as Ramsey County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Ruettimann.

Within hours, the news reached Jimmy Hereaux, one of Ruettimann's closest confidantes. As shocked and horrified as he was, something Ruettimann had said to him a week earlier suddenly took on new meaning.

Ruettimann had visited Hereaux at a time when he knew his friend would be alone. In the modest but cozy living room, Ruettimann handed Hereaux a heavy brown accordion file. He wrote a name down on a scrap of paper, the name of a local journalist.

"If anything happens to me," Ruettimann said, "give this to the reporter."

After Ruettimann's death, Hereaux took the file down off his desk. Inside was a thick stack of loose-leaf documents, a manila folder stuffed with letters, and a catalog-size clasp envelope labeled "Reports."

Written in black permanent marker in the margin of the envelope was the reporter's name: mine.

   

BEFORE THAT OCTOBER NIGHT, most everyone who knew Ruettimann would have said he would never kill himself.

Even as she raced to the North Branch police station to report him missing, Deters dismissed the fear that flashed through her mind.

"Part of me said, 'No, he'll never do it,' because of his kids," she says. "He loved his kids so much."

Ruettimann had helped his best friend Paul Hilger through an extreme bout of depression several years earlier. Yet Hilger never noticed his friend's despair.

"Nothing indicated he was feeling that way," says Hilger. "I was shocked."

A suicide seemed so out of character for Ruettimann—a career lawman with aspirations of rising in the ranks—that rumors circulated among his friends that something just didn't add up.

"In all the years I've known him, he's never talked like that or acted like that," says Randy Scott, who served as a part-time deputy with Ruettimann. "I'm not saying somebody killed him, but I just can't believe he would have done something like that."

More than 200 people jammed the North Heights Lutheran Church for Ruettimann's funeral. A sea of light-brown Ramsey County sheriff's deputy uniforms filled one section of pews. Another sizeable section of the crowd wore the navy blue of the Roseville Police Department, where Ruettimann's father had worked.

Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom spoke briefly from the dais in back of Ruettimann's flag-draped coffin. On one side of the coffin was a blown-up picture of Ruettimann smiling mischievously in his deputy's uniform, on the other a photo of him with his six-year-old twins.

"You were dad's heroes. He'd talk about you often," Bostrom said to the twins as they sat bewildered in the audience. "It was an honor to serve alongside Dan."

After the service, a long procession of cars snaked behind the hearse up to the northern corner of Roselawn Cemetery, where Ruettimann would be buried at the foot of his grandfather's grave. Three rows of police officers stood at attention at the gravesite. An honor guard folded the flag on the coffin and gave it to Sheriff Bostrom, who handed it to the twin six-year-olds.

Many of the guests remarked how nice it was that Ruettimann had so many supporters. But some of his closest friends and family knew better. They saw members of the sheriff's department at the funeral that Dan no longer trusted. They watched with contempt as those deputies gave their condolences.

"He was hurt by so many people," recalls Deters. "He felt a lot of people had betrayed him."

   

ON A BLISTERING COLD January day in 2010, seven men from different branches of law enforcement met in secret in the basement of a bank building in east St. Paul.

They were careful not to arrive in uniform. Seated at a round conference table, they looked across at one another with nervous amusement. The inaugural meeting of the "Deputies, Active, Retired, Reserve Team Political Action Committee" (DARRT-PAC) was in session.

"Well," said Ruettimann from one side of the table, "This is it."

Ruettimann was the one who had brought them all together. Their ranks included Deputy Kevin Clemen, vice president of Law Enforcement Labor Services Local 322; Deputy Tony Breitbarth; Don Hereaux and his son Jimmy, both Ramsey County reserve deputies; and Alfred Marazzo and Randy Scott, two former part-time deputies.

They were all there to dethrone incumbent Sheriff Bob Fletcher.

"We've got to get this guy out of office," Ruettimann told the group.

Of the three active deputies in the room, Ruettimann was in a unique and unenviable position: He was a former supporter of Fletcher's, having donated to the campaign in 2002 and volunteered in 2006.

After years under Fletcher's rule, Ruettimann had become disillusioned. He felt Fletcher's hiring decisions and promotions were based purely on fealty. Despite warnings from close friends and family, Ruettimann refused to sit idle.

"It was all the political crap," Hereaux recalls. "Dan was getting tired of the whole scenario."

Fletcher's opponent was Matt Bostrom, the assistant chief of the St. Paul Police. He had first come to Ruettimann's notice when Dan took Bostrom's graduate-level course in public safety administration at Hamline University. So when Bostrom officially entered the sheriff's race in December 2009, Ruettimann began talking to friends in the department about starting the political action committee to get Bostrom elected.

"He's a really good man," Ruettimann said to anyone who would listen. "He's fair."

While filling out the initial paperwork, the group decided to use the names of two retirees as their chair and treasurer, in order to shield the active deputies as much as possible from backlash within the department.

Those fears were not unfounded. In the summer of 2001, Lieutenant John Moore—a 20-year veteran of the department—told a coworker and Fletcher supporter named Dennis Flaherty that he'd decided to run for sheriff in the 2002 election. Fletcher called Moore ten days later to tell him that he was no longer head of the 80-officer patrol division and would now answer to another inspector.

"By the way," Fletcher said, according to Moore, "I spoke to Flaherty."

Moore was moved around and eventually relegated to desk duty.

Another officer, Sergeant Joyce Shockency, was transferred after she pinned a "Moore" button on her purse and marched in a parade with him. She was moved to the undesirable midnight transportation unit.

In 2006, Moore and Shockency filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Fletcher for what they said were politically motivated transfers. An appeals court agreed when it ruled the suit could proceed and that "Fletcher retaliated against Moore and Shockency for their First Amendment conduct by transferring them from supervisory positions into roles with significantly less responsibility."

County commissioners ultimately voted to settle the lawsuit for $750,000.

But Ruettimann felt strongly enough about the Bostrom campaign to risk his career. At first, he tried to take on less visible responsibilities. He manned the phone lines at campaign headquarters in North St. Paul. But after his truck was keyed, he had trouble shaking the feeling he was being watched.

"He said, 'It's probably them cronies that Fletcher's got watching us,'" recalls Marazzo. "You get this gut feeling like you're being watched. That was how we felt."

As the campaign progressed, Ruettimann got bolder. The Bostrom campaign's photographer was told specifically not to shoot the active deputies at rallies and events, but at a Democratic caucus, Ruettimann and Clemen grabbed Bostrom signs and stood front and center while Bostrom spoke. Photos of them were posted not long afterward on the campaign's Facebook page.

"That let everybody know," Clemen says. "Everyone made comments like, 'Oh, you're dead.'"

The patrol room became hostile territory, where Fletcher supporters held court and wondered aloud why anyone would support Bostrom. Deputies whom Ruettimann had once considered friends began to distance themselves.

On November 2, the DARRT-PAC members gathered at Joe Senser's restaurant in Roseville, surrounded by huge projector screens blaring election results. Ruettimann, dressed nattily in a suit and tie, fidgeted nervously as the tallying of returns began on a dry erase board with two columns marked "Bostrom" and "Other Guy."

Ruettimann didn't have to wait long. Bostrom pulled ahead early in the evening. As the numbers trickled in and the lead grew, so did the buzz in the room. At 9:45 p.m., Bostrom took the call from Fletcher conceding defeat. Bagpipe music blared from the speakers at Joe Senser's as volunteers cheered at the top of their lungs. Some of the attendees began to cry.

"Ding, dong, Fletcher's gone!" Hereaux sang. "Ding, dong, the wicked Fletcher's gone!"

At some point, Ruettimann and Hereaux clasped one another brusquely around the shoulders. Ruettimann had to shout to be heard above the din: "We got the devil out!"

   

RUETTIMANN WAS ON A leisurely stroll for cigarettes along the picturesque coast of Manasota Beach, Florida, when the calls started.

He was supposed to be relaxing with Deters now that the election was over, but the cell phone torpedoed any sense of tranquility. Ruettimann learned from frantic friends on the other end of the line that his face had been all over the evening news.

"Did Former Sheriff Bob Fletcher demote an officer because he was supporting his opponent?" asked Fox 9 reporter Tom Lyden in the teaser. "Or is the new Sheriff Matt Bostrom giving the deputy a second chance he doesn't deserve?"

The report included fuzzy Polaroids of Ruettimann's ex-wife's bruised neck and close-ups of Ruettimann from the campaign trail with Bostrom. And finally, a quote from now-former Sheriff Bob Fletcher: "A person with anger issues and a history of violence against women should never be allowed to carry a gun and badge."

The news report was just the latest in a string of incidents that convinced Ruettimann that Fletcher was targeting him for revenge.

In February 2010, Ruettimann was punished through an Internal Affairs investigation for failing to manually check a door at a Holiday Station that had been burglarized. The two-day suspension took place six months after the actual incident.

Then there was the domestic violence accusation.

On an early June evening, Ruettimann was watching the twins for his ex-wife at the home they had once shared in New Brighton. When she arrived home, the former couple began arguing. As he turned to leave, Ruettimann yelled something that would ultimately ruin his career.

"I'm going to fucking kill your father tonight," Ruettimann said, then made a throat-slitting motion before driving off, according to the police report.

Hours later, Ruettimann heard from his supervisor at work. His ex-wife had called the New Brighton police to report the threats. Now they were contacting her father, and Ruettimann's sister, to find out what happened.

A few days later, Ruettimann was served with a restraining order. His ex-wife claimed there had been an incident in 2006 when Ruettimann tried to strangle her. In the paperwork, she wrote that she'd never pressed charges because she was afraid for Ruettimann's job.

"I regret this decision," she wrote.

Later that month, Ruettimann, his attorney, and Deters arrived at the Ramsey County Courthouse. While Deters waited in the hallway, Ruettimann went into one room with his lawyer. His ex-wife was down the hallway in another room with her parents.

For over two hours, Ruettimann's lawyer ran messages between the two rooms, trying to negotiate a way to have the restraining order dismissed. Finally, Ruettimann's ex-wife agreed to drop it under a few conditions. She would have the order dismissed only if he agreed to drop "Ruettimann" from the hyphenated surname their children took after the divorce. He would also have to forfeit his parenting time.

Ruettimann reluctantly agreed, then called Deters into the room and fell to pieces.

"He was a mess," she recalls.

A month after that, two different jurisdictions declined to charge Ruettimann over the incident.

But while that may have been the end of the episode for the family, the wheels were just beginning to turn at the sheriff's department.

The day after the incident, Ruettimann received a letter from Chief Deputy Dave Metusalem, yanking him from patrol, confiscating his gun, and reassigning him to jail detail. A new Internal Affairs investigation was opened, this time for Conduct Unbecoming a Peace Officer.

Ruettimann's request that the investigation be handled by another department to avoid a conflict of interest was ignored. In his first interview with the Internal Affairs investigator, Ruettimann stumbled as he tried to recount what happened that night at his ex-wife's house. At one point, he told the investigator he'd yelled, "I wish your dad would drop dead." Later, he told the investigator he'd said, "I wish I could shoot your dad."

The investigator continued to push, asking him why he kept changing his story.

"I lied," Ruettimann blurted. "I lied."

The investigator also asked him about a 2006 incident when Ruettimann and his ex-wife were still married but heading for divorce. He threw her cell phone in the lake behind their house and police were notified.

But now the Internal Affairs investigator had something new to add: photos of his ex-wife's bruised neck. Strangulation had never been mentioned in the original police report, and Ruettimann was never charged with anything. But now these photos were part of the investigation.

"I have never seen these before," Ruettimann said.

Months rolled by without a decision. Ruettimann worked listlessly in the jails, and campaigned hard for Bostrom. Convinced his Internal Affairs woes were the result of retribution by the Fletcher administration, the election suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

"My only hope," he told his friends, "is that Fletcher is defeated."

   

ON DECEMBER 23, 2010, six months after the initial incident and just days before Fletcher was set to leave office, Ruettimann was called into a meeting to discuss the outcome of his Internal Affairs investigation. He was being demoted to correctional officer.

"The internal investigation uncovered a history of abuse," the demotion letter read, saying Ruettimann ought to have been charged with felony strangulation and stalking. "Even though you were not charged for these crimes your actions are grounds for demotion."

When Ruettimann walked out of the meeting, Fletcher was outside.

"I just want you to have a wonderful holiday weekend," Fletcher said, according to Ruettimann's recollection of the incident to friends. (Fletcher did not return numerous requests for comment.)

The law enforcement union challenged the demotion immediately, and a few days later, Fletcher was ushered out of office. The new regime decided that Ruettimann's case would be one of three to be considered for re-investigation by an outside jurisdiction.

The shot at redemption gave Ruettimann hope—until someone leaked the confidential details of his investigation to Fox 9.

For weeks after he returned to Minnesota, Ruettimann refused to go anywhere in public. He fretted to Deters: "People will see me."

   

ON APRIL 1, 2011, Ruettimann arrived at the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center with his union lawyer, ready to go on the offensive. His Internal Affairs case was being reviewed by the Minneapolis Police Deparment, and Ruettimann had come armed with two years' worth of evidence. He hoped it would put everything back as it was before the election.

"You are being questioned as part of an official Ramsey County Sheriff's Department Administrative investigation," the Minneapolis investigator rattled off. "Do you understand that?"

"Yes, I do," Ruettimann answered.

In January, after Sheriff Bostrom took office, officers speculated that he would make sweeping changes in the ranks. Those who had campaigned for him would be rescued from their abysmal reassignments and whisked into more favorable positions.

But after several weeks, it became painfully clear that this wasn't going to happen.

Even so, Ruettimann thought he could fix the situation himself now that it was in his hands.

Ruettimann printed out all the incident reports he could find of Fletcher supporters involved in offenses similar or worse than his who were never subjected to Internal Affairs.

One deputy had rolled his car over on the highway and responding officers had to extract his service weapon as the vehicle burned. At the hospital, the officer tested at twice the legal limit for alcohol.

Another deputy had racked up several offenses, including a drunk-driving arrest and a domestic assault in which the wife told St. Paul police her husband had strangled her. The similarity to Ruettimann's case was not lost on him.

At one point, Ruettimann pushed the reports across the table to the Minneapolis investigator.

"The IA process in my estimation for the last several years has been corrupt and crooked," Ruettimann pronounced. "There's some pretty interesting charges here on some of these folks."

Ruettimann laid out the whole story—from his divorce, to his support of Bostrom, to the backlash from the other deputies, to the Fox 9 leak—crisscrossing from family dynamics to issues within the department.

"For 28 years, I have never been so humiliated in my life in terms of the actions that have been done," he told the investigator. "I just want to be able to see my kids. I want to be able to return back to my patrol position and move on."

Afterward, Ruettimann went back to jail duty to await what he hoped would be a better outcome.

   

ON AUGUST 1, 2011, Ruettimann got his answer.

"Notice of intent to suspend," the letter read.

It was very much like the letter Fletcher's administration had written. While all mention of the Polaroids of his ex-wife were scrubbed, as was the implication that Ruettimann committed any felonies, the result was no less crushing. His punishment would be a 30-day suspension. He also learned he would not be allowed back on patrol duty. The demotion was halted, but he'd have to work in the courts. It'd be years before he could get back his old job.

At the time, he told friends he was fine.

"I'm going to take my punishment," Ruettimann said. "I'm going to earn my wings."

   

IN THE MONTHS AFTER the decision, Ruettimann's demeanor began to change.

He started spending an exorbitant amount of time on the phone. He called his best friend in Arizona, the friends he'd made in DARRT-PAC, his pastor, his sister—sometimes he called each of them multiple times in one day.

If he was talking to an acquaintance, Ruettimann pretended he was satisfied with the reassignment to the Ramsey County Courthouse. He'd have nights and weekends free to see his kids, and he'd be back on patrol in no time.

But closer friends knew Ruettimann had found out something new. Multiple local media outlets were requesting his Internal Affairs file. Once the investigation was finally closed, the outcome—along with the justification for punishment—would be available to the press.

"It's going to make me out to be a wife abuser and a liar," Ruettimann told his best friend Hilger. "My reputation is destroyed."

"It's not as bad as you think," Hilger responded.

Ruettimann would agree, but a few hours later he'd call back with the same worries.

During his suspension, he started showing up at Jimmy Hereaux's trailer park for coffee two or three times a day. He would sit in Jimmy's parents' trailer, sometimes as early as 7 a.m., worrying that Fletcher supporters within the department were still plotting against him. It got so that Jimmy's mother stopped looking forward to his visits.

Ruettimann's complaints were starting to sound more paranoid. In darker moments, he confided that he feared Fletcher might have him killed.

"If anything happens to me, call the FBI," Ruettimann told Jimmy.

A week before Ruettimann was set to go back to work, he handed over the accordion file to Hereaux and told him to give it to the City Pages reporter whose name was on the envelope.

On Saturday, October 2, Deters was packing up for a casino trip to Hinckley with a friend. When her ride arrived, Ruettimann followed the pair out into the garage, where Deters's friend complimented his prized Ford F-150, the truck he liked to pick his kids up with.

"Do you want to buy it?" Ruettimann asked her.

"C'mon, you love this vehicle!" Deters scoffed, brushing it off.

Deters kissed him goodbye and left.

Ruettimann was supposed to go to his sister's for dinner, but then called to say it was too late, he was tired and wanted to talk to Hilger.

When he talked to Ruettimann, Hilger was surprised by how calm he seemed for once.

"Nah, I'm fine," Ruettimann said. "I'm okay."

At 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, Deters called Ruettimann from Hinckley. She'd won $1,600 the night before. Ruettimann seemed happy for her. They made plans for later that day.

But before she returned home, he headed to the guest bedroom downstairs. In the closet, he pulled down his gun case and removed his service weapon, which had just been given back in preparation for his return to duty. He removed a single bullet from a box of ammo.

Ruettimann drove his car north for about an hour, past the city where his sister lived, up past Hinckley where Deters was. Ruettimann pulled onto County Road 61 and cruised through the farmland for several miles.

Eventually, he happened upon Hammersma Drive. He passed the only two homes on the dirt path, and rolled to a stop when the gravel became an empty hay field.

Ruettimann walked outside the car, raised the gun to his head, and fired.