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Showdown in St. Paul: Two sheriffs clash over dysfunction in the Ramsey County Jail

Rob Dobi

Rob Dobi

Halfway through the midnight shift on an early winter morning, St. Paul Police dropped a 22-year-old man at the Ramsey County Jail. He’d been kicked out of Doc’s Landing in White Bear Lake for allegedly shouting at a woman in the bar.

As the intoxicated inmate waited to be processed, he became increasingly agitated. He called out to correctional officers about the status of his charges. They ordered him to sit down and wait his turn.

According to reports from five jailers staffing the booking area, he singled out CO Jason Flahave, demanding to know why the “smallest guy” in the room was telling him to be quiet.

Finally, the inmate was called. As he walked past Flahave, he leaned in and whispered something no one else could hear.

In a flash, Flahave shoved the inmate against the wall, where he cracked his head against a window. Three other jailers forced him to the ground.

Sgt. Amber Gray, Flahave’s wife, sprinted from an adjacent room. She pressed a taser against the inmate’s back as he was cuffed.

Bob Fletcher

Bob Fletcher Ben Garvin / Star Tribune

According to Flahave, the inmate had threatened to “beat [his] little ass.”

But a supervisor thought he overreacted. The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office referred the case to the Minneapolis city attorney, who charged Flahave with assault. The prosecutors’ argument: Because the inmate had already gone through metal detectors, the guard couldn’t reasonably believe he was in danger.

Flahave was placed on administrative leave.

In the sedentary months that followed, Flahave began to spiral. He’d sit at home in a stew of stress, ruminating on his chances of finding another career at age 38 without a college degree. He’d ask Gray if she planned to leave him once he lost his job. She’d call in sick on the days he’d weep and fantasize about how the world would be better off without him. She was terrified of leaving her gun in the house.

Flahave also had spinal stenosis—pinching nerve pain in the lower back—which led to an overreliance on prescription fentanyl.

One night in January, Gray woke in the middle of the night to find her husband bare-chested and uncovered. She nudged him to pull on a shirt, lest he catch a cold. Flahave didn’t respond. He was cold to the touch.

She panicked and slapped him in the face. A fentanyl patch fell out of his mouth.

Six months after her husband’s overdose, Gray spends her weekends in Isanti with her mother, who suffered a stroke. A pack of rescue dogs has the run of the porch.

“I hate my life. It sucks. I miss him every day,” she says icily behind a pair of oversized sunglasses. “And I still have to go into that place because I work there.... That’s where we met.”

There are important things to understand about the years of struggle that preceded her husband’s excessive force complaint, Gray says.

The sheriff’s office, like agencies the nation over, faced intense pressure to reduce its use of force. At the same time, it failed to provide realistic alternatives for defusing the skirmishes and ambushes that arise in jail, she says.

Last year, COs didn’t receive their state-mandated use-of-force training. A staff exodus forced jailers to work thousands of hours in overtime. Without reinforcements, they couldn’t take bathroom breaks or let inmates out to stretch their legs. There was no one to spare for annual training.

Guards complained about the lack of instruction and conditions that left them with little chance to care for the dignity of people in custody.

They lay these problems at the feet Sheriff Jack Serier.

II. Dynastic feuds

Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom announced his resignation to take a position teaching in Oxford, England. On the left is Inspector Booker Hodges and Chief Deputy Jack Serier.

Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom announced his resignation to take a position teaching in Oxford, England. On the left is Inspector Booker Hodges and Chief Deputy Jack Serier.

For 16 years, the sheriff’s office was the domain of former St. Paul police officer Bob Fletcher, whose old-school leadership earned him a folkloric reputation as a cop’s cop. He was known for rolling up his sleeves when jail staffing ran thin, patrolling cell blocks and talking to inmates.

He also had a pocketful of ambitious ideas, which perforated his career with controversies.

Fletcher’s brainchild, the Metro Gang Strike Force, conducted important investigations of suspected gang members. However, it also lost track of evidence and confiscated cars, cash, and other valuables from people who were never charged with crimes. Two of his investigators went to prison for pocketing wads of drug money under FBI surveillance.

Prior to the 2008 Republican National Convention, Fletcher took heat for raiding anarchist headquarters, seizing boxes of pamphlets and buttons protected by the First Amendment. Protests culminated in the mass arrest of activists and journalists.

He warred with the Ramsey County Board, once suing commissioners for cutting his budget. He was seen as answerable to no one.

By contrast, his successors were glaringly tame.

Matt Bostrom, another former St. Paul cop and son of longtime Councilman Dan Bostrom, ousted Fletcher in 2010 with a campaign capitalizing on rumors of cronyism.

Casting himself as a restorer of trust, Bostrom was a scholar with all the gentility the county board could hope for. He had a taste for theories about professionalizing police, believing that people were born either with or without good character; they couldn’t be taught. So the sheriff’s office would recruit people with intrinsic reserves of honesty and responsibility, then train them to be competent.

According to many jailers who spoke to City Pages anonymously for fear of retaliation, Bostrom’s “character-based” hiring was subjective. And it insulted some by implying that officers who predated his takeover lacked basic decency.

The new recruits tended to be young and college-educated, without detention experience, but with plenty of ambition to use the jailer job as a stepping stone to becoming licensed cops. It seemed as if entire CO academies would train in, work the jail for a short time, then depart for policing jobs. It was the start of a cycle of attrition that would eventually lead to a “state of emergency.”

III. A fast and furious rebellion

Every day at 7 a.m., Ramsey correctional officers stir the inmates from bed. Nurses hand out medicine. People are shuttled to court. The injured are escorted to the infirmary. Detectives come calling to interview the accused.

The atmosphere is not nice. An undertow of racist and sexist language follows jailers everywhere they go. Throw in fights, staff assaults, unsubtle sex between inmates, chemical withdrawal, and mental health crises, and jail life can be a struggle.

Jailers complain of a disconnect between the sheriff and his staff, who tend to be high school graduates from modest backgrounds with more street smarts than academic pedigree.

Under ideal conditions, inmates would get three hours free from their cells each morning and night. Yet barebones staffing forced guards to lock down entire wings for three days at a time, with exceptions only for quick showers and emergency phone calls.

Revolt was inevitable. Inmates ripped sprinklers from ceilings and flooded toilets with wadded sheets, wrecking plumbing. Those who received brief excursions outside of their cells refused to return. Once locked up, they had no idea when the doors would open again.

Sam Young, an army veteran who served in Iraq, found himself sitting in a Ramsey County jail cell after pulling a gun on a carjacker in St. Paul. Charges of terroristic threats were eventually dismissed, but he recalls his three days in detention as one of the worst experiences of his life.

Young’s cellmates included a man suffering from withdrawals with scant medical attention, and a 19-year-old California transfer whose stench reminded him of amputated limbs in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, where Young provided aid with the Army. They were denied showers their first day locked together.

“In my opinion, that’s torture,” Young says. “When we would detain someone overseas, it was generally after a gun battle or raiding someone’s house who had maybe produced explosive devices to kill Americans, and we’d still take them and treat them with some decency.”

Sometime after his release, Young ran into a CO at the Moose Country bar in Mendota Heights. The jailer explained they just didn’t have enough time to care for every inmate.

IV. Dark horse

The outside world knew nothing about the brewing crisis. Bostrom won reelection unchallenged.

Then, in 2016, midway through his second term, he quit.

Unbeknownst to the public, Bostrom had enrolled at Oxford University to research “character-based” hiring. He spent more than a month in London, collecting county pay, before reporters noticed his absence. The sheriff announced his resignation to his underlings over Skype. The Ramsey County Board would choose a replacement.

Bostrom’s heir apparent was Chief Deputy Jack Serier, a longtime suburban cop who’d worked the streets of St. Paul for two years before sliding into a series of administrative roles. He was Bostrom’s closest ally, a natural extension of his policies, and the personal favorite of Ramsey County Board Chair Victoria Reinhardt. She advocated for a swift and seamless handoff.

This left top female cops disillusioned by the board’s lip service to equity, while seemingly disinterested in their candidacies.

Nancy Haas, a lobbyist for county attorneys and judges, says many employees wanted her to apply so she could fix longstanding safety and morale issues. They felt that Bostrom and Serier’s “character-based” mantra wasn’t practiced at the top.

Laura Goodman, a former state crime-victim ombudsman with more than 30 years as a police officer, also considered fighting for the sheriff’s badge upon hearing of all the forced overtime for jailers.

“That’s a pretty serious issue for a number of reasons,” she says. “The most common is that when you have tired officers, you have officers that make mistakes, that have short tempers.”

The Teamsters union, which represents COs, tried to combat the board’s apparent indifference to understaffing. Union steward Chad Lydon wrote a letter to commissioners depicting an epic morale drain that built over Bostrom’s term, during which cell-locking systems frequently malfunctioned, assaults on staff skyrocketed by 80 percent, training for new hires became increasingly rushed, and defective metal detectors weren’t fixed.

Yet commissioners were determined to pick Serier. His was the only application they considered. During his interview, they lobbed softball questions about his mastery of budgets, his “hot dog with a deputy” youth outreach events, and his dedication to a “culture of care” that made the sheriff’s office a destination workplace.

“[Bostrom] is a great leader, mentor, advisor, colleague,” Serier testified. “He made me a partner in developing his vision and implementing it over the years.”

Members of the public in attendance, including many jailers, were not allowed to comment. Serier ascended the chain of command effortlessly.

V. A ghost pad in Railroad Island

The appointment was such a whirlwind event that it wasn’t until afterward that government watchdog group St. Paul Strong posed questions about Serier’s eligibility.

At the time, only Ramsey County inhabitants could hold the post, County Attorney John Kelly ruled. Yet Serier, a former Stillwater cop, was a longtime resident of Washington County. To smooth the transition, Bostrom leased his Payne Avenue townhouse to Serier prior to announcing his resignation.

The first person to notice the handoff was Kyle Mestad, then the sheriff’s director of planning and policy analysis. He lived a few doors down from Bostrom, collecting the boss’ mail while he studied abroad.

One day Mestad noticed an Xcel energy bill in Serier’s name, though the chief deputy’s car was never seen on the block, and neighbors thought the house a ghost pad. He worried that a paper trail was being created for a move that hadn’t taken place.

As reporters began to ask questions, Serier produced a lease and an energy bill, both dated to show he was living in St. Paul by October 2016. But records reveal Serier voted in Stillwater that November.

To settle the question, St. Paul Strong demanded to see location data from Serier’s county cell phone.

“I’m not addressing that,” Serier told City Pages. “If there’s a data request out there, that’s a whole other thing. None has ever been made.”

City Pages filed a request. The sheriff’s office turned it down, and Serier declined all subsequent interviews.

The Ramsey County Board refused to investigate. Perhaps not coincidentally, County Commissioner Reinhardt now serves as chairwoman of Serier’s reelection campaign.

After boasting to the board of his ability to stay under budget, Serier was reluctant to ask for more money for the staff-starved agency, says Mestad, who has since resigned.

“I’m very passionate about making sure our elected officials are good people. And I don’t support Jack because the way he treats people is not right. His management and decision-making process is extremely flawed, and he lied about his residency.”

VI. Mutiny in the ranks

The sheriff’s office commissioned Matrix Consulting Group to examine staffing. It found the department a damning 40 bodies short. However, the results were kept secret for six months as Serier settled in.

Yet a draft found its way to former sheriff Bob Fletcher, who had many friends in the agency. He shared the study widely, sparing no criticism.

The embattled new sheriff embarked on a mole hunt. He never found the leak, but a scouring of department emails detected Fletcher supporters.

Sgt. Lugene Werner was found to have emailed Fletcher, worried that an inmate was a potential terrorist. The county attorney had charged the man with chasing someone around a St. Paul apartment with a machete he called “the knife of God.”

Though Fletcher argued that Werner hadn’t sent him anything that wasn’t already public information, Serier accused the sergeant of violating inmate privacy. He demoted her and recommended criminal charges. Prosecutors were less enthusiastic, quickly dismissing the case for lack of evidence.

Werner was reinstated to sergeant.

Sgt. Cory Hendrickson, who’d been copied on the email, was fired. His inbox was also found to contain many personal messages. (Hendrickson, who declined comment, is contesting the termination through arbitration.)

Yet the sheriff’s sleuthing had no bearing on the underlying staffing problem. After paying $1.3 million in overtime in 2016, Serier tried to bridge the gap with a series of scheduling changes.

Eight-hour days expanded to 10. By working longer shifts, jailers were supposed to get every other weekend off—a luxury they hadn’t had in years. Serier sold it to the County Board as an “industry-leading” schedule that jailers overwhelmingly supported. They hadn’t. Everyone knew the jail lacked the bodies for what Serier proposed. The handful of COs who attended the board meeting left in silent protest.

Within the week, newly appointed Chief Deputy Steve Frazer dropped a bomb: Jailers would actually work 12-hour days.

Dave Kernal, a 16-year detention veteran, says COs scrambled to find care for aging parents and newborns. Some had to go to family court to reschedule visitations with their kids. Others dropped out of night school.

“They pretty much said, ‘Too bad, not my problem. Your life outside the jail, this administration doesn’t care about it,’” Kernal says. “They don’t give a rat’s ass about us.”

Not long afterward, 57-year-old inmate Christian Smalley, who was in jail for running over a woman in the parking lot of a St. Paul Target, leapt to his death from a second-floor tier. A state review faulted jailers for patrolling too quickly to have thoroughly checked inmates’ mental welfare. The sheriff’s office also neglected to install suicide barriers. But instead of remedying this, Serier elected to spend $192,000 on an administrative office makeover the following month.

COs believed the sheriff, who they say rarely set foot in the jail, cared little for working conditions. They circulated a no-confidence petition and delivered unto Serier a scornful nickname: “Lord Farquaad,” after the miniature villain with an oversized sense of entitlement from Shrek.

VII. Guns drawn

After more than a year in office, Serier hired enough COs to fully staff the jail. But they were largely rookies without experience.

This matters when a lone jailer supervising a room of 50 suddenly must deal with an inmate who makes a point of disobeying orders, COs say. An uncontrolled power play could spread like wildfire, and jailers aren’t looking to fight. Not when inmates won’t hesitate to seek revenge if staff does something dirty, like beating someone who’s handcuffed. Career jailers who work the same cell blocks their entire lives don’t tolerate excessive force. Wrongdoing paints targets on them all.

There’s an impression among jailers that those hired in Fletcher’s days are second-class citizens to the “character-based” hires who arrived after 2010. Veteran officers contend they’re denied promotions, and senior deputies testing for sergeant are shuffled to the bottom of the roster despite scoring higher on exams.

Serier also gained a reputation of dealing excessive punishment for minor infractions.

Deputy Joe Stradinger was suspended for 30 days after failing to answer his phone because he’d hit the gym after lunch, which was allowed under his flexible work hours. Deputy Bruce Booher was demoted for nodding off on the job after working 37 days in a row. Arbitrators eventually overturned both penalties, finding that the acts “no way justified the harshness of the discipline meted out.”

Employees say they accept their duty to perform ethically or face consequences. Yet they believe Serier and his supporters are held to more lenient standards.

In March, the sheriff’s office raided the Vadnais Heights home of a 13-year-old autistic boy who’d made a comment in school about shooting classmates. Investigators turned up dozens of firearms. The father, Christopher Stowe, was charged with felony improper storage and possession of illegal firearms.

This case came fresh on the heels of the Parkland, Florida high school massacre. Serier held a press conference, providing alarming photos of a tangle of rifles dumped on a mattress.

Four months later, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension concluded that what was originally thought to be a machine gun was actually a semi-automatic rifle, and a short-barreled shotgun was a pistol that fired bullets, not shells. The sheriff hadn’t bothered to confirm.

In April, Chief Deputy Steve Frazer appeared in Corporate Mark, a mom-and-pop embroidery store in St. Paul, to solicit donations for Serier’s reelection. Corporate Mark is a cop’s shop, brimming with police-themed clothing and ceremonial banners. It’s a place where officers from assorted agencies stop in to grab a piece of candy and chat with owner Linda Schwartzbauer.

Schwartzbauer is married to a Ramsey County deputy, so she was reluctant to complain when her husband’s boss asked her to hang a “Sheriff Jack Serier” T-shirt prominently on the wall.

Yet when other police noted that it’s unlawful for Frazer to campaign on county time, she turned to former sheriff Bob Fletcher. He filed an ethics complaint. (Frazer declined comment.)

Neither the Vadnais Heights gun case nor the donation solicitation resulted in discipline.

When Serier announced his bid for reelection, longtime Minneapolis cop Mike Martin stepped up to challenge him. Martin says he was persuaded after speaking with dozens within the department who felt misused and mismanaged. “They were men, women, people of every background, and they all seemed to hit on the same themes.”

Serier’s supporters included a who’s who of St. Paul politics—Congresswoman Betty McCollum, state legislators, county attorneys, city council members, and even a host of labor unions.

“Respect, responsibility, honor, and truth are at the core of everything that happens in Sheriff Serier’s office,” says campaign chairwoman Victoria Reinhardt. “I always know that Jack holds the best interests of the people in his department and of the people of Ramsey County in his heart. Sheriff Jack Serier’s integrity is beyond reproach.”

Neither of the unions representing COs and deputies endorsed Serier. Regardless, he won the DFL nomination easily in May, forcing Martin to abandon the race—and pass the baton to Fletcher, who filed to run as an independent mere hours before registration closed.

At an election launch party at Mancini’s Char House, Fletcher promised to outfit deputies with body cameras and merge the county jail and workhouse to improve the flow of mental health services. His campaign manager is 34-year-old organic farmer Mhonpaj Lee.

She met Fletcher decades ago when he showed up at St. Paul’s Mount Airy projects to sell her parents on the benefits of sport. He wanted to assemble the first Hmong Boy Scouts troupe in their neighborhood and organize a girls’ softball team. She grew up attending the early reading and swim programs run by the sheriff’s office, which were discontinued with Fletcher’s departure in 2010.

“I was so naive when I was younger. It wasn’t until I was older that I actually realized he was the sheriff of Ramsey County,” Lee says. “When Bob [lost] reelection, none of us kids had anywhere else to go. But I have to say, all the kids whose lives they touched, most of us went to college. We all have good careers.”

The feeling among Fletcher’s coalition—past and present sheriff’s employees, Hmong and Somali delegates, and former law enforcement rivals—seems to be that even if he isn’t the ideal candidate, he’s the only one with the name recognition to take down Serier.

Even St. Paul Strong’s Laura Goodman, who dragged Fletcher when she also ran for sheriff in 2010, says she’s far more confident in his ability to learn from his mistakes than in Serier admitting to any fault.

When correctional officer Jason Flahave died that January night, Fletcher called his widow, Amber Gray, the next morning. Jack Serier followed with his condolences three days later.

Reflecting on two years of dysfunction, Gray says she blames the incumbent sheriff for drawing a line in the sand between Fletcher loyalists and new hires—castes that didn’t exist before.

“There are a lot of us that do not want to see that man get elected,” Gray says of Serier. “He’s just not a good human being. He’s a politician first and human being second, if it’s even second.”