America's Most Wanted Dad
As Dale Blue was driving home from work last April 24, he saw no hint of the surprise party about to be sprung in his honor. He never caught a glimpse of any of the TV trucks or police cars or SUVs full of FBI and BCA agents that were massing near the apartment building where Blue lived in downtown Anoka, waiting for him to get home. Instead he walked in the door as usual, to the news that an FBI agent had phoned and would be calling again.
Blue's son, Michael Benson, had escaped from a locked unit at the state hospital in St. Peter a week earlier, and Blue and his girlfriend, Sharon Lang, were getting used to fielding calls from cops. He didn't mind; he understood that when a prisoner escaped—particularly one as dangerous as Benson, a thoroughly unrepentant serial rapist—cops always kept tabs on the family, because sooner or later escapees usually called on their families for help. Blue had only been home for a moment when the phone rang again. He agreed to meet the FBI agent on the other end of the line the next day.
A few minutes later, a dozen armed officers burst into the apartment. They seized Blue, patted him down, handcuffed him, and placed him under arrest on charges of aiding and abetting his son's escape. They then proceeded to search his wallet and his home. They demanded to see Lang's ID, but when she reached for her purse, the two agents closest to her jumped. One barked that she shouldn't make any more quick movements.
Two of the agents took Blue into the tiny apartment's bedroom and told him it was his last chance to tell them what he knew or they were taking him to jail. When he insisted he knew nothing, they led him down a short, dark hallway and out the building's main door into the parking lot.
It took a moment for Blue's eyes to adjust to the harsh sunlight outside, and the scene he beheld might have made him think he was hallucinating. Some 50 SUVs clogged the leafy downtown Anoka side street, and armed officers ringed the small building. The FBI, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and police from Anoka and St. Peter were there, as were TV vans, satellite trucks, and a phalanx of six rolling video cameras. Front and center: a crew from the reality-TV manhunt show, America's Most Wanted.
Stories about the hunt for Benson dominated the news at the time, and in the coming days and weeks the clips of Blue being arrested and paraded in front of cameras were broadcast over and over—nationally as well as locally, thanks to America's Most Wanted. The show's webpage titled the Benson/Blue story "A Family Affair," and the purported details were offered up breathlessly: Blue smuggled saw blades to Benson inside a pair of boots so Benson could cut a bar from his window, and might have subsequently helped Benson elude capture. To frustrate any effort to aid Benson, Blue was booked into the Nicollet County jail on $1 million in bail—an amount befitting a killer.
But a review of the investigators' reports in the case shows officials had no real evidence against Blue. In fact, even before they began questioning him, investigators had several good leads on who had helped Benson and the three other men who broke out with him. They had even arrested the mother of another escapee, who quickly confessed to being the intended getaway driver. More potentially explosive, they had indications that staffers at the St. Peter facility may have helped.
Yet despite the evidence pointing to others, Blue would not be released on bail until two weeks after his son's capture on May 2. And the charges against him would not be dropped until mid-August, when his frustrated attorney demanded a hearing to determine whether there had ever even been probable cause to arrest Blue in the first place. Even today, the Nicollet County attorney says he is continuing to investigate Blue—yet he has not charged the confessed getaway driver or any of the escapees' other alleged accomplices.
Blue would like the return of the $18,000—the sum total of his retirement account—that the ordeal has cost him in legal fees and expenses. And he'd like the return of the "evidence" police seized from his home. But more than that he'd like public vindication, and some acknowledgement that he was arrested chiefly because, as the father of a sex offender, people figure he's probably no better than his son.
"To arrest someone because they're blood-related, that doesn't happen in this country," says Blue. "It might happen in some Third World country, but it's not supposed to happen in this country."
If Blue had nothing to do with his son's escape, it wasn't for lack of Benson's trying to recruit him. On March 21, Blue and Lang were in Oklahoma for the funeral of one of Lang's relatives when Blue's cell phone rang. The number that came up indicated Benson was calling from a state hospital. Blue wasn't prepared to deal with him then, so he ignored the call. Benson tried again every few hours, 18 times in total. After several days, Blue took a call from a number he didn't recognize. The woman on the other end was calling on behalf of her uncle, another St. Peter confinee, Blue says. The uncle wanted Blue to pick up the next time Benson called.
Benson finally caught up with his father right after Blue returned to Anoka the following Saturday. Like other calls made from Minnesota's sex offender lockups, the call was recorded, and after Benson's escape, investigators transcribed it. Benson told Blue he'd been moved from Moose Lake to St. Peter and asked Blue to visit the next day. When Blue said he was tired, Benson asked if he'd come Monday. Benson protested that he had a job. Benson pressed harder, and Blue became exasperated. Benson pleaded, saying he was about to be moved "back up to prison," which Blue took to mean Moose Lake. Blue eventually agreed to consider a visit on the following weekend.
It all made sense a couple of days later when Blue got a letter in which Benson said he planned to escape and hoped Blue would help. "The reason I wanted to talk to you in person is I wanted you to take a look at the town of St. Peter," Benson wrote. "As I stated earlier we have a solid, sound and good plan. Nothing is perfect, so just in case something unforeseen happens in the next 14 days we will have to move. And that means we won't have a ride. If I make an emergency phone call to you I would need you to be in the parking lot of the bowling alley by 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Any later and we're toast."
After laying out the risks to Blue as he saw them, Benson concluded his letter by saying he'd understand if his father didn't show up, but he'd be incommunicado for several months. If Blue did visit, he warned he might not be allowed contact because Benson had been caught with a tool in his room: "If you only knew how close a call that was you would truly laugh," he bragged.
When officers from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension first showed up at Blue's home to tell him Benson had escaped, he showed them the letter. It's not hard to see why investigators would read Benson's words and presume a certain level of intimacy between father and son, but Blue told them that he'd written back telling Benson to straighten out and take responsibility for his crimes.
In fact, it wasn't the first time father and son had had this exchange. "He was always talking about escaping, but to me it was just chitter-chatter. He asked about a crop-duster one time and I thought, 'This guy is nuts,'" says Blue. "I had also called his social worker at Moose Lake and tried to tell them about his talking about escaping, but they weren't interested."
After Benson's capture, Blue's attorney hired a Minneapolis forensic document examiner to test the notebook in which Blue said he had written his reply to his son's request for help. She used electrically charged particles to highlight the indentations several pages down on the notebook in question; a composite of several pages revealed Blue's response in stark relief.
"NO!! I won't be part of something where innocent people may get hurt," the father's reply reads. "I couldn't live with that on my mind. I don't know your friends or what they are capable of. Michael, you're 40+ years old, soon you'll be in your fifties—where does it all end? You've wasted your whole life fighting the system. You've lost and you're still loosing [sic]."
Blue then writes that he's sorry he wasn't a part of his kids' early lives, "but back in the '60s it was unheard of [for] fathers to have custody.... I won't allow you to walk on the family or use them," he continues. "Just be straight with all of us.... No games! When you have something to say that isn't B.S.—call me."
Two days after the visit from BCA agents, Blue showed Benson's letter to agents from the FBI and then showed it to them again a day or two later when they came back. One of the agents then called asking for a copy, so Lang agreed to fax it to the bureau. During her conversation with the agent, she says, she joked that it was Blue's property and she hoped he wouldn't be mad.
After Blue's arrest, Lang stayed right where officers asked her to, on the couch, while the remaining cops tore the two rooms apart. They were particularly interested in two pairs of boots in the closet and asked Lang why they were different sizes. They were different brands, she explained, and didn't fit the same. Unsatisfied, investigators pulled the boots open and took pictures of the size designations in each pair.
An agent Lang had never seen before started sifting through a basket of DVDs and books on the floor by the couch. The officer shouted to his colleagues that he'd "found something," and that they should see what Lang "was hiding."
As Lang remembers it, her jaw dropped. One of the FBI agents in particular should have known better, she thought: It was the letter she had already faxed to his office a couple of days before. She looked at the agent, who was rifling through her desk. The agent said nothing, however, and kept his back to her.
Later, when Lang saw the application for a search warrant, she grew appalled all over again. Her quip that the letter was Blue's and perhaps she ought not fax it had morphed. In the version of the story the cops told the judge, Blue had threatened to kill Lang for revealing the letter.
In St. Peter, Blue says, officials immediately began applying pressure. They told him his estranged daughter was coming to visit from her home in Indiana. He concluded it was a setup the second she arrived. While Lang had been made to do her visiting from behind a glass partition, his daughter was allowed in the jail library. Lang says guards at the jail told her the woman was brought in by the FBI in an effort to get Blue to say where Benson was.
Similarly, Blue says he quickly saw through the jail guards' seemingly generous offers to let him visit the library; every time he did, inmates were waiting to grill him about his son's whereabouts.
Michael Benson was in a bar in Kansas City drinking with one of the regulars when the episode of America's Most Wanted featuring him and his father aired the following Saturday. He demanded that the bartender turn the sound down. But in a novelistic twist that would earn the story national play, the bartender turned out to be such a huge fan of the show that she had Tivo'd it at home. It was past 4:00 a.m. when she settled down to watch—and recognized Benson. Apprehended at the home of a new drinking buddy, Benson told police his father had nothing to do with his escape and bragged at some length about his almost-successful plot and how easy it had been to fool hospital staff.
"My father had absolutely nothing to do with my escape," Benson wrote in a letter to City Pages shortly after his capture. "He wanted me (as so many family members of other MSOP detainees feel as well) 'to work with the program'.... The authorities knew that by showboating my father in a jail jumpsuit on TV and in the newspapers that I would turn myself in, which I was intending to do if I had not been arrested." (For the record, Blue says he doubts Benson would ever have turned himself in for his father's sake.)
The weakness of the evidence, coupled with Blue's reconstructed reply letter, impressed a judge enough to win a reduction in bail from $1 million to $10,000 a week after Benson's capture. Yet prosecutors still refused to drop the charges, and his attorney, Marsh Halberg, spent the next two months asking to see the evidence linking his client to the escape. In August Halberg filed a motion pointing out that most of the evidence he had been given pointed toward other suspects, and asked the court for a hearing to determine whether there was even probable cause to charge Blue.
In response, prosecutors offered Blue a plea bargain called a continuance for dismissal. He would not have to admit guilt, there would be no penalty, and the charges would quietly be dismissed entirely in a year provided Blue did not "re-offend." Angry, Blue demanded a trial.
"Usually the complaint is just the tip of the iceberg. But here that's all there was, was the tip—there was nothing below," Halberg says. "Dale felt any negotiation short of an outright and immediate dismissal would imply he had done something wrong and that was not acceptable to him. Dale is a very proud man and his reputation means everything to him."
On August 11, Nicollet County Attorney Michael Riley Sr. dropped the charges, but did so "without prejudice," saying "further investigation" was in order. The Star Tribune, where Blue's photo and news of his arrest had been part of a front-page story on Benson's escape, published a 238-word note about it on page 5B.
On the wall behind the overstuffed couch that dominates Blue's crowded two-room apartment is a shadowbox holding an array of artifacts from his Ojibwe heritage. A small black medicine bag is pinned to one corner—"When I go, it goes with me," he explains. To its left, his grandmother's faded apron fans out diagonally. Open the frame and it still smells like her cooking, he says.
Dale Blue is 60, but possessed of thick black hair that does nothing to betray his age. Of medium build, he's barrel-chested and clear-eyed. In conversation he's usually laconic, becoming animated only when talking about an upcoming powwow. He turns palpably remorseful when the topic switches to Benson.
Blue was raised on the White Earth reservation by his grandmother and grandfather, who worked as a deputy sheriff, bricklayer, carpenter, and bus driver. After high school, he went to a technical college for a couple of years before Vietnam intervened. He spent 14 months there in 1968 and 1969 as a sniper with the 101st Airborne, assigned to the Fourth Infantry Division. He rose to the rank of sergeant, fighting in the Tet Offensive and receiving both the silver and bronze stars as well as a Purple Heart. "I don't like to brag about them," he says. "I leave that to the guys who died or were hurt there."
After the war, Blue attended the University of Minnesota until his GI Bill money ran out, at which point he went to work as a social worker. One of his jobs was to help place Indian children in foster homes. Nowadays, in addition to serving as caretaker of the small apartment complex in Anoka where he lives with Lang, Blue works in a factory that builds street-sweepers. He has four adult children, Benson and three daughters. He enrolled each child in the tribe at birth so that they would be eligible for any educational benefits, but after his divorce from their mother, who lives near Fergus Falls, he really didn't see them until they reached high school age and began visiting on their own. "But what damage had been done to [Benson's] mind was already done," he says.
For a long time, Blue tried to help Benson, who bears his stepfather's surname. He visited Benson at prison powwows and tried to steer him toward treatment. Benson was in the Army when Blue first realized his son had major issues. "We found out he was having some problems with sexual predator issues," says Blue. Two marriages followed, along with allegations of assaults.
In April of 1989 Benson broke into a home in the Iron Range town of Virginia in the middle of the night, abducted a woman, and drove her to a construction site where he raped her and threatened to kill her. He pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct and was referred to a state hospital for evaluation for sex offender treatment. There Benson told psychologists that he enjoyed "violently oriented pornography" and "boastingly admitted" that during the previous four or five years he had committed other rapes like the one he had confessed to.
"Benson relayed to staff that he 'felt like a god' when he raped his victims," court records say. "He did not express remorse for the harm he caused his victims and did not seem to be 'experiencing any genuine distress about himself.'" He wasn't remorseful because he was "too proud of his sexual history [sic] exploits."
The diagnosis was antisocial personality disorder: "Benson admitted to being compulsive and out of control. He described himself as an 'impatient person who becomes enraged when women are unresponsive to his lines.' He freely admitted that he would have raped any young, attractive female on the night he raped his most recent victim. According to staff, he enjoyed humiliating his victims and derived sadistic pleasure from sexually and physically assaulting them. In fact, he told staff that he hoped his rape victims were not enjoying the sexual contact, and, that if he thought they were enjoying it, he would 'probably have beat them more.'"
Benson said he wanted treatment, so after sentencing he was sent to the state prison at Oak Park Heights, which had a program for sex offenders. But he was disruptive and refused to participate. Near the end of his three-year sentence, Benson was again offered treatment, this time at the prison in Lino Lakes, but again he refused to participate.
In September 1991, Benson was paroled. Blue drove to Stillwater to pick him up and take him to a Native American halfway house in Minneapolis. Within a month Benson had been sent back to prison for skipping out of the program. Blue agreed to take him in the next time he was paroled. But Benson took off again. The third time Benson was paroled, he adopted an alias, Michael Dale Blue, and moved to the Mille Lacs reservation. Several months after he set up house with a woman there, a neighbor who happened to be a tribal police officer went over to check out a disturbance and found Benson drunk and incoherent. According to court documents, Benson told the officer he had killed a man who raped his little girl.
In May 1992, a court committed him to the Minnesota Sexual Offender Program. He was sent to the security hospital in Moose Lake, where court records say he quickly became "a management problem." According to court documents filed in response to the five unsuccessful appeals of his commitment Benson has lodged, he had a knack for pitting staff and patients against each other, and he threatened staff. He repeatedly assaulted other patients and spent a lot of time in solitary.
Benson had a particular dislike for the lead "security counselor," whom he assaulted three times, leading to the man's transfer to another unit for his own protection. Court files say he justified the attacks by claiming he was a political prisoner and the state hospitals were Minnesota's Gulag, its Guantanamo.
Instead of attending treatment, Benson spent his days at Moose Lake writing a self-published novel together with another offender committed to the program, Dr. James Poole. Full Disclosure tells the story of Oo-zah-wah, a.k.a. Yellow Cloud, a 36-year-old Native American man falsely imprisoned for rape in a facility called Goose Lake. Its staff is made up wholly of women, all of them vindictive and controlling except for a beautiful young psychologist who falls in love with Oo-zah-wah and his Native spirituality. She comes to see him as a political prisoner on whose behalf she is compelled to crusade.
Benson sent his father a copy of the book, but Blue didn't read it.
The main purpose of the perp walk, of parading a manacled suspect in front of cameras as he or she is transported from one place to another, is to show that police are working hard to protect the public. And it was Blue's bad fortune that Benson's escape was a political hot potato. In the two years since college student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped and murdered by repeat sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his opponent in the upcoming gubernatorial election, Attorney General Mike Hatch, had been engaged in high-stakes finger-pointing.
The state failed to keep high-risk psychopaths like Rodriguez behind bars in order to save money, Hatch insisted. Pawlenty in turn spearheaded a doubling of the number of people detained in Minnesota's sex offender treatment program. With Benson on the lam and no progress to report to a public still raw from the murders of Sjodin and Katie Poirier, it's not hard to conclude Blue was as good a perp to walk as any.
Not even the Nicollet County attorney, whose office is responsible for prosecuting the four St. Peter escapees, has been able to learn the findings of the Minnesota Department of Human Services' investigation into the breakout. A summary that has been made public hints at major dysfunction and describes staff as inept at best, yet concludes that "policies and procedures" were adequate. But the picture painted by St. Peter police, BCA, and DHS investigators' own files in Blue's case suggests the DHS synopsis may be glossing over serious lapses.
Shortly after the escape, around 9:00 p.m. on April 15, hospital staff discovered that one of the metal bars in Michael Benson's room had been sawn through, and the bar used to smash out the security glass. Benson squeezed out first, presumably lowering himself two stories to the ground with a makeshift rope of belts and sheets. He left behind a hand-lettered sign reading, "Do you believe me now about one of your staff hint hint?"
Nothing after that went according to plan, though. The next man out, Donald Hill, weighed 300 pounds and had slathered on baby oil in the hope of slipping through, but got stuck anyhow. Benson was long gone by the time his comrades had pushed Hill through the window and squeezed out themselves. All three were quickly caught.
Hill's mother had agreed to drive his sister's car from their northern Minnesota home to St. Peter, where she would leave it in the parking lot of a bowling alley with money, the title, and a key stashed under the floor mat. Katherine Hill was also supposed to put a bag of marijuana and some full gas cans in the trunk so the escapees would not have to stop for gas. She got drunk, though, and managed only to get to the Bowlero parking lot.
She was still there when a man she later identified as Benson ran up and threw some things in the car. But a suspicious bystander quickly called police. When the squad arrived, the man ran off with an officer in hot pursuit. Hill was pulled over about five minutes later and arrested for drunk driving. She admitted that she had agreed to help her son, but insisted she hadn't brought along marijuana or gas cans because her real plan was to talk him out of running away.
By contrast, Benson was methodical. After his capture, he bragged to investigators that he had spent years planning. He got the idea of sawing through the bars after seeing a cutaway model of the window in the hospital workshop. When this turned out to take months, he found ways to hide his activity. He used other patients as lookouts, and double-sided tape to hide the blades on the side of his lamp and in his air vent. It was easy to distract the staffers who searched his room, he said.
(In his letter to City Pages, Benson says his "extremely daring and dramatic dash to freedom" came after "five months of cleverly camouflaged hard work with a hacksaw on one of the concrete-filled, 43-pound steel bars on the window on [my] cell.")
Benson also told investigators that he'd wanted numerous patients in on the plot: The more fugitives police had to track, he figured, the better his personal chances of eluding them. Earlier, patients who stayed behind told investigators they thought Benson kept his would-be collaborators from chickening out by assuring them his father was waiting on the outside to smooth their way.
Like DHS, the Nicollet County attorney refuses to discuss any of the cases stemming from the breakout, and the St. Peter Police Department failed to return City Pages' calls. But court records suggest at least three police leads on how Benson could have obtained the blades. Donald Hill told St. Peter police that a hospital staffer "provided numerous hacksaw blades and a Sawzall blade to cut the bar" to one of the conspirators, Paul Knutson, who supposedly passed the blades to Benson. A patient who did not participate in the escape told investigators he heard Blue had sent boots containing hacksaw blades to Benson. But Knutson did in fact receive two pairs of boots, something that drew investigators' attention.
"Every piece of mail or packages [sic] is documented from whom, to whom, what it is, and so on," Benson wrote to City Pages. "There is no documentation that I received the boots, or that my father sent me anything. That story is a lie. There was documentation on somebody, and they know who, but they will have to destroy or lose that paperwork, lest they incriminate themselves."
Most likely, Benson is partly right. Hospital administrators were supposed to start monitoring inmate mail and phone calls more closely in the wake of two escapes in recent years. They appear to have overlooked Benson's letter to his father hinting at his escape plan. But after Benson's breakout, they were able to locate and transcribe not only the conversation in which Blue refused to come visit him but three phone calls between Donald Hill and his mother in which they discussed plans for the getaway in explicit detail.
The DHS' abbreviated report of its investigation also soft-pedals the fact that Benson was able to spend weeks cutting the bars in his window "due to staff not completing required window checks and not being actively engaged with the patients on the unit." Equally egregious, staffers had overheard and dismissed talk of an escape plot. Yet someone on the staff had nonetheless turned off the alarm system. In the words of the report, "The electronic perimeter monitoring system, when activated, was sufficient to have alerted staff in the control center to the breach of the bars and window. The perimeter system had been deactivated by staff contrary to established policies and procedures."
Other contributing factors cited: The housing of those committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and state hospital patients in the same facility; the number of policy changes regarding the sex offender program; the fact that a majority of sex offender program line staff and unit managers have less than two years experience; and an atmosphere of disrespect and intimidation between staff and patients. (The union representing hospital staff says five people were fired in the wake of the investigation and three more were disciplined.)
"All patients, including those not participating in treatment, require more structure and opportunities for activities in their daily routines," the report advised. "MSOP patients at all levels of the program are frustrated by a perception that there is not a way to get discharged from the program." It's arguably more than a perception. Theoretically it's possible to be discharged from Minnesota's sex offender treatment program, but no one ever has been.
For Blue and Lang, guilt by association has had real negative ramifications. Both of Lang's adult children have died in recent years and she has had to stop working as the result of a series of debilitating illnesses. The most recent was a bad case of shingles her doctor said was provoked by the stress of Blue's arrest. While Blue was in jail she got telephone death threats, and she says she's livid that law enforcement officials—she doesn't even know which agency—still have her address book and other personal belongings.
They've been ruined financially, too. In addition to losing wages while he was in jail, Blue had to cash in his 401(k) to pay for his defense. "I don't know how we're going to recover," Lang says.
Blue's managers at Tennant Co. have been supportive, but 1,600 people work there, he says, "and you always have these people who sit on the fence." He's more amazed that the owners of the apartment complex didn't remove him from the caretaker position. Several tenants said they were afraid Benson would show up, and one prospective renter even arrived while Blue was being arrested.
But the real damage, they say, is feeling that Blue's name hasn't been cleared. "I don't really feel that Dale has been vindicated," Lang complains. "They dismissed the charges without prejudice, so he has that hanging over his head. And I'm not sure a dismissal means anything to people. And the truth is, they had nothing to begin with.
"I don't think they realize what they've done to us. They pretty much screwed with our whole lives," says Lang. "It was all for the cameras."
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