Panic in Loring Park

Self-portrait by Nickolas Valenty
Couresty of Chris Valenty

After settling into a chair at a Dinkytown coffee shop, Chris Valenty sifts delicately through a stack of letters and drawings. Valenty, a 40-year-old musician and record store manager, picks out one of the drawings and carefully flattens it on the table. Like the rest of the batch, the illustration is the work of his late brother, Nickolas Valenty. The macabre scene, rendered in the meticulous pen-and-ink style of Edward Gorey, depicts a woman sitting on a bed, sipping casually from a steaming teacup. A man reclines beside her with a beer in hand. In the foreground, a corpse is sprawled on the floor. The tongue hangs from the mouth in a pool of blood.

The body, Chris explains, is his brother. "He always wore a tweed coat," Chris says by way of explanation. "This was obviously supposed to be him." Valenty found the drawing four years ago, when he went to clean out Nick's apartment after Nick was stabbed to death. "I couldn't ever show it to my mom. It was just too painful," Valenty says of the picture. But he's drawn to it. The surrealistic flourishes—the random inclusion of an armadillo and a pineapple in the scene—remind him of his older brother's eccentric sensibilities.

And then there is the strange quality of prescience in the picture, which is the reason Valenty has picked it out. No one has been charged with Nick's murder. But, Valenty says, a Minneapolis police detective once showed him photos of the prime suspects. It was a couple—a man and a woman, just as Nick imagined in his picture.

However, unlike the scene depicted in the illustration, Nick Valenty, who was 39 at the time of his death, was not killed in his Spruce Place apartment. He was attacked while walking along the eastern edge of Loring Park. Valenty, a former valedictorian at Forest Lake High School, had lived in the area for 15 years. He never had a car or a driver's license, so he walked and bicycled everywhere. While the investigation into the murder stalled, Valenty says, police concluded that it was probably a random robbery.

Like the kin of a lot of murder victims, especially those who've yet to see justice, the Valenty clan has never really recovered from the loss. Valenty puts it bluntly: "Our whole family is screwed up and we will be all our lives." But Valenty's lingering feelings of frustration and sorrow about his brother's death were heightened after he heard about a recent surge of violent robberies in the vicinity of Loring Park. "I wrote to the detective who's working on my brother's murder and asked him what was being done to make the park safer. The only reply I got was that they know who my brother's murderers are and where they are, but that they just can't make the case," Valenty says.

The two detectives assigned to the Nick Valenty investigation could not be reached for comment. But, according to Lieutenant Mike Fossum of the Minneapolis Police Department, the Loring Park area did experience an unusual spike in robberies this fall. From mid-September to mid-October, Fossum says, there were reports of at least 20 robberies in the park and nearby Greenway. Most of the crimes were unusually violent in nature, with a group of attackers sucker-punching the victim—usually a lone male, usually at night—without saying a word.

Inspector Jannee Harteau, commander of the MPD's First Precinct, says the robberies took police by surprise. "Generally, Loring Park is not on our crime maps. Maybe an assault here and there and some prostitution. But this snuck up on us very fast," Harteau says. However, she dismisses the notion that police didn't respond adequately or get word out quickly enough. "We put out an alert, and we had the director of patrol do decoy operations, where officers set themselves up as potential robbery victims—an old guy, a guy in a wheelchair, a Joe Lunchbucket guy."

That initiative didn't produce any arrests. But police did get a break on the evening of October 15 after a lone pedestrian was beaten and robbed by a group of five or six juveniles. According to the MPD's Fossum, the victim lost his wallet but managed to keep his cell phone. Following the kids from a distance, he called 911. A nearby squad picked up one of the assailants right away. Two others in the group were located a few hours later at Seventh and Nicollet in the course of a curfew check. According to Fossum, the youths—who ranged in age from 15 to 17, and came from Fridley—initially denied any knowledge of the crime. Two confessed to their involvement after they were found in possession of stolen credit cards.

Fossum believes the same kids are responsible for as many as eight of the robberies in the park and the Greenway and may also be involved with robberies at a light rail station in south Minneapolis. But, Fossum adds, at least three other groups of robbers (including some adults) are thought to have been active in the Loring Park and Greenway areas over the period. He says investigators have been hampered by the inability to get good descriptions of suspects—a problem compounded by poor lighting, the sudden nature of the attacks, and, in some instances, the intoxication of the victim.

"It seems like these street criminals have some kind of informal communication about where the good marks are," Fossum observes. What's most disturbing, he says, is the gratuitous violence that accompanied the robberies. "In some of these cases, it's almost like the robbery is incidental, and the assault is half the fun."

For Chris Valenty, the news of recent arrests provides only a modicum of comfort. He thinks the police ought to keep a beat cop in Loring Park but acknowledges that budget constraints may make that difficult. And he thinks the police could work harder to make a case in his brother's killing. But there is something else he hopes for even more. "I wish Nick's ghost would visit me," Valenty says. "If anyone had a ghost, it would be him."

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