Rage Against the Machine
How does a man fall apart? Does he wake up angry one day, shaking with equal parts rage and terror, powerless against the hate clogging his soul? Or does he disintegrate slowly, crack by tiny crack, until there's nothing left to rebuild?
Dennis Williams can tell you that when a man falls apart it's like shard after shard of ice is chipped from his being. Only that instead of revealing a precious, short-lived sculpture, one of the blows eventually shatters the core.
Two months ago, on the first bitterly cold morning of the season, Williams found himself being led into a courtroom on the sixth floor of the Hennepin County Government Center. He wasn't there to defend himself against criminal charges--though he had been accused of threatening to kill eight city workers, his trial on that charge was a long way off yet. On this day, he was merely appearing to dispute his firing from a job he never had a chance to start.
The tables where prosecutors and defense attorneys usually sit before the judge had been pushed together for Williams's civil-service hearing. But the gulf between the two sides couldn't have been more obvious if it had been outlined in neon barbed wire. On one side sat Williams, in mirrored glasses and jailhouse-issue baby-blue pajamas. Too big for his chair, he spilled out of it in a posture that was half awkwardness, half studied cool. He had nowhere to put his knotty, oversized hands once the sheriff's deputies flanking him unlocked the cuffs. A speech impediment sometimes made his sworn testimony seem halting.
Across the chasm from Williams sat four white women, each of their fastidious business suits personalized by just a hint of scarf or gold, each head of hair coaxed into a soft frame around the face. Three of the women were staffers in the city's human resources and Public Works departments; the fourth, who rolled her eyes every time Williams's adviser spoke, was the assistant city attorney who had called them there. Instead of an attorney, Williams was represented by former Civil Rights Commission chair Ron Edwards, in blue jeans and boots.
In the course of the full-day hearing, Edwards and Williams argued that the city had acted unjustly in dismissing Williams. It had taken five applications, a discrimination complaint, and a lawsuit for him to get a menial job; he'd watched dozens of less persistent white applicants land the well-paid union position while city staffers lost his paperwork, made mistakes that cost him interviews, and--after he had the temerity to complain--put a "problem applicant" flag in his file.
By the time the city finally notified him that he had been hired, Williams had checked himself into the psychiatric ward of the Veterans Medical Center, more angry and depressed than he'd ever been in his life. And for the seven weeks preceding the court hearing, he had been sitting in the Hennepin County Jail because
a psychiatrist had told the city that Williams, in treatment, had spoken of his thoughts about "messing some people up."
A ruling from the civil-service commissioner who heard the case is expected in the next few weeks. But whichever way the decision goes, it likely won't do much to explain the events that led to this point. To understand what happened to Williams is to unravel a near-fantastic chain of snafus that the city has described as inexplicable "clerical errors"--but which to Williams, over time, came to look like an elaborate conspiracy to deny his family a decent livelihood.
Ask Dennis Williams how a man accumulates a load of anger so heavy it makes him cry for help, sets him fighting feelings so strong they scare him. And then ask him if it seems fair that the people who made his nightmares so dark want to put him in prison for the violence of his thoughts.
Landing a job with the city would have been a big break for a guy like Williams. Tending parks or working on a street-repair crew doesn't require any formal training; yet those jobs come with union cards and hourly wages that nudge $20 after a few years. They are also among the few remaining routes to benefits and paid vacation for someone lacking a résumé peppered with desirable skills.
Growing up, Williams never expected a fancy career. Neither of his parents had finished high school, and it was a constant scramble for them to support their seven kids. When Williams was very young, both his mother and father picked cotton in the South; after the family moved north to Memphis, his father took whatever work he could find in construction, sometimes traveling to take a job.
As a young man, Williams knew he'd have to be clever to escape that hand-to-mouth grind. When he was 17, he decided the military could provide him a way out--work hard, get along, and be taken care of. Less than four months after he joined the Army, however, Williams fell during a training exercise and permanently injured his back.
After an honorable discharge, he went to cosmetology school. But in the late '70s, there weren't many men styling hair, so he figured he couldn't make ends meet that way. His family had a small landscaping business and he worked there in between other odd jobs--baker's helper, grocery clerk, warehouse worker. In the mid-'80s, he did a stint as a custodian at the post office. That job paid $9 an hour, a decent income to Williams at the time. But eventually he decided he needed those bennies. He was entitled to health care from the Veterans Administration but his two kids weren't.
In 1989 Williams moved to Minneapolis. He knew people who lived in St. Paul, and he'd heard the job market was better up north. In 1991 he applied for a position as a Minneapolis firefighter, went through several city-administered tests, but was never called for an interview. In February 1993 he returned to City Hall to apply for two laborer jobs--a seasonal post with the Park Board, and a permanent construction and maintenance position in the city's public works division. (Although Minneapolis's Board of Parks and Recreation is an independent government entity, it uses the city's human resources department to screen and track applicants. Its employees are considered city civil servants.)
"My children were real small and I needed a job," Williams says. "Civil service was the area I pursued, based on the fact that there were positions there that didn't require a whole lot of skills but still were good-paying positions. I was hoping that this was my window of opportunity."
Williams landed the temporary parks job, which paid $7 an hour with no benefits. He started work in April and simultaneously kept pursuing a permanent park-keeper post and the city construction job.
He took a city-administered aptitude test and was judged qualified for both positions, according to city records. He was told his name would be placed on the list of candidates eligible to be hired. Everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly, and he spent the summer learning the custodial and maintenance duties of a park keeper--filling pools, buffing floors, keeping golf courses smooth and green.
When the seasonal parks workers were laid off that fall, Williams stopped by human resources and asked about the status of his application. He was stunned to learn that he was number 101 on the list of eligible candidates.
Applicants for city jobs are typically assigned a numerical score based on their qualifications, test scores, and a number of other factors such as whether they are a minority, disabled, or a member of some other group underrepresented in the ranks of public employees. They are then placed on an "eligible list" in the order of their number of points, and are called for interviews according to their rank.
Williams had ended up far down the list, it turned out, because he had been shorted the 10 points city rules grant to disabled veterans. Years later, city investigators would determine that had his file reflected those extra points, he would have been first on the list--and thus might well have been among the 25 people hired that year for the permanent jobs he sought.
According to city documents, Diane Bomsta, one of the human resources employees responsible for maintaining applicants' files, told Williams he hadn't proved that he was a disabled vet. Williams countered that he'd already given the required documents to human resources twice, but he resubmitted them anyway.
In January '94 Bomsta wrote Williams a letter acknowledging that he had a disability related to his military service. Now, she said, human resources wanted Williams to prove that he was a veteran. Williams took a deep breath and sent another copy of his discharge papers.
In February Bomsta wrote saying all the necessary documentation was now in his file. His score had been adjusted and he had moved up the list to the number-one position. Williams assumed that when the spring thaw brought a fresh round of hiring, he'd be called for an interview. The call never came.
In May Williams wrote to U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone and to Minneapolis City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes asking for help. By July city human-resources staffers informed Cherryhomes that while performing routine checks, they had learned Williams's driver's license had been suspended; this disqualified him from a job in Public Works.
When the information was finally forwarded to Williams three months later by Public Works Administration director Janice Garber, he was flabbergasted. A year earlier during a traffic stop, police had found a license suspension that, it turned out, had been earned by someone else. Williams had a letter from the state confirming that the error had been fixed. He took the document to the city, but it was too late for hiring that year. Garber urged Williams to apply again in 1995.
At this point Williams was beginning to wonder what was going on. "I was starting to understand that there was a pattern here," he says. "I was constantly being shut out based on small things." He was especially troubled, he says, that the excuses were always coming from the same people.
Still, he followed Garber's advice and, in March 1995, put his name into the city hopper once more. He appeared at number four on the list of eligible candidates and would have ranked even higher, had it not been for a whole new set of errors that popped up in his file.
The mistakes were worse this time. Not only did human resources fail to note Williams's status as a disabled veteran, but somehow his file was now missing information showing he had graduated from high school.
It was this part of Williams's odyssey that would later cause investigators with the city's Affirmative Action Management Division to express their first concerns about the case. "It does appear the department's failure to give Williams 10 additional points for his veteran's status was not just another administrative error," Affirmative Action investigator Hassan Salami wrote in late 1997. "It appears that a pattern of unfair treatment was becoming obvious. About 35 candidates were hired off the list between May and July 1995 and Williams, who ranked number four, was never referred to the hiring agency for an interview. Why that was the case, it was not clear to the investigator."
The summer of '95 marked Williams's third as a temporary park keeper. "I had seniority over people I saw hired [as permanent employees] who hadn't even had the experience I had had," he says. He also began to notice that "there were no people of color as crew leaders or foremen." Bringing those concerns to management got him branded a troublemaker, he says. "It was like a sticker was stuck on my forehead: problem employee. But I would always perform. I was always the seasonal who could be sent here or sent there to fill in for people who took vacations and stuff like that."
In July, a city investigation would later show, Williams received permission from Supervisor of Park Maintenance Michael Wallner to take a vacation to deal with family business out of town, something not normally allowed for temporary employees. When Williams's direct supervisor found, out he was furious. He argued with Williams, who countered that another seasonal worker in the same division, a white woman, was frequently given vacation time to spend with her husband, a full-time park keeper.
After Williams came back, he discovered that the supervisor had complained to Director of Park Maintenance Michael Schmidt, who had then fired Williams for walking off the job. (Schmidt and other Park Board officials declined to be interviewed for this story.) Eventually Schmidt asked human resources to delete the firing from Williams's file. But when Williams contacted that office in late September, he learned that not only had the error not been corrected, but he had been identified as a "problem applicant."
City officials would later explain to Affirmative Action investigators that some names in their database of applicants were marked with the notation "Prob," indicating either a need for further investigation or a previous firing from a city job. The information about Williams's firing was eventually expunged from the file. But the "prob" warning stayed.
By now Williams had become convinced that the Park Board was some kind of good-old-boys club. Yet he still hoped for a good-paying job with benefits and security; besides, forcing the system to correct its errors had become a matter of principle.
"It was something that I felt entitled to," he says of the chance to compete for a permanent job. It was also part of a long-term plan. "I'm a serious person. I have kids, a family, so I have to stay focused, stay serious."
But things were about to get personal. In the spring of '96, Williams didn't get called back to work when the rest of the temporaries did. He called human resources and was told that while the first record of his firing had been removed, he was now listed as having been dismissed again: The previous October, Schmidt had reported Williams as fired after he opted--again with Wallner's approval--not to stay on for some extra after-season work offered to the temps.
Williams called the Park Board, which agreed that the second firing was also an error, and he was called back to work in late April. He also applied, for the fourth time, for a permanent park-keeper position. On this go-around, his spot on the city list reflected preference points for being a veteran, but none in recognition of his disability. The missing points, investigators later found, meant he ranked number 67 on the 1996 eligible list, instead of 30. Bomsta and another human resources staffer, Mary Ann Stark, later told investigators that "they just could not understand such clerical errors."
Still, it was only after two complaints from the Affirmative Action office that Stark certified Williams for a job interview with the Park Board. He was apprehensive about the meeting--his interviewers were to be Schmidt and Wallner, the supervisors who had been involved in his firings the year before--but thought his work record could land him the job. In the summer of 1994, he planned on reminding them, he had been in charge of Corcoran Park all summer.
From Williams's perspective, the interview didn't go well. Schmidt and Wallner, he says, kept asking him why he was qualified to do the job, something he felt should have been clear from his record. "Why not stand up for us as seasonals?" he asks now. "They know we do the same work they are and we're not getting paid jack."
On July 1 Williams called Wallner and learned he hadn't made the cut. He says he was told, "Dennis, you came up a little short this time. We hired more qualified applicants." Williams says he wasn't surprised at the rejection, but Wallner's comment stung. How could he lack qualification, he reasoned, for a job he'd been doing--with good performance reviews, according to the attorney who later helped him sue the Park Board--for four seasons straight?
Two days later, Williams filed a complaint with the city's Affirmative Action office. He stayed at his temporary Park Board job for another three months, until the seasonals were laid off for the winter. Since then, all of his contact with his former employer has been via attorneys and investigators.
Through all his tribulations, there was one city employee Dennis Williams came to trust: Larry Blackwell, a soft-spoken veteran of 19 years as director of the city's Affirmative Action office. Blackwell had repeatedly angered city brass by pursuing controversial discrimination charges. His office had made headlines by investigating complaints about the work force at the city's Convention Center, the lack of minority contracts in the mid-'80s City Center construction project, and hiring and promotions at the Library Board of Trustees. Time after time he'd found reason for concern, only to have the area in question ruled off limits to his department.
"Quite frankly, nobody wants to be told that they have done something wrong," Blackwell told City Pages in 1996. "People are getting tired of affirmative action. It's like, well, if those people haven't made it by now, we are just kind of tired of that."
Blackwell himself was fired last May. At the time, city officials said his five-person office had built up too large a backlog of cases; at Williams's civil service hearing, human resources director Ann Eilbracht said she thought Blackwell had dragged his feet in Williams's case. But Williams and his supporters say it was the other way around: Blackwell was too persistent in investigating the matter. (Blackwell is suing the city and won't comment on his former job.)
Williams says that for years, Blackwell tried to find a compromise in his situation. But after the Park Board rejection, he says, neither he nor Blackwell felt he had any choice but to file a formal discrimination complaint. "This was real, real big, that they would use all of these tactics to keep me out," says Williams. "But I was committed. I was locked in 'cause I could actually show what had happened."
Williams's case was referred to investigator Salami, who won't comment on it, saying he believes it is still open. A copy of a report Salami filed in August 1997 is a part of the court record on a discrimination suit Williams brought the same year against the city and the Park Board in federal district court. The document notes that five months into Salami's investigation, the City Attorney's Office concluded that Affirmative Action had no jurisdiction to investigate the Park Board.
Williams amended his complaint to apply only to the city; eight months later, Salami concluded that human resources had botched Williams's numerous job applications. "It does appear Williams may have suffered discrimination based on his race," Salami wrote, adding that an odd pattern had emerged from his investigation: "Each time Williams complained about an issue, the department seemed to address it and it would show an intent to correct it. But soon afterward, the same issue resurfaced. It is not clear to the investigator as to why the department would not just correct each error once and for all."
According to sources close to the case, Salami--and Blackwell before him--also unearthed evidence of errors in the city's handling of Williams's firefighter application back in '91. The report doesn't provide specifics on the case; the sources say that's because the city supplied contradictory information, first claiming Williams never applied, then saying he failed a test, and finally producing documents purporting he'd applied and failed in 1987--a year when Williams didn't live in the Twin Cities, and when the fire department was not taking applications. Minority firefighter applicants from 1991 and several other years have long been involved in litigation against the city; some claim that their files mysteriously disappeared during the application process.
Human resources did not act on Salami's report. Instead, arguing that Affirmative Action could not impartially investigate the hiring bureaucracy of which it was a part, Eilbracht hired a private law firm to take another look at Williams's case. Eilbracht declined to comment for this story, explaining that she expects to be called to testify in Williams's upcoming criminal trial.
As it happens, Eilbracht and Williams share a bit of history. Back in 1990, both worked for the Robbinsdale school district--Eilbracht as head of human resources and Williams as a custodian. Williams's two children also attended the school, and he was one of a group of minority parents who met with Eilbracht and two other district officials to protest the impending firing of the district's sole African-American principal.
The events that day prompted another parent to file a discrimination complaint against the school district with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. In its answer to the complaint, the district charged that the parents' anger had frightened district staff. Staffers claimed that they had overheard several parents say they'd come back with guns if their children were ever disciplined. "A male member of the group said he believed staff members were holding Ku Klux Klan meetings in the hallways," the district reported. "Staff members felt as though the situation was potentially volatile, and they were concerned for the safety of the children as well as for their own safety."
In a hearing related to Williams's firing seven years later, Eilbracht testified that she remembered Williams, adding that she had tutored one of his children during her tenure in Robbinsdale.
Williams concedes that Eilbracht wasn't working for the city during the first few years of his ordeal. But he still wonders whether the Robbinsdale encounter predisposed her against him; she worked hard, he claims, to keep Affirmative Action from intervening in his case. The city didn't begin to take his complaint seriously, he says, until the private attorney Eilbracht had hired warned that human resources stood a good chance to get whacked in court.
That attorney--Brian Jackson of the Minneapolis firm Rider, Bennett, Egan & Arundel--tendered his report in 1997; it largely confirmed what the Affirmative Action investigation had found. Jackson suggested that the city negotiate a settlement with Williams, noting that "Mr. Williams has been damaged by these unfortunate errors and an early attempt to draw this matter to conclusion will shorten and ultimately lessen the [city's] exposure."
By this time Williams had asked repeatedly to see Salami's report, but city officials responded that the investigation had yet to be completed. When he finally saw Jackson's report, he realized it was sprinkled with references to the Affirmative Action investigation, which had apparently been wrapped up two months earlier.
At a meeting in City Hall on December 16, Williams signed a document in which he agreed to drop all claims against the city. (His suit against the Park Board remained active.) In exchange, he was paid $52,500--the difference, the two sides calculated, between what he had earned at his seasonal job and what he would have made if he had been hired for a permanent job in 1993. In addition, Eilbracht apparently agreed to give Williams the job he'd originally applied for, as a construction and maintenance laborer with Public Works.
Williams left a happy man. "I knew that I still had this other lawsuit," he says. "And I still had some other concerns, [especially] about the firefighter thing. But I had a son who by then was getting ready to graduate from high school. And I was excited for him and felt like I could finally give my kids some of the things they had not had all of this time."
Within weeks of the settlement conference, Williams got a letter from the city asking whether he'd like to take a job as a garbage collector (a.k.a "sanitation engineer") rather than waiting until spring to start as a construction laborer. He replied that he'd prefer to stick with the settlement agreement and that he was anxiously awaiting his employee ID number. There was no reply.
In January, when one of his kids needed to go to the doctor, Williams tried to get in touch with Eilbracht to find out about the status of his health benefits. Eilbracht would later testify that she took his request to the City Attorney's Office. At the civil service hearing in December, Eilbracht said she and assistant city attorney Karen Herland eventually decided there was nothing in the settlement promising Williams benefits. In fact, Herland says now, "the job itself was not part of the settlement."
Williams's legal agreement with the city does not refer to a job, only to the cash payment. But the job is described as a part of the deal in other city documents. In December 1997, for example, Eilbracht notified Garber, the Public Works administrator, that "The City Council recently approved a comprehensive settlement agreement between Dennis Williams and the City of Minneapolis. As part of that settlement, the City agreed to hire Mr. Williams as a Construction and Maintenance Laborer."
On March 25 City Coordinator Kathleen O'Brien--whom Williams had contacted after not hearing from Eilbracht for two months--wrote Williams a letter saying he was not entitled to benefits until he was called up for work in the spring. If he had accepted the job as a garbage collector, O'Brien noted, he'd already be working and receiving benefits.
Williams says that's when he "just collapsed." He drove to the Veterans Medical Center in St. Cloud and asked to be admitted to the psychiatric ward. He spent the next three and a half months there being treated for alcohol abuse and depression. He'd gone through treatment for cocaine addiction several years earlier. (The only arrests that appear on his record in Hennepin County are for suspicion of cocaine possession. Neither of the two arrests, in January and February of 1996, resulted in a trial or conviction.) Williams says he'd been clean until he started drinking in February 1998; at the hospital, he and his doctors concluded that depression had led to the drinking.
A little more than a month after Williams was hospitalized, a human resources staffer at Public Works, Michelle Michurski, called his house to say he was to report for work as a construction laborer on May 18. Her call was referred to Williams's attorney, David Brehmer, who informed her that his client was in the hospital. On May 27 Brehmer wrote to the Park Board saying Williams would not be able to start his job for medical reasons. Brehmer says he also suggested that, as Williams's treatment unfolded, it was looking increasingly unlikely that he would ever be in a position to work for the city. There was too much bad blood.
Walther copied Brehmer's letter to Public Works officials, who called the city attorney's office. A hearing on whether Williams should be fired was scheduled for August 24.
By the time the date came around, Williams had been discharged from the hospital in St. Cloud. Brehmer told city representatives that Williams's psychological health was still being evaluated by doctors at the VA, and that he needed to be on medical leave; a note from the doctors supported his assertion. City officials demanded more documentation. Several deadlines elapsed while, Brehmer says, he sought in vain to extract the required information from the hospital. In October Williams was officially fired.
Brehmer says he often goes up against the city of Minneapolis in court. He says he wasn't surprised that they would push to dismiss Williams even though he hadn't yet received a single paycheck or health benefit: "The problem with the city is that they pull the ultimate lawyerlike tactics. They use every possible technicality and every shading to try to weasel out of responsibility and liability."
But in Williams's case, Brehmer adds, there seemed to be something more: Everything about his client appeared to grate on the city representatives he dealt with. Brehmer recalls an incident last August, when Williams was giving a deposition in his lawsuit against the city. Williams, Brehmer says, "was being fairly antagonistic... His body language? He was laid back in his chair. He was making poor choices of words. He was almost too cool for his own good." He assumed Williams was feeling defensive. "As much as I've worked with people of color and against the city, I still can't put myself in that position. But I'm on the fringes enough to touch what it's like to grow up this way, to live with this."
But Ann Walther, the attorney representing the Park Board, seemed to see something quite different in Williams. At one point in the deposition, Brehmer says, Walther asked him to step out into the hall. She said she was afraid that Williams was going to attack her. She was a small woman and she'd feel better if there were someone in the room to protect her. Brehmer says he "offered to let her get someone in there," but she demurred, and the deposition continued.
Williams learned he'd been terminated on a Friday afternoon. By the time he'd spent the weekend stewing about it, he found himself in a blind rage. The following Monday, October 19, he drove to the Veterans Affairs hospital at Fort Snelling and told the doctor on duty that he was having what his discharge papers would later describe as "some thought of hurting several city employees, but no specific plan."
If the threats seemed like anything serious at that point, Williams's records don't reflect it. He had some business to take care of, his discharge summary noted, so he and the doctor, a Dr. Cody, according to VA records, agreed that he would return two days later to be admitted for treatment.
Exactly what Williams said to the doctors when he came back is a matter of some dispute. The way he tells it, he explained that he wanted help because he had become frightened by his own thoughts. One thing hammered into his head during treatment, he says, was that he should let angry feelings out by finding a safe person to vent to.
When he checked in on October 21, Williams says, he told one of the doctors seeing him that "I felt it coming on, so I came in, because I needed some time out. I felt stretched, depressed. I said I was having thoughts. He said, 'What kind of thoughts?' I said, 'Homicidal.' He said, 'To the point of hurting someone?' I said, 'I don't even like to think like that. I'm not that kind of person, but all these evil things are rekindling themselves, so that's why I came in.'
"So he said, 'Who are these threats concerning?' I said, 'Excuse me, they're not threats, they're thoughts.' I said, 'Please be careful how you state this in your notes, because the city will try to use it in the suit.'
"He said, 'Do you have any plans?' I said, 'No, I don't have any plans.' He said, 'You know I'm going to have to tell them.' I said I didn't have any problem with that because I'm here because the city fired me last Friday and they're not taking this seriously."
Williams says the doctor asked him whether he owned any weapons, and that he replied he had a legally registered rifle at home. "He said, 'Do you think having [the gun] would set this off?' I said no, because if that were going to happen, it already would have."
The next day a Dr. Woods asked him the same questions, and Williams says he gave her the same answer: "I'm here to try to calm down and stay focused on my upcoming trial." He also asked for help in clarifying his medical status for the city.
Minnesota law requires psychologists and other health workers to warn potential victims when a patient makes a credible threat of violence. According to Dr. Gary Schoener, the head of the Walk-In Counseling Center in South Minneapolis and an expert on the so-called duty to warn, a threat must be taken seriously when it is "a serious, specific threat of harm against a specific, clearly identified victim." When those conditions are met, mental health workers must try to let the potential victims know; if they can't reach them, they must notify law enforcement.
In general, Schoener says, psychologists need to do something about a threat if they "honestly believe that if they don't act, it could happen." It's a tricky duty, he adds: "There is no fully accepted methodology for determining dangerousness."
After Williams checked himself in, one of the doctors treating him called Eilbracht to say that her name topped a list of people about whom Williams had had violent thoughts. According to Williams's discharge summary, Eilbracht agreed to warn seven others: Park Board attorney Ann Walther; Diane Bomsa and Mary Ann Stark, the city workers Williams felt had botched his veteran's preference points; Park Board personnel worker Agnes Gay; and three Park Board supervisors including Schmidt and Wallner.
Brehmer says that when he talked to hospital staffers, they didn't say his client had threatened to kill someone--only that if things didn't go his way in the lawsuit against the Park Board, he would "mess up" eight people. His own name, Brehmer says he was told, was on the "hit list," too. Public documents in the case make no reference to threats against Brehmer.
A Minneapolis Park Police report that made reference to Williams's medical records related a third version of events: "On October 8, 1998, defendant was seen at the Veterans Hospital and brought with him a newspaper article of recent shooting of city officials in California. Defendant explained to his doctor that the situation in California was 'remarkably similar' to his and that he could see himself doing the same thing."
"On October 23, defendant stated to Dr. Wood that he is prepared to exact justice and that violence towards others would not result in his apprehension because they would have to kill him. When Dr. Wood explained that she was obligated to warn his victims, defendant stated that that might actually be helpful because 'they think this is a game; this is not a game to me.'"
On October 29, Park Police Sgt. Joey Lash searched the Brooklyn Park home Williams shares with his fiancée. According to a search warrant, he was seeking weapons and any documents bearing the names of those Williams allegedly planned to hurt. The officers confiscated a 9mm Ruger rifle and ammunition.
The next day, Williams was discharged from the hospital. He was met at the door by federal officers who asked him to step into a nearby office. Next, he says, Sgt. Lash "comes in and says he wants to ask me a couple of questions. I said, 'I'm sorry, Joey, but I don't have a couple of answers.' And he says, 'Well, then, at this time I'm going to place you under arrest.' They searched me and cuffed me and took me out the front door."
Lash took Williams to the Hennepin County Jail and booked him on eight counts of terroristic threats, a felony with a possible sentence of up to five years per count. News reports of the arrest referred to the single gun police had turned up at Williams's home as "a small arsenal." Bail was set at $250,000.
"The weapons and ammunition alone generally would not cause police much concern," the Pioneer Press reported. "But Williams told a psychiatrist late last month that he planned to use his rifle to kill or hurt Minneapolis employees." The Star Tribune informed readers that "psychiatrists are required to report murder plots." Charles Salter, the county attorney prosecuting Williams, says he can't talk about pending cases.
Williams's arrest set off the latest twist in his case--the disintegration of his civil case against the Park Board, the one he had hoped would finally prove him right. In April Judge Ann Montgomery had sanctioned Brehmer for failing to complete discovery, the part of a case when both sides exchange information. When discovery was still not complete five months later, the Park Board asked Montgomery to dismiss the case. Brehmer didn't file any rebuttal to that motion; instead, on November 18 he asked the judge for permission to withdraw from the case. Williams says he knew of the developments, but could do nothing about them from jail. On December 18, Montgomery dismissed the suit, noting that Williams had not shown up to argue his case.
Brehmer says it was Williams's alleged threats that caused him to bail. He never took the warnings very seriously, he says; the problem, he insists, is that Williams's doctors did. "Threats would obviously be admissible at trial. There'd be no way to keep that out of the hands of a jury," he says. "It could be the reason we'd lose. The city is always a difficult adversary, and discrimination cases are always difficult to try. But he made it unwinnable."
The news of Williams's alleged threats touched off a frenzy of official concern about public employees' safety. Police conducted security seminars at both the Park Board and City Hall, according to Capt. Bill Jacobs, commander of the Minneapolis Park Police. Staffers in the city's human resources office posted his picture and a warning behind the reception desk; they took the display down after being assured he would stay locked up for a while.
Also following Williams's arrest, panic buttons that trigger an alarm were installed in council members' offices at a cost of $45,000. The move was prompted by several heated arguments that had occurred in or near City Council chambers as well as by the police briefing on Williams's case, according to 12th Ward representative Steve Minn, the only council member to publicly balk at the measure.
"I said, 'Spending $45,000 to protect our sorry 13 butts is a small investment given the size of the city's budget," says Minn, "but why not do the rest of the building?'" Minn claims the panic buttons are superfluous because City Council offices can only be reached through a locked door; it would be more cost-effective, he argues, to install metal detectors at the building's entrances.
City officials say they don't know of any other prosecutions involving terroristic threats against city employees in recent years; the Park Police's Jacobs says one case was investigated last year, but no charges were filed.
According to criminal defense attorneys who practice in Hennepin County, the charge is typically used in cases of domestic violence or harassment. Michael Cromett, a Roseville criminal defender and adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law, says that in order to qualify as a criminal offense, a threat must have been uttered with "an intent to terrorize others," or the knowledge that it could have that effect. It cannot, he adds, be a simple expression of "transitory anger."
To prosecute someone for thoughts expressed during therapy, says Cromett, would set a bad precedent, and could have the effect of "dissuading someone from seeking help." Adds Bob Paule, a former Hennepin County public defender who has tried numerous terroristic-threat cases: "If a guy's going into a mental health clinic and saying, 'I want help and I'm having bad thoughts,' it seems clear that he didn't plan to commit violent acts--that he intended just the opposite."
Former Hennepin County chief public defender William Kennedy--who has taken on Williams's representation in his criminal case--says his client is guilty only of taking his therapists' advice. Full and honest expression of a patient's feelings is a cornerstone of chemical-dependency treatment, Kennedy says. "I'm a product of treatment. This flies in the face of what treatment is all about."
Whether a jury agrees with Kennedy remains to be seen. A trial on the terroristic-threats charge is scheduled for February 22, and Williams says the date won't come a moment too soon. He's entering his fourth month in jail anxious and sleep-deprived: Jail officials, he says, won't let him take the sleeping pills his VA doctors prescribed because they made him too woozy to get up for head counts. His kids are living with his fiancée, who has two children of her own to support. "I'm sitting waiting to go on trial and possibly facing prison time," he says. "That's scary."
Yet, perhaps by default, the trial has also become Williams's one source of hope. He wants his case to go before a jury: "I don't believe in [plea] bargains," he insists. "I don't believe in deals. I'm going make them prove I'm not innocent." In court, he figures, he'll get the hearing he has so far been denied; once the full story is told to a judge and 12 of his peers, he reasons, his alleged targets' fear of physical harm will be replaced by embarrassment. "The biggest threat against them at this point is exposure," he says.
Interns Miki A. Mosman and Dan Gearino contributed to this story.
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