Just after 5 p.m. on Wednesday, an RV with Minnesota plates and one taillight out pulled into a parking lot near Maplewood Mall on White Bear Avenue in St. Paul.
Police parked behind the RV, turned on their squad lights, and waited. Soon enough, its driver came into view: an “agitated,” “frustrated” Dennis Duane Vann.
Vann had a revoked driver’s license and a warrant for his arrest out of Kanebec County for failing to pay child support. Officers had originally found him and his RV parked outside a Cub Foods in Maplewood, after the store requested his immediate removal. They’d knocked on the RV door, and they’d received no signs of life from within. That is, until the RV pulled out of its parking space and headed out onto the road.
Even as the officers flashed their lights, Vann hadn’t pulled over, or even slowed down. If anything, he seemed to be speeding up. Finally, he’d turned into the St. Paul parking lot.
What commenced was a strange back-and-forth between Vann and the officers, according to a criminal complaint filed Friday. He claimed he hadn’t stopped because he hadn’t seen the cops’ lights on, and that he was driving with a busted taillight and no license because he was “a free citizen” who was “not required to follow traffic laws.”
“Sovereign” and “free” citizen are terms that come from a political movement that originated roughly in the 1970s. The core beliefs are that the United States government is an illegitimate, corrupt version of an idealized, romantically small American government… which has never actually existed.
People who subscribe to it often don’t use social security cards or driver’s licenses, or zip codes, when they can avoid it. The only law that binds them, they say, is common or “constitutional” law. Statutory laws, they say, do not. It’s important to note here that as of yet, no court of law has ever upheld these claims, and the police weren’t about to either.
Officers told Vann he wasn’t going to jail, but he needed to get out of that RV or they’d get him out of there themselves. Vann told them that would be a “huge mistake.”
“Why?” an officer asked.
“Because two people would die today -- that’s fucking why,” he answered.
Officers saw him reach down into a cranny between two seats in the RV. He promised there was a “great big boom” waiting for them in his glove compartment. The police backed off, set a perimeter, and called in a SWAT team.
Area businesses were evacuated. Vann’s RV was surrounded, and the SWAT team threw chemical rounds through the front passenger window. A bomb squad robot busily began to tear off the rear door and chuck more chemicals inside.
Vann put up a fight -- trying to cover the windows and hunkering down in the rear of the RV -- until the chemicals were too much for him and he pulled himself out the bay window for some fresh air. He surrendered around 9:30 p.m. and was arrested.
What remained was the big boom. Officers pulled an object out of the RV that was “shaped like a pig,” and had “fuck the police” written on it. It was indeed filled with an “energetic powder,” and it looked like it was meant to be explosive. Further testing will determine whether it qualifies as an explosive device under Minnesota state statutes.
If Vann believed himself to be a free citizen on Wednesday, he certainly isn’t one now. After his arrest, he was taken to an area hospital, where he remained in custody on Friday.