A Stillwater bank robbery and bomb threat halted business for five hours Saturday in one of the Twin Cities’ most popular tourist towns, shutting down the boutiques, restaurants and antique stores that were hoping to cash in on hundreds of tourists.
Instead, on a rare sunny Saturday, downtown streets remained empty, blocked off as bomb squads investigated a device that was eventually determined to pose no danger. That left places like Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop’s normally packed dining room empty, losing at least $1,000 in business, manager Naomi Wick said.
“It couldn’t have happened on a worse day,” she said as the malt shop tried to salvage some business by selling ice cream out aside window.
The FBI, Stillwater Police and Washington County Sheriff’s Office shut down about six blocks from 9:30 a.m. until nearly 3 p.m. to investigate the bomb threat after a man who was a guest at the Lowell Inn went into the U.S. Bank off Chestnut Street, handed the bank employees a note demanding money and told them he had a bomb. According to police reports, he set a briefcase on the bank manager’s desk and fled.
Within minutes, he was arrested trying to get into his pickup two blocks away outside No Neck Tony’s bar. Stillwater resident Justin Johnsen saw police arrest the middle-aged man, who he said was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses outside a tan Ford Ranger.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Johnsen said. “This stuff doesn’t happen here often.”
Johnsen lives in a downtown condo three blocks from the bank and was on his way to withdraw some cash when he saw the arrest just before 10 a.m.
Police evacuated the area until they could determine that the device was fake. Stillwater Police Chief John Gannaway wouldn’t elaborate on what was in the briefcase, but said “this isn’t your run of the mill [crime].”
No injuries were reported. The man, who Gannaway would only say isn’t a Minnesota resident, remained in Washington County jail on Saturday and will likely be named when the felony charges are filed Monday. Businesses, including the hotel where the robber was staying, reopened Saturday afternoon.
“It was unavoidable,” Gannaway said of the main street closures. “We had to err on the side of safety.”
Although he said up to 10 businesses were shut down, even more were likely affected as frustrated tourists unable to get downtown left. On social media, visitors in Stillwater for weddings, birthdays or shopping bemoaned the downtown disruption. Even residents like Johnsen and his family found their plans for a walk around the town blocked by police tape and squad cars.
“It’s the first nice Saturday in a long time so I’m sure businesses are banking on lots of business,” he said. “It’s definitely put a damper on the whole scene there.”
Headed to work at the Stillwater Olive Oil Company Saturday, Rebekah Chapman saw the backed up cars and thought “Holy cow, it’s going to be a busy day.” Instead, the clogged traffic was due to the downtown closures and when she got to her store, police said she couldn’t open until bomb dogs and crews were done investigating.
“It definitely took a hit,” she said of business. “It’s not our typical Saturday, but we’ll make the best of it.”
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141