The police chief of one of Minnesota's most famous towns and two other men were snared in a sting that caught them trying to buy sex with minors, according to charges filed Monday.
Michael R. Zeug, 45, of Walnut Grove, was charged Monday in Redwood County District Court with attempting to hire a minor for sex, a felony. Zeug was arrested Friday in the city of Redwood Falls, and he remains jailed in lieu of $50,000 bail.
Through Operation Guardian Angel, conducted by a regional drug task force and a human trafficking task force out of Washington County, law enforcement officers posted online ads on Backpage.com and Craigslist.org "to identify those individuals who want to solicit minors for sex," said Redwood County Attorney Steven Collins.
Walnut Grove is a town of 800 in southwestern Minnesota, whose long-running fame centers on the "Little House on the Prairie" books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The beloved series gave a fictionalized account of her life as a girl on the Midwest frontier during the mid-19th century and provided the story line for a popular television series in the 1970s and 1980s. One of those books, "On the Banks of Plum Creek," is set in Walnut Grove.
Emergency city meeting
The town's website on Monday afternoon listed many department heads but not one for the Police Department. Collins said the City Council had scheduled an emergency meeting for 7 p.m. Monday to weigh Zeug's fate as chief.
Collins said Zeug sought to buy sex from someone he believed was a 17-year-old girl, but he actually was communicating with an agent with the federal Department of Homeland Security working undercover.
During their conversation, the agent told Zeug that the ad was "to make a little extra money" and that she likes sex, according to the criminal complaint.
Zeug said, "Yeah, this isn't my first time."
Amid sexually explicit communication, they asked each other whether they were cops; both said no, the complaint continued. Zeug said he brought it up because "you're only 17."
Zeug arranged a meeting outside a house in Redwood Falls, asked for nude photos and wanted her to flash her breasts to assure him she was not in law enforcement, the charging document read.
The police chief circled the supposed teen's home several times and then parked nearby, the complaint said. He was arrested by members of the sting operation.
"When he was arrested," the complaint read, "he had a law enforcement radio on him [that] gave him the capability to monitor police channels."
Noting that Zeug is married and has children, the prosecutor said the case "is amazingly unfortunate for everybody."
The court Tuesday granted Zeug a public defender. His annual salary is $44,200 as the town's only full-time officer. The department also has one part-time officer.
The court-appointed attorney, Joel Solie, was not immediately available to comment about the allegations against his client.
The news release announcing the charges did not disclose Zeug being Walnut Grove's top law enforcement officer. Collins said in an interview, "I wasn't trying to hide anything. … There were three people charged. This is typical of the releases that we do."
Collins said that Zeug's prosecution will be turned over to neighboring Brown County in order to avoid a conflict of interest, given that the Walnut Grove Police Department brings cases to the Redwood County attorney's office for consideration of charges.
Also similarly charged were Scott G. Berglund, 41, of Montevideo, and Javier B. Turrubiartes, 40, of Renville.