A prosecutor who spoke out against older men preying on young girls now faces felony charges for allegedly having an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old.
A grand jury has indicted Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell, 47, on two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct following a monthslong investigation into allegations by the teenager’s parents.
Former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger, who was appointed special prosecutor, announced the charges Thursday morning during a news conference at the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais, where Scannell was shot and seriously injured almost two years ago.
“This is one of those counties where everybody knows everybody else — including the county attorney,” Heffelfinger said by phone. “So this has been a very difficult process for them.”
Scannell, a married father of two, became the face of Minnesota’s ongoing debate about courthouse security after being shot in 2011 by 42-year-old Daniel Schlienz, whom he had just prosecuted for having sex with a 15-year-old. After recovering, Scannell also decried the trend of men preying on girls in Grand Marais.
Since the shooting, Scannell and his family “have been under extreme stress,” his attorney, Richard Swanson, said in a statement Thursday. The “alleged events in this case occurred while he was suffering in the darkest hours of his severe depression.”
While inappropriate, Scannell’s actions were not criminal, the statement continued. Scannell declined by e-mail to comment on the charges.
The indictment, released Thursday, reveals few details about the alleged sexual contact. The teenager’s parents filed and won a two-year restraining order against Scannell in December, alleging that Scannell had confessed to being in love with their daughter. He told her mother that the relationship had become physical, the petition says, including “kissing and touching, but nothing illegal.”
Age of consent
The girl was older than 16 — the age of consent in Minnesota — when the alleged sexual conduct occurred in August 2012. But because Scannell was more than four years older than her and in a position of authority, it’s a criminal offense, Heffelfinger said. He declined to outline any evidence in the case.
Scannell is on medical leave from his job as the county’s top prosecutor. Elected in 2006 and 2010, his term is set to end next year. He appeared in court for the first time Thursday, a week after a grand jury met privately for two days and heard from seven witnesses.
In an e-mail, Scannell said that he has not returned to work full time since the shooting. “I went on leave last month based on [an upcoming] surgery and the ongoing anxiety and depression issues related to PTSD,” he said, referring to post-traumatic stress.
“Tim knows that he acted inappropriately and continues to apologize and make amends for his poor decision and the pain he has caused,” his attorney’s statement continues.
According to the parents’ petition for a restraining order, Scannell was a family friend who gave their daughter guitar lessons and coached her in tennis. In September 2012, Scannell confessed to the teenager’s mother that he was in love with the girl, had read her poetry and given her a necklace, the petition says.
That evening, Scannell promised the girl’s father that he would stop communicating with the teen and would look into mental health treatment. But less than three weeks later, Scannell allegedly begged the girl’s mother to allow him to continue contacting her because “they were soul mates.”
“We fear for our daughter’s safety, her physical and emotional well-being, and her future,” the girl’s mother wrote in the petition.
The mother asked Scannell how the relationship was different from the criminal sexual conduct cases he prosecuted as county attorney, according to the petition. “He laughed and said that he wasn’t ‘picking [her] up in the alley behind Holiday.’ ”
Prosecutor brought in
Heffelfinger was appointed in March to review and broaden the findings of a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigation into last year’s allegations of an improper relationship.
“It was important to me in this case that the investigation be thorough so that whatever happened would reflect all the facts,” he said. “That’s why I, frankly, wasn’t in any rush.”
Given the nature of the charges, and the small size of the community, Heffelfinger said, he wanted to make the announcement in Grand Marais.
Since the allegations surfaced, some community members have objected — both in an online petition and with protests Friday in front of the courthouse — to Scannell’s decision to remain county attorney. In a statement last year, Scannell apologized for “a breach of trust” but vowed to stay on the job.
Parents call for resignation
His critics and supporters have made their case in the local newspaper, the Cook County News-Herald.
The teenager’s parents wrote a letter arguing that Scannell ought to resign not only as county attorney but also as a coach and volunteer.
“It is inconceivable to us that Tim could continue to serve this county in any capacity,” they wrote in December 2012. “We hope that Tim sees the wisdom in resigning from his job, leaving our community, and sparing our daughter further anguish.”
In a note to friends that was shared with the newspaper, Scannell’s wife, Lynn Swanson, said she was “furious and hurt” by the media’s “over-dramatized” portrayal of the situation.
“Obviously, this behavior is not something he would ever have engaged in before the shooting,” she wrote. “That isn’t an excuse for the bad judgment, but it does put the lack of foresight in context.”