Two years before he allegedly shot and killed a Mendota Heights police officer, Brian Fitch Sr. stood charged with beating and threatening a man he suspected of having sex with his girlfriend.
Dakota County prosecutors, citing the 39-year-old career criminal's lengthy record, warned that he was a "violent offender" and recommended that he be sent to prison for three years — the maximum sentence state guidelines allowed. That didn't happen.
Instead, a judge in May 2013 sentenced Fitch, who had written him fervent letters saying that he was straightening out his life, to the 211 days he had spent in jail and ordered him into the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge residential drug-treatment program, beginning this past February.
In May, records show, Fitch was dismissed as "unsuccessful" and told to turn himself in to authorities. He never did.
Now, as Fitch faces first-degree murder charges in the shooting death of veteran officer Scott Patrick during a routine traffic stop Wednesday in West St. Paul, some law enforcement officials are questioning whether he was treated too leniently.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said Friday that Judge Richard Spicer's decision to send Fitch to drug treatment instead of the maximum allowed prison term was "not appropriate for violent criminals."
Even before his 2012 criminal case, Fitch rarely landed in jail long for other offenses. Instead, his record reveals a string of plea deals, dismissed charges, treatment options and suspended prison sentences that would take effect only if he violated probation.
That emerging portrait has provoked frustration among some in law enforcement after officer Patrick's killing, even as they acknowledge that hindsight in the justice system is 20-20 and that judges often face excruciating decisions in criminal cases.
"It was clear Fitch has a history of violence, hatred toward police officers, and was going to do anything, including murder, to avoid capture," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Friday.
In an interview at his home Saturday, Spicer, a longtime Dakota County judge who retired July 7 but has been appointed to continue as a senior judge until June 2015, said he had "no specific recollection" of Fitch or his case. And because he is still a senior judge, Spicer is prohibited from commenting on pending cases.
But he did say that throughout his career, he has always given serious consideration to treatment options in cases where a convicted criminal has battled drug or alcohol addiction. He described the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge residential drug-treatment program as "a terrific program."
"My personal philosophy was that for people who have drug addictions, prison doesn't always work," he said. "I search out alternatives, and if I think [treatment is] reasonable under the circumstances, I'll consider that."
Spicer said, "At the time, I felt society was better off with him being treated than with him being warehoused … and put back on the street untreated. Of course, if I knew then what I know now, I might have made a different decision.
"It's a terrible tragedy. And of course, I feel awful. But at the time, I felt as though I was doing the right thing. … I grieve for the family. I'm sure they blame me."
Hennepin County District Judge Kevin Burke has handled thousands of drug cases, especially as head of the county's Drug Court. While declining to comment specifically on Fitch's case, he said bail and furlough decisions are the most difficult a trial judge has to make. Over the past five years, pretrial risk assessment tools have become more effective, but nothing is perfect, he said.
Burke said he believes the Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge program is very intensive and structured, which is why judges send offenders to it. "If you make it through … there is a good chance you can turn your life around," he said.
Still, choosing a treatment option is always a risk, he said. He cited several things he said might prevent a similar tragedy in the future, including the growing use of pretrial risk assessments and improved monitoring of offenders on pretrial release.
"When somebody doesn't show up for a hearing or the county loses track of an offender, we are subject to criticism that we are not good at finding them," Burke said. "We just don't have enough staff. And unless the offender is a high priority to find, there isn't the urgency to go get them."
Sought, but uncaptured
Fitch had yet to turn 11 when he was busted for possessing marijuana in the mid-1980s. As he grew older, he bounced from crime to crime: Car theft. Drug possession. Assault. Violent home invasion.
By age 17, he was a seasoned criminal. He had been incarcerated in juvenile facilities for auto theft, check forgery and being a minor with a gun. A few years later, he was sentenced to three years in a South Dakota prison for aggravated assault. And in August 2003, he was arrested after a violent home invasion in Washington County for which he was convicted in 2004 and given a stayed 41-month prison sentence.
Over the next 10 years, he would serve only about 20 months in custody.
Then came the 2012 beating and threats case and, fresh on its heels, a 2013 charge of possession of 1½ ounces of methamphetamine. The combination led to drug treatment — and subsequently his two-month fall off the legal radar.
In early June, Dakota County issued two warrants for Fitch when he failed to appear at a court hearing related to the meth case and a probation violation. Late that month, a third warrant followed because he'd left the treatment program.
None of those warrants resulted in an arrest.
In addition to being sought by warrant, Fitch was one of about 345 offenders on "fugitive status" focused on by the DOC's special-investigation unit, said DOC spokeswoman Sarah Latuseck. The unit consists of five licensed officers who work with local and national law enforcement agencies.
Fugitive resources are deployed based on risk, Latuseck said. Level 3 predatory sex offenders, offenders involved in murder/loss of life, robbery, assault, domestic violence and crimes involving weapons are given highest priority, she said.
Dakota County has at least 5,000 active warrants at any given time, but no longer has its own warrants unit because of budget cuts, Sheriff Dave Bellows said. Most apprehensions occur when officers run across warrant subjects during routine traffic stops of the type officer Patrick was about to undertake seconds before he lay dead in the street.
Recently, the county had five staffers participate in a three-day statewide effort to round up highly dangerous offenders with warrants, Bellows said. Pursuing the subjects of 150 warrants, they made 15 arrests.
Fitch was not among them.
A gamble that didn't pay off
In May 2013, Fitch wrote two letters to Judge Spicer in regard to the 2012 terroristic-threats charges and the subsequent meth case.
In the letters, he discussed his drug habit, which he said began after he was shot during a robbery in 2008, and asked the judge "for your help to allow me the one chance I've needed."
He described his four children; his mother, who was on disability, and the parenting, anger-management and employment classes he'd attended.
He wrote that he hoped that all the bad things in his life were behind him and that he was in a solid place to make a fresh start.
"I trust you will see that giving me a chance to avoid prison would be a good thing," he said.
Although a bail of $100,000 had been set, Spicer made an unusual move at that point and allowed Fitch to be furloughed to the treatment program.
By rechanneling him from a longer prison term to drug treatment, Spicer gave Fitch the chance he was pleading for.
It was a gamble that didn't pay off.
Long before Spicer's decision, Fitch's character had raised red flags with at least one judge. In 2002, when he was sentenced in Ramsey County District Court for second-degree assault, his attorney stressed that he was only 25 years old and as of yet had no felony convictions.
Fitch told Judge Louise Bjorkman that he should be held accountable for his actions, but he felt like he was getting "the bad end of the stick."
Without comment, the judge, who was signing off on a plea deal, sentenced him to three years in prison and wished him good luck.