When Donna Ellringer saw her neighborhood become a war zone, she waded into battle.
The block club leader employed vigilante tactics to rid her Minneapolis neighborhood of drugs and violence during the city’s 1990s crime wave. Her cat-and-mouse crusade with local drug dealers made her a media spectacle — gripping her shotgun in Annie Oakley garb in one cover story — and a thorn in the side of City Hall politicians.
“I would never have believed I would need a gun to shovel snow,” she quipped to a British reporter profiling the city’s crime problems.
Ellringer, 60, died Dec. 16 after struggling for several years with kidney failure and other medical problems.
She and her husband bought a front-row seat to the rampant crime in the Phillips area when they began rehabbing a Victorian mansion at 19th Street and Park Avenue in 1995, moving into the neighborhood from St. Charles, Minn. While her husband worked in an auto repair shop, Ellringer kept vigil over the drug dealing, shootings and prostitution — ready to call 911.
“It was crazy,” said her husband, Maurice Ellringer. “You’d stop at the corner and you’d have drug dealers jumping in your car.”
Donna put up a fight. Once, Maurice recalled, she aimed her pellet gun and began screaming at a man who had been shooting at another a man on a bicycle.
She and other members of the Park Avenue Block Club accused City Hall of treating the neighborhood as a containment area. They invited reporters and politicians to come see the drug deals in broad daylight, and even threatened to seek a disaster declaration from the federal government — an idea written up in the Washington Post.
“She had a very legitimate concern that the Phillips neighborhood was not enjoying the equal protection of the law,” said former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, who accepted Ellringer’s invitation to take a tour. Lillehaug, now a state Supreme Court justice, said the media coverage helped him secure more police and community organizing money from Washington.
Ellringer’s comments — criticizing the city’s first black mayor, Sharon Sayles Belton, and saying that many of the drug dealers were black — put her at the center of the city’s simmering racial tensions. Those tensions erupted in 1997 after a mayoral debate, where Ellringer and others held signs calling out the city’s crime problem with the saying, “A vote for Sharon is a vote for crime.” An angry crowd confronted Ellringer in the parking lot.
Maurice hit the mayor’s bodyguard with his car in an attempt to flee the skirmish, and the officer fired a shot at the vehicle. Prosecutors declined to file charges.
Civil rights activist Ron Edwards said their statements reminded some people of the “law-and-order” language that accompanied police targeting of minority groups during the 1960s. “You’re talking in terms of something that had been festering for a long time,” Edwards said. “It just didn’t start when she and her husband came out with the sign.”
Ellringer, born Donna Hall in Iowa, moved to Minnesota as a child. She spent time in juvenile detention as a teenager, got into drugs and toured the country with the rock band Rush while dating the man who owned their equipment, according to a 1997 Pioneer Press story.
She eventually cleaned up, discovered Christianity and settled down with Maurice. The couple left Minneapolis in 2003 for Las Vegas, but later moved back to Prior Lake.
Ellringer is survived by her husband; son Joshua Hall of Circle Pines; daughter Daphny Hall of Dubuque, Iowa; mother Virginia Hall of Brooklyn Center; grandson Izaak Hall of Circle Pines; and sisters Kimberley Grandbois of Detroit Lakes and Carrie Hall of Minneapolis.