An anguished trail of drug abuse, personal struggle and scrapes with the law ended for Robert T. Wilson late Monday after a traffic stop in Cottage Grove erupted into a life-and-death drama.
Wilson, 27, was shot to death by a police officer who was being dragged down a moonlit roadway off Hwy. 61. Wilson's wife, Jessica, and their 11-month-old son were in the car as he drove. Investigators are still piecing together the details, but Tim Clark, Jessica Wilson's stepfather, could see a violent end coming. The Wilsons had been living in the Clarks' Woodbury home for several months. "I knew they were going to catch him, and it was going to have something to with a crime. I'm not surprised at all," Clark said. "And it's sad."
At 11:51 p.m., Cottage Grove police officer Brad Petersen pulled over a car driven by Wilson in the 8200 block of Hadley Avenue near a senior housing complex, officials said. The vehicle, later discovered to be stolen, had been linked to the passing of counterfeit bills at Cottage Grove businesses on Sunday.
Wilson tried to flee the scene after being stopped, police said, but Petersen had somehow become entangled with the vehicle. After being dragged 560 feet, Petersen was able to get to his gun and shot Wilson. In the meantime, officer Shawn Ebeling, in a second squad car, was able to ram Wilson's vehicle, stopping it.
Wilson was critically wounded and taken to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, where he died. Petersen was treated for minor injuries, police said. Jessica Wilson, 27, and their infant son, Carter, were not physically hurt.
Robert Wilson's lengthy adult criminal record included convictions for drug possession, assault, theft and assault with a deadly weapon.
Despite knowing about Wilson's long criminal record, which included prison time, and his involvement with methamphetamines, Clark said he and his wife took the Wilsons into their Woodbury home in January 2009 when the couple, including an older daughter of Jessica's from a previous relationship, had nowhere else to turn.
At first, it seemed to go smoothly.
"After he got jailed for a home invasion, Jessica bailed him out with her own tax money," he said. "They get married. They're going to church with us, they're going to Bible study with us -- and he was leading a good life."
After the baby came, he said, things really soured.
Robert Wilson would disappear for days at a time, Clark said. He totaled the couple's car, then another car the Clarks had offered to Jessica Wilson. There were fraudulent charges on the Clarks' credit cards and stolen checks, but nothing that could be tied to Robert Wilson, Clark was told by police. "There's been fights, fights, fights in this house ever since they moved in," Clark said. And more incidents with police involving the couple. The Clarks' home was burglarized earlier this month, and $12,000 in items stolen.
Clark's sorrow is mixed with frustration. He said that for the past several months Wilson had been scheduled to report to prison for a parole violation, but in the meantime had been pulled over for driving with a revoked driver's license not once, but twice in recent weeks.
"It's really sad because -- you know what? -- maybe if there had been some resources available for that guy, maybe if his [parole officer] would have stayed on top of him more, maybe if they would have kept him in line, maybe none of this would have happened," Clark said. "He had all kinds of people who reached out to him and wanted to help him, and he shut all of us down. He went back to what he knew: the streets."
"It was hard for him because he started out young," said Brad Wilson, Robert's older brother. The younger Wilson, who grew up on St. Paul's East Side, was shuffled to various group homes as a youth, and ended up at Boys Totem Town, a juvenile correctional facility.
It wasn't a secret that he was involved with drugs. "There was only so much we could do -- we were struggling ourselves," said Brad Wilson. "It just seemed like he wanted to do what he wanted to do."
Like Clark, Brad Wilson said his brother thought he had turned his life around in prison.
"He had all kinds of plans when he got out," said Brad Wilson. "But it's hard to make plans when you don't have anything."
In the meantime, as the investigation continues, Petersen, 34, a 5 1/2-year veteran of the Cottage Grove Police Department, and Ebeling, 29, who has been with the department for three years, were put on paid leave, a standard procedure in shootings involving police officers.
Craig Woolery, Cottage Grove's police chief and director of public safety, said it has been about 30 years since a city police officer has been involved in a shooting. Petersen and Ebeling could be on leave for a couple of weeks.
"Everybody says, 'It's not going to happen here, it's not going to happen here.' But it does," Woolery said. "The bottom line is, we'll move on."
Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199