As the midwinter sun set across Moose Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, two conservation officers spotted illegal snowmobile tracks in the fresh snow.
When they caught up with the two sleds, the chase was on. With lights flashing and speeds reaching 80 miles per hour, the officers pursued Barney Lakner and Edward Zupancich for more than a mile, zooming near areas of thin ice and open water.
Finally, one of the officers launched himself from his moving sled and knocked Zupancich off his machine. The other officer cut Lakner’s snowmobile off with his own. The two were then arrested.
The dramatic Jan. 11 chase was the latest run-in between authorities and Lakner, an Ely resident with a history of law breaking in the BWCA that includes a 2007 rampage so severe it got him banned from the wilderness for five years.
He and five other young men terrorized a vacationing family, demanding that the campers get off “their land,” firing off an assault rifle in their campsite and threatening to rape and kill them.
Lakner pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison. He also was banned from the BWCA for five years.
“We perceive he has an issue with the guiding legislation covering the BWCA — no question about it,” said Capt. Thomas Provost, northeast enforcement manager for the Department of Natural Resources.
Catching Lakner, 44, and Zupancich, 26, in the act of driving snowmobiles in the BWCA was a rarity, Provost said. The DNR gets far more complaints about such violations than it can substantiate, he said.
The men face a half-dozen charges, including fleeing a police officer, littering, possession of beverage cans, possession of mechanical equipment in the BWCA, operating a snowmobile in an unsafe manner and failure to display registration.
Lakner, of Ely, Minn., and Zupancich, of Babbitt, Minn., couldn’t be reached for comment. They’ll next appear in court Feb. 3.
It’s the fourth time in 10 years that Lakner has been cited or charged with a serious crime or illegal entry into the BWCA on a motorized vehicle.
Emmerich Koller, whose family was tormented by Lakner in 2007, said Tuesday he wasn’t surprised by the latest incident. Although Lakner’s latest alleged crime doesn’t come close to the nightmare he caused Koller and his son and daughter, “it shows this guy has problems with the rules,” Koller said Tuesday.
“In court, I felt a little bad when he got three years in prison, because he had a family,” said Koller, now 71 and a retired schoolteacher living in suburban Chicago. “I was sure prison would fix the problem.”
A night of terror
According to the 2007 charges, Lakner, then 37, and five much younger men ranging in age from 16 to 20 were firing guns and drinking on a lake near Koller’s campsite. They had a run-in with Koller, then left.
Later that night, they returned.
Koller took his frightened family and headed for the woods. As they held onto one another, they were forced to listen to the yelling men describe, in extremely graphic terms, how they were going kill Koller and rape his entire family.
When their tormentors left, Koller called 911. In the meantime, Lakner and his friends harassed several more campers.
The Kollers stayed in the BWCA the rest of the week, “but that was a horrible, horrible night,” he said.
His son Andrew, 11 years old at the time, said Tuesday that he has “security issues every now and then,” but that the events of that night don’t traumatize him as much anymore.
“I don’t know his back story,” he said of Lakner. “I thought maybe he just made a bad judgment call. I think it’s a shame he’s back in jail again.”
Emmerich Koller said his daughter, Marina, then 27, now married with a child, “is the least forgiving of us all.” What happened that night was unforgettably offensive and frightening, she has told her father.
She testified in court that in addition to their terroristic threats, the men told them to “get off our land” and made fun of their “freeze-dried food.”
The case drew widespread attention because of evidence that it was fueled by lingering resentment among some residents of the Ely area, including Lakner, of the environmental activism that led to creation of the BWCA in the late 1970s.
‘I know I won’t go back’
In the Jan. 11 incident, three DNR conservation officers followed Lakner’s and Zupancich’s snowmobile tracks across a half-dozen bays and lakes, according to the criminal charges. They talked to people in an icehouse to get a timeline of the men’s travels.
When the officers caught up with them, they saw that there was no registration sticker on Zupancich’s snowmobile and that duct tape covered the sticker on Lakner’s sled, the court document said.
“This was to improve their chances of getting in and out of the BWCA without getting caught,” Provost said. “It was the first thing that jumped out at me.”
Zupancich had beer in his backpack, and both men admitted that they had been drinking, the document said. Zupancich also admitted that he fled after seeing the officers and “that what he did was wrong,” it said.
As the duo was being taken to jail, a deputy heard Lakner tell Zupancich to say they hadn’t stopped for the officers because of the thin ice, the document said.
After Emmerich Koller’s ordeal, people asked him if he would go back to the BWCA. Back then, he said he believed he would.
“But now I know I won’t go back,” he said Tuesday after hearing about the latest incident involving his 2007 tormentor. “It must be a delayed reaction.”