The former St. Catherine University guard who shot himself and blamed it on a nonexistent black man was sentenced Monday to a year of probation, and must also attend a black men's group in order to learn empathy.
Brent P. Ahlers, 25, was ordered by Ramsey County District Court Judge Nicole Starr to abstain from owning a gun for a year, to pay a maximum $1,000 fine and to pay $4,574.68 in restitution for St. Paul police officers and a State Patrol helicopter deployed during an hourslong manhunt.
Starr called the incident a "boondoggle" and said Ahlers' actions caused the "unnecessary dehumanization of African-American people in our city and county."
"You fueled a racial tension in our city that was unnecessary," she told him. "You created and continued to create a culture of fear in our city."
Ahlers broke his silence for the first time, and apologized in court.
"I am sorry for the event in general, and the fear and the pain that I caused …," Ahlers said.
Ahlers, who left St. Louis Park for an undisclosed location outside of Minnesota following the incident, could face 60 days in jail if he fails to meet the terms of his probation.
Tyrone Terrill, president of the St. Paul African-American Leadership Council, attended the sentencing and said he was disappointed Ahlers did not receive the maximum 90 days in jail for his conviction on one count of misdemeanor falsely reporting a crime to police.
"Every day he should be serving," Terrill said. "It's only by the grace of God that no one was hurt or killed."
Ahlers pleaded guilty in October to shooting himself in the shoulder with his own gun in a wooded area on campus about 9:25 p.m. on Sept. 12 and pinning it on a black man. Ahlers eventually confessed to police the next day, and said he fabricated the story because he was afraid of losing his job. The university does not allow its guards to carry firearms, and fired Ahlers.
Ahlers initially described the suspect as a black man with a "short Afro" wearing a navy blue sweatshirt. The 110-acre campus was put on lockdown for hours as 55 officers, four K-9s and a State Patrol aircraft searched for the suspect.
Terrill said he knew of about eight to 10 men who said they were stopped by police during the search. Terrill attends the black men's group hosted by Ramsey County District Court Judge George Stephenson, who is black.
"I don't think he understands what he's walking into," Terrill said, adding that he's skeptical of Ahlers. "He's gonna sit through this and get through it, but it's not going to change who he is."
Ahlers will have to attend six three-hour sessions starting Jan. 10.
Starr told Ahlers that he would have to learn from the sessions, which span a breadth of issues from black history to self-improvement, or face possible jail time when he appears before her again next Aug. 1.
Assistant St. Paul City Attorney Tamara Larsen asked the judge to give Ahlers 60 days in jail, noting that it took him nearly 24 hours to come clean.
Ahlers told police the night of the shooting that he told a black man he couldn't smoke marijuana on campus, and the man shot him, Larsen said.
About 11:20 a.m. the next morning, Larsen said, Ahlers told police that he was walking in the woods when his gun fell out of his pocket, and a black man grabbed it and fired.
"He upped the ante," Larsen said. "He changed the story so now the black man with the gun was fighting with him."
It wasn't until about 9 p.m. that he confessed.
"He came forward and told the truth because he [got] caught," Larsen said, adding that Ahlers "doesn't seem to fully understand how serious this was."
Ahlers' attorney, Eric Rice, pleaded with the court for leniency, noting that his client lost his job and career, and that the international media attention the case received has held his client accountable.
Ahlers dropped his gun in the woods and was cleaning it on his shirt when it fired, Rice told the court.
"In a moment of panic and shock, he made up a story," Rice said. "There were a lot of things going through his mind."
Rice declined to comment after the sentencing. Ahlers said before sentencing that he would have no comment.