When Metro Gang Strike Force members went on raids, they seized property and cash, sometimes more than they should have, knowing the suspected criminals were unlikely to try getting it back, according to their former commander.

When state funding was cut, they used some of the cash to fund their operations. They also converted seized cars for use by Strike Force officers, a practice that included their boss, Ron Ryan, who drove a confiscated Mercedes SUV.

Ryan disclosed those details in a statement April 21 to the state legislative auditor. Strike Force officials have since shut down the unit while the FBI and a state panel investigate its operations. The Star Tribune obtained a 115-page transcript of Ryan's interview.

Asked about the Mercedes, Ryan told the auditor, "that vehicle was a pain in the rear ... a crappy car." But he said seized cars proved useful when the agency was short on funds.

For a period of time, driving seized vehicles was common practice, he said. The Strike Force was taking possession of scores of vehicles during its gang and drug investigations, many of them from undocumented owners who never tried to reclaim them.

The interview provides other details on how the Strike Force operated before Ryan's retirement in October, and interviews by the auditor with other Strike Force workers reinforce the impression of an organization in some disarray, at least when it came to accounting for cash and property.

"Remember, I'm a police officer, not an accountant," Ryan told Jim Nobles, the legislative auditor, and his staff.

While Ryan has not been accused of wrongdoing, the Strike Force, which was under his command from its inception in 1997 until he retired, is under intense scrutiny. Nobles' office has said that more than $18,000 of forfeited money cannot be accounted for, at least 19 vehicles were improperly forfeited, and other property was mishandled.

Ryan described how the unit amassed so much cash and so many cars.

"As of late, you get all these illegal aliens, [and] nobody asks for anything back anymore." When seizing a car, "[If] it's an illegal, 'Ain't my car, don't know anything'" is the typical response. Then "60 days later that comes to us, and we ... put it in our name and then dispose of it in some way," Ryan said.

Driving the Mercedes apparently was perfectly legal and, according to Ryan, was done with the encouragement of Nick O'Hara, the under-sheriff of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, the fiscal agent for the Strike Force.

"Nick said we should get it," said Ryan, and Ryan ended up driving it himself, according to an auditor interview with Cindy Gehlsen, an office assistant. She said a Strike Force officer with responsibility for seized vehicles called the Mercedes Ryan's "take-home" car.

Ryan said he eventually gave the car to a "young man," apparently a Strike Force member, who crashed it.

O'Hara on Thursday declined to discuss the conversation with Ryan "if we ever had it," but said he believed officers should "get rid" of expensive vehicles they acquire because "it sends the wrong message to drive around" in one. Still, he said, "there might be value" in driving one around "on a limited basis" to show drug dealers crime doesn't pay.

The operations of the Strike Force have been indefinitely suspended awaiting the outcome of two separate investigations, one by a panel appointed by Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion and the other by the FBI, which is considering whether criminal violations occurred. A temporary gang unit with eight to 12 officers is being created, Campion announced last week.

All politics

From the outset of his interview, Ryan made it clear to the auditors he considered the inquiry rooted in politics. He suggested he was a target of Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, noting that as a state legislator Stanek sought to cut funding to the Strike Force. "We do not belong to a group that admires each other," Ryan said. He said involving the legislative auditor in the investigation "reeks of money, power and political payback."

Asked about Ryan's remarks, Stanek said, "The findings of the legislative auditor and the pending FBI investigation speak for themselves."

Ryan called the Strike Force "arguably one of the best task forces that the state of Minnesota has ever paid for." But he also said there was a time when the Legislature cut its funding, and when money got tight, the unit used its cash and property seizures to help pay for some of its activities.

"We had no money and we were begging, borrowing ..." Ryan said. Under state law, the attorney general's office was to get 20 percent of money seized by the unit, but Mike Hatch, then attorney general, told Ryan the Strike Force could keep it, Ryan said. Hatch declined to comment this week, saying he needed to review the records.

One problem Ryan acknowledged to auditors was that Strike Force officers often seized more property than they should have. He said they might serve a warrant on a dope dealer who'd "never had a job, and he's got this whole array of stuff that's really neat, that's better than the stuff the copper's got in his house. ... They have this thing that they don't deserve, so we're going to take it. We're going to forfeit it. You know. That's just the mentality of the coppers. So you almost have to tell 'em quit taking stuff."

Cars for officers

Ryan said he used to lease vehicles for Strike Force members to drive because his officers were working around the clock, but "when we lost our funding, we then had a difficult time leasing." After a while, "almost every agency, St. Paul, Ramsey County, Minneapolis ... were assigned forfeited vehicles" from the Strike Force. "I just sent them off with a paper trail saying, 'I bequeath to you.'"

Ryan said that "finally I was given a directive, 'quit handing 'em out,'" which he said "came from Hennepin County." So the Strike Force "went back into selling the vehicles again."

Many seized vehicles were towed to Twin Cities Transport and Recovery in St. Paul. Co-owner Ron Gardas told the auditor that it seemed the Strike Force forgot about the cars. "We've had several cars at our lots that just sat and rusted away ... a few sat for hundreds of days, over a year."

Ryan said the Strike Force kept the cash it had seized in a safe rather than depositing it in a bank account because it had lost some court cases when it was unable to bring the cash to court as evidence. Nobles questioned whether that was necessary in a report he issued last month, noting that other law enforcement agencies, including the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, immediately deposit seized cash without affecting their court cases.

Jim Heimerl, assistant commander of the Strike Force, told the auditors that when he joined the unit in 2006, the evidence room "was in shambles ... It looked more like a storeroom than an evidence room. ... People were storing their personal gear with evidence ... There was just piles and boxes of stuff."

The auditors asked Ryan whether he had any idea what happened to $18,000 that he had directed his office assistant to take out of the unit's safe in April 2006. Auditors have been unable to trace it. "It makes no sense ... " said Ryan. "There must have been a paper trail some place."

Chris Omodt, a Hennepin County sheriff's captain who became the Strike Force commander in January, told the auditor that he couldn't believe how much seized cash the Strike Force had on hand. According to Nobles, as late as February, the Strike Force still had nearly $400,000 on hand.

Ryan, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, has not returned repeated calls from the Star Tribune in recent months. But in his April audit interview, he said he remains passionate in his support for the Strike Force.

"I think it would be a travesty if this organization goes down for whatever reason," he said.

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382