COHASSET, MINN. – The top executive in the highest-stakes region of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was quietly fired last fall after a fray at Fortune Bay Resort Casino over her report of possible child neglect and potential sex trafficking.
Lori Dowling-Hanson says she is now preparing to sue the agency for wrongful dismissal. Job protections as a DNR political appointee are next to nil, but she believes her ouster was fallout from trying to protect a child — something supporters say she was mandated to do.
“I was put on leave and thrown out the door,” Dowling-Hanson said in an exclusive interview at her home on the Mississippi River, about 5 miles from Grand Rapids.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr declined to say why he fired the administrator he hand-picked in 2011 as one of four DNR regional chiefs. He had been in sync with Dowling-Hanson professionally and personally. In fact, when she married Bruce Hanson in 2012, it was Landwehr who walked her down the aisle.
“I can’t comment on a personnel action and there’s potential litigation involved,” Landwehr said.
Fortune Bay Casino also declined to comment. The resort complex on Lake Vermilion near Tower is owned by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.
Dowling-Hanson, a self-described “alpha female,” confirmed she was booted from Fortune Bay while at the hotel on state business 11 months ago. She sensed that tribal police had turned against her for questioning possible wrongdoing and she clashed with them and others for two hours. The conflict last August peaked when she called 911 at 9:20 p.m.
“Help me,” Dowling-Hanson told the 911 operator. “I’m, I’m, I’m barricaded in my room.”
By telling her version of the story — the one she says the DNR refused to fully hear — she hopes to escape a “cloud of shame.” She has faced rumors that she was naked and drunk and went berserk over a crying baby.
Dowling-Hanson, a former Itasca County commissioner, said her case boils down to this: “I saw something, I said something, and then I felt ... there was a big intention to discredit me.”
Two state legislators — one Republican, one Democrat — said they never received an explanation for Dowling-Hanson’s dismissal. Her replacement, DNR insider Patty Thielen, ascended to the director’s job without public notice. In contrast, DNR brass commented openly in February when a new director was chosen for the Southern Region.
In the DNR office in Grand Rapids, Dowling-Hanson was the commissioner’s eyes and ears in “the land of mines and pines” — a vast territory rife with tourism, mineral conflicts, timber decisions, a troubled moose population, wolf depredation, the BWCA and the most public lands in the state. Her reputation was as a no-nonsense problem solver.
“We all saw her as someone who had northwestern Minnesota common sense,” said state Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “I’ve never questioned her integrity in any way.”
Rep. Rob Ecklund, D-International Falls, worked with Dowling-Hanson on projects related to Voyageurs National Park: ‘’She was invaluable to us,” he said. “She knew all the ins and outs.”
The DNR Human Resources report on the Fortune Bay incident doesn’t spell out a rationale for firing Dowling-Hanson. Her dismissal letter simply said her appointment ended. But the report includes criticisms that she was unprofessional and might have overreacted. The report also said she was naked, briefly, in a hotel hallway — an allegation Dowling-Hanson strongly denies.
Her concerns about possible child neglect and adult prostitution were checked at the scene and cleared, the report said. Police were told by occupants of the room that the crying baby was teething. Dowling-Hanson guesses that Landwehr flat-out fired her — rather than suspend her — to protect the agency’s image with tribes and/or the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
Dowling-Hanson also said her actions might have been misconstrued as biased against American Indians. And in retrospect, she learned she violated tribal jurisdiction by calling outside law enforcement. One of her only regrets is not going to authorities as soon as she overhead an adult telling the crying baby to “shut up,” she said.
The 911 operator twice interrupted Dowling-Hanson’s frantic speech with the word, “MA’AM!” The operator explained authorities may have checked on the child’s safety, but Dowling-Hanson talked over her.
“There’s a baby still crying who still is alive,” Dowling-Hanson told the operator. “They could be suffocating this child as we speak.”
The DNR executive wanted a “safe escort” from the casino hotel. The 911 operator said it was routine for the BIA to handle the request, but Dowling-Hanson insisted on help from St. Louis County. She doubled down by calling St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray.
“I’ve called Kevin Gray to assist me,” Dowling-Hanson told the 911 operator.
She identified herself to the dispatcher as a “state official.” When asked for the agency name, Dowling-Hanson wouldn’t say.
“I’m just trying to tell you … I’m not some random person off the street,” she told the operator.
While locked in her room, Dowling-Hanson also spoke on the phone to a DNR enforcement supervisor and to the county’s undersheriff. She recalled her talk with the undersheriff this way: “He said, ‘What the hell is happening?’ I said my life was endangered, come prepared.”
The clash began about 8:30 p.m. That’s when Dowling-Hanson walked to the front desk of the hotel in her pajamas — an oversized T-shirt. She said she called the desk four times in two nights with no resolution of her concern that a crying baby in the next room was in possible danger.
“I requested [the manager’s] assistance and shared that as a mandatory reporter I felt an obligation to call St. Louis County,” she said. “I also inquired if we could switch rooms. He was not happy.”
Soon after, Dowling-Hanson stepped into the hallway to verify the room number next door. Two men approached the room but left when she told them she was worried about a baby inside. “Baby?” she recalled one of the men saying, “we don’t want no baby.”
Dowling-Hanson said it made her suspect possible sex trafficking in the room — a hunch reinforced when two women emerged, one holding a bra. They, too, were cross with her, she said.
Soon, officers were outside her hotel door wanting her to take a Breathalyzer test, she said. They sought to search her room for drugs and wanted to know if warrants were out for her arrest. She felt like she was on trial, she said.
She audio-recorded her interactions with authorities, asked to speak to an elected tribal official and pressed the officers for the names of their supervisors.
“I’m a mama bear. I pushed,” Dowling-Hanson said. “I believe to this day I would have been rolled if I was not recording.”
Sgt. Bernie Mettler of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office stood back several feet from Dowling-Hanson’s hotel room door so she could see him through the viewer. She was “riled up” but calmed down quickly while he helped her and her husband — who recently suffered a brain injury — pack their belongings.
Mettler, a former state trooper, later told the DNR investigator that he was bothered that “the BIA officers” were “antagonistic” toward Dowling-Hanson. He also said she was genuinely concerned about her safety.
About 10:30 p.m., as Dowling-Hanson was leaving the hotel, tribal police again asked her to take a breath test. But Mettler and a DNR conservation officer who also had rushed to the scene believed she was sober and allowed her to drive home, the report said.
‘A serious matter’
BIA police officer Brent Chosa blew the whistle on Dowling-Hanson the next day by calling the DNR.
“Chosa opined that it “kinda blew [him] away” that Dowling-Hanson used her state title so freely during the incident,” the DNR report said. “He remarked that if a federal employee did the same thing, it would be considered highly inappropriate and a serious matter.”
Chosa told the DNR that Dowling-Hanson “appeared to be having a mental health crisis.” A second officer told the DNR she was “belligerent.”
DNR Enforcement Capt. Tom Provost talked on the phone to Dowling-Hanson while she was locked in her hotel room. According to the DNR report, he believed she was sober and told her to restrict access only to people she trusted.
But when Provost was asked by the DNR investigator if her allegations were believable of child abuse and sex trafficking, he said she was potentially connecting too many dots. “I’m not gonna say, ‘I don’t believe you,’ in a phone conversation — but yeah, I was skeptical, at best,” Provost was quoted as saying.
Mettler saw it differently. Asked by the investigator about Dowling-Hanson’s concerns, he said, “It’s not beyond the realm of possibility out there.”
Naked or not
Marna Johnson, the DNR investigator, reviewed time-stamped hotel footage that captured the hallway scene outside Dowling-Hanson’s room. In her report, Johnson said it included 10-12 seconds of Dowling-Hanson “creeping out of her room, naked, and peering up and down the hallway.”
Dowling-Hanson says she was “absolutely not naked.” She said Johnson asked her if she had exposed herself to anyone at the hotel and wanted to know if she was wearing undergarments beneath her night shirt. The questions, she said, seemed sexually discriminatory.
Dowling-Hanson also rejects a finding in the internal investigation that said tribal police did not arrive at the hotel until after she called 911.
“Their timeline was wrong,” she said. “Why would I call St Louis County before I felt in danger?”
She said a fellow DNR employee could have cleared up the misinformation if only the DNR interviewed her, as Dowling-Hanson requested. For much of the time when she was barricaded in her room, her colleague was listening via telephone.
“I was honestly shocked they didn’t call me to tell my side,” said the colleague, who asked not to be identified.
Duty to report
Dowling-Hanson is a native Iron Ranger who studied theology at St. John’s. She taught “safe environment policy” at her Catholic parish in Grand Rapids and helped organize a local child protection task force in response to national child abuse by priests.
Child welfare expert Kathleen Nuccio, professor emeritus at Minnesota Duluth, said Minnesota’s Maltreatment of Minors Act required Dowling-Hanson to report her suspicions. Nuccio, who worked with Dowling-Hanson on the same church task force, said her duty to report was heightened by her responsibilities as a state senior manager.
Nuccio’s instincts tell her that a “collision of cultures” escalated the incident at the casino hotel. Dowling-Hanson is white and the people she suspected of illegal behavior were native Americans, Nuccio said.
Inside the DNR, Dowling-Hanson won an award for conflict management. But she also once went to counseling at the agency to resolve a conflict she had with a superior. She has joked that Landwehr hired her because the DNR had a lot of scientists, but was “short of red-haired politicians.”
“I’m a strong woman,” Dowling-Hanson said. “There’s no doubt at times it was appreciated and at times it was problematic for the agency.”