The random crime spree by a woman and three men on Oct. 18 started out as a grab for some quick cash and credit cards.
Five hours later, two people had been killed, a man had been robbed at gunpoint on the street and a family made to plea for their lives during a home invasion.
Detectives from Minneapolis and St. Paul spent hundreds of hours working together to connect the dots on the violent rampage Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman described Tuesday as the worst he had seen during his 18 years in office.
Last week, Alvin Bell Jr., 25; Isiah Harper, 26; Michelle Koester, 42, and Albert McIntosh, 31, were charged with murder, aggravated robbery and burglary, and Freeman’s office will be asking for $1 million bail for each of them.
Koester and McIntosh recently finished separate significant prison sentences for aiding a murder and burglary.
“Stay tuned,” Freeman said. “There may be more charges coming.”
The group was jailed in Ramsey County about a week after the death of 24-year-old Sarah Wierstad, who returned home to interrupt a burglary by the three men. On her knees, Wierstad pleaded with them, saying her 5-year-old daughter would be coming home soon. She was shot repeatedly after following the men out of her house to ask for her telephone back, charges said.
“The level of violence and complete disregard for human life is chilling,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.
Wierstad became the first victim of the spree at 7:52 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18. Freeman speculated that “sheer money and greed” initially fueled the group of associates who had no known gang ties,
Less than a half-hour later, Wierstad’s stolen credit cards were used at a gas station on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. Bell, Harper and Koester were captured on a surveillance video there, one of dozens of clues detectives used to build a case against the group.
Next, they robbed a man at gunpoint behind his apartment building. His credit cards and car were used at another gas station. Again, their faces appeared of surveillance video.
Another random house burglary happened about 9:30 p.m. in Minneapolis, the group getting a significant haul of a laptop computer, jewelry, $2,300 cash and a car, charges said. Julio Mozo-Cuate, 42, became the next homicide victim at 10 p.m. After patting him down during a robbery, he was shot and left for dead in an alley, charges said.
The group then decided to invade a home in south Minneapolis, terrifying a couple and their four children who were ordered to lie on the floor. One of the children had the courage to look up at the men and identified some of them to police, Freeman said.
The criminals stopped to use more stolen credit cards at a Wal-Mart in Brooklyn Center before gathering in north Minneapolis to argue over how to split the proceeds of the robberies, the charges said. McIntosh fired numerous times at Bell and Harper, but neither man was hit.
In a statement to police, Harper said he only intended to do robberies and that he was upset that people were getting killed, the charges said. He admitted they targeted Hispanics, a strategy Freeman explained may have been based on a belief that Hispanics are more likely to lack bank accounts and to carry cash.
Collaborative police effort
Two Minneapolis detectives from the robbery and homicide units said the information sharing between their department and St. Paul was key to bringing charges against the foursome. Minneapolis police Sgt. Chuck Green called it a “model and textbook example” of how it should be done, and said that without such collaboration, the crimes might still remain unsolved.
St. Paul was working on Wierstad’s death before Minneapolis determined their homicide and robberies may be connected. The crimes all involved one “very large” suspect and two smaller suspects.
The detectives, including Sgt. Chris Gaiters and others, reviewed open and closed cases similar to the events of Oct. 18. They used surveillance video, DNA, warrants and firearms evidence to piece the crimes together. Minneapolis had the luxury of working more deliberately because St. Paul was holding the four suspects in jail and “the clock was ticking on whether they could submit cases for charging,” Green said.
“As investigators, you look at the common denominators,” he said. “Science and police work solved the case. But you also have to ask the right questions during interviews to get suspects to talk.”
As the detectives were linking the crimes from Oct. 18, they felt “like they right there with suspects.” Green said. He was amazed to discover how quickly these suspects escalated both their crimes and their level of violence.
“I don’t think I’ve seen that in my 20 years with the department,” he said.
While the spree was a priority the past couple of months, the detectives will now move to the dozens of other unsolved robberies and homicides.
“But maybe people can feel safer that these suspects are off the streets,” Green said. “And may never return to the streets again.”