It was late afternoon on a Friday, and the Local Hooligans were setting up at the Parlay Lounge inside the Treasure Island Casino near Red Wing, Minn. The air was filled with stale cigarette smoke, and the automated clatter of virtual coins hitting virtual tin catch pans created a chaotic din as seniors lined up at the doors, some pushing walkers and toting oxygen, awaiting the bus ride home.
“Lock up your daughters, and hide your wives! We are a Goodhue County band hellbent on taking over the world with high energy Rock and Country music!” says the Hooligans website. By 9 p.m., the lounge would be packed to see the band rip through a musical trip “through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and today.”
Ladies and gentlemen, on vocals: Nick Sparby. On rhythm guitar, Keegan “Keg” Quinn. And on percussion, the guy you don’t want to meet if you are driving home drunk tonight, the guy who won the internet last week with a heartfelt open letter to a runaway teen; the most famous small-town police chief in Minnesota, Kenyon’s Lee Sjolander!
Funny, self-deprecatory and guileless, Sjolander may be the male Marge Gunderson, the cop from the movie “Fargo,” only in the internet age. Though Kenyon has just 1,800 residents, the Kenyon Police Facebook page has nearly 30,000 followers, mostly because of Sjolander’s sage and touching posts.
Last week, he tried to reach out to 16-year-old Audrey Lukes, who had been reported missing, by telling his own story of a troubled childhood that caused him to run away many times. The letter spread through the media and social media. A day later, Lukes was found in northern Minnesota and returned home.
Crime fighter and child protector by day, Local Hooligan by night.
In the letter, Sjolander, 50, described himself as an “old guy who’s a dad first, and a cop second.” He doesn’t know if his message reached Lukes or caused her to go home. He’d like to talk to her, though, if only to find out what officers can do to reach teens in these kinds of cases. He’s also happy that his actions brought the topic public. Runaway teens are so common they usually don’t make the news or rank high on the priority list of most law enforcement officials, he said.
When Sjolander gets such a call, “the first thing I think about is if they are caught up in sex trafficking, having to do things in order to get something to eat or stay warm.”
Sjolander knows what it’s like to be that vulnerable kid.
“My mom made a lot of poor decisions,” he said. “There was a lot of narcotics in the house, a lot of violence. She was married numerous times. We moved a lot, and she only stayed long enough to burn bridges.”
When things got crazy, Sjolander would run.
“I’d watch her get beat up and I’d leave for the night,” he said. “Then I’d come back and pick up the pieces, which I guess is kind of what I do now.”
Sjolander would come home to a battered mom, a missing father and a house torn apart by the abuse. “I remember picking glass out of her head after she’d been hit with a beer bottle,” he said. “In these situations, you learn to survive. If you learn to thrive, that gets to be a problem.”
It would have been easy, almost inevitable, for Sjolander to mimic what he saw. “I saw all the lying and violence and drugs; it sucks the life out of you,” he said. “I followed the voice that said, ‘There’s more to this.’”
So he grabbed his siblings one day and went to the police. They put the kids in foster care, with Lee and his brother and sister landing at the Fairmont, Minn., home of Dennis and Shirley Neuenschwander. To relieve Sjolander from caretaking for his siblings, social workers moved them to new foster parents, but the Neuenschwanders begged to keep Lee.
“He just melted our hearts,” said Shirley. “I just couldn’t let him go.”
When he came to the Neuenschwanders, “he was a dolt,” Shirley said. “He wasn’t a bad student, but he was average. I can say that about him, because we love him to the hilt.”
Shirley said Sjolander insisted on getting a job to earn his own money. He ran every day to work. He taught himself to play guitar by copying AC/DC. “He turned out wonderful,” she said. “I’m proud of everything he does.”
But because he’s a cop, “I have my haters,” Sjolander said. He was once sued by a resident who alleged that the chief roughed him up during an arrest. The incident was captured on camera, and the suit was dismissed. He now occasionally visits the man who sued him. Another person posts derogatory opinions of Sjolander on a website. It’s all part of the job, he said.
Sjolander quickly admits that his police duties are “another world” compared to the stresses of an urban cop, and he guesses some might knock him for his visibility, but the job still troubles him at times.
A couple of years ago, Sjolander noticed he was becoming anxious and angry. Gory car crashes, child sex abuse arrests and suicides were coming back to him. One autumn day, “I had an emotional, chaotic moment and I sat in the squad car and bawled,” he said. “It wasn’t the blues; it was scary.”
Sjolander was diagnosed with PTSD, so he began medication and started seeing a therapist, something he discusses openly with colleagues.
“My big thing now, as a chief, is trying to focus on getting my co-workers to be good, well-rounded people,” Sjolander said. “You see officers 10 years into the job and they have become super cynical. They forget there’s a large segment of society that’s good, that we don’t see as often. You have to look for the positive.”
Luckily, Sjolander has his family, his colleagues and his music. He still plays songs by AC/DC. Though he doesn’t drink, smoke or gamble, he spends some of his weekends rocking out at Treasure Island. He and his wife, Rebecca, a schoolteacher, get a room. She spends time by the pool with their daughter, Layla, named after the Eric Clapton hit.
Almost as an aside, Sjolander mentioned that his mother had died in 2015. He hadn’t seen her since about 1986, though he’d tried several times. It was a life he left a long time ago, but one that indelibly shaped him.
His sister found out about their mother’s death by reading an obituary. It did not mention that she had children.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin