Fugitives hiding within reach

Second in a series: On the run for 4 months, a sex offender wasn't caught until after he struck again.

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Kelly Hatfield said she wasn’t aware her boyfriend, Ricky Lee Wehmeyer, was a fugitive when he stayed at her home off and on in 2005.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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LAKEFIELD, MINN. - This little town on the prairie of southwestern Minnesota is not big enough for a stop light, a fast-food restaurant, or a building taller than the grain elevator. The locals -- and local police -- know nearly every one of its 1,700 residents.

So how did one of the state Department of Corrections' most-wanted fugitives travel in and out of Lakefield for four months without authorities noticing?

Ricky Lee Wehmeyer fled from his supervised release officer in 2005, just two months after he was released from prison on a drug conviction. A predatory sex offender who once molested a 10-year-old girl, Wehmeyer had family, friends and a girlfriend in Lakefield, and he soon landed there, staying a few nights at a time and working occasionally in a nearby town. Local police received a tip that Wehmeyer was in the area soon after he arrived in July, but he wasn't arrested until November.

By then, he had sexually touched a 5-year-old girl.

Wehmeyer is one of about 1,800 criminals who abscond from supervised release each year in Minnesota. Over the past decade, those fugitives committed more than 1,400 major crimes, including 61 felony assaults and seven murders.

Sometimes they are hiding in plain sight.

When a supervised-release fugitive takes off, Department of Corrections (DOC) officials put out a nationwide warrant and the agency's small team of hunters picks up the chase. They often rely on help from local authorities.

Deputies looked for Wehmeyer in three area towns, a sergeant with Jackson County Sheriff's Office said, but Wehmeyer was always good at eluding them when they had tried to find him.

In Lakefield, police checked on the house of Wehmeyer's girlfriend and asked her about him, court records show. But police did not put up wanted posters or notify the community to watch for Wehmeyer.

Leslie Oeltjenbruns, whose family lived near Wehmeyer's girlfriend, said state authorities "could have kept a better eye" onWehmeyer.

"It's very disturbing that it was right next to us," said Oeltjenbruns, whose three children were in grade school or younger at the time.

Wehmeyer, now 46 and back in prison, declined to comment.

Public wasn't warned

As mandated by state law, Wehmeyer was released after serving about two-thirds of his sentence behind bars in May 2005. He was one of a select group of convicts put on intensive supervised release -- a type of supervision reserved for about 1,100 high-risk offenders annually. Wehmeyer had a long list of conditions, including staying away from minors.

After Wehmeyer took off from his halfway house in St. Paul on July 5, corrections officials put out a warrant for his arrest.

DOC searches are prioritized based on the severity of the convict's crime -- sexual predators and killers are sought first. About 86 percent of predatory sex offenders are caught within 24 hours, corrections officials said. About 83 percent of killers are caught within 72 hours.

Still, more than half of supervised-release fugitives elude authorities for more than a week before they're caught, a Star Tribune analysis found. Thirty percent are still on the loose after a month.

Catching them can be difficult in part because the state has few full-time fugitive hunters and local police agencies also tend to have small staffing and other jobs to do.

The state no longer has notes on efforts to find Wehmeyer, a DOC spokeswoman said. But court records show that by July 19, Lakefield police had been notified that officers in nearby Worthington, Minn. had been tipped that Wehmeyer was in the area.

Lakefield Police Chief Jared Praska called Wehmeyer's parents in Lakefield and asked them to call 911 if they saw him, records show. Praska also contacted Kelly Hatfield, Wehmeyer's girlfriend, who said she visited and wrote to him in prison.

Still, authorities didn't let many others in the town know about the possible fugitive in their midst.

Praska said last week that he doesn't remember details of what was done to find Wehmeyer. When someone is wanted, he said, authorities may not always publicize it.

"It just depends," Praska said. "There's times where we just do not let the public know everything because we want to make [fugitives] feel comfortable. Then, once they become comfortable, then they let their guard down."

On Aug. 31, Praska notified Worthington police that "we are still watching around town and Kelly Hatfield's house for Mr. Wehmeyer," records show.

Oeltjenbruns said she saw no increased police presence on nearby streets, and she believes she would have noticed.

Praska noted in an interview last week that the police department typically has only one officer on duty at a time.

Worked as a bouncer

Wehmeyer wasn't hiding from authorities while he was in Lakefield, Hatfield and others said. One friend said they went grocery shopping and bought gas. He helped rake her lawn. He even went to a county fair just across the border in Iowa, Hatfield said. He would stay with Hatfield for as much as a week at a time.

Hatfield says she didn't know he was a fugitive, and she disputes that police contacted her about him in July and August. She said she trusted Wehmeyer, believing he was turning his life around. She didn't worry when he was in the house while her 9-year-old daughter was there or while she cared for the children of a friend.

Hatfield, who worked part-time as a bartender in Worthington, said she helped Wehmeyer get occasional work there as a bouncer. "I wasn't hiding him," she said last week.

Found too late

In mid-October, Wehmeyer threatened to kill Hatfield during a fight, she said. He took off in her car and Hatfield called the police. It was then, she said, that authorities told her he was a fugitive.

Hatfield waited nervously for weeks, afraid he would come back with a weapon. When he did show up in early November, he wasn't violent, but they argued again, she said.

The next day, acting on a tip, Lakefield police believed they finally had Wehmeyer cornered. On Nov. 3, Praska called Hatfield on her home phone and asked if Wehmeyer was there. She was guarded, answering questions with just "yes" or "no." Wehmeyer was sitting just a few feet away on Hatfield's couch.

When Lakefield police showed up at the door, Wehmeyer -- clad only in a pair of boxer shorts -- didn't put up a fight. Police let him finish smoking his cigarette, then handcuffed him and took him to jail. Wehmeyer told police he kept his head low because he knew he was wanted, and he acknowledged working at a local bar, records show. Though Hatfield's house was only about a block and a half away from his parents, Wehmeyer said he didn't contact them while he was on the run.

Months after Wehmeyer was caught, a 5-year-old girl told her mother that Wehmeyer touched her private parts while visiting Hatfield's house.

A Jackson County jury convicted Wehmeyer of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. Because of his criminal history, Wehmeyer was given a life sentence.

plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102

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