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Continued: Payouts reveal brutal, rogue Metro Gang Strike Force

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 5, 2012 - 5:15 PM

A toddler, not yet 2 years old, was kicked in the head by a Metro Gang Strike Force officer and his crib was destroyed during a botched drug raid. The government's payout to the child: $6,000.

A Lincoln Navigator SUV, seized by the Strike Force, was returned to the owner 18 months later, with 20,000 more miles on it. Payout to the owner: $25,000.

In other raids, officers improperly seized a blender, class rings, an ice auger and a stump digger. One man lost some Twins baseball hats he said were autographed by Joe Mauer. His compensation: $2,000 if the caps are not returned.

The stories and payouts to 96 victims of the now-defunct Strike Force, cited in 600 pages of documents released last week in a class-action lawsuit, provide the most detailed picture yet of an out-of-control police squad, and put a price on every wrongful seizure, unjustified punch or dubious raid.

The $3 million suit was filed on July 30, 2009, less than two weeks after the scandal-ridden unit, made up of officers from metro agencies, was shut down by then-Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion. The collapse of the Metro Gang Strike Force revealed widespread illegal behavior by officers and prompted new laws and policies designed to improve oversight and accountability of police in Minnesota.

Two people nearly deported to Mexico in 2008 may have been the biggest winners. Strike Force police searched them at the Minneapolis impound lot, found no drugs but took $100 from them and turned them over to immigration authorities. Deportation proceedings were canceled last October and they won special visas because they were Strike Force crime victims. They were awarded $33,500 in the suit.

"It was a tremendous outcome," said Randy Hopper, the attorney who won the settlement in the civil rights suit.

The payouts were issued last week by attorney Mark Gehan who was appointed special master by the U.S. District Court.

Gehan cited 15 people he believed were victims of excessive force and nine whose residences were torn apart during Strike Force raids, mostly between 2006 and 2009, records show. He awarded compensation to four people who lost flat screen TVs and 11 whose vehicles were seized.

Gehan rejected 120 claims, including one from a man who alleged the Strike Force took $100,000 from his backpack in 2003.

He awarded about $840,000 to Strike Force victims and ordered various property returned. Fifty-six people began filing appeals Friday of Gehan's decisions. U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen will issue decisions in those cases.

The payouts come from the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, which insured the Strike Force. About $2 million will be used for training law enforcement statewide on proper seizure methods and racial and cultural sensitivity.

Some who won awards were accused of trafficking in illegal drugs or associated with gangs. Some of the raids did recover illegal drugs and lead to arrests.

Gehan did not state the overall criteria he used in calculating the payouts, but it was apparent that some Strike Force behavior particularly offended him. "I do not see how a plasma television or an ice auger constitutes evidence of a crime," wrote Gehan in the case of Joseph Kujawa, who had both items seized and was awarded $25,000. The Strike Force found 2 pounds of marijuana in his house, although he was apparently never convicted for it, Gehan said. Kujawa was later convicted and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on methamphetamine charges.

Some raids led to collateral damage. In July 2006, the Strike Force kicked in the door of a St. Paul house, conducted a search and took a dog owned by Mohamed Aboubaker.

Gehan reviewed photos of the raid, writing, "It is quite clear that the residence was 'trashed.' It goes beyond the 'disarray' described in the defendants' response."

Gehan awarded Aboubaker $5,000 for property damage and $225, the cost of retrieving his dog from the pound.

In August 2006, Strike Force officers and the Minneapolis police SWAT unit broke into a residence, based on an informant's information about the sale of cocaine. They found a small amount of marijuana, but no cocaine or two drug dealers they were looking for. An officer tried to kick a woman, but instead kicked her toddler. A photo showed a bruise on his forehead. A $289 crib was destroyed.

In its defense, the Strike Force called it "a high-risk raid and that officers are permitted to use force commensurate with the danger," Gehan wrote.

"I am unable to discern why it would be necessary to kick claimant's mother," Gehan wrote, issuing a $6,000 award.

"Is that all?" Joe Neeland, 63, asked this week after told by a reporter he'd been awarded $5,000, plus $3,000 if authorities can't find the computer and peripherals the Strike Force took in 2008.

They also took a 42-inch flat screen TV, a class ring on a necklace and 60 pain pills prescribed after his back operation. He was never arrested.

Seated in his kitchen at the Little Earth of United Tribes housing project in Minneapolis, Neeland said, "I was so mad. I had that ring since 1968 when I graduated from Park Rapids Area High School."

A few blocks away, Zenaido Rivera Garcia, lead plaintiff in the suit, said he never expected to win. He and Veronica Nunez Guevara, his sister-in-law, had gone to the Minneapolis impound lot in 2008 to retrieve her 1991 Nissan Maxima.

They were patted down by the Strike Force who called them "illegals" and took $100 from them, according to their claim.

Gehan said police never gave him a reason for stopping the two Mexican immigrants. "It is inescapable that it was because they were Hispanic," he wrote.

The Strike Force handed the two over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which jailed them for five days and began deportation proceedings. The two found support from immigration attorneys Phil Fishman and Khanh Nguyen and from Hopper.

Gehan ordered Rivera Garcia be paid $15,500 and Nunez Guevara, $18,000.

Under a special provision in immigration law that rewards crime victims who cooperate with prosecutors, both have won visas and Rivera Garcia's wife, Gloria Nunez Guevara, Veronica's sister, also won a visa. "Justice has been served," Rivera Garcia said in an interview through a translator. "Many times the police acted wrongfully and thankfully through God, I used great attorneys to help us and the Hispanic people get justice."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

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