Tevlin: Shattuck crisis puts 'Old Don' in his element

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 21, 2012 - 7:43 PM
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Senior Special Agent Drew Evans, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension at the podium and Don Gudmundson, Faribault Police chief, left, spoke at a news conference at the Faribault police station regarding sexual abuse charges against a former teacher at Shattuck- St Mary's School in Faribault, Minn.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Last January, before he got the call from Faribault city officials to be interim police chief, Don Gudmundson couldn't possibly have seen this coming: A sex abuse scandal at a heralded private school and community institution.

At the time, Gudmundson was retired from the Steele County Sheriff's Department, where he had stepped in temporarily to ease a transition after another sheriff retired. Gudmundson, with 40 years of experience going back to his days as a homicide cop in Detroit, was known as a fixer, a pro who could come into turbulent departments and stabilize them.

That's what Faribault was looking for. He told the Faribault Daily News at the time that just a few days before he got the offer, he'd gotten out of bed and said to his wife: "I need something to do."

The city of Faribault and the school, Shattuck-St. Mary's, certainly filled that need.

Gudmundson has long been one of the most cooperative law enforcement officials with the media. But after agreeing to an interview, he changed his mind.

"I am so desperately attempting to fade away from the business," he wrote in an e-mail. "The focus should be on the victims and what the school did or didn't do. The Norwegian in me just doesn't want to draw attention to myself in this case."

Those who know him say that's typical. Though he often ends up in the spotlight, it's not because he's seeking it, but because he's not afraid to pick up the phone and honestly answer questions.

That's what he did as the Shattuck story broke. So far, former drama teacher Lynn Seibel has been charged with sexually abusing six boys between 1999 and 2003. Another staff member, Len Jones, was confronted by school officials for having a sexual relationship with a teenage female in 2008, and killed himself. Gudmundson called the school's response "unacceptable" because police weren't notified "until we had a dead body."

"If police professionals were involved as we should have been, we think that tragic outcome may not have occurred because police don't allow somebody to walk away unattended," he told a reporter.

The chief's outspoken comments are not typical of small-town police, who are often slow to criticize local businesses or institutions. Faribault city leaders acknowledged that Gudmundson has "ruffled feathers" at Shattuck, which says it has cooperated.

While it's reasonable to think it was easier for Gudmundson to speak out because he's not a local and because he leaves the job in early November, his fans know better.

"That's Don being Don," said Andy Bohlen, who will take over as Faribault police chief Nov. 7. Bohlen should know: Gudmundson hired him in Lakeville 20 years ago.

'Absolutely fearless'

"First of all, Don is absolutely fearless," said St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson, who also was hired by Gudmundson for his first police job. "He's just a decent person. If he had been a local, he'd have shouted it louder. He will tell you what he thinks, whether you want to hear it or not."

Anderson saw that first-hand. As Dakota County sheriff in 1995, Gudmundson hired Anderson as part of a minority internship program, which brought in an unprecedented number of people of color.

"Do you think it was a popular choice for him to diversify the department?" asked Anderson. "It wasn't. He used to say, 'We just don't do us right, we do what's right.'"

John Jasinski, Faribault's mayor, said the city was lucky to find Gudmundson available. "He's been wonderful, not just because of his experience and knowledge. His ability to see problems and say it like it is has been very beneficial."

The city has had transition in several departments, Jasinski said, and Gudmundson's leadership style "has bled over into those departments."

Bohlen said having the start of the Shattuck probe fall into Gudmunson's lap has been fortuitous. "Having been a homicide cop in Detroit, he's had experience directing investigations that are very complicated and sensitive," said Bohlen. "Don loves crisis management, and he's good at it. I'll be in good shape coming in."

Anderson said Gudmundson's stint in Faribault may be more than lucky.

"The Lord works in mysterious ways," Anderson said. "There's a reason why old Don was in Faribault when he was."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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