Grand jury clears 3 Woodbury officers who killed hostage

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2013 - 9:47 PM

Grand jury says police acted properly, angering the family of 19-year-old.

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A standoff with police involving numerous hostages at a Red Roof Inn near Interstate 494 and Valley Creek Road left one man shot to death by police and another under arrest.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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In the eyes of the law, affirmed by a grand jury's review announced Thursday, three Woodbury police officers acted properly when they shot and killed Mark E. Henderson Jr., an unarmed 19-year-old hostage trying to flee a motel room during a chaotic standoff early Aug. 31.

But in her bereft and angry heart, his mother, Tawana Henderson, sees the decision by a Washington County grand jury not to issue an indictment as just another blow.

"I'm kind of not surprised. I expected it," she said Thursday. "I kind of set my mind that they weren't going to do anything.

"I'm not in shock. I'm very pissed off, but I'm not in shock."

The family has hired a lawyer and is likely to pursue civil action in the case, she said.

Henderson was shot by police who didn't know he was a hostage and mistakenly believed he had a weapon when he tried to flee the Red Roof Inn in the 1800 block of Wooddale Drive near the intersection of Valley Creek Road and Interstate 494.

Demetrius S. Ballinger, 25, of North St. Paul, had taken Henderson and a group of 11 young people hostage, according to a criminal complaint charging him with more than two dozen felonies ranging from attempted second-degree murder to sexual assault. Ballinger also shot at Henderson, charges say.

The three Woodbury police officers who fired their weapons are officer Anthony Ofstead, an 11-year veteran; officer Stacey Krech, who's been with the department for five years, and officer Natalie Martin, who's been with the department for two years.

Ballinger is being held in the Washington County jail on $1 million bail and is awaiting trial. Because he is being prosecuted in Washington County, the grand jury review -- generally a standard procedure in police-involved shootings -- was led by the Ramsey County attorney's office and based on findings from an investigation into the shooting by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

A grand jury consists of 23 randomly selected county residents. To return an indictment, at least 12 members must agree. By law, proceedings of a grand jury are always secret.

"I appreciate the grand jury's analysis, and I respect their conclusion," said Lee Vague, Woodbury police chief, in a prepared statement. "Today my thoughts go out to all those who are affected by this incident."

'The most serious thing'

It is very rare for police officers to be charged following a fatal shooting, experts say.

"What the grand jury is looking for, solely, is whether the officer's life, or life of others, was in jeopardy," said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. "That's a pretty simple standard."

Based on his understanding of the case, Flaherty said the officers' actions were within the framework of the law. "I have the utmost confidence that they had no other option," he said.

Even though officers hope to go through their careers without ever having to use deadly force, their training is always focused on that grim possibility as part of the job, he said.

"Any time you take someone's life, it's very difficult," Flaherty said. "Each officer handles it differently and reacts differently when that happens. It's the most serious thing an officer can do."

According to the BCA, Woodbury police officers responded to a disturbance call at the motel about 1 a.m. on Aug. 31. When they arrived at the room, a man later identified as Ballinger pointed a handgun at them. The officers retreated and called for additional assistance.

Officers then heard a gunshot as the door opened and Henderson "quickly emerged from the room and came toward them," according to the BCA. When Henderson kept coming toward officers, ignoring their commands, they fired.

Fred Fink, criminal division chief with the Washington County attorney's office, has said Henderson also was shot by Ballinger. Ballinger has admitted firing at Henderson, the charges say. Henderson died at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Several hours earlier, Ballinger and 11 others had gathered to party in the motel room, court documents say. The group included six minors.

Ballinger is charged with sexually assaulting some of the hostages at gunpoint. He eventually gave up about 5 a.m. after negotiations with the Washington County Special Response Team.

'We just try to go on'

For Tawana Henderson, the past five months have been spent acutely missing her eldest son. "I've missed so much work, it's a shame," she said. The holidays were difficult, as was his birthday in early November.

Two months ago, her son's girlfriend gave birth to a baby boy, Mark E. Henderson III, which brought a cavalcade of emotions, she said. "We just try to go on, every day," she said.

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson

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