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Continued: Over and over, shooting probes in Minnesota exonerate officers

Just before her 23-year-old son was shot dead in July 2008, Tammy Hegi warned the officers that he wanted to end his life, Hegi said in an interview. Brandon Rodriguez had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend outside Hegi’s home in Hastings. Rodriguez got drunk and smashed the windows of her car. Then he grabbed a Samurai-style sword from the home and headed toward a cemetery behind his house.

A man reported that Rodriguez chased him in the cemetery and swung the sword at him after he said he was calling police, BCA records show. When police arrived, they jumped the back fence into the cemetery and ran after Rodriguez. “I told them when they were jumping the fence, ‘Don’t shoot him because he’s suicidal,’ ” Hegi said.

When he was confronted, Rodriguez charged toward the three Hastings police officers and a Dakota County sheriff’s deputy but stopped when he was ordered to drop his sword, authorities said. He started forward again and threatened to kill them. One officer used a stun gun on Rodriguez, but he kept advancing. Then Hastings Police Sgt. James Galland fired four shots at Rodriguez.

Hegi said she heard what she thought were firecrackers and then overheard over the police radio that shots had been fired. Rodriguez died at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

“I don’t think he really thought that they were going to harm him,” Hegi said. “He was drunk. And he made a bad choice.”

Hegi was infuriated when the officers involved with the shooting were given awards. “I thought, how in the hell are they getting Medals of Honor when first of all there was nobody to save?” she said.

The BCA’s investigation was presented to a grand jury, who returned a “no bill” of charges against Galland.

Unjustified case thrown out

Rodriguez’s case belonged in the minority of BCA investigations in which a grand jury made the determination on whether to file charges. That decision is left to individual county attorneys 75 percent of the time.

Dakota County attorney James Backstrom said it’s up to the county attorneys to determine which cases are sent to a grand jury. He said he sends all shooting death cases to a grand jury, and said he has “prosecuted a number of law enforcement officers for committing crimes in Dakota County. They need to be held accountable like everyone else.”

The one BCA “conflict investigation” that led to charges had been presented to a grand jury. On April 13, 2012, McLeod County sheriff’s deputy Mark Eischens was part of a team searching the Rich Valley, Minn., home of Harry Ondracek.

Eischens told the BCA investigator he heard a loud bang or thud and thought it was a gunshot. Then Eischens said he saw Ondracek come into a doorway and “thought he was shooting at me.” Eischens shot and wounded Ondracek, who was unarmed.

The grand jury indicted the deputy on four charges, including intentional discharge of a firearm, second-degree assault and intent to inflict bodily harm. But Sibley County attorney David Schauer dropped the case after several officers changed their testimony and the court was persuaded by Eischens’ attorneys to use a different definition for the use-of-force standard, according to a letter Schauer sent to the BCA.

“At this time I do not believe the case can be proved up beyond a reasonable doubt,” Schauer wrote in a dismissal document filed in January.

In an interview, Schauer said even though he was forced to drop the case, he stands by the grand jury’s indictment. Eischens received no disciplinary action.

Sometimes attorneys have won compensation in civil court after officers have been exonerated on the criminal side.

In July 2009, LeSueur County sheriff’s deputy Todd Waldron shot Tyler Heilman twice in the chest after a traffic stop, BCA records show. Heilman was unarmed and dressed only in swim trunks. He scuffled with Waldron, who was in plain clothes and did not identify himself as a law officer, the records show.

A grand jury in Anoka County returned “no bills,” exonerating Waldron. He faced no disciplinary action.

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    The Star Tribune reviewed 83 "case closure reports" of officer-involved shootings investigated by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

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