The integrity of the team of 34 officers and supervisors from 13 local law enforcement agencies, who focus on gang- and drug-related crime, now is so damaged by the unauthorized destruction that it may never restart operations.
A trail of shredded documents led to three desks at the Metro Gang Strike Force headquarters. At a nearby shredder, a bin of St. Paul police reports apparently was next in line for destruction. Out back, a Dumpster brimmed with more shredded documents.
The New Brighton office where crimes were supposed to be solved was about to be treated as a crime scene: Strike Force officers had destroyed documents that authorities suspect could have explained what happened to vehicles, cash and property they'd seized during raids and arrests.
That scene was discovered by the commander of the Strike Force on the evening of May 20. He immediately ordered a halt to investigations and locked down the offices. Hennepin County crime lab technicians were called in to collect volumes of evidence. Forensic experts left the scene after 2 a.m. the next day, and the FBI immediately opened a probe into whether public corruption exists among Strike Force officers, including theft of drugs, property, cash and cars.
The integrity of the Strike Force -- a team of 34 officers and supervisors from 13 local law enforcement agencies who focus on gang- and drug-related crime -- now is so damaged by the unauthorized shredding that it's possible the 11-year-old unit may never restart operations, said Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion.
"The answer will depend upon the findings of the FBI,'' he said. "We need to determine what happened that night."
Based on interviews with state and local law enforcement authorities with direct knowledge of the shredding operation, as well as e-mail correspondence obtained under the state's data practices law, the Star Tribune has pieced together the events leading up to the FBI investigation. The authorities spoke on the condition of anonymity.
An alarming tip
On the morning of May 20, a Wednesday, the state's legislative auditor released his findings that the unit lacked the most fundamental of internal controls to strictly account for what officers did with money and property they seized. Auditors found that the unit couldn't account for at least $18,000 in cash and at least 13 vehicles forfeited by owners targeted in investigations. Strike Force officers also couldn't document that they'd served notices in 202 cases where people had a right to try to recover money taken from them in the course of criminal investigations. The amount of money in question totaled more than $165,000.
As of February, the audit found, the unit had nearly $400,000 of seized cash on hand -- some of it connected to cases dating back to 2000 -- and cash for paying informants had been misused. At least $17,000 in forfeited cash had been spent without prior approval from the Strike Force's advisory board to send six officers to Hawaii for a conference in March. There was not enough administrative support to rein in cops who were spending thousands of dollars without properly accounting for it, the legislative auditor found.
The findings pointed squarely at the failure of the Strike Force and its advisory board to oversee the fiscal controls of the unit. The findings also prompted questions as to why Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher had opposed the audit. Fletcher's office was the Strike Force's fiscal agent, and Fletcher had hired Ron Ryan, his longtime friend, to command it.
The findings further deepened the mistrust between the Hennepin and Ramsey County sheriff's offices. Hennepin County Sheriff's Capt. Chris Omodt was appointed in December to take over command of the Strike Force following the retirement of the popular Ryan, a Ramsey County sheriff's employee.
After the auditor's findings were released, Omodt assured several of his officers that their investigations would continue for at least another week while a former assistant U.S. attorney and a retired FBI agent -- to be appointed by Campion -- tried to sort out everything and offer new policy guidelines. Omodt then headed home.
But he soon received a phone tip from a source that a couple of Strike Force officers had come into the New Brighton office and removed "what were described as files, work product and were essentially packing up their desks,'' according to an e-mail Omodt wrote later that night to other state and local authorities.
Cop confronts cops
Wanting to check out the tip quickly, Omodt called West St. Paul Police Chief Bud Shaver, head of the Strike Force's 13-person advisory board, who volunteered to go to the office since he was relatively close.
In the late afternoon, Shaver drove into the parking lot of the nondescript building off of County Road E. Inside, he saw cops boxing up files. He didn't recognize the officers, but he took down license plate numbers of cars parked in the lot, according to Omodt's e-mail and interviews with authorities. Soon, several more members of the Strike Force came in and started to remove property and belongings.
Shaver confronted some of the cops. An angry exchange followed. What they were doing had a criminal air, Shaver told them, and he ordered them to stop. They obliged. It would all get sorted out in the morning, Shaver explained, when officers would meet with him and Omodt.
Shaver spoke by phone with Fletcher, who according to law enforcement sources told Shaver that Shaver and Omodt couldn't deny Strike Force officers access to the building because it was leased to Ramsey County. Later, Fletcher told reporters that the officers were simply cleaning out their desks.
Fletcher did not return repeated phone calls for comment about his conversation with Shaver.
After Shaver saw what was going on, he spoke again with Omodt, and they agreed that Strike Force operations had to be suspended. Omodt went to the offices, where he conferred with Shaver, and then the police chief left. Omodt later told colleagues he was astounded at what he found inside. To Omodt, the sight before him forced him to treat the office where he worked as a potential crime scene.
Heaps of shredding
The Strike Force occupies a large, open room lined with desks and little else. The floor around three desks in particular was littered with a long trail of shredded documents.
That was significant to Omodt, authorities said, because one of the desks belonged to an officer whose responsibilities last year had included overseeing the status of forfeited cars that had not been claimed by people targeted in criminal investigations. And now the legislative auditor had questioned the location and disposition of at least 13 vehicles.
Omodt discovered other shreddings that filled two garbage cans and a Dumpster behind the building, according to his e-mail. He also found that a computer that tracked card access to the building had been powered off.
"My prior understanding is that this computer is not intended to be powered off,'' he wrote. An electronic alarm specialist was called in that night to change the computer card entry lock. The specialist said there was still a chance that a chip in the computer would maintain a record of who had accessed the office.
By midevening, at least three crime technicians had arrived in two brown Suburban mobile crime labs. "They photographed everything, documented it, packaged it, inventoried it,'' one law enforcement source said.
They left after 2 a.m. with at least five bags of shredded documents that could hold answers to what happened that day.