The Gang Strike Force racked up many victories; then stardom turned to ashes.
It was the kind of case that wins friends and funding at the State Capitol, and Ron Ryan made the most of it. The square-jawed commander of what was then called the Minnesota Gang Strike Force proudly recounted in his 2001 report to the state how his hard-charging officers solved a double-murder case in just 36 hours, nailing a trio of St. Paul gang members for a brutal hotel killing.
Nine months later, when the suspects broke out of jail, Ryan's team got the credit again after one of their informants led investigators to their hide-out in Oakdale. "It was a great day for law enforcement,'' FBI agent Paul McCabe said at the time. The glory days didn't last.
In 2003, the unit entered a long period of decline marked by questionable tactics and disheartening budget battles that culminated this summer in a scandal so severe that state officials disbanded the high-profile squad, by then known as the Metro Gang Strike Force.
Former Strike Force officers are now the focus of an FBI corruption probe and previously undisclosed allegations of misconduct against some of them, including Ryan, still are emerging. Over the past two months, the Star Tribune has reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed seven former Strike Force officers to find out what led to the unit's demise -- Minnesota's worst law enforcement meltdown in decades. The newspaper also interviewed officials on the Strike Force advisory board, state public safety officials, federal and state prosecutors, defense attorneys and people targeted by the unit.
What emerges is a portrait of a once respected crime-fighting team that went rogue while its overseers weren't really watching.
Some Strike Force officers allegedly targeted minorities and took home property they seized from suspects, but the unit's advisory board, including several local sheriffs and police chiefs, didn't ask hard questions that might have revealed how far the team had strayed from its mission.
Security at the unit's headquarters in New Brighton was so sloppy that state auditors found that someone with a power tool could have broken into the property room. But an official with the state Department of Public Safety, who regularly visited the office, didn't notice.
Distrust among Strike Force officers was so bad it was hard for some members to do their jobs, but they didn't turn in their colleagues -- some of whom had been disciplined before joining the unit -- for violating the rules.
"In retrospect, we did give the commander, the fiscal agent and the advisory board too many chances,'' said Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion, who made the decision to dissolve the unit this summer.
Budget woes led to change
The Strike Force was created in 1997 by state lawmakers worried about a wave of gang-related violence that seemed to be engulfing Minnesota. Homicides had reached a record level in Minneapolis, and gangs and drugs were being blamed for about half the killings.
The Strike Force was given statewide jurisdiction and $6.5 million in start-up costs. The unit initially employed 70 investigators, including 40 in the metro area, who were on loan from various police agencies across Minnesota. Officers were expected to spend at least two years in the unit before returning home.
Ryan, with his rakish white hair and imposing frame, was tapped to lead the Strike Force. As one of the most respected cops in the metro area, he seemed a safe choice. Ryan joined the St. Paul Police Department in 1968 and made all the right career stops: narcotics, vice, robbery, special investigations, station commander. He was even a candidate for police chief in 2004.
Originally, Ryan told examiners with the Legislative Auditor's Office, Strike Force members turned over any seized assets to the police agencies they worked for. In the first few years of the unit's existence, money wasn't an issue. The force had a fleet of leased vehicles and two office assistants to help with the paperwork. Ryan's team worked out of offices on University Avenue, and the conference room was so well equipped that other police agencies occasionally borrowed it.
All that changed in 2003, when state lawmakers chopped most of the unit's funding to deal with a budget crisis. Some state officials wanted to eliminate the Strike Force and use the money to fund similar efforts around the state. Ryan and his supporters fought to keep the team together. For the commander, it was personal.
"I'm sensitive,'' Ryan told examiners in 2009. "I helped create this. I have a dear spot in my heart for it. ... It's the greatest job I ever had."
In a bid to keep his men on the street, Ryan turned in 2003 to the only major source of cash he could find: money seized from suspected drug dealers, gang members and other targets. Over the next two years, Ryan told state examiners, his unit survived on virtually nothing else.
"We had no money and we were begging, borrowing and I hesitate to say stealing, that would be the wrong place, but ... that's the way we were operating,'' Ryan said, according to a transcript of his formal interview with the Legislative Auditor's Office.
Officers said the unit was so poor they were paying off confidential informants with bags of groceries or lunches, a Strike Force member said.
Though lawmakers ultimately agreed to pay for a slimmed-down version of the task force in 2005, Ryan and his team were never the same, according to independent investigators who reviewed his operation. Members of the Metro Gang Strike Force, as the smaller unit was dubbed, suffered from a "depression era mentality" that led to widespread abuse of laws allowing police agencies to seize property related to the commission of a crime, according to an August report from former federal prosecutor Andrew Luger and former FBI agent John Egelhof.
Officers snared people with no ties to gang activity, seized cash, big-screen TVs and other items that couldn't be linked to crimes and used the property to help sustain the Strike Force and sometimes benefit themselves, Luger and Egelhof concluded.
In a 2008 memo to an advisory board member, Ryan said he used the seized cash to cover the unit's day-to-day expenses, such as training, evidence storage and, most importantly, buying drugs from suspected dealers.
In their report, Luger and Egelhof noted that many files ended with a search and seizure, with no follow-up indicating an ongoing criminal investigation. The investigators also found little evidence that the unit tried to return property to its rightful owners. Instead, some officers took the property home for their own use, or sold it to family members or other cops "at low prices," such as $25 for a TV set or $75 for a washer/dryer. Many items were missing, with no record of their being destroyed or sent to auction. One witness, the investigators said, described it as a "free for all."
Ryan acknowledged the problem, telling examiners that some Strike Force members couldn't resist the impulse to grab all the "really neat" stuff that was often "better than the stuff the copper's got in his house."
Ryan wasn't immune from temptation, sources told the Star Tribune. He sold forfeited property from the unit's evidence room to himself and a relative rather than put the items up for sale at public auction as required, according to a high-ranking law enforcement official who reviewed his files. As commander, Ryan also bypassed the rules when he allowed a St. Paul car broker to privately bid on 29 forfeited cars, even though most of the cars hadn't been properly forfeited, state auditors concluded. The car deal began in 2006.
'High' risk of fraud
In another violation of unit policy, Ryan started stockpiling the cash his officers collected from suspected drug dealers and other targets, records show. Early this year, auditors noted, there was nearly $400,000 in the office safe.
"It's just scary to have that much money in their evidence room," Bob Bushman, the public safety department's statewide coordinator on monitoring task forces, told auditors. "I don't care if it's in a safe, that facility is not designed properly. I discussed this with Ron, and he said that no one will tell him what to do with his money."
Equally troubling, examiners found, was how Ryan handled seized funds. Contrary to policy, Ryan would open sealed evidence bags containing cash and recount the money himself, sometimes making errors on deposit slips and the unit's currency log. The unit's sloppy record keeping and lax financial controls created an "extremely high" risk of fraud and embezzlement, according to state auditors.
In letters to the advisory board, Ryan insisted that his policy of being the only person in charge of seized cash increased security. He said he also needed to keep the actual currency his officers seized in case prosecutors wanted to display it in court, though state auditors said digital photos of seized cash are typically provided.
Ryan also kept money that should have gone to other state agencies. Altogether, auditors found, the Strike Force failed to turn over $290,000 owed to the state attorney general's office, which is entitled to 20 percent of all forfeited property.
Ryan claimed former Attorney General Mike Hatch relieved him of the obligation when the unit fell on hard times in 2003. Ryan said he figured the arrangement was permanent because he doesn't remember anyone ever telling him "the deal is off."
Hatch said in an interview last week that he agreed in 2003 to a one-year modification in which Ryan's unit kept the 20 percent, but he said Ryan didn't renew the request. "If he would have asked me again, I would have done it again," Hatch said.
One Strike Force member told the Star Tribune that Ryan said he was afraid his unit would lose even more state support if outsiders knew how much cash he was sitting on. Under Strike Force policy, Ryan should have promptly turned the cash over to the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, which would deposit the cash into a state forfeiture account. But in early 2009, auditors found that Ryan had been holding onto bundles of cash for as long as 6 1/2years.
With no money to lease cars, unit members began driving the vehicles they seized from others. In 2007, Ryan wound up with a seized Mercedes SUV, but he told auditors it was a "crappy car."
One Strike Force officer said the locks on the back door of the unit's New Brighton headquarters were broken for two years, a serious breach of security. He said the unit also stopped using the electronic alarm system because it didn't want to pay for false alarms.
State auditors found huge problems with the evidence room, where security is supposed to be paramount. Auditors discovered this year there were no security cameras or any type of electronic keypad system to track who was going into the property room, which meant the chances of crucial evidence getting lost was "very high." One auditor noted, "Anyone with some good power tools and climbing skills could easily access the room from the top.''
A home for bad cops?
Though Ryan told examiners he wouldn't classify any of his transferees as "slugs," he didn't always get the best from each department. Altogether, at least eight of the 34 officers who served on the unit in the last two years were previously disciplined by their departments, records show.
Ryan's last assistant commander was Lt. Jim Heimerl of the Minneapolis Police Department, who allegedly sold seized property to a family member. Heimerl was disciplined twice in the 1990s. His most serious infraction got him suspended and demoted to sergeant after he claimed to be working two off-duty assignments at the same time, one for a visiting oil sheik and another involving the Metropolitan Transit Commission, department records show.
"As a lieutenant, you must set an example, not attempt to cover your tracks and falsify records," then-Police Chief John Laux wrote in a 1990 letter to Heimerl obtained by the newspaper. "Integrity is something that is hard earned over time and quickly lost."
Heimerl didn't respond to numerous requests for an interview.
Another Strike Force supervisor abruptly retired this year after he was accused of stalking a female park employee. Randy Olson, then a sergeant with the Minneapolis Police Department, was accused of using Strike Force equipment to track the woman, who obtained a restraining order against him. When she confronted Olson, the woman said he bragged of his political connections and vowed that "he cannot be touched," according to the woman's court filings.
Turnover was high. In his 11 years, Ryan later told examiners, he had eight different assistant commanders. Other cops left before their two-year shifts were up because "they just didn't fit in." A Strike Force member told the Star Tribune that some officers were so poorly trained that they couldn't write up a search warrant application. He said officers would debate the merits of working a case "the Minneapolis way" or the "St. Paul way."
By 2009, relations within the unit had grown so bad there were essentially "two Strike Forces," according to the Luger/Egelhof report. The first unit, they said, consisted of cops who believed in playing by the rules. They made good arrests that led to successful prosecutions, and they gladly shared information and their expertise with other agencies.
The other unit, Luger and Egelhof said, was filled with cops obsessed with the unit's financial problems, and who saw nothing wrong with taking whatever they found, from whoever they wanted, without worrying about the legal consequences. In some cases, the investigators found, these were cops who envied the riches they saw and decided to even the score by seizing jewelry, appliances, computer equipment and big-screen TVs they thought the suspects didn't "deserve."
When some cops saw these kinds of situations develop, "they refused to participate," telling their colleagues they'd prefer to "wait outside while a search was conducted," Luger and Egelhof found.
Distrust was rampant. Worried about corruption within the ranks, some Strike Force officers say they refused to fill out detailed case reports and protected the names of their informants because they feared that data would be leaked to cops outside the unit.
One Strike Force officer said he was stunned when a cop from another agency phoned him with details of a briefing shortly after he gave it, demanding to know why he was pursuing a certain individual. "That told me I'd been compromised,'' the officer told the Star Tribune.
Though Ryan was able to keep a lid on the unit's questionable conduct while he ran the Strike Force, his luck ran out when he retired last year.
After the change in command, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek demanded a special review of the unit's accounts and property room. He insisted that the examination be done by the Legislative Auditor, an idea vehemently resisted by Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who said in an interview last spring that he preferred a private audit and feared that Stanek's request was politically motivated.
Fletcher lost, and so, ultimately, did Ryan, when Campion backed the move. In the auditor's report, the unit was blasted for being unable to account for $18,000 in forfeited cash and 13 forfeited vehicles. More than $5,000 set aside for confidential informants was used for "unallowable or unreasonable purposes," including $72 for doughnuts. Six Strike Force officers prepaid nearly $9,000 in expenses to attend a conference in Hawaii without prior approval of the advisory board as required, an embarrassing revelation for a unit that had been crying poor for years.
Within hours of the public release of the audit, several Strike Force officers showed up at the unit's headquarters and began shredding documents, according to an e-mail from new Strike Force commander Chris Omodt. Luger and Egelhof said they were "unable to determine what the officers shredded or why."
The FBI investigation began in May and is relatively narrow in scope, according to sources with direct knowledge of the probe. Agents are looking at how seized cash and property was handled, sales of seized property by Strike Force officers to themselves and others and possible civil rights violations, the sources said.
Among the officers under investigation are Ryan and Heimerl, the sources said. As part of the investigation, FBI agents searched the West St. Paul home of fired office assistant Cindy Gehlsen late last summer, a source said.
Gehlsen didn't respond to requests for comment.
Ryan declined repeated requests for an interview this fall. But in a November 2008 letter to the advisory board, he denied any wrongdoing, blaming the "disgusting" allegations of misconduct on political enemies.
"While I was the commander, was there anything sinister or underhanded taking place at the Strike Force? Absolutely not!" Ryan wrote.
Luger and Egelhof disagreed, concluding that the unit showed a "shocking" disregard for laws aimed at protecting individuals from unreasonable search and seizure. They blamed a lack of internal and external supervision, noting that the law enforcement leaders charged with monitoring the Strike Force had their own agencies to run. In the future, they said, the state should not create stand-alone agencies that are not tightly controlled by a specific law enforcement agency.
The unit's demise has energized defense lawyers, who hope the allegations of misconduct will persuade juries to dismiss charges in outstanding Strike Force cases and convince judges to reverse older Strike Force convictions.
U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, the top federal prosecutor in Minnesota, predicted that defense lawyers will exploit the unit's problems to cast doubt on the propriety of Strike Force conduct.
"We have to make sure,'' Jones said, "that any of the evidence or the law enforcement witnesses involved come to the table with clean hands."