Waves from this North Side shooting ripple wider than most

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2011 - 10:28 AM

Perhaps it is fitting that his last act was a hug.

He was known for that at North High School: A hug. A handshake. A pat on the back when you deserved it, a word of warning when you needed it.

Kristopher Miller may have technically been considered a member of the support staff, but teachers knew him as a trusted liaison to the students at the school he once attended. He was 27, an age when parents begin to breathe easier, when trouble no longer seems to linger at every street corner.

Then there was the hug, and two shots in the back, and Miller was dead on the front porch of the building where he lived in the neighborhood he almost survived.

Police called it a "love triangle," which sounds too romantic a prelude to the mayhem on Irving Avenue. A prosecutor Tuesday called it "a planned event." An estranged wife, a jealous husband with a sketchy past and a young man who wanted to be a cop because he had a soft spot for vulnerable people.

Miller became another young black man killed at a predictable address in the city. There were vigils, bullhorns, music, balloons, shrines and promises to make it stop. Usually, a story likes this dissipates like smoke about the time it reaches Plymouth Avenue. The rest of the city moves along, nothing to see here.

But this time was different for a lot of people.

This time, people like Kenna Cottman thought, this wasn't supposed to happen to a guy like Miller, a quiet, serious man who was good with kids. "I'm still trying to get my head around it," said Cottman, who worked with Miller at Harvest Prep School and North High, where she taught.

This time, a white managing director at a bank who lives in Kenwood heard about the murder and made an awful connection. Matt Rand had been matched to Miller in an "e-mentoring" program sponsored by his employer, Wells Fargo. The idea was to match bank employees with young people in north Minneapolis and give them advice on careers and life.

"I remember when I was matched with Kris, the principal said, 'You got lucky. You've got something special,'" said Rand. "We started to communicate with each other and just kind of hit it off ... he was a pretty incredible guy."

The program was supposed to last a year, but they continued to meet and chat for a dozen years. Rand doesn't pretend to have been the closest of friends with Miller, but they had meaningful conversations that sometimes only happen between people who don't orbit the same planets.

"We talked about everything you might talk about with a kid. I still call him a kid," said Rand. "He talked about a couple of setbacks, his [previous] job as a security guard. He talked about being a firefighter or police officer, about life and trying to find the right career. And I will never forget when he told me he was going to have a child."

Rand also learned a lot from Miller. "He gave me grief about being too busy, and about my schedule," Rand said. "I probably learned more from him than he did from me."

So when Rand saw news of the murder, "my thought was, I'm this 48-year-old white guy in Kenwood, and you see African-Americans getting killed on the North Side and maybe you don't get as angry as you should, you brush it off and move on. Maybe it's a drug deal gone bad or something."

Unless you have that connection that he had with Miller, Rand said, you don't realize how many of them are special.

Cottman does. She grew up near Miller and has seen many good neighbors die. But Miller stood out. He was professional, serious about his job and always eager to help with a "Hey, Mrs. Cottman, how are you doing today?"

"He was solid," Cottman said. "He was a rock."

"When I had trouble with a student, I would have him help me," said Cottman. "While a lot of people get aggressive with those kids and talk 'street,' he had this calm spirit. He told them, you deserve as much respect as I do.

"I would look at him and say, 'Dang, that's a good brother,'" said Cottman.

At Tuesday's hearing, a dozen people came to support the alleged shooter, Derrick Griffin, an associate pastor at his dad's church. Among them were Griffin's father and mother, who left without saying a word.

Now there are two well-known North Side families in pain because of a story that may be about love, or hate, or both.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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