A veteran Fargo police officer, on the brink of losing his job, took his own life last week after one small mistake led to another, and another and another.
It all started with an accidental Taser discharge inside police headquarters.
It ended on March 11, when Lt. Jeff Skuza – a 23-year veteran of the force and father of two – shot himself in the head in a cemetery just south of town.
According to the internal affairs investigation the department completed this week, Skuza, 47, was working the night shift on Valentine's Day when he decided to do a routine check of his weapon. But he forgot to remove the cartridge first and the Taser discharged into a clearing barrel with a "pop" loud enough to be heard elsewhere in the building.
Instead of reporting a wrist-slap of a safety violation, Skuza gathered up the spent cartridge and wires and cleaned up the scene, hoping no one would notice. When another officer found the discharged Taser probes and began asking questions, Skuza launched into a series of evasions and lies that led to the entire night shift being questioned. He kept up his denials, while assisting in the investigation, for almost two days before admitting what happened.
The episode bewildered his colleagues, who knew Skuza as an exemplary officer with an unblemished service record.
“I was disappointed when the interview reflected his immediate reaction was to cover up his (minor) mistake instead of doing the right thing and reporting it immediately. It then escalated as deception after deception occurred in his interactions with staff,” Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes wrote on March 10, in a letter recommending Skuza’s termination.
Skuza had lost the trust of his colleagues and his credibility as a law enforcement official. The incident would open the door for defense attorneys to question his actions at every crime scene, the department concluded.
“Ultimately, this comes down to the value ‘we’ as the Fargo Police Department place on integrity and truthfulness,” Ternes wrote. “As difficult as this is, I must recommend that Lieutenant Jeffrey Skuza’s employment with the Fargo Police Department be terminated.”
Skuza wrote an anguished letter to his supervisors, trying to explain what happened.
“On an impulse I decided to throw away the cartridge with the intent of letting the incident go undetected. I did this because I was embarrassed that I had done something so absentmindedly careless,” he wrote in a letter dated Feb. 17. “Our ethics standard is clear that we should do the right thing and I failed in this case.”
The longer he waited to come forward, Skuza wrote, the worse things got. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn't eat. He desperately wanted to make things right, but knew he had waited too long. Finally, he made his decision.
“I sat my wife down on February 16 and told her what had happened and that I had to make it right,” he said. “The stress of what I had done was consuming me. I told her if I kept quiet I would not be the same person I have always been….the only solution was to come forward. I told her I was about to make a phone call that would at best damage my career and at worst end it.”
Skuza was placed on administrative leave in early March and was facing likely termination, although there is no way to know whether the events at work led directly to his decision to commit suicide. What is known is that his final weeks were full of regret.
The minute one of his colleagues mentioned finding the Taser probes, “I should have right then told him it was me but I was afraid because I hadn’t immediately reported the discharge,” he later told investigators.
“I could have mitigated the whole thing right there,” he added. “But I had fallen into that rabbit hole and I didn’t know how to climb out.”
Read the entire report below:
A Rollingstone couple returned home Sunday afternoon to find their house sitter dead in the back yard, the Winona Daily News reports.
According to the paper, the 57-year-old man was found lying face-down in a pool of blood in the back yard. A trail of blood led police to a park almost two blocks away, where they found the victim's glasses and even more blood. He had been watching the house while the owners were out of town.
Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand told the paper that the cause and the time of death were not yet known, although the man did not appear to have been shot. His identity has not yet been released, pending notification of his family.
A 22-year-old Bemidji woman appeared in court Monday morning to face charges that she left her 6-year-old cousin to freeze to death on a subzero winter night.
Rachel Stacey Downer of Bemidji was arrested Friday on charges of second degree manslaughter. She was arraigned in Beltrami County District Court and released on $100,000 bond.
Downer's cousin, Mercedes Mayfield, was found curled on the front step of a Carter Circle apartment building early on the morning of Feb. 27 by the Mercedes' mother, Malika Peoples. Peoples placed a call to emergency services around 6:30 a.m. to report that her daughter was stiff, frozen and unresponsive, dressed in a winter coat and hat, with a boot on her left foot. The child's right boot and her mittens were found on an outside step.
The last time the child was seen alive was the evening before. Her mother, who had been hurt at work that day, went to sleep with a pain pill. Her cousin, who was supposed to be babysitting, left the apartment, accompanied by Mercedes, who helped her carry her things to the car. Downer told police Mercedes had shut the apartment's safety door gently, so it would not lock her out.
Temperatures that night hovered around 19 degrees below zero, with a wind chill of 30 below.
Rescue workers attempted to revive Mercedes, but she was pronounced dead at the scene. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner's office reported that she died from hypothermia due to exposure to the freezing cold.
According to the police complaint, Downer was supposed to be watching Mercedes and a 3-year-old sibling, as well as Downer's own 2-year-old son, while Peoples was at work. Peoples told police that she injured her arm at work and took pain medication to help her sleep while Downer watched the children. The family ate dinner together, then Peoples went to bed early. When she woke at 6 a.m., neither Downer nor Mercedes were in the apartment.
"Ms. Peoples said that she then called Downer and asked her why she had taken Mercedes home with her when she knew Mercedes had school," the complaint reads. "Ms. Peoples said that she then looked out her front window and saw her daughter lying on the front step. She then went outside and pulled her into the entryway and called 911."
Downer told police that she saw the sling on her aunt's arm, but "did not know how she was injured." After dinner, she gathered up her son and headed for her car. Mercedes came along to help her carry her things.
"She said she told her aunt that she was going to take Mercedes with her to stay at her apartment," the complaint read. "She said that she later changed her mind but did not tell her aunt about her change of plans. Downer stated that she gathered up her belongings and her son and that Mercedes helped her carry items to the car.
"Downer stated that Mercedes closed the outside door to the building lightly, so that it would not latch. She said that after the car was loaded up, that she watched Mercedes enter the building and that she then got in her car and left."
Downer's next court appearance is scheduled for Monday, March 24.
The five teenage boys were setting up their tents in the Boundary Waters at an island campsite when they noticed a message scrawled in ash on a rock: Lost Dog. Named Tomah. Call DNR. A leash was left nearby.
That’s when the eight-day canoe trip for five members of Minnetonka High School cross-country team turned into a doggie rescue mission.
After five days of paddling, the boys took a rest day on Monday, deciding to explore the large island and collect firewood.
“We figured the dog was long gone,” said Jonny Croskey, 17. “If the owners couldn’t find it, we figured we never would.”
Then they caught a glimpse of the Shetland Sheepdog, commonly known as a Sheltie, and forged numerous attempts to capture the fleet-pawed pooch.
“We tried to flush her out two or three times, but of course she’d run away,” Croskey said. “She was really fast and kept juking us and running back into the woods.”
The boys could run all day as cross-country captains, but Tomah could navigate the lower brush with greater ease until the boys gave up for the night and went into their tents to sleep.
“All night, she was barking and howling,” Croskey said.
When they crawled out of their tents Tuesday morning, they saw Tomah sleeping in a nearby grove of trees, skittish and shaking with fear. They slowly moved in and grabbed her, fashioning a rope harness.
“We’d spent so much time trying to catch her, we were paranoid about her running away again,” Croskey said. “So we kept a close eye on her.”
They plopped her in a canoe, paddled back to the pickup point, where his dad was waiting, and took Tomah to the U.S. Forest Service station in Tofte.
Not far away in Lutsen, 18-year-old Ashley Ross was trying to smile as she sold tickets at the mountain’s Alpine slide ride. Her dad, Mike, had given her a puppy six years ago when his Army Reserves deployment ended. He’d been stationed at the base in Tomah, Wis., so she named her puppy Tomah.
“She’s my baby,” said Ashley, a student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “She was the kind of dog you never had to worry about.”
Until last weekend. Ashley joined her parents, boyfriend, aunt, uncle and cousin on a canoe trip, bringing her trusty Tomah along to an island campsite. On Saturday, “she kind of disappeared.”
They searched and scoured, “but there were lots of trees dogs could get through that were harder for people.”
On Sunday morning, Mike Ross said a prayer for the lost dog. They broke camp and left.
“That was the hard part, leaving and not being sure if she was stuck somewhere or couldn’t find her way back,” Ashley said.
On Tuesday, she saw her father had come to her job site at Lutsen.
“He didn’t think a phone call could do it justice,” she said. “For my dad to show up at work, I figured it was bad news and I couldn’t see her at first from where I was standing.”
When her father walked around the corner, she caught a glimpse of Tomah and ran for an emotional reunion. By then, the Minnetonka boys were halfway back on their ride home, feeling pretty good about their canoe trip turned rescue mission. Tomah had been on her own for three days.
“Our family cannot thank you fine young men enough from bringing Tomah home to us,” Kelli Ross, Ashley’s mother, wrote on the Star Tribune's DatelineMN blog about the no-longer-lost dog. “We searched the better part of two days looking for her and it put a huge damper on our first canoe-in camping trip.
“When we had to leave, my husband said a prayer and God answered it by sending the five of you. Tomah is home safe with her ‘girl,’ our daughter, Ashley, again. And we are eternally grateful.”
Dog rescuers, from left: Nate Jensen, Riley Nelson, Jonny Croskey, Scott Kvidera and Casey Halbmaier
(photos provided by Tom Croskey)
Minnesota's 2012 tornado season will go into the books as one of the less eventful ones.
It's all but certain the final tally for the year will be 33 tornadoes -- all of them low-level EF0 or EF1s, said National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Todd Krause.
The annual average since 1950 is 27, but Krause noted it's closer to 40 for the last 20 years, in part because more watchers are reporting more tornadoes. Two years ago Minnesota led the nation with 113. Last year there were only 31.
Krause noted that the warm spring seemed to have lit the fuse on an explosive season. A twister in Elysian, Minn., on March 19 was the second-earliest on record (by a day), and by May 5 there had been 23.But the midsummer months were quiet, although a a water spout that danced off Lake Superior on to Duluth's Park Point Aug. 9 was classified as a tornado.
Tornadoes are a warm-season phenomenon, but Krause said this summer was in some ways too warm. Air was so warm at higher elevations that the warm ground-level air didn't rise as quickly as it would have into cooler air, which would normally trigger strong air movements, including rotation.
Nationally, 996 tornadoes have been reported through Thursday, though that number will be revised by tornado investigators in coming weeks. The recent average through September is 1,243.