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St. Paul pizza, ice cream parlor was front for marijuana operation run by local man, his mother and grandmother

Posted by: Chao Xiong Updated: March 27, 2015 - 9:28 PM
Ryan D. Brooks, Sr.

Ryan D. Brooks, Sr.

A St. Paul man ran a marijuana trafficking business out of an old pizza and ice cream parlor with the help of his girlfriend, mother and grandmother, according to charges filed Friday in Ramsey County District Court.

In the course of their investigation, authorities discovered marijuana, cocaine, three handguns and hollow point bullets in the suspects' St. Paul homes. Although authorities locally and out of state had intercepted more than 144 pounds of marijuana associated with the suspects between 2006 to 2013, exposing the fraudulent pizza parlor took a call last year from a concerned citizen.

"On August 19, 2014, a concerned citizen made a report with the St. Paul Police Department that Papa Dimitri's Classic Pizza and Ice Cream located at 466 Hamline Avenue South ... is rarely open and does not seem to do much actual business," said the criminal complaint. "The concerned citizen reported that employees have complained about the heat not working, which the concerned citizen thought odd since the pizza ovens should have provided plenty of heat.

"The concerned citizen said that the employees ate at another nearby restaurant, the Nook, which was also odd because they work in a restaurant ... and it appeared that there were more children being babysat at the restaurant than actual customers."

That call led to police surveillance of the pizza parlor in November 2014, and criminal charges against owner Ryan D. Brooks, Sr. and his family.

The pizza parlor, which was transferred to Brooks in 2010, received $189,891.82 in cash deposits in its bank account between Jan. 1, 2013 and Oct. 31, 2014, according to the charges.

An officer who had worked at the Ramsey County Workhouse told investigators that while Brooks was incarcerated there in 2008 and 2009, he allegedly admitted to using the pizza parlor to launder drug money.

"Brooks said he utilized pizza boxes and bags to deliver marijuana under the guise of making pizza deliveries," the charges said, referring to the officer's statements to investigators.

Brooks, 32, is charged with first-degree possession of cocaine, fifth-degree conspiracy to sell marijuana, concealing criminal proceeds and possession of a firearm by an ineligible person. His girlfriend, Lena S. Kirk, 24, faces first-degree possession of cocaine, fifth-degree conspiracy to sell marijuana and possession of a firearm by an ineligible person.

Brooks' mother, Rosalyn M. Brooks, 61, is charged with concealing criminal proceeds. His grandmother, Joyce E. Merkley, 82, is charged with fifth-degree conspiracy to sell marijuana and fifth-degree possession of marijuana.

According to the complaint: Police surveillance last November 18-23 showed that Rosalyn Brooks opened the pizza parlor in the late afternoon. In six days the parlor had five customers and four pizza deliveries. Ryan Brooks stopped by once, spending 30 minutes at the parlor.

That same month, police learned from a United States Postal Inspector that between August 2012 and October 2013, three deliveries to Merkley's home and one delivery to the pizza parlor had been intercepted containing more than 37 pounds of marijuana, the charges said.

Although some of the packages had return addresses in St. Paul, the charges said that, "All of the packages went through Denver prior to delivery suggesting that they all originated in California."

On Nov. 19, 2014, the U.S. Postal Inspector told police that a 5-pound package of marijuana addressed to Merkley had been intercepted. Authorities executed a search warrant on Merkley's home the next day.

"The package was found unopened behind Merkley as she sat in a living room chair," the charges said. "Merkley initially denied knowing anything about the package she had received, but she eventually admitted she had received 3 or 4 packages from Brooks that contained marijuana. She said she never opened the packages, but she suspected what was inside."

Merkley allegedly told police that her grandson occasionally gave her money. Paperwork found at her home also showed that Brooks owed $6,972.55 in child support.

Rosalyn Brooks, who was present at the search, denied any knowledge of the packages Merkley received. Rosalyn Brooks told police she cashed out a 401K to start the pizza parlor seven years ago, and that she co-owned it with her son.

"[Rosalyn Brooks] said she delivered pizzas," the charges said.

Police found paperwork at Merkley's home showing that Rosalyn Brooks had an IRA with a beginning policy value of $52,320.96, and that on Oct. 9, 2014 she had a bank account with $959.35 in it. By Nov. 10 of that same year, $35,948.38 had been deposited into the bank account, according to the complaint.

During a search of Rosalyn Brooks' home, police found three baggies of marijuana, a Glock handgun with an extended magazine and hollow point bullets, a loaded pistol, paperwork showing that she was to receive a $35,048 disability payment and documentation that she was receiving energy assistance from Community Action because her household income was $2,805.

A search of Ryan Brooks' and Kirk's home yielded 16 bags of suspected marijuana, suspected cocaine, seven vials labeled "anabolics" and "testosterone," a handgun, $7,000 in cash, scales, packages addressed to Merkley and documents of bank transfers.

Kirk's iPhone was also later searched and revealed "a series of photos of large amounts of marijuana," a photo of a UPS receipt and texts between Kirk and Ryan Brooks about bank deposits, drug transactions and deliveries, the charges said.

Police also learned that Ryan Brooks had been on the radar of police at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport because had had booked two flights less than a day before takeoff, and never boarded either flight.

Between April 2012 and December 2014, he allegedly flew out of Minnesota more than 50 times while on probation for a previous conviction.

Police executed a second search warrant on Merkley's home, and she allegedly admitted then that she received marijuana for her grandson. Bank records showed that Merkley had received $29,762 in cash deposits since January 2013.

Ryan Brooks declined to speak with police when he was arrested.

In 2006, Brooks and his mother were arrested in Nebraska in a rental car with 107 pounds of marijuana in the trunk, the complaint said. The two were returning to St. Paul from Las Vegas. Rosalyn Brooks was never charged in the case. Her son served 90 days in the case.

St. Paul boy, shoeless and in PJs, escapes abuse by fleeing into school

Posted by: Chao Xiong Updated: March 27, 2015 - 6:34 PM

Tashay C. Johson

A shoeless 9-year-old boy clad in pajamas ran into his school Wednesday crying and screaming "hysterically" as he sought refuge from a stepmother who allegedly attacked him with a baseball bat, according to charges filed Friday.

"My mom is trying to kill me," the boy said as he fled into Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School in St. Paul. "Don't let me go back to her."

The boy's stepmother, Tashay C. Johnson, 24, allegedly chased him in the school.

"I'm going to kill you," the charges allege Johnson said.

Johnson, of St. Paul, is charged in Ramsey County District Court with terroristic threats and malicious punishment of a child. The charges allege that her stepson, who turned 9 five days before the incident, had swelling on the left side of his head near the temple and ear, several marks on his left arm consistent with a belt, a scratch near his left eye and several scratches on the right side of his neck.

According to the complaint: Police arrived at the school about 3:50 p.m. on a child abuse report. The principal said the boy had run into the school. The principal intervened when Johnson chased and threatened the boy, and refused to let Johnson follow the boy as he fled down a staircase.

"I don't need the police," Johnson allegedly told the principal. "I'm going to lose my kid."

The boy told police that he had been escorted home that day by a teacher, who then spoke with Johnson about the boy's behavioral problems in school earlier in the day. The boy told police that once the teacher left their home, Johnson said he was going to get a "whooping." She allegedly hit him in the head with a baseball bat, struck him in the face twice with her fist and lashed at him with a belt several times.

"Johnson was still very upset with [the boy] after she'd struck him several times and said to him, 'I'm going to kill you,' " the complaint said. "[The boy] said Johnson said, 'I'm going to grab the gun and kill you,' referring to firearms that a relative hides in the garage."

That's when the boy fled to his school.

When police confronted Johnson at the family's home, located about a block from the school, she denied hitting the boy.

"I don't know," she allegedly said when asked about the origins of his injuries. "I never hit him."

When asked by police, Johnson led them to the baseball bat's hiding place, which the boy had described. She was then arrested.

"[The boy's] father jumped up and said, 'This is [expletive] [expletive] and I'm going to beat that kid's [expletive] next time I see him,' " the charges said. " 'I whoop that kid, but it doesn't do any good.' "

Johnson agreed to speak with police, the complaint said, and told them that the boy is developmentally delayed. She said that after the teacher left, she phoned the boy's father, who instructed her to make the boy squat in a corner as punishment.

"Johnson said she was trying to get him to squat in the corner, but he kept running around the house," the complaint said.

Johnson allegedly told police she told the boy she was going to call his father, prompting the boy to flee to his school.

Johnson denied hitting the boy and threatening to kill him.

State county attorneys' drug reform hits dead end

Posted by: Chao Xiong Updated: March 20, 2015 - 12:53 PM

For the first time in years, it seemed to some that this legislative session would be the year Minnesota reformed its drugs laws, updating decades-old standards many on the state and federal level openly admit miss the mark.

A bi-partisan bill, Senate File 1382, was crafted by consensus of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and introduced in early March by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park. (It was co-authored by Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville.) A competing bill authored by Hall that went even further in revising the state's drug laws had already been in the hopper since mid-February, Senate File 773. It was crafted by the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

But the deadline for a first hearing arrived Friday with neither bill seeing daylight.

What killed Minnesota's drug reform? Miscommunication? The looming 2016 elections? It's difficult to say, but it's clear that the interested parties -- prosecutors, defense attorneys, police -- can't agree beyond one thing: something has to change, sometime.

"I think it's very unfortunate that the stars couldn't align, because I thought they were in the midst of aligning," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who was involved with the legislation. "I think it's really important for the public that all of us stay with this conversation, because it will not and it cannot die on the vine."

Both bills change the weight threshold for filing charges on some drug possession and sales crimes, proposing that a suspect would have to possess more drugs than required under current Minnesota law.

In essence, had either bill passed, they would have penalized fewer people with serious criminal counts than current drug statutes, which haven't seen meaningful change since the 1990s. The intent is to incarcerate bigtime traffickers while finding better ways to deal with low-level addicts -- shorter sentences, probation, treatment.

The driving force behind both bills is a changing mindset about drug addiction and incarceration, and the nation's overstuffed prisons, a message U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has been pushing the last few years.

Holder has advocated against long sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Last year, Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andy Luger answered Holder's call, instructing his attorneys to examine all incoming drug cases. The expectation is that fewer defendants would face long "mandatory minimum" sentences.

"If we want to solve the problem of narcotics availability, then locking up people who are feeding their own addiction by dealing drugs isn't going very far," said former federal prosecutor Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law who specializes in the subject. "We had a war on drugs, and the drugs won. It's probably time to think about doing things differently."

Choi and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman agree that Minnesota should follow the federal lead, but with concrete changes in state law. They came together with the state's county attorneys last year, and hammered out a bill in six months that would also funnel savings into rehabilitation and treatment for non-violent, low-level offenders, a key focus for Choi.

"I think everyone agrees that people who possess drugs or sell small amounts of drugs because they are an addict deserve treatment," Freeman said. "Those people who possess large amounts for sale suffer from the disease of greed, and the answer to their problem isn't treatment, but the big house.

"And the question is always where to draw the line."

When Latz introduced his bill, there was backlash from police and sheriffs, who hadn't been consulted as thoroughly -- if at all -- as they had wished.

"It really does not represent law enforcement's best interest, and it doesn't take into account today's drug culture," said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. "We just can't go as far as some want it to go."

Latz's bill increased the weight threshold for first-degree sale of "a narcotic other than heroin" from the current 10 grams to a proposed 35 grams. For first-degree possession, he proposed increasing the weight from 25 to 50 grams.        

It also added provisions that would allow a judge to hand down stiffer sentences in cases with aggravating factors -- the possession of a gun, prior convictions for a violent crime and if the offense was committed for a gang, among others.                         

Flaherty said that tripling the weight threshold went too far. A better compromise is 25 grams, he said.

"Drug sales typically do not involve that much, that large a volume of drugs," Flaherty said. "So in order to put someone away for trafficking in drugs, its going to require far more times the buys necessary to get to that increased weight, and each time, an officer is exposing themselves to a substantial risk."

The Minnesota Sheriffs' Association also said it had "some concerns" with the bill.

"Latz has not engaged law enforcement, at least the sheriffs in this association," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. "There hasn't been any one proposal that has reached that so-called sweet spot.

"We would be leery of shifting this too far."

For Osler and Minnesota's Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Latz's bill didn't go far enough. Thirty-five grams is far from a sign that someone is a major drug trafficker, said Osler and the organization.

"The defense attorneys' position on this is that Minnesota's drug sentencing laws are out of whack," said Brock Hunter, a Minneapolis defense attorney active with the association. "It's a difficult problem to reverse, because it's very politically easy to lower the weight thresholds -- very, very difficult to raise them back up in any meaningful way."

When Minnesota created its drug laws in the late 1980s, it set the bar for first-degree sale at 50 grams and first-degree possession at 500 grams, or about a pound.

But because crack cocaine was a scourge at the time, an exception in the law was made for that drug -- 10 grams for first-degree sale and 25 grams for first-degree possession. In a few years, that would become the standard in Minnesota.

The bill crafted by the defense lawyers would return to the 50 and 500 gram bar.

"Our feeling is if we're going to address this issue and have some meaningful change... and have a real impact on this... the increases in threshold need to be higher," Hunter said. "The changes in the law need to be bigger."

Osler, an advocate for even deeper, more sweeping drug reform, said he believes the climate locally and nationally across all political parties is ripe for change. (He said weight is a terrible gauge of culpability, and that 10 grams for first-degree sale is "a ceiling that's pretty close to the floor.")

"With this kind of proposal," Osler said of Latz's bill, "that is a first step. Hopefully, it won't be the only step. It may be closer than you think."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Man visits Mounds Park where his brother froze to death

Posted by: Nicole Norfleet Updated: March 12, 2015 - 1:46 PM

While everyone else was busy soaking up sunshine at Indian Mounds Regional Park on Wednesday afternoon, Don Jackson was on a more sobering mission.

Jackson, 61, had taken the 7-hour trek from his home in Missouri to find the place where his brother Jerry was discovered last month frozen to death in a shack in the woods.

"I have to find out who he was...I didn't know him for at least a decade," Jackson said, about his pilgrimage that included stopping at the neighborhood bar that his brother used to frequent and the church that he used to go to.

The body of Jerome Jackson, 58, was found Feb. 21 by a man searching for deer antlers at the park near Earl Street and Mounds Boulevard. According to preliminary autopsy results, Jackson, a homeless veteran, died from exposure to the cold. At first, the Ramsey County medical examiner's office was having a hard time trying to find his next of kin, but after a story in the Pioneer Press, the office received tips and was able to locate Don Jackson.

On Thursday afternoon, Jerome Jackson's ashes will be laid to rest at Fort Snelling National Cemetery where he will join thousands of other veterans. Jerome Jackson had served in the U.S. Marines.

On the unusually warm Wednesday, Don Jackson trudged through the woods intent on finding the shack that his brother spent his last days. Don Jackson knew the area well. When they were younger, he and his brother used to hang out in the area and hop the nearby trains to come down to the bluffs and witness the flooding during the spring. Jerome Jackson grew up with his family in the city's Midway neighborhood.

Jackson was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his mid-20s though his brother suspected issues long before that. During the last two years of his life, Jerome Jackson had stopped taking his medicine. While Don Jackson had fallen out of touch with his brother in recent years, he would call the bar annually to find out how his brother was doing.

"He had these demons inside of him that made the exterior look awful bad. ...Somehow you got to have some kind of closure. It's not right that he died. It's not right at all," Don Jackson said.

On Wednesday, Don Jackson went down a set of stairs that were thought to be used by railroad workers in the past and made his way through mud and wet leaves until he found a structure perched on the bluff that looked like it was covered with a tent. But a man, who was presumably homeless and close by the structure, said that it was his tent that he had erected about a month ago and that he didn't know Jerry. Don Jackson wasn't convinced, but he left anyway.

Despite not being able to say for sure if he found the place where his brother had lived, Don Jackson said he was glad that he was able to get a step closer into finding out who his brother was and meet some of his brother's friends who cared about him.

"He's in a better place than he was here."

St. Paul seeking applicants for summer EMS Academy

Posted by: James Walsh Updated: March 12, 2015 - 11:10 AM

St. Paul is seeking out diverse, low-income young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who are interested in starting a career in emergency medicine.

The city's Summer EMS Academy is now accepting applications. Applications must be submitted online no later than midnight on April 5.

EMS Academy students earn hourly pay while attending the academy. The course includes CPR Certification, First Responder Certification -- as well as ride-alongs with the St. Paul Fire Department. Upon graduation, participants are eligible for National Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification, nine college credits and are prepared to work in a variety of EMT positions.

Students will attend class 24 hours per week for 10 weeks and spend a significant time outside of class studying. The academy runs from June 15 through August 21, 2015.

Applicants must: 
• Be a resident of Saint Paul and hold a current Minnesota ID or driver’s license 

• Have a strong interest in entering the EMS field

• Be 18 – 24 years old 

• Have earned a high school diploma or G.E.D.

• Qualify as low income or at-risk and provide documentation 

• Pass a criminal background check

• Must submit an application online - www.stpaul.gov/jobs

All applications must be completed and submitted online by midnight April 5, 2015.

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