The Washington County attorney is about to try two high-profile murder cases, including a controversial one in Little Falls.
It didn’t take long for Pete Orput to mingle among the waves of cops who broke ranks after last week’s law enforcement memorial ceremony in Stillwater. In the world of cops, the first-term Washington County attorney feels comfortably at home, never missing an opportunity to remind police he can’t win criminal trials without them.
“I tell them, ‘I’m on your team and you’re on mine,’ ” Orput said afterward. “I’m pitching and you’re playing third base. I can’t pitch without you, you can’t play without me.”
More than two years into his new job, Orput has emerged as one of Minnesota’s most visible chief prosecutors. When he’s not in the courtroom, he hits the streets, preaching about issues such as identity theft, truancy, child abuse and helping veterans avoid crime.
But it’s the courtroom where he feels most at home.
On Monday he began the first-degree premeditated murder trial of Thomas J. Fox, accused of knifing an Oakdale nanny to death.
‘Cops loved him’
Orput, a gun enthusiast and longtime homicide specialist, also volunteered to prosecute a high-profile Morrison County murder case in which a homeowner is charged with killing two unarmed teenagers during an apparent burglary.
“I feel alive there,” Orput said of the courtroom. “I feel strongly about victims. I know what it’s like for victims to feel powerless. I don’t get self-righteous.”
Before running for the top legal job in Washington County Orput was one of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s star prosecutors. So driven was Orput to stick it to the bad guys that he left a trail of winning cases but also a flood of exhaustion.
“He could be terribly demanding on staff but he’s good, he wins, and he stands for justice,” Freeman said. “I gave him some tough stuff and he said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and went off and did them. Cops loved him. They would go to bat for him.”
Orput personally has tried more than 200 felony cases, many of them high-profile murders. He has won most of them on the strength of good police work, he said. He’s a former U.S. Marine, having served in Vietnam in the closing months of the war, and said his drive for justice and his take-no-prisoners leadership style began with “follow me” Marine training.
“He’s dangerous, and I mean that as a compliment,” said criminal defense attorney Ryan Pacyga, who opposed Orput in court on a recent shooting case. “He’s got personality so he can level with a jury and talk with them like a human being. He’s a worthy adversary but he will always treat you with class.”
At 57, Orput has had top legal jobs at the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the state attorney general’s office. He campaigned for the Washington County office in 2010 to replace the retiring Doug Johnson and swept to a win on promises that included a renewed alliance with the Sheriff’s Office and city police departments.
One of Orput’s newer hires, Fred Fink, a former Ramsey County homicide prosecutor, said working with Orput has been an exercise in intensity. They’ve known each other since 1988 when Fink had 12 years of experience and Orput was a law clerk. Now Fink works for Orput as his criminal division chief.
“He’s really intense and he really feels strongly about the function we perform,” Fink said of his longtime friend.
A passion for law