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
A Nebraska native with a harried demeanor, Orput’s three years in the Marines included combat duty as a field radio operator in a mortar platoon. Later he spent three years in the U.S. Army Reserve. In addition to his law degree he has a graduate degree in history and was a high school social studies teacher in Minneapolis for three years before entering William Mitchell College of Law. He’s been an assistant attorney in Mille Lacs, Carver, Washington and Dakota counties. Now he’s an adjunct faculty member in the police science department at St. Mary University in Minnesota.
Orput said he relies on reasoning and careful police work to win cases but shows his passion to juries when he needs it. “I think I like to throw hard punches. I just keep them fair,” he said.
Orput’s ex-wife, Lisa Henry, said he’s got “a compassionate side” that isn’t always evident to people who don’t know him. “He’s got a heart of gold but he’s got a layer of heavy artillery around it,” she said. “Being married to him was exhausting. He’s smart, he’s sharp, he’s street smart, he’s savvy. He gets intense but that helps him doing what he does. It’s hard to live with, but it’s perfect for what he’s doing.”
Orput’s role as chief prosecutor in the Little Falls case is curious to people who think Byron David Smith, 64, was defending his home when he shot the teenagers in November. Smith was charged with two counts of second-degree murder. Orput volunteered to take the case for the overwhelmed Morrison County attorney’s office.
Orput, who enjoys precision shooting as a hobby, said he’s never regretted taking the case even when he’s accused of being “anti-gun” for doing so. People have called him a “Nazi prosecutor” and worse.
“I’ve got two dead kids who didn’t need to die. I’m going to tell the jury, ‘Who among us didn’t do stupid stuff when they were kids?’ I never did a burglary, but I did stupid things and I got redemption. I call it God’s grace. These kids didn’t have that chance because this guy became obsessed and wanted to murder them.”
In recent weeks Orput has been immersed in preparations to try Fox, accused of killing Lori Christine Baker in 2011. Personally trying such a case would be impossible, he said, without leadership from his 49 employees and managerial advisory team.