Minneapolis family is taking Strike Force to court

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2009 - 5:40 AM

The federal lawsuit is over the damage to its home, property seized and distress inflicted in a raid by officers working with the Metro Gang Strike Force. No arrests were made.

Felix, Shelly Blas

Shelly Blas was home with her aunt about 2 p.m. Feb. 6 when Minneapolis SWAT team members raided her home and Metro Gang Strike Force officers moved in. Her father, Felix Blas, left, said that Shelly still has a hard time being alone. Some windows remain broken.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Shelly Blas, 17, was in her bedroom in her south Minneapolis home when she heard glass shatter and her aunt scream. Then five police officers burst into her room and at gunpoint ordered her down on the floor, where she was handcuffed.

"Shut up," they were yelling. "Shut up."

Her father, Felix Blas, drove up in a car 45 minutes later and was greeted by two officers pointing guns at him.

The Feb. 6 raid on the Blas residence, launched by the Metro Gang Strike Force with the help of Minneapolis SWAT team officers, resulted in more than $3,000 in damage and the seizure of property, including a computer and camera, the family says. It also subjected the Blases to emotional distress, they say. And to date, it has produced no arrests.

On Monday, Shelly and Felix Blas and Shelly's aunt, Vitalina Bautista, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis against the Strike Force and officers in the raid.

While the Strike Force had a search warrant signed by Hennepin District Judge Patricia Belois, the target of the warrant, Joe Barrera, 18, a nephew of homeowner Felix Blas, was not at home and has not been arrested. After interviews with family members and other inquiries, the Star Tribune can find no record of an arrest warrant for Barrera.

Sgt. Jesse Garcia, a Minneapolis police spokesman, could provide no details about Barrera and said he did not know whether there was an arrest warrant. "This may still be an ongoing investigation," he said.

The lawsuit becomes one more problem for the beleaguered Strike Force, which came under fire by the Minnesota legislative auditor in May for its handling of seized money and property. Operations of the unit, made up of 34 officers from different police departments and sheriff's offices, have been suspended while the FBI and a state panel conduct separate investigations of its operations.

Seeking a 'narcotics empire'

According to court papers signed by Strike Force member David Garman, a Minneapolis police officer, a reliable confidential informant had told him within the 72 hours prior to the raid that Barrera, a Vatos Locos gang member known as "Shy-Boy," sold drugs to children at a nearby alternative school and was a main supplier of weapons to local gang members.

The Strike Force had information that Barrera had a .22 rifle that he used "to protect his narcotics empire," the document said, and police did find a rifle. The informant also said Barrera was in possession of stolen or fake documents that he was selling to other gang members "to hide their status." The police inventory of items seized during the raid does not mention any such documents. The officers did say they found "suspected" marijuana, but the amount is not listed.

The raid of the home, on the 4100 block of 16th Avenue S., began about 2 p.m. SWAT team officers smashed numerous windows. Once the house was secured by the SWAT team, Strike Force members moved in to investigate.

When Felix Blas arrived, he asked officers if they had permission to come into his house. "Shut up," the officers told him. The family members were handcuffed with plastic ties, and Shelly and her aunt were made to lie face down on the floor for an extended period, hands behind their backs, the family says.

John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association in Doylestown, Pa., said he was unfamiliar with the Minneapolis incident, but that breaking windows is a police tactic known as "break and rake" or "porting" and is used to both disarm and distract criminals during high-risk entries. Police break the windows, then pull back shades or blinds as officers aim their guns inside the building to discourage anyone from shooting back. The technique also serves as a diversion because the occupants look toward the breaking windows while police break through a door.

"With a dynamic, high-risk search warrant there is going to be some minimal damage in gaining entry, searching and clearing the house," said Garcia, the Minneapolis police spokesman. He said such tactics are necessary if the target is an individual known to have a weapon and if there's a danger that drugs or other evidence may be flushed down a toilet. "This is not a case of officers going out of their way to cause more damage than was necessary to successfully serve the warrant," he said.

Bruce Nestor, the family's Minneapolis attorney, said in an interview that "the items seized from the home include no evidence relating to the manufacturer of documents, the running of a narcotics empire or large-scale trafficking in firearms." The family also claims that police smashed several items including a TV, a satellite television receiver and an electronic entertainment center.

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza, who is not involved in the case, said Monday that if police caused damage to the house, they should be responsible for the repairs. He said the search warrant meant that the judge "had to satisfy herself they had a right to break into this house."

"I am not against the destruction of property," Bouza said. As a police tactic, "it can be perfectly valid. The question is what do you do afterwards" to repair the damage.

Said Garcia, "Through the system, it will be determined whether or not we are liable."

Target says he was at school

Barrera, who was born in California, was asked in a telephone interview about the claim that he was running a "narcotics empire."

"What's that?" he asked.

He said he was in school at Washburn High when the raid occurred. The informant gave police "a whole bunch of B.S.," he said. "All that stuff is made up." He said he was not selling pot or weapons and would not have sold drugs to kids at a nearby school because they were in a rival gang. "If there was hard evidence, I would be locked up already," he said.

Barrera said he joined the Vatos Locos gang when he was 14 years old but dropped out in May 2008 after he was assaulted by a rival gang on Lake Street and nearly died. He said he kept the .22 rifle "for protection." Felix and Shelly Blas said they were unaware he had a rifle.

Barrera said about two weeks after the raid, his mother took him to live with a relative in North Carolina. "She just couldn't take it anymore," he said. He has since graduated from an alternative high school and is planning to go to barber school in August, he said.

Felix Blas said he also was not aware his nephew belonged to a gang. "I think the gangs are bad," he said.

Blas said he was born in Mexico but became a U.S. citizen in 1996. He said that during the raid, an officer asked him if he was a citizen, and Blas showed him a framed copy of his citizenship papers. Blas said the Strike Force officer told him, "You're lucky."

Shelly Blas said she's asked police when her computer will be returned. She said she was told she would get it back when the investigation is complete.

Barrera, now living in the North Carolina countryside, said life's a lot different there. "It's just cows and fields," he said, and he spends a lot of time watching TV. "It's all right," he added, "You don't have to worry about anything."

Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this article. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382

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Felix, Shelly Blas