Home from Rwanda, Peter Erlinder is robbed at gunpoint in St. Paul

Teen got only foreign cash from onetime Rwandan prisoner, wife says.

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Erlinder walks towards the baggage claim with his wife, Masako Usui, by his side.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Freed from the perils of a Rwandan prison, Peter Erlinder found himself with a gun pointed at his head outside his St. Paul home on Thursday night.

A teenager demanded money, and Erlinder obliged, tossing bills to the ground, police said. The suspect fled, the law professor was safe, and on Friday, Erlinder's wife, Masako Usui, managed a little laugh at the sad irony of it all.

"We rescued him from Rwanda and we brought him home, but in front of his house he can be killed?" she said. "It's kind of surreal for me."

But there was a joke of sorts, too, for the young robber, who Usui said soon would learn that all he had made off with was Tanzanian currency.

Just two days before what police believe was a random robbery, Erlinder, 62, finally returned to U.S. soil. For 21 days he had been in custody, accused of violating Rwandan laws against minimizing the country's 1994 genocide.

The human rights lawyer, who has yet to be charged, was ordered freed by a Rwandan judge out of concern for his "physical and mental health."

Asked whether Erlinder was shaken by Thursday night's robbery, Usui said "no." He did, however, know the danger, she said. The robber may have been just a teenager, Usui said, "but it was a gun."

According to police, officers were called about 10:15 p.m. Thursday to a robbery outside a home in the 500 block of Marshall Avenue in the Summit-University neighborhood.

Erlinder had been walking outside, "just enjoying the cool night," Usui said, when across the street, he saw four teenagers, one of whom walked over, brandished a handgun and demanded money, said police spokesman Sgt. Paul Schnell. The suspect scooped up the cash and with his cohorts fled west down Marshall.

A police canine team tried to track the suspect, but had no luck, Schnell said. The teen with the gun was described as being about 16.

Schnell said investigators will seek to determine whether the robbery is linked to others in the area or in the city. A preliminary review has suggested no immediate connections, he added.

Police said Erlinder told officers he had pulled a mix of U.S. and foreign cash from his pocket. But his wife said it was just Tanzanian currency.

Schnell did not know whether there were any witnesses.

Usui said that she had gone to bed before the incident and went outside to see her husband speaking with officers.

In the future, she said, she will think of what happened to Erlinder before she ventures out. But on Thursday, she said, it was a great night, one in which she could hardly blame her husband for taking in a little cool air.

"Then, a gun, and 'Give me money!' " Usui said. "It's a sad story."

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-0041

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