As moonlight falls across the new-fallen snow, deputy Joel Legut patrols rural Washington County neighborhoods that look as pretty as holiday postcards. Christmas lights twinkle in the woods. Homeowners shovel driveways and children pull sleds, waving friendly hellos as the big cruiser lumbers past them into the darkening evening.
It's the late shift at the Sheriff's Office, where Legut and seven other deputies are roaming the county in search of trouble. Gun-related calls are on the rise, Legut said. Being a native of the county, that trend distresses him. Too many people threatening suicide, too many disputes involving firearms, too many short tempers.
Yet, in the fields and woods north of Stillwater, it's a deceptively placid landscape. Not a single call comes in the first four hours of Legut's shift. Crime has fallen into a winter slumber.
"You can't be complacent, and it's hard," said Legut, who never rides alone. His partner, Zeke, a German shepherd from Slovakia, rides behind him in a bar-and-wire cage. Zeke barks his way through the patrol. He's trained to track fugitives and sniff for a human scent, and when Legut walks him through a series of commands and maneuvers in midafternoon, he knows it's time to work.
Legut, who grew up in Afton, joined the Explorers post at the Sheriff's Office when he was 14. When he was 18, he joined the Reserve program. He's also been a firefighter and an emergency medical technician. Now 32, he's reached 10 years as a deputy and, at afternoon roll call last week, received a personal appearance and an award from Sheriff Bill Hutton for his service.
"I always wanted to be a cop," Legut said later. "I knew as a young kid I wanted to be a cop — you know, the lights and siren, all the excitement."
As a child, he struggled in school because of attention deficit disorder, and because of it he's had trouble passing tests. After completing his studies at Century College he has flung himself into various opportunities of law enforcement, including the ever-intensive partnership with Zeke.
Like everyone else in uniform, Legut learned the hard way that law enforcement also brings human pain. Seeing injuries to children, and watching them die, bothers him the most. As a team leader on the county's SWAT team, he also knows the fear and stress of being under fire. He was involved in a shootout in St. Paul Park a few years ago when a young man intending to commit suicide began firing at officers, and another high-profile case at the Red Roof Inn in Woodbury when a gunman held 11 hostages in a motel room.
Through Legut's eyes, Washington County looks much different from what most residents see. He sees a population far larger and more mobile than what he remembers as a boy. When on duty he sees potential violence, occasional real violence, and a proliferation of other contributing problems such as mental illness and drug abuse. People who hide weapons trouble him, too, such as the suicidal boy who concealed a machete under his bedspread when officers entered his house.
"The calls we're getting now are more dangerous," he said. "If someone comes and attacks you, it's game on. I'm going to do everything I can to win that fight. You're going to have a sea of brown and blue coming down on you, hunting you down."
Zeke's presence ensures that many suspects don't run at all. Once they hear his bark, they give up. About a third of all people arrested beg not to sit in the cage in the back seat, separated from Zeke only by a metal panel. They're safe from the dog, Legut assures them, but Zeke's aggressive barking will make sure they don't forget the arrest.
Legut and Zeke, who are together even when they're off duty, know each other well. Zeke knows he might be called into action when he feels the squad car gather speed or sees the lights flashing outside. When he hears the siren he springs around in his cage, throwing around all of his 83 pounds to let Legut know that he wants a piece of the action.
"It's not like having your own pet," Legut said, explaining the commitment of being a K-9 officer. "He's a work dog."
Several hours into Legut's shift, the beauty of a snowy December night dissolved into a splash of red and blue light and a cacophony of radio traffic. He barreled the muscular Chevy Tahoe south to Interstate 94, where a tipped semitrailer, sprawled across the freeway, suddenly threatened danger to thousands of approaching vehicles.
As Zeke barked and bounced at the excitement, Legut pulled into a rolling roadblock to block eastbound traffic from the accident scene. Already two cars had hit the overturned cab and trailer, which had struck the guardrail and jackknifed after another driver lost control on the icy pavement. Ambulances arrived to transport the injured. A trailer full of frozen seafood kept crews busy for hours trying to clear the wreckage.
Legut spent three hours routing traffic, frequently leaving his vehicle to light flares. Every time he did, Zeke thundered in the back seat, announcing his disappointment at being left inside.
After struggling to stay on his feet as he walked on the icy pavement, Legut climbed back inside the car to warm his hands.
"It's the unpredictability," he said. "That's what I love so much about this job."