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Cons pull vanishing act over and over

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE and GLENN HOWATT
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • April 20, 2011 - 4:45 PM

After Ronald Vincent Johnson got out of prison for shooting at police officers in northern Minnesota, it didn't take him long to disappear.

He was supposed to be transitioning back to life in the community in 1985, checking in with his supervised-release agent. But within two days of his release, records show, Johnson took off. He eluded authorities for more than a month before they caught him and sent him back to prison.

Still, in the decades that followed, the state continued to let him out on supervised release every time he went back to prison for other crimes. And he took off almost every time, absconding from supervised release 10 times over several sentences, records show.

Johnson was one of nearly 1,800 criminals, from killers to check forgers, who become fugitives from Minnesota's supervised-release system each year. Many are repeat absconders. More than 80 offenders in supervised release in the past decade have histories of taking off 10 times or more, data analyzed by the Star Tribune show.

Still, when they return to prison on new sentences, state law requires that most be released after serving two-thirds of their sentences behind bars like everyone else.

Some say lawmakers should reconsider that practice.

"When do you say, 'OK, you've had your chances?'" asked Dorothy Wolke, whose husband, former Crow Wing County sheriff's deputy Dale Wolke, had pellet marks in his squad car from the shooting by Johnson.

C. Paul Jones, a professor emeritus at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said the Legislature needs to give corrections officials authority to hold frequent absconders longer. "They've got to do some common-sense decisionmaking," he said.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, chairman of the House Public Safety Finance Division, said, "It's something we should look at."

Running again

Norman Albert Maass had already disappeared on supervised release a couple of times when he pleaded guilty in 1995 to having consensual sex with two teenaged girls in Jordan.

Absconding from supervised release isn't a crime and isn't part of an offender's official criminal history used to determine new sentences, officials said. Corrections officials consider the history when deciding how to punish absconders and how to monitor them on supervised release.

After serving his time behind bars for the sex crimes, Maass took off from supervised release three more times, records show. Later, under a new sentence related to forgery and burglary, corrections officials decided to put him on intensive supervised release, a heightened form of supervision. He disappeared while on that, too, records show, taking off five more times during two sentences. Maass, 39, is no longer in prison, and attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.

Supervised-release time is key to making better citizens out of convicts, some argue. Minnesota was among the first states in the nation to standardize release times in 1980, deciding that the last third of a sentence should focus on re-integration into the community.

That's the standard corrections officials must follow, said Brent Wartner, policy and legal services director at the Department of Corrections. "Would you really want somebody who hasn't had that transition period living next to you?" he said, explaining the theory behind the law.

For some frequent offenders, the transition time doesn't seem to help.

Sarah Elizabeth Mills laughed when she was caught forging a check early last year, court records say. She told an officer that the bad $20 check she had written to Walgreens was no big deal because she would be out of custody soon, according to court papers.

Mills knew from experience. A career check forger, she took off nearly every time she got out of state prison on regularly scheduled supervised release over the past 14 years, usually disappearing within a month or two.

Sometimes she was gone months.

Like everyone who flees supervised release, Mills had to make up the time after she was caught, either in prison or on supervised release, typically with stricter conditions. None of it seemed to change her behavior.

Jennifer Ruberto ended up as one of Mills' victims in 1997. Ruberto said she picked up a woman who had a flat tire along a Lilydale road. The woman stole her checkbook out of her purse, she said.

Mills was caught writing a $362 check of Ruberto's at Target. Ruberto said she wonders why prisons can't do more to rehabilitate people like Mills before letting them out. "There should be a number of times that you run away and that you can't run away anymore. ... It's over, now you're staying here," Ruberto said. "Try to talk to them and figure out why it is that they steal."

Mills, 40, is in the Ramsey County jail and scheduled for sentencing this month on two cases of financial transaction card fraud. Prosecutors expect she will receive a 21-month sentence. Mills didn't answer a letter from the Star Tribune seeking comment.

Knowing the policies

Many longtime criminals anticipate what they can expect if they run.

Mitchell Jay Landa once walked away from prison, so it might have been no surprise that he would take off from supervised released. Landa was at Stillwater state prison for vehicle theft in 1993 when he walked away from the minimum custody unit.

When he got out on supervised release after serving time for the escape, he took off. He absconded at least nine times over 24 years, records show.

When authorities sent him back to prison for 254 days after he took off from supervised release early this year, Landa tried to use a law in his favor.

In July, he wrote a letter to the Department of Corrections' hearings and release unit, the group that decides what to do with offenders who violate terms of supervised release. He cited a 2009 state law that says first-time, non-sex offenders who violate supervised release can be returned to prison for a maximum of 90 days. The corrections commissioner can override that provision for compelling reasons involving public safety, the law says.

It didn't work for Landa. "You are specifically disqualified from the 90 [day] cap because of your extensive criminal and institution discipline history," the department wrote back to him.

Landa, 43, declined to comment.

Every case different

Johnson, who was convicted of shooting at police officers 30 years ago, is on supervised release again for a drunken driving offense. Now 48, he has completed about half of his supervised release and said he is "clean and sober."

He said he repeatedly fled supervised release for various reasons: He was upset with perceived unfairness in the courts or release programs, or he wanted to do his own thing. Johnson said he regrets some of what he has done in life but wishes people would value positive things he did, too.

His criminal history -- mostly property crimes and drunken driving offenses -- has one of his victims wondering whether the system should change its approach to some frequent offenders.

In 1980, Al Jensen was driving his squad car home at 2 a.m. from a day's work as the police chief in the northern Minnesota town of Emily. He saw a group of people lighting fireworks and stopped to talk to them. "I was afraid ... they were going to burn the woods up," he recalled.

The group jumped in a van and took off. As Jensen followed them, someone fired a gun through the van's back window.

Shotgun pellets stung Jensen in the face. Other Crow Wing County officers joined in and their squad cars took pellets, too. A jury convicted Johnson in the shooting.

Jensen still has ringing in his left ear and a shotgun pellet lodged in his face, he said.

With his subsequent crimes, Johnson proved he couldn't be trusted, Jensen said.

"I don't think that they should have that automatic supervisor thing because every case is different," Jensen said. "If he takes off four to five times like that, you know that's no good."

plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102 howatt@startribune.com • 612-673-7192

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