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Did Anoka County deputies go easy on Grams' son?

  • Article by: Patricia Lopez Baden and Jim Adams
  • Star Tribune
  • November 13, 1999 - 10:00 PM

Copyright 1999 Star Tribune

The phone rang in Anoka County Sheriff Larry Podany's office about midday on July 14. U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., was on the line with a personal request -- he wanted Podany to find his son.

It was almost certain that Morgan Grams, 21, was in trouble again. Days earlier he had borrowed a rental car but never returned it. The friend and co-worker who lent it to him had already called police, then the senator, trying to get the vehicle back.

That evening, Anoka deputies tracked down the 1999 black Isuzu Rodeo with Morgan Grams at the wheel. Inside was enough marijuana for a felony charge.

Morgan Grams -- on probation and not carrying a driver's license -- got off without so much as a ticket, as did one of his two passengers.

The 17-year-old sitting next to Grams wasn't so lucky. He was found in possession of nine of the 10 bags of marijuana in the car. He was handcuffed, arrested and charged. Two days later, he pleaded guilty to drug possession. It was his first offense. He spent more than a month at Lino Lakes Juvenile Detention Center.

Morgan Grams, on probation for underage drinking and driving, and with several prior misdemeanor convictions, was never questioned about the drugs in the car, even though a deputy found the 10th bag under his seat.

Instead, Morgan Grams was driven home in the front seat of the chief deputy's unmarked squad car.

Did Morgan Grams receive preferential treatment from the Sheriff's Office? Podany, who asked Chief Deputy Peter Beberg to handle the senator's call, says no.

Such "welfare checks" are not uncommon, Podany said. "I think it was handled fairly competently by the chief and his staff. I don't know that I would have done anything different out there."

Sen. Grams declined to be interviewed for this article. His press secretary, Steven Behm, said the senator would not comment on his personal life. Repeated efforts to contact Morgan Grams were not successful.

Three experts who were asked by the Star Tribune to review the handling of the incident said it departed from standard police procedure.

"Normally, you'd arrest everyone in the car," said Neal Melton, executive director of the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (POST), which licenses peace officers. They'd all be questioned separately, then booked on the appropriate charges, he said.

None of that happened that evening in July.

A trip to Taylors Falls  

At about the time the senator was calling Sheriff Podany, Morgan Grams was picking up two teenagers in the Rodeo stocked with two 24-packs of beer, said Willie Wichman, who was arrested that day on the drug charge.

"We each had Baggies [of marijuana]," Wichman said of the trio that also included a 16-year-old who sat in the back seat and who, like Morgan Grams, was neither questioned nor held in connection with the drugs. Because the juvenile was not charged, the Star Tribune is not naming him.

They headed to Taylors Falls for an afternoon of drinking, dope-smoking and cliff-diving, Wichman said.

Meanwhile, at Alamo Rent-a-Car at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Robert Hyman was hoping that his call to Sen. Grams would bring results.

Hyman knew Morgan Grams because both were working at Alamo in July, although they don't anymore. Hyman said Morgan Grams had persuaded Hyman to lend him the Rodeo for the weekend. But the vehicle wasn't returned. Hyman said he tracked down and confronted his missing co-worker on Tuesday, July 13, with help from police in Plymouth, where Morgan Grams was staying.

"He was supposed to follow me back to the airport," Hyman said. "He took off. Just bolted." A stunned Hyman then put in the call to the senator in Washington.

By the next day, the Rodeo was three days overdue -- and was being used for the trip to Taylors Falls. Along with its passengers, it carried the remnants of the beer and 10 quarter-ounce bags of marijuana, police reports say.

Attempt to locate  

Back in the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, Chief Deputy Beberg alerted officers at that day's 2:30 p.m. roll call to look for the missing vehicle. Beberg also put out an "attempt to locate" order, which popped up on squad cars' computer screens.

Beberg tried on his own to find Grams and later described his efforts in a 3½-page report. The chief deputy called the senator to double-check the rental vehicle's license plate number. He also checked Morgan Grams' last known address in St. Francis, but didn't find him there.

By evening, Morgan Grams and his two friends were driving to meet two girls in East Bethel, Wichman said. As the chief deputy drove south on Hwy. 65 at about 7 p.m., he spotted the Rodeo and stopped it at 205th Av. NE.

Beberg asked Morgan Grams for his driver's license, and Grams gave him an expired Senate Staff pass with his picture on it. Grams' spokesman Behm said that Morgan Grams worked for a few months last year as a Senate doorkeeper, but that he is no longer employed there. The pass states it must be "surrendered immediately upon termination of employment."

Beberg said he then verified that Morgan Grams was licensed to drive and that he had no outstanding warrants. Beberg said he also checked the breath of all three but smelled no alcohol. He also searched the vehicle, finding five unopened beer cans, including one at Morgan Grams' feet. He found no empties.

Beberg told Wichman and the juvenile they were free to go. Morgan Grams wasn't going to be booked, Beberg said, but he wanted the rental car returned and Morgan Grams sent home.

But 10 minutes after Beberg made the stop, Deputy Todd Diegnau arrived. He saw Wichman reach back into the car and stash something in the waistband of his pants. Diegnau, in his first year with the Sheriff's Office, stopped the teenager to make sure he hadn't grabbed a weapon, his report said.

Diegnau found nine bags of marijuana on Wichman. A third deputy, Chris Meyer, checked the Rodeo and found a 10th bag under the driver's seat, according to Diegnau's report. Beberg said he didn't know about the discovery of the 10th bag until he recently read Diegnau's report.

Beberg said all three occupants were patted down. But Wichman and the other juvenile said in interviews with the Star Tribune that only Wichman was searched.

Wichman also disputed Beberg's statement about finding only unopened beer cans. The youth said there were empty beer cans under the seats. Hyman confirmed that he found them when he retrieved the Rodeo. "There were five or six empties," he said.

After Wichman was arrested, the other juvenile was taken home by a deputy. Wichman and Morgan Grams were taken to the patrol station, where Wichman was booked. Beberg arranged the paperwork for the Rodeo to be released to Hyman. Then, Beberg said, he drove Morgan Grams, who sat in Beberg's front seat, back to his room at a Days Inn in Plymouth. The expired Senate Staff pass was also given back.

At the time, Morgan Grams was on probation for underage drinking and driving. A judge had ordered that he not possess alcohol or mood-altering drugs. Revocation of his probation could have triggered a three-month jail sentence.

Beberg, who also serves as Anoka's mayor, said political considerations were not a factor in how he handled the stop.

Rod Grams has ties to the Anoka area, growing up on a dairy farm near St. Francis, which sits on the Anoka County-Isanti County border. And his Minnesota office is in Anoka.

"If there would have been a charge I could have made at that time, I don't care if it was Morgan or Rod Grams himself, I would have made that arrest," Beberg said. "I have a very good reputation. Just because it's Rod Grams' kid doesn't mean that I would back away from it. But there was nothing that I could arrest him for. Had we not found that marijuana, everybody would have been sent on their way."

Beberg said even if he had known at the scene about the marijuana under the driver's seat, he would have handled things the same way.

Sheriff Podany also defended Beberg's actions. "When you make a stop, you have priorities that you set," he said. "The priority was checking on Morgan's welfare, [making] sure he was all right."

Attempts by the Star Tribune to interview the two deputies, Diegnau and Meyer, were unsuccessful. Although Podany and Beberg initially told reporters that they could talk with the deputies, Beberg said Friday that the deputies were "not inclined" to talk. Diegnau earlier had left a message on a reporter's answering machine saying he was willing to be interviewed when his superiors gave him permission.

A 'no-brainer'  

The three experts said standard police procedures were not followed in the stop of the Rodeo. None could envision a scenario in which the driver would not be questioned about the drugs.

"It has all the appearances of a case of clearcut preferential treatment," said Peter Erlinder, professor of constitutional law and criminal justice at William Mitchell College of Law. "It would be easy to find thousands of African-Americans, Hispanics and working-class white males who are in prison for exactly the circumstances that occurred in this case."

John Laux, former Minneapolis police chief and former executive director of the POST board, called the incident "bizarre."

Questioning Morgan Grams about the drugs and charging him with the bag found under his seat, Laux said, "is a no-brainer. That's basic police work. Anytime an officer finds drugs in a vehicle, the driver is going to be held accountable."

As for allowing Morgan Grams to ride home in the front seat of the police vehicle, Laux said: "I can't imagine finding drugs in a car and then letting the driver ride in the front seat. . . . The way this incident was handled, that's just not the way it's done."

POST Board Director Melton agreed. All vehicle occupants in a felony drug stop should be arrested and questioned, said Melton, who was a Bloomington police officer for 11 years.

If the driver were on probation, Melton said, "you would contact the court. Depending on the stipulations, there might be a probation violation." That none of those things were done in Morgan Grams' case, he said, "appears, on the surface, at least, to be very unusual. I'd like to know if there were any extenuating circumstances."

Wichman's parents also question how the matter was handled, especially because their son was a juvenile and it was his first offense.

"Grams' kid was an adult," Terri Wichman said. "I thought it was kind of unfair that Willie got busted and Grams' kid got off." Added Tom Wichman: Grams "is an adult and in control of the car. He should have known what was going on in his car."

Willie Wichman said he didn't know there was a bag of marijuana under Grams' seat. He admitted to a narcotics detective the day after the stop that the marijuana found on him was his. Two days after his arrest, he pleaded guilty to fifth-degree possession with intent to sell, and began his sentence.

Robert Parta, Anoka County chief deputy attorney, said he'll talk to County Attorney Robert Johnson "about what we are going to do here; if procedures were followed and if there should be any additional charges." Parta said that if it appears Morgan Grams got preferential treatment, the matter likely would be referred to an outside agency for investigation. Johnson could not be reached for comment.

A troubled past  

The July incident wasn't the first time Morgan Grams had been in trouble with the law, nor is it the only time he has relied on his expired Senate pass.

He was convicted in 1996 of gross misdemeanors for stealing his aunt's $400 television and later that year for stalking and making harassing phone calls to one of his sister's girlfriends. His former probation officer said Morgan Grams did two stints in a county jail, totaling three months.

Less than two weeks after he was driven home by Beberg, Morgan Grams stole a car and purse from a woman he took to a nightclub in Coon Rapids, according to a criminal complaint filed last week. He was charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, a felony, and gross misdemeanor counts of check forgery and credit card fraud.

The complaint said Morgan Grams used his expired U.S. Senate pass while trying unsuccessfully to cash the woman's checks in Ramsey. His next court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 3 in Anoka County District Court.

-- Staff writer Patricia Lopez Baden can be reached by email at pbaden@startribune.com.

-- Staff writer Jim Adams can be reached at 612-673-7658 or jadams@startribune.com.

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