Rep. John Lesch endured some difficult days during a grueling 2017 legislative session. But none would compare to the disturbing incident he encountered on his way to work last week.
Driving to his law office in downtown St. Paul around 8:30 a.m. Friday, Lesch saw a man repeatedly hitting his girlfriend. The man had also grabbed her purse, sending everything in it flying.
Lesch parked his car and ran over to help, and the woman’s boyfriend ran away. She was crying, had scrapes down both arms and one leg, and bruises and strangle marks on her neck. They went into a restaurant and called 911, but the boyfriend’s brother came inside and threatened Lesch and the woman.
“He asked me if I wanted to get hit. I asked him if he wanted to spend the weekend in jail,” Lesch said in an interview Wednesday.
The boyfriend, Shii-Hiem Collins, 21, from St. Paul, was later arrested and charged with felony domestic assault by strangulation. Although he hadn’t been previously arrested for hurting her, the woman told police that he had beaten her twice before during their three-month relationship.
Lesch, 44, who represents St. Paul and serves in the National Guard, is running for attorney general. He posted the story on his website and Facebook, where it received nearly 400 likes, was shared nearly 50 times and received 76 comments.
“I hope she finds a place to stay tonight, and I sincerely hope he gets what’s coming to him,” Lesch wrote in the June 2 post. “As an officer of the court, a state rep, and a candidate for statewide office, I was not the guy to deliver it. But his train’s a comin’ down the track and it’s due for a whistle stop.”
According to charges, the incident began when the 18-year-old woman decided to break up with Collins. She went to his apartment to retrieve clothes, her bus card, driver’s license and cellphone, and he became angry at her for not staying with him the night before.
He wouldn’t return her things and started choking her to the point that she almost passed out, charges said. She tried to get to the light rail station, but he followed and threw her to the ground. Lesch saw the man hitting her and pulled over to help. Two bystanders started to look through the bushes for her cellphone.
Meanwhile, the boyfriend’s brother came to the scene and threatened Lesch, so he started to record the incident with his cellphone. The man told Lesch he was going to “kick his ass.”
“I didn’t want to escalate the situation, so I moved us into the restaurant,” he said. “But the man followed us inside.”
Several bystanders stayed with the woman as Lesch went outside to deal with his car, which he had left running on the street. As he walked out, the man took a swing at Lesch and tried to trip him.
He wasn’t hurt, but the man was still threatening the woman when he returned. Two of the bystanders had to leave and go to work, but Lesch said he wouldn’t leave until officers arrived.
Just then the woman’s boyfriend entered the restaurant, “And I’m thinking, ‘This is awesome,” Lesch said sarcastically. A restaurant employee had called 911, but Lesch called it again.
“I tried to talk the boyfriend down because he was threatening her and said he was going to burn all her stuff,” he said. “She is sobbing uncontrollably through it all.”
A squad came about five minutes later. Lesch talked to the woman the whole time, and said he felt so bad for her situation.
“I was a prosecutor for 15 years and saw what happens to domestic assault victims at the end of the case,” he said. “I didn’t witness the whole beating, but I got to see things at the front end. It was a completely different experience seeing it through the victim’s eyes.”
Since she didn’t have a cellphone, Lesch tried to call her boss at work to let him know what had happened.
“There are a lot of young women in her shoes tonight, walking though the wreckage of a broken relationship, no place to stay, no phone,” he said.
Collins told police that he swung the victim around and that caused her to slam into the pavement, the complaint said. He denied strangling her, but admitted getting aggressive with her.
In his Facebook post, Lesch included a link to donate to Women’s Advocates, the nation’s first shelter for women and children escaping domestic abuse.
“I wish someone like you would have been there for me when I needed it,” one domestic abuse survivor wrote.
Women’s Advocates program manager Nikki Beasley said it was unfortunate what happened to the woman, but added that she was grateful it happened in public so others could help her.
“That was the upside of a horrible situation,” she said. “Often these assaults happen behind closed doors. If she had serious injuries, she very well could have died.”
Beasley said they tell abuse survivors they should come up with a safety plan and make copies of vital documents and hide them someplace in the house or a vehicle.
“It goes beyond the immediate incident,” she said. “A cascade of other events will now happen to this woman because of the assault.”