As Brian Fitch Sr.’s wheelchair was slowly pushed to the center of a Dakota County courtroom Friday, armed sheriff’s deputies and detectives stood at alert near the three exits.
The man accused of killing Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick and triggering a violent manhunt sat in a hospital gown with his shaved head slumped, saying not a word during his first court appearance. Heavy bandages covered his left arm, and his right hand was handcuffed to the wheelchair.
His wounds were the result of police bullets that struck him during a shootout in St. Paul hours after Patrick was killed July 30 during a routine traffic stop in West St. Paul.
As Fitch struggled to keep his eyes open during the 13-minute hearing, his public defender, Lauri Traub, told District Judge Mary Theisen that her client might not be coherent enough to proceed. But prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz argued that Fitch had taken his pain medication in the morning and was plenty lucid when deputies escorted him to the courthouse several hours later.
Fitch, 39, of Mendota Heights, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, as well as a number of charges related to the standoff before his capture. Until Friday, he had been kept under guard at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
Despite Fitch’s lethargy, the judge decided to move ahead with the hearing, setting bail at $3 million. Because his parole has been revoked, she ordered that Fitch be turned over to the state Department of Corrections and held without release. He’ll be sent to the Oak Park Heights prison, which has the best medical facility to deal with his wounds, authorities said.
Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows had arranged for extra security in the courtroom. The lethargic Fitch didn’t create any safety concerns, but several deputies moved quickly toward him when he made a quick motion with his arm.
Fitch had three warrants out for his arrest when he allegedly shot Patrick in the leg, abdomen and head. One was for walking away from a court-ordered drug treatment program several months before he is alleged to have shot Patrick in West St. Paul.
Since the officer’s death, Fitch has repeatedly voiced contempt for law enforcement, according to court documents. Shortly after the shooting, he told an officer guarding him at the hospital, “Just to let you know, I hate cops and I’m guilty.” The day before the incident, he warned an ex-girlfriend he was prepared to use deadly force on police if he was stopped, court documents say.
Dakota and Ramsey counties have taken the rare step of convening a joint grand jury in the case. If it returns indictments, the Dakota County Attorney’s office will lead the case. Both offices would designate a lead prosecutor to work on the case.
A ‘dangerous person’
Traub, Fitch’s defense attorney, has represented him in past court proceedings. She said that when she talked to him in the hospital last week, he appeared clearheaded and asked about what would happen next with his case. But at Friday’s hearing, she asked the court “to look at his condition.”
Prokopowicz, however, was adamant in his argument that Fitch would have no problems “understanding what was being said.” Just a few hours earlier, the prosecutor said, Fitch had asked many questions of the deputies who brought him to the courthouse.
Toward the end of the hearing, the judge put it on the record that Fitch didn’t appear to be incoherent because he was looking at Traub.
In his bail argument, Prokopowicz argued that Fitch is a threat to law enforcement and the community. He cited the serious charges filed against him, his significant criminal history and his lack of employment. He also mentioned Fitch’s chemical dependency issues, the threats he has made against law enforcement and the fact that he considered fleeing to Canada after Patrick’s death.
“I can’t think of a more dangerous person,” Prokopowicz said.
Traub did not argue for a lower bail. “He won’t be able to make bail if it’s $3 million or $1 million,” she said.
Fitch’s next court appearance will be in September.