Jim Hunter claims he was the victim of a small-town vendetta, and three juries agreed. Now Hunter, the former mayor of Crosby, Minn., is suing the town's former police chief and lieutenant for defamation, alleging that they used their official positions to spread lies, damage his reputation and accuse him of crimes.
It's the latest chapter in a messy tale in the town of 2,400 residents where the Iron Range meets the Brainerd lakes some 125 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
"I don't give up," Hunter said Friday. "I think abuse of power is a terrible, terrible thing.
"When this incident started, it was bad, bad, bad. Now I think there's an opportunity to express the truth and straighten out some of the things that have happened."
Hunter is suing former Crosby Police Chief Kim Coughlin, who retired this month, and her second-in-command, former Lt. Kevin Randolph, who now works as an investigator for Normandale Community College in Bloomington. Hunter is also suing the city of Crosby.
Randolph declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday, saying, "Some people can't quit when they're ahead." Coughlin did not return a phone call seeking comment.
"We believe the claims lack merit, and we plan to respond in court in the near future," said Pat Collins, an attorney representing Coughlin, Randolph and the city of Crosby.
The trouble all began, Hunter said, when he criticized the police during his run for mayor in 2016. Fearing for their jobs, he said, they plotted to prevent him from being elected — spreading false and defamatory statements about him, including lies about criminal behavior. Their actions escalated after he won office, according to a civil complaint filed this week in Crow Wing County District Court.
The alleged campaign against Hunter came to a head when he was arrested in March 2017 and charged with theft by swindle, assault, fraud and receiving stolen property. Police charged that he had swindled a local resident in the sale of a convenience store Hunter owned. He also was accused of financial improprieties connected with a used-car lot he owned.
But over the next two years, Hunter was found not guilty by three juries in three trials, and prosecutors dropped the remaining charges against him. He received an administrative fine of $5,000 from the state Department of Commerce for not having a proper sales license for his used-car company and was stripped of his notary public license.
In an interview Friday, Hunter's attorney, Ed Shaw, said the jury acquittals were "a testament to these cases that shouldn't have been brought."
"You shouldn't have the defense winning three cases in a row," he added, noting that prosecutors typically win 85 to 90% of their cases. "That definitely indicates that there was something wrong from the get-go."
Shaw said Hunter was concerned about selective enforcement of laws, "letting people get away with things if they were somebody's buddy."
"I think Ms. Coughlin and Mr. Randolph saw their jobs as being threatened," he added. "They hadn't been subject to a lot of oversight."
Hunter said the episode has been tough on his health, his finances and his morale.
"They come and swarm your business and check everything," he said. "They seize your bank accounts, they search your house. They go to your bank and go through all your files.
"I was put in jail, I was criticized by a lot of people. But there were a lot of people who stood by me, and that's a wonderful thing."
Hunter resigned as mayor in late 2017. He ran for the office again in 2018 but was defeated.
"The police got rid of an elected official through trumped-up charges to protect their interests," Shaw said. "That's fundamentally wrong. They need to be held accountable so it never happens again."