As the Minnesota State Fair wound to a close late Monday, chaos unfolded just outside its main gate.
Fights broke out. A 19-year-old woman was gravely injured when she was hit by a vehicle. Then the sound of gunfire sent hundreds of panicked fairgoers fleeing down Midway Parkway into the Como neighborhood. One resident peeked out her window to find three people taking cover behind her lawn furniture.
Police sources have attributed the worst of the violence, including the barrage of bullets that sent three men to the hospital, to rival gangs. But in a time of heightened anxiety around the country over mass shootings, the flurry of pops had bystanders fearing something even deadlier.
Fair officials cast the violence as an unfortunate anomaly that marred an otherwise successful event that smashed attendance records for the second straight year. But those living near the fair’s main entrance on Snelling Avenue say they’re concerned about what they see as escalating dangerous behavior.
“We want to feel safe and secure in our own homes,” said Mary Hollerich, who rents fair parking spaces in her yard several hundred feet from the main gate. “I should be able to do that without getting shot.”
This year, St. Paul police responded to approximately 530 calls for service along the perimeter of the fairgrounds. The vast majority of them involved parking and traffic concerns. Just eight were for fights or assaults, according to data obtained through a public records request.
As in recent years, this summer’s most serious incidents occurred after nightfall on the fair’s last weekend.
In 2018, a brutal assault two blocks from the fairgrounds left one man with serious brain damage on the last Saturday night of the festival. Trouble started on Saturday this year, too.
Just before midnight Aug. 31, a group of at least 15 teenagers attacked a young couple leaving the fair, witnesses say. Volunteer firefighter Ben Smith ran up with another fairgoer and pulled the girl to safety. A man and two juveniles were later arrested in connection with the assault.
Late Monday, the Labor Day weekend culminated with violence between gang members — several of whom are tied to the opposing High End and Low End factions from north Minneapolis — according to sources with knowledge of the investigation. Videos circulating on social media show at least six teens stomping on the stomach of a young woman curled up on the ground in an assault that preceded the shooting.
“In my seven years here, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Smith, who lives half a block away from the fairgrounds on N. Asbury Street.
The gunfire that wounded three men was not a random attack, police say. Investigators found two guns near the scene and are searching for suspects in what they called a “brazen” crime.
St. Paul police Sgt. Mike Ernster acknowledged that his department shares the community’s concerns, but he noted that such shootings are extremely rare.
“We all want and expect the State Fair to be a safe, welcoming place for everyone — and it is largely both of those things,” he said. “As we do every year, we’ll work in close partnership with the State Fair to review our processes and procedures and see how we can prevent serious incidents from happening in the future.”
Jerry Hammer, who has served as the fair’s general manager for 23 years, says operators don’t view the last day of the fair as more problematic than any other day.
The huge, wildly popular annual event drew massive crowds, topping 2.1 million people during its 12-day run. That kind of foot traffic, which tends to be heaviest on the last weekend, is bound to attract a few troublemakers, Hammer said.
Still, he characterized the shooting outside the fair’s gates as an “aberration.”
“The occurrence of any kind of incident on the fairgrounds is just so rare that when anything does happen, it stands out,” he said.
The fair has its own dedicated police force made up of 47 officers who work year-round. During the fair, more than 200 officers from other law enforcement agencies across the state helped patrol the grounds around the clock.
State Fair Police Chief Paul Paulos, a retired St. Paul police sergeant who has worked fair security for years, attends large events around the country to learn how other agencies handle security.
“The State Fair is very safe. I don’t think we have the same problems as most major cities,” he said. “With that amount of people … we do a great job.”
Historically, police have attributed the lack of serious crimes at the fair to safety in numbers. Crowds of witnesses are not a criminal’s friend. But now authorities must determine how to prevent violence from those willing to pull the trigger within full view of officers.
“How do we stop things from happening?” asked Paulos, who said it’s too early to determine whether the fair’s police staffing or security plan will change next year. His department is expected to confer with nearby agencies that patrol the streets outside of the fairgrounds, including St. Paul police and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who represents the area, praised fair organizers and police for their quick response to the Labor Day shooting, but she said addressing the underlying causes of gun violence wouldn’t be so easy.
“It’s more complicated than closing the fairgrounds a few hours early on the last night,” Hausman said. “It breaks my heart that we’re struggling with some of the same challenges that are spreading across the country.”
Como residents within walking distance of the fair’s gate say they expect their quiet neighborhood to become a hub of commotion 12 days each year. Some even welcome it. But many now worry that without intervention, the shooting could spell more problems next summer.
“It is getting worse,” said Jan Garcia, a neighbor who’s lived on Midway Parkway for 27 years. “I don’t understand why people value life so little they resort to guns.”
It was, she said, “a sad way to end such a marvelous fair.”
Staff writer Libor Jany contributed to this report.