David M. Winters’ demons caught up with him a year ago.

He’d been sober and off meth for seven years and worked as a leader in one of Bobby & Steve’s auto towing shops for four of those years. But a year ago, he started using again and lost his job, said owner Steve Williams.

Winters, 41, killed himself after a daylong manhunt that started with an exchange of gunfire in St. Louis Park on Tuesday morning and ended early Wednesday at a house in Jordan.

His lengthy criminal history prohibited him from legally having a gun, and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said Wednesday that investigators will make it a priority to find out how he got one.

“We want to know how a prohibited person came into possession of a firearm when he should not have had any legal right to it,” Stanek said, noting the case of Ray Kmetz, who shot at officers at New Hope City Hall in late January.

Winters’ criminal record included convictions for first-degree drug manufacturing, counterfeit checks and second-degree assault. But court records stop abruptly in 2007. Two years after that, he went to work for Bobby & Steve’s, Williams said.

“He was a great success story, a second-chance story for how he kicked meth in the gut,” he said. “He stayed away from it and he got a little more and a little more leadership within our company.”

Winters worked his way up to tow lead at the company’s St. Louis Park shop, Williams said.

A year ago, Winters started using again.

“He knew how to deal with people really well and effectively when he had that meth demon in check,” Williams said. “But as soon as it came back, he fell flat on his face. It was obvious and we released him.”

 

Winters’ criminal activity resumed. In February 2014, he was arrested in Hopkins for illegal possession of a firearm.

About 9:45 a.m. Tuesday, he ended up in the parking lot of Indelco Plastics in St. Louis Park. An employee called 911 after seeing a strange car behind the building and a handgun on the front seat.

When officers responded, gunfire erupted. Winters fled and the ensuing manhunt went from a house in Hopkins where Winters once lived to a busy Byerly’s store in St. Louis Park near Hwy. 100 and Excelsior Boulevard, which was put in lockdown for hours.

“We thought he was in the store at the time,” Stanek said. “Unfortunately, it turns out he was not. … We have no reason to believe he ever entered the store.”

Authorities closed the northbound lanes of Hwy. 169 north of Hwy. 62 after the search shifted to Edina, where a man found a bullet-riddled car in his garage. Police confirmed it was the vehicle connected to Winters.

By midafternoon, swarms of officers and SWAT teams were surrounding a house in the 500 block of Syndicate Street in Jordan. Schools there were placed in a modified lockdown until police were certain it was safe for students to leave.

When officers entered the house at 1:15 a.m. Wednesday, Winters was dead from a self-inflicted bullet wound.

Gary Stephanson, former owner of Total Auto Solutions, who knew Winters through business and considered him a friend, said he was stunned when he saw Winters’ photo on the news Tuesday.

“Dave was an unbelievably nice person,” he said. “I knew he’d had a checkered past but nothing horrific, nothing that would lead me to believe this type of stuff would happen.”

Total Auto would buy abandoned or forfeited vehicles from the towing shop, and Stephanson said that when he would go to Bobby & Steve’s, “more times than not there’d be a St. Louis Park police officer over there on break or stopping by. I’m flabbergasted he shot at police.”

Court records show that Winters was evicted from a home in Hopkins in June 2014. It was unclear whether he lived in the house in Jordan. Stanek said Winters’ ex-wife was arrested for aiding an offender after she left the house in Jordan on Tuesday.

Property records show the house is owned by a couple who live in St. Peter, Minn.

Williams speculated Wednesday that Winters may have been trying to commit “suicide by cop.”

“At the end, he lost hope,” Williams said. “But if you ever got to meet him, he was just nice, he had a servant’s heart. But the demon took him over. When he was on meth, it changed him.”

 

pat.pheifer@startribune.com 952-746-3284 kelly.smith@startribune.com 612-673-4141