Lisa Bellanger just wanted to borrow a snow shovel to help get a bingo bus full of old people out of a snowdrift. But she picked the wrong people to ask for help.

The cops.

Today, I offer a heart-warming Christmas story of a good Samaritan busted by Minneapolis' finest for the crime of borrowing a shovel paid for by the taxpayers, of which Lisa Bellanger is one. It is a story that may make you think Minnesota Nice is dead and buried. But there is a late-breaking happy twist to our tale. So stay tuned.

Bellanger, 46, was returning from Mystic Lake Casino to her home in northeast Minneapolis on the snowy night of Saturday, Dec. 1, when the bus -- loaded with blue-haired widows and other bingo-playing desperadoes -- got stuck in a drift left by a plow on Central Avenue near 18th and a Half Avenue NE.

It was past midnight, and the people stranded on the bus were fretting about getting home. Bellanger, an Ojibwe Indian, learned at an early age to respect -- and to assist -- her elders. Her mother, Pat, was on the bus with her.

The two of them left the bus and set out for the 2nd Police Precinct Station at Central and 19th, half a block away. An old, wooden-handled shovel was leaning against the door to the cop shop. Bellanger, who works for the school system and is developing an empowerment program for Native American parents, walked inside the station and asked to borrow the shovel.

A bus is stuck, she said.

City bus? a cop asked.

No, Bellanger said. The midnight bus from Mystic.

Then call Mystic Lake, the cop said.

The bus was stuck 30 miles north of the casino. Lisa Bellanger thought the elders -- Minneapolis citizens -- had waited long enough. She told the cop she was going to take the shovel. And would bring it back when the bus was free.

"It'll just take a few minutes," Bellanger said. "What are you going to do? Arrest me? Do you know how silly that would look?"

Lisa took the shovel and returned with her mother to the bus, where Lisa's partner, Stanley Looking Horse Jr., was trying to help the driver rock the bus free from the drift. Looking Horse grabbed the shovel and started digging at the back of the bus, removing snow from under the wheels. After about 15 minutes, the bus began to move. That's when the cop showed up.

He asked Bellanger for her ID. Then wrote her a citation: "Failure to Obey," a violation of Statute 169.02, which makes it a misdemeanor "to willfully fail or refuse to comply with any lawful order or direction of any peace officer invested by law with authority to direct, control, or regulate traffic."

The shovel snatcher had been collared by a traffic cop.

Hands up, lady, and back away from that shovel. Slowwwwly.

"What happened to 'protect and serve?'" asks Looking Horse, who was stunned to learn that Lisa got a ticket as the bus drove away. "That's not right. We were just trying to be good Samaritans."

"That was our shovel, too," Lisa's mom says. "We helped pay for it! He treated us like criminals. He should have helped us."

The other bingo players were angry, too. When Bellanger and her mom rode the bus to Mystic again, the elderly women aboard the bus applauded Bellanger. One even said she had called the Second Precinct to make a complaint, but that they "hung up on me as soon as I said the word 'shovel.'"

"You don't want to make a bunch of old ladies mad at you," Pat Bellanger says. "They were totally incensed."

Thursday, Bellanger took off from work to answer the summons and go to the Hennepin County Services Center in Brooklyn Center. A hearing officer told her "Failure to Obey" requires you to appear in a courtroom. She gave Lisa a court date of Jan. 3.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Shovel this.

But here's the good news: When I asked police for their side of the Central Avenue Shovel Caper, they reviewed the report and had the decency to be embarrassed.

Red-faced police officials said they will apologize to Bellanger, dismiss the charge against her, and have a talk with Officer Scrooge, who wrote the ticket. (The cops did not tell me his name.)

One top cop even offered to shovel Bellanger's sidewalk.

"I hope no one thinks this reflects the attitude of the Minneapolis Police Department," said Deputy Chief Scott Gerlicher, who made the shoveling offer and is responsible for upholding departmental professional standards. "We want to be good neighbors out there, and that clearly didn't happen in this case. The officer in question used very poor judgment. Sometimes, we help people in dangerous situations. Sometimes, we can do it just by helping shovel. This was crazy."

But let Lisa Bellanger have the last word: While Officer Scrooge -- carrying the recovered manual snow removal implement -- walked away, leaving her with a ticket, she shouted a cheery good night:

"Thanks for the shovel."

Nick Coleman •