ELBOW LAKE, MINN. — The report by a sheriff's deputy got right to the point.
"Goats are out again," it read.
No further explanation was needed, because every deputy in Grant County knew exactly what it meant. Since April last year, they've paid more than two dozen visits to one home in this western Minnesota town of 1,200 residents.
Complaints by neighbors have included goats on the loose. Dogs on the run. Trash piles and junk vehicles. Flying a Confederate flag. Posting a threatening sign.
Yet trash still litters the lawn. The dogs still roam free. The junk vehicles haven't moved. Because the owner of the property, 32-year-old Brian M. Nelson, doesn't believe the law applies to him.
He's said so many times, according to police reports and court records.
When officers confronted him in June about trash in his yard, "he stated that this was his property and that he was not subjected to the city ordinances," a deputy wrote.
When deputies warned him in July about keeping goats, which aren't allowed in city limits, "Brian became belligerent about the city's ordinances," a report said.
When officials served him in August with a nuisance violation order for goats, weeds and dead vehicles, "he stated that he does not recognize the city's ordinances and that he would not be complying with this order," according to a court document.
After nine months of back-and-forth, local officials aren't sure what to do next. In December, the city went to court seeking an order declaring Nelson's property a public nuisance and allowing authorities to swoop in and clean it up.
The city filed an 89-page memo documenting the problems with the property, including dozens of photos and incident reports. But a Grant County district judge rejected the motion, ruling that the city hadn't gone through the proper administrative channels.
"This current situation is challenging," said Mayor Deb Hengel, noting that the city is making "every effort to appropriately respond to the complaints from neighbors and community members, while following the timelines of the legal process and court proceedings."
Grant County Sheriff Mark Haberer said it's been a very frustrating situation.
"The judicial process has not been very expedient," he said. "I would hope people could see a case as well documented as this and come to the common-sense conclusion that we need some help to get this done.
"We're not trying to dictate how people run their lives. We're not trying to make every residence in Elbow Lake look like a golf course," Haberer said. "But we do expect people to have respect for their neighbors. And I think there's been a lack of it in this case."
Nelson, who moved into the home less than two years ago, declined to be interviewed. His wife, Ritausha, said he didn't want to talk.
"He says he's not a man that wants a contact," she said.
Ordinances aren't optional
Haberer said he doesn't believe Nelson poses a threat to the neighborhood.
"He's not dangerous," the sheriff said. "I have a good talking relationship with him. We can get along."
Yet in October, while making a court appearance on one of his many citations, Nelson was arrested and charged with contempt of court after refusing to wear a mask and becoming "loud and boisterous" when a judge ordered him to put one on.
In September, a neighbor reported Nelson for burning brush in his yard. Days later, he put up a large sign written on a sheet of plywood that read, "Do Not Cry Wolf Lady." The neighbor felt it was directed at her for reporting the brush fire and told police it made her uncomfortable.
In June, neighbors complained that Nelson was flying a Confederate flag. He took it down briefly when neighbors asked him to, according to a police report, but put it back up again days later. Deputies said they couldn't order him to remove the flag, but the neighbors said "they wanted someone to speak to the Sheriff about this."
Dave Hansen, who lives across the street, said "we tried to do everything possible to get this gentleman removed.
"It's getting so frustrating," Hansen said. "He likes to hang plywood signs to intimidate people."
Ashley Halvorson, who lives next door to Nelson, also is frustrated. Her husband has had to catch Nelson's goats several times when they've gotten loose. Nelson's untethered dogs have chased and frightened her sons more than once, she said, and have ripped open the Halvorsons' trash bags and spread garbage all over their yard.
"What's the point of having city ordinances if they're optional?" she said. Halvorson said her family is considering moving out to the country, "but it would be hard to sell our house."
Goats are entertaining
Dorothy Amundson, 88, who lives across the street from Nelson, said she finds many of Nelson's behaviors puzzling. He rarely leaves the house, she said. He puts up large signs with messages on them; one, she recalled, read "To Vote Is To Consent." After a snowstorm, he'll sometimes spend an entire day cleaning his driveway with "a little bitty broom." But she's not afraid of him.
He came several times to a Bible study she attends at Bethlehem/West Elbow Lake Lutheran Church just a few blocks away.
"After he started coming to church, I started to think, 'There's something good about that man. I don't feel threatened by him,' " Amundson recalled. Yet even at Bible study, he refused to wear a mask, opening his Bible and reading off verses that supported his refusal. Strangely, he refused to tell anyone in the Bible group his name, said Janet Johnson, the church secretary, adding that he was "very well-read Biblically."
Amundson said she's actually enjoyed observing Nelson's goats in the yard, although she knows they're illegal in town.
"It's something for me to watch," she said with a chuckle. "I have to be home all the time — you can see why it's entertainment for me."
But like many of her neighbors, she doesn't understand why Nelson so defiantly refuses clean up his property.
"I think, 'Why did they buy a house in town?' " she said. "Why didn't they buy a house in the country where they could do this and not bother anybody?"
John Reinan • 612-673-7402