Prosecutors filed a murder charge Wednesday against an unlicensed driver who admitted he accelerated toward a protest in Uptown in hopes of vaulting over a vehicle that was meant to protect the people he knew were on the other side.
Nicholas D. Kraus, 35, of St. Paul, was charged in Hennepin County District Court with second-degree intentional murder and two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon in connection with the crash late Sunday that killed 31-year-old Deona M. Knajdek, of Minneapolis, and injured three other protesters.
The charges come on the day that Knajdek, a project manager for a vulnerable adult service provider and a mother to two girls who also went by the last name Erickson, would have turned 32 years old.
Kraus remained jailed in lieu of $1 million bail ahead of a court appearance Thursday afternoon. Court records did not list an attorney for him.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a statement that Kraus was intoxicated when he committed an "extreme and violent intentional act" that killed a peaceful protester.
The murder count represents a far more serious charge against Kraus and the potential for many years in prison if convicted, rather than the more typical count of criminal vehicular homicide.
"His behavior and admittance to intentionally driving towards the protesters is one important reason why we have charged him with intentional second-degree murder," Freeman said in the statement.
Freeman said later in an interview that his office rarely files intentional murder charges in deaths involving vehicles. His office on Wednesday also charged 46-year-old Christopher Rice with second-degree intentional murder on allegations that he ran over a neighbor Saturday in Brooklyn Park.
"We've taken unusually stern steps in these cases," Freeman said. "There is no meaningful evidence that we have discovered so far that these were anything other than intentional, absurdly violent acts against people." He said there is no evidence that Kraus was motivated by racial bias or politics.
Donald Hooker Jr., a civil rights activist who was among the protesters and near Knajdek in the time leading up to Sunday's crash, said of the most serious charge against Kraus, "I don't think it's high enough. While it does say 'intentional,' it still says it wasn't premeditated, even after he admitted he was driving his SUV in Uptown and saw the barricades.
"And he not only admitted not hitting the brakes and going fast, the [surveillance] camera backs our story that he sped up. That sounds like a plot or a plan to me."
Kraus' criminal history in Minnesota includes five convictions for drunken driving, most recently in 2016 in Anoka County and as far back as 2008. He also was convicted numerous times for driving without a valid license, and for assault, failure to have auto insurance and giving police a false name.
Kraus was driving Sunday night with a canceled license, which he lost after a drunken driving conviction in 2013, according to state officials.
Freeman acknowledged Kraus' history of driving drunk and being on probation for that offense, but he said jailing people isn't the only answer to making streets safe. "Unfortunately, people who have serious drinking issues often relapse and go right back into it, and too often they drive," he said. "We simply don't lock up everyone who has a drinking issue.
"Our alternative is to increase and lengthen our sentences for people who have serious drinking problems, and so far the Legislature hasn't been willing to do that, and I'm not sure society wants a person — even if they have their second or third DWI — to be put in prison for 25 years. I certainly don't."
Knajdek was among protesters who have gathered at W. Lake Street and S. Girard Avenue since shortly after members of a U.S. Marshals Service task force fatally shot Winston Boogie Smith Jr. on June 3 while attempting to arrest him in a parking ramp.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said Smith fired a gun from his vehicle. An unidentified woman who was in the car with Smith said she never saw him with a weapon, her attorneys said last week. Authorities have said that no body or dash camera or surveillance footage is available in the case.
According to the charges against Kraus:
One of the injured protesters told police that he heard people repeatedly yelling "Car!" and saw the SUV coming toward him as it "seemed to accelerate."
One of the two vehicles sent the protester hurtling into a chain-link fence. Another protester was similarly hit and suffered leg and rib injuries. Video surveillance confirmed their accounts.
Kraus told police the next day that he saw the car acting as a barricade and "believed he needed to get over it," understanding there were people in his path, the complaint read.
Kraus admitted that he "floored the accelerator because he thought could clear the barricade, but rather struck the vehicle," the charges continued. He also admitted that he might have hit one or more people.
A court document filed by police early this week backs up witness accounts that Kraus was speeding and showed no signs of slowing down as he neared the protest barrier while heading east on Lake Street. He struck Knajdek's vehicle, which then struck her, according to witnesses and police.
Video from a city-operated camera shows that Kraus' 2-ton SUV "continues through the intersection at a high rate of speed [and] the driver does not appear to hit the brakes in the footage," according to a search warrant affidavit filed by police for court permission to collect a blood sample for testing to determine whether he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash. Results of those tests are pending.
The filing also revealed that Kraus was acting "in a bizarre manner" moments after the crash, telling one officer that his name was Jesus Christ or movie director Tim Burton and "that he has been a carpenter for 2,000 years."
Kraus was "answering questions that were irrelevant" and wanted an officer to "tell his dead mother that he doesn't like her," the court document continued.
The officer summed up his filing that based on his observations, "I believe the male is under the influence of an intoxicating substance."