A Pine County sheriff's deputy was legally justified in fatally shooting a 25-year-old man on Interstate 35 at the conclusion of a vehicle chase that began on local roads, the county attorney said Friday.
Anthony Legato of Oak Park Heights was shot Oct. 9 while accelerating into oncoming traffic, Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson wrote in a 13-page memorandum. Afterward, Legato stepped out of his vehicle, collapsed and died at the scene. He had guns in his vehicle but did not fire at officers.
"It is our conclusion that Deputy Josh Pepin's use of deadly force in the line of duty was necessary to protect himself or others from apparent death or great bodily harm as is permitted" under state law, Frederickson wrote.
He wrote that officers had pursued Legato because of a call they'd received about a half-hour earlier that Legato hit a woman in her leg in a room at the Grand Casino Hotel in Hinckley, causing her to drop to the floor in pain. He allegedly pressed a .45 pistol against her cheek, then fled.
She called hotel security to tell them her boyfriend had assaulted her and stated that he had firearms and a large bag of methamphetamine and was leaving the casino.
Legato drove onto I-35, going the wrong way — southbound on the northbound lanes of the highway — and Pepin, who was going south in a southbound lane, did a U-turn to catch up with him. Concerned that Legato was endangering oncoming traffic, Pepin fired four times at him while he was in his vehicle, a Ford Expedition, as it drove diagonally across lanes, Frederickson wrote.
Legato stepped out of the Expedition and collapsed, according to Frederickson.
The county attorney's description differed from an account by a corporate attorney who was driving northbound on I-35 at the time of the incident. She gave a statement to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension the same day, and spoke with the Star Tribune last week.
Carey Vosler, 33, said she saw an officer on foot fire a shot at Legato as he ran by her vehicle. She said she felt the officer's gun was pointed at her and she feared she would be shot by him.
"I start yelling, 'Please don't shoot me, please don't shoot me," she said. "I was afraid he was going to shoot me in the face. I am sure the cop didn't hear me. I was terrified. I heard the gun go off and I ducked. I jerked my car to the left.
"I lifted my head and I saw Anthony get hit. He was at the front of my car and more on the passenger's side. He crumpled. I saw both of his hands balled up in a fist. I didn't see a weapon in his hand."
Her vehicle crashed into Legato's car, which was halfway on the median.
Asked about Vosler's account, Frederickson responded, "She is mistaken and wrong about the events. Again, the incident is captured on body camera footage, the crime scene team forensically verified the events, the evidence (casings, location of bullets) verifies the footage, etc. I can understand how she was mistaken as she thought a vehicle was coming at her and she was scared. From her point of view, she probably only saw a vehicle coming at her, heard some shots and a door open around the same time. Everything happened really fast."
Frederickson said there were no shots fired after Legato left the vehicle.
"The door basically opened, he stepped out and fell face forward," Frederickson said. "This just highlights the unreliability of witness testimony and why we have camera footage."
Vosler said Friday that "I stand by what I saw."
Legato's family has retained Twin Cities attorney Michael Padden. In a statement, Padden said, "We have a witness who provides detail in sharp contradiction to the DA's conclusions. Having said that, we look forward to observing the evidence, which we will proceed with in the near future."
According to Frederickson, Legato was in possession of two handguns, one of which was stolen three weeks before the incident.
He had four active warrants for his arrest and had three other pending felony cases.
He had a domestic abuse order prohibiting him from having contact with the woman. He had a pending violation of the no-contact order.
After Legato fled the hotel, dispatchers sent out a call saying the woman said "if law enforcement is involved, he will use a gun." The pursuit was captured on Pepin's squad camera, Frederickson wrote.
Deputies spotted the vehicle and a chase began, with Legato driving as fast as 80 to 90 miles per hour on local roads, going the wrong way into traffic.
After Legato pulled over on I-35, he got out of the vehicle and got back in a second time. Pepin stopped his squad car, unholstered his service gun and yelled at Legato, the county attorney wrote. Legato allegedly ignored him, accelerated, pulled into oncoming traffic, and Pepin fired four times because the vehicle did not stop. "I felt in fear of my safety that he was either gonna take me out or the lady that was parked in the fast lane," Pepin told the BCA.
Vosler said that as she tried to avoid being shot, she veered her vehicle, a 2015 Subaru Forester, which crashed into Legato's car.
She said she was out of work for two months, adding, "I still have terrible nightmares."
Pepin had no complaints against him in his personnel file, which includes a letter commending him for giving CPR, reviving a person who had collapsed.
The BCA said Friday it was preparing release of materials, including video, but wanted to show the evidence to the family first.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224