Lauren P. Peterson woke up Sept. 25 to a “nasty” message from a stranger on social media. She rolled her eyes and showed it to her husband, unaware of why she had been targeted.
She received more “hateful” messages until one sent her to an article from the conservative news site Alpha News, which showed that she had been charged with assaulting one of its journalists during protests in Minneapolis over the police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin.
On Tuesday, Peterson and her attorney, Kelly Keegan, said police failed to take basic steps to verify the identity of the alleged attacker, putting Peterson, her husband and their four children in danger.
“I thought that it was some sort of hoax or fake news or something,” Peterson said. She said she didn’t know if the charges against her were real until Keegan confirmed it, “because no one from the Minneapolis Police Department ever reached out to me.”
“No one asked where I was. No one came to see me and look at me to see that I’m clearly not the woman in the video,” Peterson said.
The charges were gross misdemeanor third-degree riot and three misdemeanors — two counts of fifth-degree assault and one count of disorderly conduct.
“We truly have no idea how Lauren was pointed to as the person in the video,” Keegan said. “When you meet Lauren, you can tell she’s not the person.”
The woman in the video and Peterson both wear glasses and have long, dark-colored hair.
Keegan said the prosecutor told her they had doubts that Peterson was the suspect, but police assured them she was.
The Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office charged Peterson Sept. 25 and dismissed the charges Friday. The office and Minneapolis police issued a joint statement Tuesday, but declined to say how Peterson was identified as the woman in the video.
The city said she was not identified using facial recognition technology.
“Both departments are reviewing what occurred in this case and will be taking steps to ensure that a mistake like this does not happen again,” the statement said. “The City Attorney’s Office and the Minneapolis Police Department would like to publicly apologize to Ms. Peterson for the hardship this error has caused both her and her family.”
They also apologized to the Alpha News reporter; an investigation into the assault is ongoing.
The city attorney’s office said it would move to expunge the charges from Peterson’s record. That can take up to six months, Keegan said.
Until then, court documents with Peterson’s name, birth date, home address and a recounting of the alleged assault and case outcome will remain public.
For days after the charges were filed, Peterson said she received several “crass and crude and derogatory” messages via social media and her personal e-mail and cellphone. Someone sent her a “nasty greeting card” in the mail, and many called her phone.
“I was sent a picture of my house with a threatening note via e-mail,” said Peterson, who has four children ages 8 to 19. “I didn’t know if we were safe or if I should be setting up cameras. … I still feel unsafe because my address is still out there, because if someone is confused and thinks I’m this woman … I don’t know what people would do.”
The e-mail said Peterson was “about to get lit.”
Peterson and her family were camping at Savanna Portage State Park, about 140 miles north of Minneapolis, when a woman allegedly threw a full water bottle at Alpha News reporter Rebecca Brannon and pushed her with a traffic cone.
Several other protesters also confronted Brannon, swearing at her and yelling at her to leave the area of S. 5th Street and S. 4th Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. They were protesting the shooting and wounding of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wis., police.
Keegan collected a Minnesota state park permit, gas receipts, credit card information and photos with date and geolocation tags to show that Peterson was camping during the Aug. 24 incident. She provided the evidence to the city attorney’s office last week. The office filed a dismissal and took the unusual step of stating in court documents that Peterson had been misidentified.
“This would have been a very easy case for an investigator to quickly dismiss her as a [suspect], and unfortunately that didn’t happen,” Keegan said.
Keegan requested all of the evidence in the case, and expects to receive it in one to two weeks.
Peterson and Keegan called for people to show restraint when they see stories about alleged crimes, and stressed the importance of allowing the court system to judge guilt or innocence.
They have discussed possibly filing a civil suit against the city.
“People are real,” Peterson said. “There’s a human on the other end of your messages, and you don’t know the whole story. Don’t assume that because someone is charged that they committed a crime. It clearly is not always the case.”