In November 2012, a police officer named Tom Decker was shot and killed in Cold Spring, Minn., after getting out of his car to check on a man who lived above a bar. The man was quickly arrested and held in the Stearns County jail. He was interrogated but then released without charges. The state crime bureau later ruled him out as a suspect. Investigators turned their focus to another man, Eric Thomes, who hanged himself before he could be charged with the crime. Nearly four years after the murder, Sheriff John Sanner has refused to close the case "because we're still hopeful that new information will come in," he said.
October 18, 2016
The life of the man cleared by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Ryan Larson, has been altered. People look at him and wonder. He has received threats. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His predicament has made him a harsh critic of the Sheriff's Office, and it raises questions about the accountability of some law enforcement agencies — not just in Stearns County. His case shows that the difficulty the Sheriff's Office had in solving a big case did not end with the abduction of Jacob Wetterling. "In my opinion," Larson said, "there needs to be a change in the Sheriff's Office."
When it comes to solving serious crimes, the Stearns County Sheriff's Office does a poor job, state and federal crime figures show. In 2015, it cleared just 12 percent of so-called Part 1 crimes, a category that includes murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults and other serious offenses. That was well below the average for Minnesota law enforcement agencies. In fact, when solving murders between 1971 and 2014, the department fell in the bottom third nationally among counties that are comparable in population and crime level.
In an interview with APM Reports, Sanner claimed to be unaware of his department's clearance rate. Aside from the voters who elect the sheriff every four years, no one holds the department accountable for its record.
Brian Guimond, another unlikely activist upset with the department, is trying.
His son, Josh, was a 20-year-old student at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., in 2002, when he was walking home from a party and vanished without a trace. Brian Guimond says the Stearns County Sheriff's Office has never fully investigated the case. Investigators suggested he had fallen into a lake and drowned, and "pretty much that was the end of the story," he said.
Guimond has conducted his own searches, hiring private divers and even a helicopter. When Josh's body wasn't found in the lake, the Sheriff's Office suggested he might have sunk in quicksand. When Guimond produced proof that quicksand doesn't exist in the area, law enforcement offered another suggestion: They said maybe snapping turtles ate him.
"That was just one of their excuses," Guimond said. And, like the others, it didn't add up. "Well, let's see," he said. "They ain't gonna eat the skull. They ain't gonna eat the clothes."
Why does one agency solve crimes more often than others? It's hard to know. And that in itself, in a country obsessed with crime and crime rates, is a puzzle.
Six high-profile Stearns County crimes
Over the past half century, Stearns County has had a half dozen high-profile crimes involving abduction, murder or disappearance that have stymied investigators for the county's sheriff's office. Three of the cases have never been solved and a fourth remains officially open even though authorities think they know the killer. In two solved cases, officers questioned and then released the man who years later either was convicted or who admitted the crime.
Stearns County by the numbers
The chart above shows that the frequency of serious crimes reported in rural Stearns County is far below that for Minnesota as a whole. Crimes included are homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, larceny and arson. The Stearns County numbers represent the area overseen by the sheriff's office, meaning they exclude crimes in St. Cloud, the region's biggest city. St. Cloud has its own police department, as do other small cities in the county.
The chart above shows how the success of the Stearns County Sheriff's Office in clearing serious crimes has varied over the years, sometimes better than the state average and sometimes worse. Its best record in recent years has been under Sheriff Charlie Grafft, who held office when Jacob Wetterling was abducted. The definition of "clearing" a crime typically involves an arrest but also includes instances in which a suspect is identified but cannot be arrested for one of a variety of reasons.
When it comes to the percentage of murders it has cleared over the past 40 years, FBI numbers indicate the Stearns County Sheriff's Office falls in the lowest third of comparable sheriff's offices. This chart represents the U.S. counties in which the sheriff serves between 25,000 and 100,000 residents and which have dealt with at least 20 murders between 1971 and 2014. The Stearns County Sheriff's Office cleared 59 percent of its 29 murders. The three comparable Minnesota counties cleared substantially more of their murders. Note: A police agency can clear more than 100 percent of crimes occurring by solving crimes that took place in other years or in other jurisdictions.
Crime figures comparing law enforcement agencies are notoriously uncertain for a number of reasons — reporting numbers to the FBI is voluntary for agencies, for example — and the FBI cautions against the practice. There are two main reasons comparing clearance rates, particularly for the category of offenses known Part 1 crimes, is difficult. First, different agencies have different definitions for some of the offenses included in the definition. For example, police agencies have different lines separating simple assaults from aggravated assaults. Others have different standards for reporting rape and sexual assault. In addition, over time, the FBI has changed the definition of rape and has added arson and human trafficking as Part 1 crimes.
So for the chart above, APM Reports focused solely on murder clearances. In this case, the FBI, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Stearns County Sheriff's Office all have different 43-year totals for murders. Sheriff John Sanner says his figures show more murders were committed in Stearns County and investigators cleared a greater percentage of them than reported by the FBI. One possible reason for that discrepancy is that Sanner's figures include murders that the FBI counts as "belonging to" city police departments in the county, not the sheriff's office. The BCA declined APM Reports' requests to discuss the differences in the numbers. While the numbers are subject to some uncertainty, the FBI figures shown here do provide a national measure.
For detailed information about murder clearances by the nation's police forces, use the Murder Accountability Project.
CLEARED BY BCA
FATHER OF MISSING
Documents detailing Brian Guimond's quest for son
• Sheriff says Trident Foundation has searched unsuccessfully for Josh Guimond
• St. John's University tells Brian Guimond it has enlisted Patty Wetterling in the search for his son
• Brian Guimond's attorney asks for the return of evidence taken from his son's dormitory room
• Stearns County denies Brian Guimond's request for evidence return
• Stearns County again denies Brian Guimond's request for evidence return
• Governor's office responds to Brian Guimond's request for help
• Soil researcher tells Brian Guimond he has not encountered quicksand near St. John's University
• U.S. Senator responds to Brian Guimond's request for help
• St. John's University expresses concern about Brian Guimond's "hostile tone"
When Danny Heinrich confessed in court on Sept. 6 to abducting and murdering Jacob Wetterling and assaulting Jared Scheierl 27 years ago, investigators declared that at last, the public had the truth. But despite Heinrich's excruciatingly detailed accounts, the truth remains elusive. Many questions remain unanswered. → Episode 9: The Truth
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