Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
BYLINE: RANDY FURST; STAFF WRITER, STAR TRIBUNE (Mpls.-St. Paul)
St. Paul, MN
From cash to jewelry to a 9 mm pistol, property that was improperly seized or mishandled is sent back.
When the Metro Gang Strike Force recovered stolen goods or seized people's property -- sometimes illegally -- many of the owners never saw it again.
Much of it disappeared into a badly organized evidence room so insecure that when officials discovered its condition last year they asked the news media not to report it for fear of a break-in.
Now, seven months after revelations of misconduct within the elite anti-gang unit prompted state officials to shut it down, claims handlers have begun returning property to owners, albeit a few years late.
The property returned so far includes almost $5,000 in cash, an assortment of cars, electronics, jewelry, and a handgun. In some cases, claims managers found that the Strike Force hadn't properly seized or sought forfeiture of the items.
In other cases, they determined that the seized property had been stolen, but that the Strike Force had neglected to return it to its original owner.
"The Metro Gang Strike Force was not too good at following through," said Kori Land, an attorney for the Strike Force's Advisory Board, of one such case.
After the unit's shutdown, Bud Shaver, chairman of the advisory board, organized transfer of the remaining property into a new, secure storage facility.
The League of Minnesota Cities Trust Fund, based in St. Paul, is the insurance agent for 854 municipalities in Minnesota. Last year the fund handled 5,000 insurance claims. But "probably the largest consumer of our staff time," has been the claims filed by people against the Strike Force, says Doug Gronli, claims manager for the fund.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan last month ordered the league to release copies of claim records the Star Tribune requested last year under the state Data Practices Act. However, claimants could request that their cases not be disclosed.
Handguns, vehicles, cash
As of Thursday, the league's Strike Force claims hot line had received 94 calls, and 35 people filled out claims forms. The newspaper reviewed 20 claim files. Thirteen additional claimants asked that the league not disclose their cases. Two other claims came in so recently that officials had yet to determine whether they could release the information.
Apart from the hot line process, Land oversaw an effort to deal with 51 seized cars the Strike Force had when it was shut down.
One was returned to an owner who successfully challenged its forfeiture but hadn't gotten it back. Officials returned two because the owners hadn't been properly served with forfeiture notices. Three stolen vehicles were returned to original owners. Nine went to lenders or sellers who had liens on them when they were seized.
Sixteen cars determined to be properly forfeited will be auctioned. A bicycle also was returned to its owner.
Here are examples of some of the public hot line claims and what was returned:
Pistol was held for 7 years More than nine years after a pistol was stolen from Jerome Wegworth Jr.'s vehicle while he was parked at a Maplewood bowling alley, and more than seven years after the Strike Force found it in a raid of a St. Paul home, he got it back.
The Force told Wegworth in 2002 that it had recovered the 9-millimeter Taurus handgun, but despite his repeated calls, it was never returned, he said in his claim.
Jermaine Booker, a Stillwater prison inmate, wrote that in January 2008, Strike Force officers kicked in the door of his St. Paul apartment, demanding to know where he'd hidden drugs and guns. They found nothing, he wrote, adding:
"Then they punched on me and told me to get out [of ] this state and go back to Chicago."
He said officers took a laptop, cell phones, video games and $2,100. He said he was arrested but released without charges. Six months later, Booker said, he was arrested for a probation violation "not related to this incident with the Strike Force" and sent to Stillwater.
A claims adjuster said Shaver decided to keep the property in evidence storage, so the league offered Booker $500 for it, and he accepted. The league said the cash was properly forfeited, but Booker has appealed that decision to an administrative law judge.
The league sent Paul McDavid of Minneapolis a check for $1,312 that the Strike Force seized from him last February. A claims adjuster could find no record showing that he had received a legally required forfeiture notice.
The league also returned $3,177 to a claimant whose name was withheld at his request. Again, the Force had seized the money but did not serve the person with a forfeiture notice, according to Land.
No charges after seizure
Angel Gatlin of Richfield claimed that in 2007 the Strike Force took property worth $10,000 and beat her husband.
"There were no charges filed, so the property should be given back," said Gronli, the league official.
The property includes a laptop, cameras, a cell phone and a pistol. Evidently, officers found no drugs.
Duane R. Axtman of Axtman Auto in St. Paul sold a 2001 GMC Denali in November 2007 to a woman whose house was raided a month later. The Strike Force seized the SUV, though Axtman still held a lien on it.
"Even though she was never charged, they kept the vehicle," Axtman wrote. The league said the woman was properly served the forfeiture notice, but Land said the Strike Force board policy is to return seized vehicles to lienholders, so Axtman will get it back.
Selvig Jewelers in Cottage Grove lost $3,500 in jewelry in a 2006 burglary. In 2007, the Strike Force raided a Minneapolis house and recovered two rings and a bracelet from that burglary. The Force never returned the jewelry to Selvig, but now the claim-handlers have.
"After the criminal case was closed, it should have been returned," said Land.
The league denied 17 claims, 11 because an agency other than the Force seized the property, and the hot line program was limited to Strike Force seizures.
The league denied other claims because a judge had validated the forfeiture or adjusters could find no evidence of a seizure.
Randy Furst - 612-673-7382
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