Man fatally shoves another in front of car, charges say
By Emily Gurnon
The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office charged Michael John Merten III, 41, with second-degree unintentional murder. Merten had gotten into a fight with Robert Alan Hilgren about 9:15 p.m. after Hilgren intervened in a scuffle involving his 23-year-old son, according to the criminal complaint filed Friday.
Hilgren, of Vadnais Heights, was taken to Regions Hospital and pronounced dead.
The complaint gives the following account:
Hilgren, 47, his wife and their son were at a friend’s house drinking. When the couple decided to leave, they could not locate their son, identified by the initials P.H.
As they drove, the wife got a call from P.H., who was screaming that a “big, crazy dude” was chasing him. She told Hilgren she thought P.H. was going to be assaulted.
They turned their car around and saw P.H. and another man, later identified as Merten, “squared off,” the complaint said.
Hilgren jumped out of the car.
“That’s my son,” he said. “You want to beat up on a 23-year-old kid? It’s his birthday. You want a piece of me?”
Hilgren and the other man began fighting in the middle of Rice Street near County Road B2 in Little Canada.
A man driving a 2006 Toyota 4Runner north on Rice Street saw two shirtless men on the side of the road. He saw one man push the other, and tried to stop and swerve. But he could not avoid hitting Hilgren, he told police. There was no sign he was under the influence of alcohol, the complaint said.
Other witnesses told police they saw Merten walk calmly to the edge of the road after Hilgren got hit. Merten reportedly stayed at the scene but fled when police arrived. Officers found him at his mobile home in the 2400 block of Rice Street, a short distance away.
Merten told his father that something serious had happened.
“He told his father he had seen three guys outside near another trailer and he thought they looked suspicious, so he went to confront them,” the complaint said. The younger Merten said the three started to gang up on him, so he ran toward Rice Street. They were in the middle of the road when one of the other men got hit by a car, Merten told his father.
The driver of a car behind the Toyota said he saw a man with a shaved head chest-bumping another man. Neither was wearing a shirt. They were “in each other’s faces and arguing,” the witness said. It appeared to him that the shove was timed to result in the Toyota hitting the victim.
Another witness said it appeared the bald man was trying to get away from the other man. He saw the two pushing each other, and believed the victim tripped and fell into oncoming traffic.
Several witnesses identified Merten as the man who shoved Hilgren.
The medical examiner said Hilgren died of multiple traumatic injuries and determined the manner of death was homicide.
Merten was being held Friday in Ramsey County jail in lieu of $250,000 bail.
Both men have a history of run-ins with the law.
Merten led police on a high-speed chase in 1990 that ended in Hudson, Wis. The incident resulted in four officers being disciplined for their role in beating Merten after he lost control of his car. Merten was 17 and received $49,000 in settlement money from St. Paul, Washington County and the state.
Police arrested Merten again two years later. He had used the settlement money to buy a fast car, his father said, and led the State Patrol on a drunken chase from Bloomington to St. Paul that reached speeds of 115 mph. He was convicted of fleeing a police officer and driving while impaired.
In 2002, he was convicted of violating a harassment restraining order.
Hilgren was lauded in 1994 for helping pull an 88-year-old man and his poodle out of a submerged car in Lake Vadnais. Gilbert Pottgieser of Vadnais Heights did not survive. The poodle was able to swim to shore.
But Hilgren also has a long criminal record, according to court documents. He was convicted in 2001 of malicious punishment of a child, in 2008 of misdemeanor domestic assault, and in 2010 of felony domestic assault, among other charges.
A probation violation on the most recent charge put him in prison for several months earlier this year.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.