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Area counties talking about security for prosecutors too

The only thing that Assistant Renville County Attorney Glen Jacobsen could salvage from his office in Oakdale after a fire set by a man he was prosecuting was a scorched gavel. Recent incidents in Cook and Blue Earth counties have put the issue of security for prosecutors on the agenda in some area counties too. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

OLIVIA -- Glen Jacobsen was early in his law career and serving as a prosecutor for a number of suburban communities in the metro area.

The late night call came from the daughter of his associate.

The building holding their offices in Oakdale was on fire, she told him, and it was arson.

One of the fires had been started on his desk.

Jacobsen is now an assistant county attorney for Renville County. He keeps a scorched gavel on his desk in his office in the County Office Building in Olivia. "It's the only thing I was able to salvage from my office,'' said Jacobsen, discussing the mid-1990s arson.

The risks that come with being a prosecutor are not new to Jacobsen. It is one of the reasons security concerns were raised earlier this year with the Renville County Board of Commissioners.

The original plans for the county attorney's office had included a security barrier. It was dropped as a cost-cutting measure. Jacobsen would like to see something to control access to the office.

Similar discussions are occurring elsewhere in the region as well, where security for prosecutors has been placed on the agenda in the wake of incidents in Blue Earth and Cook counties. In Blue Earth County, a man was charged after he attempted to hire a hit man to kill the assistant county attorney who was prosecuting him. The "hit man" was a police informant.

County Attorney Tim Scannell is back on the job after surviving three bullet wounds suffered in the Cook County courthouse in Grand Marais on Dec. 15, 2011.

A jury had just returned a guilty verdict on a criminal sexual conduct charge when defendant Daniel Schlienz walked out to his vehicle and returned with a handgun.

Yellow Medicine County Attorney Keith Helgeson has not looked down the barrel of a gun. He has faced angry defendants who have stomped right into his storefront office in downtown Granite Falls. There were two such cases late last year. In one, a father upset in a child protection case made threatening remarks "about taking care'' of all the attorneys in the case, Helgeson said.

"He was pretty volatile,'' he said.

The attorney brought the need for improved security to the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners earlier this year. The board will soon be reviewing security options for the office.

Helgeson's office is located several blocks from the Sheriff's Office. There's a panic button to summon law enforcement, but it would likely take a few minutes before officers could reach the office, he said.

The county attorney's office was to have been located in an expansion planned for the courthouse. The plans were dropped due to the economic downturn.

The upturn in attention being paid to security needs for prosecutors is happening all over the state, according to John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association.

Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson successfully worked for legislation that allows prosecutors with permits to carry concealed weapons, Kingrey said, an effort that came about as a result of the attempt made on Arneson's assistant.

Threats made against prosecutors are not new, but until the recent cases there had not been a lot of attention paid to it, Kingrey said. "It's one of those things where people don't talk a lot about it,'' he said.

Kingrey said it is hard to know whether the actual number of threats is on the rise since no one keeps tabs on it.

Helgeson said he is seeing more volatile people. He said drug use is probably part of the reason, but is by no means the only explanation.

He said volatile situations arise just as readily in cases that do not involve crimes of violence, and often are civil court rather than criminal court matters. "That's what has been scary,'' he said.

Jacobsen agreed that it is difficult to know who might turn violent, or when. "You never know what is going to set someone off,'' he said.

He also pointed out that a lot of collateral damage can accrue when someone is prosecuted. A conviction for driving while impaired, for example, might mean a defendant loses a job and soon is struggling to make rent or mortgage payments.

It wasn't until a few years after the arson in Oakdale that the person believed to be responsible was brought to justice. Federal authorities charged and convicted him for a different arson.

The Oakdale arson was never charged, but Jacobsen was surprised to learn who the suspect was. Jacobsen had been prosecuting him on a gross misdemeanor charge for writing bad checks.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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