Minnehaha Academy first responders, former U.S. Attorney honored at Community Leadership Awards

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The firefighters and police officers who first responded to the scene of the Minnehaha Academy explosion remained humble as they have since that August morning, even as they were being honored by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m kind of overwhelmed to be in this room filled with all these supporters who are behind us every day and just knowing that makes our job easier. I have a great team behind me and another 800,” said Minneapolis Police Officer Dean Milner, referring to the rest of the police force.

Also addressing the audience at the 17th Annual Hennepin County Attorney’s Office’s Citizen Leadership Awards was Fire Motor Operator Mark McClun who said he was accepting the award on behalf of many people including all of the civilians who are acting heroically when the firefighters arrive on the scene.

“We accept this award not for something we did but on behalf of the Minneapolis Fire Department and its 150 some years of service to the city of Minneapolis and the deeds that have taken place in that time that would deserve this award,” McClun said. “Mostly, we celebrate the fact that something is placed in the human spirit and soul that causes someone to subject themselves to have less so that someone else can have more. A light shines in the darkness but the darkness never overcame it.”

But Tom Arneson, Managing attorney of the county attorney’s Juvenile Prosecution Division, was more detailed in describing what they did in the first minutes after the explosion on Aug. 2. The first responders ran towards the danger. The first police officers saw a man trapped in the rubble and with flames approaching, they pulled him to safety and handed him over to the Hennepin County Emergency Medical Services medics. The firefighters put out the flames, plucked people from the roof and searched through the rubble.

Besides Milner, the honored officers were Vicki Karnik, Gregory Kosch and Matthew Blade as well as Sgt. Dan McDonald. Besides McClun, Capt. Brent Bjerkness and Firefighter Chad Juncker were given the award.

“Their actions that day were truly heroic,” Arneson said. “They deserve our thanks and recognition because they potentially face these dangerous situations every shift.”

Andrew Luger was honored for his three years as the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota. In particular, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman lauded him for prosecuting the killer of Jacob Wetterling and his work in convicting young Somali men who were aiding terrorist organizations overseas, but then working with the Somali community to disrupt the recruitment.

“But what I appreciate the most was the high level of cooperation between his office and ours and between Andy and me,” Freeman said, adding that it allowed cases to flow between the two offices so that the one that could get the highest sentence and keep a violent criminal off the streets would prosecute the defendant.

Luger spoke about his current project to reduce the extremism in our nation, which he said is a threat to our democracy. He pointed to the extremism on the airwaves, extremism in our streets and extremism on-line.

“Today, what passes for dialogue on air is a battle,” Luger said, “and the more extreme our views become.”

On the streets, he pointed to the anarchists who descended on St. Paul during the 2008 Republican National Convention with the goal of being disruptive and violent. They threw concrete blocks at buses carrying delegates and they broke windows. Last year, a Somali woman was attacked with a glass at a suburban Applebees. And, of course, there was the neo-Nazi protest and violence in Charlottesville in August.

On-line, Luger said neo-Nazis are attacking individuals every day by filling their emails or social media sites with pictures of nooses for African-Americans and of Nazi concentration camps with the pictures of the Jewish person they are attacking superimposed in the photo. Another favorite is sending a sausage pizza every night, at the same time, to the home of a Jew or a Muslim who for religious reasons, does not eat pork.

Luger suggested several solutions. If every person who watched MSNBC and Fox News demanded that people from the other side of the political spectrum be invited onto the shows for a reasoned debate,that would improve our understanding of each other. Each of us needs to get out of our bubbles and talk to people who are different than we are and think differently than we do. And we all need to stand up for the victims of hate. Luger said he is building a network of lawyers to represent the victims of on-line harassment, to track them down and sue them.

Sarah Super was given an award for speaking out on behalf of sexual assault victims. After she was raped in 2015, Super identified herself publicly as a sexual assault survivor and started a non-profit called Break the Silence, said Sue Fite, a victim/witness supervisor in the county attorney’s office. It had almost instant impact.

The organization regularly holds public truth-telling events where sexual violence survivors share their stories and listen to others tell theirs, Fite said. They began a photo project where they can provide their names and photo and story. And they successfully lobbied for a memorial to sexual violence survivors which should break ground in the spring on Boom Island Park.

“About three years ago, I became aware of the pervasive silence,” Super said, noting that when someone is raped, those around them don’t want to talk about it or even shame the victim. “That is upheld by the justice system that fails to hold the perpetrator responsible.”

Super said the man who assaulted her was caught and convicted and that validated her but “the vast majority of my friends have not had that validation. Holding the perpetrators accountable is so very appreciated.”

The members of the Dream Big campaign have been working for eight years to improve school attendance by Native American children. Dr. Tim Zuel program manager for the county attorney’s be@school truancy program said the key has been including Native American elders in discussion with children who have been truant. In addition, the children who attend school 95 percent of the days are eligible for financial rewards.

“Every year we have more students” at the year-end celebration of good attendance, said Elaine Salinas, executive director of MIGIZI Communications. “This year, we had 400. We know, especially for Indian students that attendance is very important.”

Besides Salinas, those honored included Louise Matson of the Division of Indian Work; Braden Canfield, Christine Wilson and Anna Ross of Minneapolis Public Schools; Mika Barrett of Anishinabe Academy and Joe Beaulieu and Maurissa Bigjohn of Little Earth.

Chester Cooper, who began his career in Hennepin County as a sheriff’s deputy, was recently named an assistant Hennepin County Administrator. His award was for his work, but especially the nine years in community corrections, the past three as its director. There, he built strong community partnerships and collaborated with other county departments, always looking for ways to keep the citizens safe while giving offenders a path to a better, law-abiding life, said Deputy Hennepin County Attorney David Brown.

“There are 976 employees in corrections and any one of them could be up here accepting this award,” Cooper said. “For me, the vision is simple: changing lives.”

Finally, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office’s Victim Services Division was given the award for what Marlene Senechal, managing attorney for the Special Litigation Division called “simply amazing” work.

The 43 members of the division meet with victims of crime and help them navigate the criminal justice system as the case moves through court. Others work with witnesses in the cases, making sure they meet with the attorney and arrive on time to testify. Still others work in the Domestic Abuse Service Center, meeting with victims of domestic violence and helping them find housing, file for protection orders and other details necessary in leaving an abusive relationship.

Photos from the awards program

Watch the video of the awards program.