Sunday, October 24, 2010

The New Orleans Radiators celebrate 25 years of Halloween in Minnesota

By Karl Bremer

It’s not uncommon for casual observers of the Minnesota music scene to assume that the Radiators are a local band. It’s not altogether surprising, though, when you consider that this New Orleans quintet has spent 28 of their 32 years plying their “fishhead music” in these upstream waters.

This weekend, October 29-30, the Radiators return with their swampy amalgamation of New Orleans-drenched rock, blues, hoodoo and funk to celebrate 25 years’ worth of Minnesota Halloween masquerade balls with two shows at the Fine Line Music CafĂ© in Minneapolis.

“I don’t know what it is about Minnesota,” says Radiator guitarist Camile Baudoin. “I know we’re at both ends of the river so we can always use that as a connection. From day one it felt good there.” So good that Baudoin eventually married a gal from Minnesota, and keyboardist/songwriter Ed Volker moved to Minneapolis for several years in the ’90s.

The Radiators or its parts also have recorded three live records in Minnesota: 1992’s Bucket of Fish at the then-World Theatre (now Fitzgerald) in St. Paul; Volker’s Lost Radio Hour, recorded at the dearly departed Riverview Supper Club in North Minneapolis in 1993 with Peter Ostroushko and Mick Labriola; and By the Water, by the Back Porch Rockers, a 1998 collaboration of Radiators Baudoin and bassist Reggie Scanlan, and Minnesota blues legends Tony Glover and the late great Dave Ray, recorded in a local living room on the St. Croix. Ray sat in with the Radiators on a number of occasions and became fast friends with them over the years.

“He really liked the band and thought that we ‘got it,’” said Baudoin. “I don’t think he thought that about a lot of bands.”

Long before jam bands or roots rockers had been dreamed up, this greasy concoction called fishhead music came percolating out of New Orleans juke joints and roadhouses, served up in heaping three-set helpings by a chops-seasoned band of misfits called the Radiators. Steeped in the rich musical heritage of the Crescent City through their schooling with some of the city’s legends—Professor Longhair, James Booker, Earl King—the Radiators wasted no time in becoming a part of it themselves.

The Rads morphed out of a merger of the Rhapsodizers (Volker, Baudoin and drummer Frank Bua), Earl King’s erstwhile backing band in 1977, and a combo dubiously called Roadapple (guitarist Dave Malone and Scanlan). Their sets quickly became legendary as much for their head-shaking variety as for their sheer intensity and length.

“Krewes” of the band’s fishhead fans were spawned around the country in the ‘80s, the result of Tulane University grads spreading the gospel like a virus: first Minneapolis’ Krewe of DADs (Druids, Alchemists & Dervishes), then San Francisco. More followed in the ’90s and into the 21st century—Colorado, New York, Florida, L.A., Chicago, Pennsylvania—all modeled loosely on New Orleans’ notorious Krewe of MOMs (Mystic Orphans & Misfits).

Today, the Radiators are the longest-running band to ever come out of the City that Care Forgot, touring relentlessly and closing out the renowned New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest every year. In 1998, New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial presented the band with the 1998 Big Easy Mayor’s Award—the equivalent of the Keys to the City—as the city’s way of saying thank you for their years of spreading the joyful noise of Louisiana music worldwide.

Keyboardist and de facto bandleader Volker, soaks up images like a sponge and regurgitates them in songs by the boatload. Throw in more covers than a boil has crawfish and you’ve got a songbook that reads like a Rand McNally road atlas to the blue highways of American music.

Where else can you hear a band seamlessly merge one of its own songs into a swirling medley of Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa and Elvis Costello? Or a marriage between the Meters and the Magnificent Seven?

Get behind the wheel with the Radiators and go careening down the blue highways, back roads and byways with reckless abandon but always in control. Slide off the road, get some dirt under your wheelwells, pull it back to the centerline, pedal to the metal and down the road you go.

“And what is a fishhead you ask? The arms flapping like fins, the eyes bugging
out, the endless imbibing of vast quantities of liquids. Fishheads shun the
daylight and frequent dark, wet places and wait for it all to gleam. Fishheads
may have the appearance of human beans, but they got the fish in the
head.”—Fishhead Manifesto, Ed Volker, 1984.

Fishhead music is organic—it breathes with a life of its own. When the Radiators are popping on all cylinders, it’s like the Grateful Dead said: “The music plays the band.” And like any great band, the whole of the Radiators is larger than the sum of its individual members.

Under the hood of the Radiators is a turbocharged combo loaded with natural talent and an innate ability to make anyone’s music their own. In their hands, songs are deconstructed, retooled, greased well and reassembled. When the Radiators get a song out of the shop, it’s theirs to drive.

Need Beatles? The Rads have got a bucket of ‘em. Dylan or the Stones? A score apiece. Professor Longhair? Another dozen on the half-shell there.

It’s been said by at least one guest guitar player that the rhythm section of Scanlan on bass and Bua on drums isn’t in the pocket—it’s more like a hammock. Scanlan, who describes his tenure with Professor Longhair in the ’70s as nothing short of graduate school, has never met a gig he didn’t like playing. And Bua, a former Mandeville, LA, restaurateur by trade, is simply the best second-line rock and roll drummer in the bidness.

The double-barrel lead guitars of Baudoin and Malone track each other like they’re joined at the brain. Pull the trigger on them both at once and stand back. Baudoin’s dazzling luminescence is the perfect complement to Malone’s searing, straight-ahead precision firing. Comparisons to other two-guitar titans like the Allman Brothers are redundant—these guys are the gold standard.

Then there’s Volker, the man behind the wheel. Radiatin’ the 88s to leaven the guitars, Volker shifts gears from barrelhouse to B-3 in the bat of an eye. His boundless imagination fuels the Radiators’ own thick songbook with rich images painted in colorfully detailed strokes that turn simple melodies into sensory experiences:

“A little carnival in your hips,
a little garden on your lips,
a little sunshine in your eyes,
Oh, oh your smile, little paradise.”

His penchant for the obscure turn of a phrase or twist of a word recalls the sly wit of Tom Waits:

“It’s good to be alive, just don’t get caught.”

But always the Crescent City is lurking back there in the shadows of his mind:

“It’s a dream, dream, the devil’s dream,
When it’s midnight in New
We do a dance that’s so obscene,
listen once again to the
devil’s dream.”

The Radiators prowl the back streets and alleyways of their own town with a passion and depth known only to musicians who love to play—a living soundtrack of New Orleans music from Jelly Roll Morton to Mac Rebennack. Their roots run deep in the musical wetlands here, intertwined with that jive-ass, syncopated Louisiana rhythm and blues that snakes through their sound.

“When the rhythm meets the blues,
the rhythm eats the blues.”

New Orleans is where it all began for the Radiators over 32 years ago, but they’ll always have one fin in Minnesota. When the Radiators swim up the Mississippi this weekend for their annual Halloween hoo-hah, expect a feeding frenzy of the fishhead faithful masking in their finest regalia, “the arms flapping like fins, the eyes bugging out.”

Radiators, Ed Volker and Reggie Scanlan photos above by Karl Bremer, from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, April 25, 2010.
"By the Water" CD art by Mike Williamson, New Orleans.


Friday, October 29, 2010
The Krewe of DADs presents
The Radiators
Fine Line Music Cafe, Minneapolis
Doors: 8 p.m. Music: 9 p.m.
Two Sets of Fishhead Music
Tickets: $25 adv/door

Saturday, October 30, 2010
The Krewe of DADs presents
"On The Shoulders Of Giants" Masquerade Ball
with The Radiators
Fine Line Music Cafe, Minneapolis
Doors 8 p.m. Music 9 p.m.
Three Sets of Fishhead Music
Tickets: $30 adv/door

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Stillwater's Caton Felix murder: Unsolved after 30 years

Neighborhood grocer was stabbed to death in the back of his Greeley Street store in October 1980, but no one has ever been charged in the crime.

By Karl Bremer

The blood of Caton Felix has long been scrubbed from the floor in the back of the old Stillwater neighborhood grocery and radio/tv repair shop that bore his name. Pre-schoolers romp today where the crumpled body of the 79-year-old storekeeper lay on that October night in 1980, dead from a single stab wound in the back that pierced his heart.

Three decades later, Felix’s killer still walks the streets, and the murder that robbed Stillwater of a little of its innocence remains unsolved—or at least unproven.

It’s not for lack of suspects or leads. There have been plenty over the years: a jailhouse confession overheard; a 17-year-old suicide victim; neighborhood youths who hung around Felix’s shop on South Greeley Street; a convicted murderer in another Stillwater homicide that took place less than a year later.

In some cases, even though the alibis for their whereabouts during the time the murder occurred just didn’t add up, there wasn’t enough physical evidence to conclusively tie them to the crime. In others, the source for the lead was not trustworthy or the motivation for offering it was suspect.

What’s lacking in every lead or person of interest is a clear motive. If it was robbery, the perpetrator almost certainly got less than $150. If not, well, there are theories about that too.

The murder weapon was never found. The case was further hampered by sloppy handling of what little physical evidence there was. The few fingerprints that were lifted from the crime scene were accidentally destroyed while in the hands of the St. Paul Police Department and had to be re-taken years later. And in at least one instance, a key report from a nearby neighbor appears to have been dismissed as inconsequential.

The reopening of the case in 1996 came to a standstill at one point when the lead investigator on it was thrown off the police force due to an unrelated matter. It has remained open in Washington County ever since. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s (BCA) Cold Case Unit has officially closed the case.

While the investigation has taken several twists and turns and meandered down a few dead ends along the way, there’s one theory on which everyone agrees: Felix’s killer was someone he knew in this small town.

Caton H. Felix was born Dec. 12, 1900, in Dawson City in Alaska’s Yukon Territory. His father was a gold prospector. Their family lived in a log cabin and traveled by dog sled.

After Caton’s mother died when he was six, he and a sister took a boat down the Yukon River to the Pacific Ocean and then down the coast to Seattle. An uncle met them there and sent Caton on to Stillwater to live with another uncle.

Caton grew up working on a farm there and at 19, he left Stillwater and returned to Alaska to work for the railroad. After two years, he returned to Minnesota a skilled mechanic.

Felix continued working as a mechanic and eventually married his wife, Catherine Rettinger. In the late 1930s, they bought the tiny grocery store on South Greeley in Stillwater. Caton went to night school to learn radio and tv repair and, as with his auto repair business, soon gained a reputation for quality work.

Felix Grocery and Radio Repair—known at one time as Black Cat Grocery after the famous cartoon feline—grew into a Stillwater institution. Like many of Stillwater’s neighborhood groceries, Felix stocked a tantalizing array of candy—gooey marshmallow-chocolate Valomilk cups, chewy-caramel Slo-Poke suckers, splintery peanut-butter logs—and a galaxy of gumballs—turquoise licorice Sputniks, lip-puckering Sour Apples and tart-sweet Sour Grapes.

Felix kept a dog close by, either in the store or chained to the sink in back. He had at least three over the years. They were always black, always named “Smokey,” and all knew the same tricks. Like retrieving pennies off the floor and placing them on the counter, then waiting patiently until Felix tossed them a malted milk ball. Or growling a gruff “Hi ya” at Felix’s command.

Underage smokers came to know Felix’s as an easy place to buy cigarettes, or a Schmidt Select “near beer.” Countless hours were spent sitting on one of the old pop crates in back reserved for visitors, smoking and howling with laughter as Felix held court and issued his ribald take on the news of the day, spun tales of Alaskan mining towns or heaped abuse on some unsuspecting rube who walked through the door. A kid could get quite an education in the back of that old store—and often did in place of Sunday School.

A favorite target for Felix’s rancor was his nemesis the Hooleys, whose family owned two of the town’s large grocery stores and later went on to found megagrocers Cub Foods in 1974.

“All those sons o’ whores down at St. Mike’s on Sunday, you think they’re saying ‘Holy, holy, holy’ when they bow down and pray? Hell, no!” the pint-size Felix would bark, his voice rising as he paced the floor. “They’re saying ‘Hooley, Hooley, Hooley!’”

One day, a poor lost soul wandered in looking for directions to the local hospital a few blocks away.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Felix snapped. “Do you see a sign on the door that says ‘Free Information’? I don’t make anything off free information, for Christ’s sake!” When the man offered to buy a pack of cigarettes, Felix retorted that he didn’t make much off cigarettes, either, and sent him out the door with neither directions nor smokes.

Paul Junker, a candy wholesaler who called on Felix for about 10 years, remembered an elderly woman who came in looking for some canning lids in a year when they were in short supply. Like most everyone else, Felix was out of them and couldn’t make a sale, so he gave the old woman a piece of his mind instead.

“You’ve never been in this gawddamn store before, and you’ll probably never come in here again,” he railed. “I had a whole basement full of lids last year. Where the hell were ya then?”

The woman turned on her heels and left without saying a word, Junker chuckled.

“He really intimidated me the first time I stopped there,” Junker said, “until finally I just hollered back at him. He grinned ear to ear. The more you hollered at him, the better he liked it.”

When a customer came in for something out of the slant-faced glass dairy cooler, Felix would slide open the back door to retrieve it, send a blast of cigar smoke into the cooler from the smoldering stub between his lips, and slam the door shut. Some swore it was the only place in town where you could get cigar-flavored milk.

To get an item off the high shelves, he’d enlist the aid of a ladder or a visitor. After pulling it down, Felix would subtly turn his back to the customer as he wiped a layer of dust off the item with his sleeve. It wouldn’t have mattered to most of them anyway. They were just glad Felix had that extra can of green beans they needed for their casserole that night.

Caton Felix was one of the last of a vanishing breed of neighborhood grocers in Stillwater. At one time, no matter where you lived in town, you could find one of a half-dozen or more within easy walking distance. But by 1980, most had succumbed to the growing Hooley-Cub empire.

Felix had all but shut down the grocery end of his business since 1978, stocking only enough candy, cigarettes and other essentials to keep the occasional customer coming by. Slowed by arthritis, he used a walker to get around. He still did some radio and stereo repairs from his white-frame combination business and residence. And for the fortunate few who still dropped in the last couple of years hungry for a helping of Felix’s salty philosophy, he kept a stash of pop and beer in a cooler by the back door.

On Wednesday, October 22, a 28-year-old friend who did odd jobs for Caton stopped by the store around 11 a.m. with a piece of apple pie for him. The large young man was a regular visitor.
Jack, Felix’s son, spoke to Caton around 6 p.m. Later that evening, Felix called Paul Junker’s wife and asked her to have Paul stop by the store the next day for a candy order.

Around 7:30, another young male friend of Felix’s—a 20-year-old who also did some work for him from time to time—stopped by to pay Caton $70 down on a stereo he was buying from him and stayed for about an hour. He was the last person known to have seen and talked with Felix in person, and would become a person of interest in the killing.

At 9:50 p.m., Caton’s pie-bearing friend from that morning called and the two chatted for a little over a half hour. At 10:28 p.m., Caton’s friend told him he had just two minutes to do what he needed to do before Johnny Carson was on. He was the last person known to have talked to Felix, and also remained a person of interest for many years.

About 11 p.m., a boy next door came home and saw Caton inside sitting in his chair. His dog was still chained outside and very docile, which seemed unusual to the boy. Another witness said Felix always put his dog out at 9:30 in the morning and 9:30 in the evening, and agreed that it was odd to find it still outside at 11 p.m. Still another witness claimed he walked by Felix’s about 11:30 p.m. that night and saw no dog outside. And a man who returned from the 11 p.m. shift at Andersen Windows drove by Felix’s around 11:15 and saw a pickup truck parked outside.

One witness reported that Caton came into St. Croix Rexall Drug downtown Stillwater “after dark” that night accompanied by a male wearing a plaid “Pendleton” shirt.

The next day, October 23, Paul Junker stopped by Felix’s store around 11 a.m. He knocked at the side door and got no response. The doors and windows were all locked, so he peered in the window on the south side of the house and saw Caton lying on the floor “toes down.”

Recalled Junker in a 1982 interview: “I knew he didn’t pray, so he wasn’t kneeling.”

Junker called Stillwater Police at 11:19 a.m., and they broke a window to get inside. Felix’s dog was chained to the sink, where he usually put her to keep her out of the store in front. Caton was lying on the floor of the living room in a large pool of dried blood, his bloody left hand still gripping his walker.

The television set was on and tuned to Channel 11 (NBC). The heat was turned up to 80 degrees.
Felix was dressed in his usual attire: white shirt, black pants and belt, long underwear, wool socks and bedroom slippers. The Ramsey County Medical Examiners report noted a single stab wound just to the left of the spine 8 inches below the nape of his neck, 2/3 inch wide and 2.5 inches deep. The wound angled downward, and blood splatters on the floor and chair indicated that Felix was either sitting or getting out of his rocker when he was stabbed. Felix’s injuries were not life-threatening, the report stated, and he may have laid there for a period before dying.

Nothing in the house or store appeared to be disturbed, other than a tin cash box containing $16 in one-dollar bills and change. It was found sitting on the counter next to the cash register in the store. Caton always kept it under the counter to make change from so he didn’t have to use the clunky old cash register.

The only thing missing—besides the murder weapon—appeared to be Felix’s tri-fold wallet, which he always carried in his left rear pocket with no more than $50-$70 in it.

An ash tray with a Benson & Hedges cigarette butt was found on the counter by the cash register. A cigarette pack and an empty Tiparillo cigar box were also found in the store. Fingerprints were lifted from the cash box and cigarette pack in 1980; a fingerprint from one "person of interest" was lifted from the Tiparillo box in 1997.

Two knives—a Rapala filet knife and a kitchen knife with a red substance on the blade—were taken for evidence but both tested negative for blood.

Two days later, a woman on W. Myrtle Street a few blocks away reported that she found a 4-5/8-inch Regent Swords brand knife in the rose bushes in front of her house. That, too, eventually tested negative for blood.

One report of suspicious activity in the neighborhood the night Felix was murdered was seemingly dismissed by police.

A 75-year-old woman who lived on Owens Street 1.5 blocks south of Felix’s store called police after she heard about the murder to pass on what she thought was valuable information. Around 3:50 a.m. on Oct. 23—the night of the murder—she and her husband awoke to voices outside their bedroom window on the north side. Both sounded like they were in their late teens—one male and one female.

The female’s voice “had an urgent tone to it,” she reported, and it sounded like they were “planning something” or “hiding from someone.” At one point, the woman reported, the girl said “This is the last time we’re going over this.” Her husband went outside to look around but saw nothing. When he returned, she told him “not to be surprised if we had a burglary or robbery in the neighborhood the next day.”

Surprisingly, she told investigators in a 1996 interview, the police officer at the time “seemed unconcerned” but agreed to take her statement anyway. “He asked no questions,” she said.

Caton H. Felix was buried in Stillwater’s Fairview Cemetery on October 28, five days after he died at the hands of a friendly assailant who remains unknown 30 years later.

Barbara Felix, married to Caton’s other son, Chris, described her father-in-law’s funeral in a eulogy written shortly after his death.

“The reverend who delivered the address spoke of angels winging skyward and the soul’s eternal resting place. Many thought his works were inspired; others thought he’d mistakenly come to the wrong funeral.”

In an oddly prescient interview with St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch columnist Don Del Fiacco in 1978, Felix reflected on his life:

“Life hasn’t been easy. But I don’t have a hell of a lot to complain about. Why do I stay in business? I’ll be damned if I know. I don’t know what else I’d do. I suppose I’ll go until I drop. Some day I’ll just be layin’ there on the floor and the dog won’t have anybody to feed her.”

When Felix’s death was reported in the local Stillwater Gazette, the paper misspelled his first name as “Cayton.” Misspellings of his name so irritated Felix that he eventually began going by “C.H. Felix” to avoid the whole issue.

“They’ll probably spell my name wrong on my gawddamn tombstone when I die,” Jack remembered his father saying once.

Caton would have flashed that impish grin of his knowing he was right again. The first tombstone for his grave had to be returned to the monument maker. It was engraved “Cayton H. Felix.”

The early investigation into Caton Felix’s murder was beset by dropped clues and mishandled evidence. Witness reports were ignored or forgotten about. The original fingerprints were destroyed while in the possession of the St. Paul Police Department. A knife confiscated from a young suspect in another incident was destroyed while in the possession of the Stillwater Police Department. Even the Medical Examiner’s report had the wrong date on it.

“Between the city and the county, they really botched that investigation,” Jack Felix asserts. “They went around in circles.”

Law enforcement agencies and Crimestoppers have received dozens of leads and names of suggested suspects over the years. Four suspects percolated to the top of the list, but the investigation ultimately has come down to one.

The individual who had the last known contact with Caton Felix remains the primary person of interest in this small-town murder mystery. His stories of where he was the night of the murder shifted from one version to another, and he could never fully account for about an hour and a half during the time the murder is believed to have taken place.

The 20-year-old male was a regular visitor to Felix’s. He lived about three blocks away from the store and did occasional odd jobs for him. He even accompanied Felix in his Thunderbird on trips to Lerk’s Bar in Afton.

Two to three days after the murder, the young man came to the door of Felix’s son, Jack, next door to Caton’s. His eyes were puffy like he’d been crying and he pleaded that he had nothing to do with Felix’s murder. Jack found that odd, because at that time, he hadn’t discussed that at all with the young man.

On Oct. 22 around 7:30 p.m., the young man told police that he put $70 down on a $150 stereo Felix had for sale, with the balance to be paid when Felix replaced the turntable needle. He laid the money on a desk next to Felix’s rocker in the three-room apartment behind the store and bought three packs of Tiparillos and a bottle of pop.

After leaving Felix’s, he told police he made the rounds of a couple of local bars and a friend’s house for a few beers, stopped at Ember’s to eat for an hour and a half, and went home about 11 p.m. In an interview three weeks later, he said he ate at Burger King the night of the murder, not Ember’s. His girl friend placed his time of arrival at home at around 12:30 a.m.

The young man’s girl friend left work early that night because she said she had to meet her boyfriend at the apartment as he had the only key. She punched out at 10:05 p.m.

In a 1997 interview, the person of interest gave still another version of events from that night. He said he went straight home after going to the bars. His girlfriend wasn’t home yet, so he stopped by her work, watched her leave and then followed her home. He claimed that he got home about five minutes before her, around 11 p.m.

The whereabouts of the couple for the remainder of that night before and after midnight remain murky. So does the explanation for the story the person of interest’s girlfriend gave to her boss for not coming to work the next day. She phoned in and claimed she and her boyfriend had gone to pay back her boyfriend’s grandfather some money they owed him and found him stabbed to death at his home after he didn’t answer the door. However, there was no relationship between Felix and either of the two. She told a co-worker when she returned to work the following day that they were suspects in the stabbing death of her boyfriend’s grandfather.

The 20-year-old male was re-interviewed at the crime scene a week later, and a Washington County deputy wrote that he “shivered and shook and acted like he was going to give it up, but he never did.” He refused to submit to a polygraph test, initially agreed to a stress test, and then abruptly cancelled an appointment for one.

He has since “lawyered up” and quit talking, investigators say.

The murder weapon was never recovered. Always assumed to be a small knife between 4" and 5" long, one witness’s statement suggested another possibility.

The witness, a longtime friend of Felix’s who still did his bookkeeping, told police that Caton always kept a letter opener on a desk next to his pipe stand. However, there is no letter opener in any of the photographs taken of the crime scene, including the desk with the pipe stand. One investigator confirmed that based on the size of Felix’s wound, the letter-opener could have been the murder weapon.

In June 1997, police got a tip from a man in prison serving a life sentence for another murder in Stillwater that occurred nine months after Felix’s. The convicted murderer, who was a person of interest in the Felix case himself at one time, claimed he knew who killed Felix and where the murder weapon was buried. If the cops looked in the ravine on the west side of Everett Street on Stillwater’s North Hill, he said, they’d find a one-sided, 4.5- to 5-inch folding Buck-type knife with a broken tip and the initials “H.B.” on it. The Medical Examiner said a knife of that description could have been the murder weapon.

Investigators excavated a 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot area in the ravine but found nothing.

He continued to feed investigators tips about the case, but none ever bore fruit.

When the case was reopened, investigators obtained court orders to attach a “pen register” to the phones of some suspects before they were re-interviewed. The device records the phone numbers of all outgoing calls from a telephone line. However, there is nothing in the record that indicates that exercise produced any useful information either.

A number of theories about Felix’s killer and the motive for his murder have been advanced. Robbery was one of the first.

Although it was rumored that Felix had a couple hundred thousand dollars squirreled away, Jack told police that was “laughable.” His father didn’t make $200,000 in his lifetime, let along have enough to stash, Jack said in a 1982 interview.

Police estimate Felix had no more than $150 in his wallet when he was killed—the $70 or so that he normally carried, plus the $70 he got as down payment on the stereo that night. Nothing else in the house appeared to be disturbed or missing. That lead investigators to believe that a planned robbery may not have been the primary motive for the murder, and that the theft of Felix’s wallet was merely incidental to the deed.

There was no sign of forced entry, and Jack said no one besides Caton, himself and possibly Jack’s brother, Chris, had keys to the place. Felix’s assailant almost surely knew him, and probably very well, for him to unlock the door and let him in late at night. Felix’s dog wouldn’t have let just anyone bring her in either.

Knowledge of the cash box under the counter also suggests someone who was familiar with the store. Felix never would have left it out, says Jack. “He wasn’t going to go in that house and leave that tin box out on the counter. He was a creature of habit.”

Junker agreed. During the initial investigation, he told police, “If Felix did something a certain way today, he had done it the same way for 10 years and would do it the same way for 10 years into the future.”

Washington County Sheriff Deputy Ike Risenhoover noted in the initial investigation that the knife didn’t “bottom out” in Felix’s body. That suggests that the killer acted impulsively—not with pre-meditation—and when he realized what he had done, tried to retract the knife before it went all the way in.

That fits the scenario of what likely happened that October night as put forth by one Washington County Sheriff deputy during the original investigation:

The primary person of interest used his and his girlfriend’s rent money to buy a stereo from Felix. When his girlfriend found out, he returned to Felix’s that night to get his money back. An argument ensued, and Felix either caught him trying to steal money from his cash box or tried to get him to leave. As Caton got out of his rocker, he headed for the dresser where he kept a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver when his assailant stabbed him in the back with a knife or his own letter-opener.

“He died right there in front of the dresser where he kept the gun,” says Jack.

The Caton Felix murder case is officially closed at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, says Special Agent Gary Swanson. “When we’ve exhausted all leads and have no more evidence to examine, it’s closed.”

Swanson says they were stymied by the fact that police didn’t have the technology back then to examine what little evidence they collected. And, he notes, “There’s evidence that is missing in this case. I don’t know if some of it was ever taken.”

He knows fingernail scrapings were collected from Felix, but they were never found in the evidence when the case was reopened. Felix’s pants, too, could have contained important clues. With today’s DNA collection methods, they might be able to gather evidence from the pocket from which Felix’s wallet was taken. But Swanson assumes the pants were destroyed. With three different law enforcement agencies and four different labs handling evidence, it wasn’t the best of situations.

Swanson was a Washington County Sheriff deputy when Felix was murdered but wasn’t involved in the initial investigation. When he came to the BCA, one of the first things he did was review the entire case.

“I did the few things I thought we could do,” Swanson concluded. “This is one I really wanted to solve. I grew up on Pine Street about three blocks away and went in that store as a kid all the time … You and I know who did it. We just can’t prove it.”

Anyone with information related to the Caton Felix murder should contact Special Agent Gary Swanson at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension at 651.793.7000.

Top photo: Caton Felix, 1979. Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society
Felix portrait: Courtesy of Jack Felix
Felix Radio sign: Courtesy of Mike Hurley
Photo above: A pre-school occupies the former Felix's Grocery today.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ponzi Politics: Why aren’t political contributions being clawed back to compensate victims of Minnesota’s Ponzimen and fraudsters?

By Karl Bremer

Minnesota is starting to look like the “Land of 10,000 Ponzi Schemes.” Hardly a month goes by before another Ponzi scheme unravels or another fraudster is exposed around here.

As bankruptcy trustees initiate “clawbacks” to try to recover ill-gotten gains from Ponzi profiteers and return them to their victims, one group seems to have escaped their attention: politicians. Many Minnesota politicians have benefited mightily from the largesse of the state’s Ponzimen, yet not one has been asked to give back their political contributions that were derived from illegal activity.

Some pols have donated to charity a portion of their contributions from these Ponzimen and alleged fraudsters. But while that may help cleanse the taint from a politicians’ image, it does little for the victims from which this money was stolen in the first place.

One reason no one is anxious to go after political Ponzi money could be because everyone seems to have some blood, er, grease on their hands. But if these bankruptcy trustees are looking for victims’ money that’s relatively painless to recover, political contributions would appear to be pretty low-hanging fruit.

The public shame of hanging onto it should be enough to get these politicians to return that dirty money to its rightful owners without a lot of legal wrangling. There always seems to be more where that came from anyway.

In the grand scheme of multibillion-dollar fraud cases, a few hundred thousand dollars in political contributions might not seem like much. But it could provide relief for at least a few of the innocent victims of these con artists.

An examination of political contributions by Minnesota’s three most well-known Ponzimen or alleged fraudsters and their wives reveals that Republicans are the favored—but by no means the only—politicians they give to. Convicted Ponziman Tom Petters, Petters associate and convicted felon Frank Vennes, Jr. (who has not yet been charged with a crime in the Petters case) and auto-magnate-gone-wrong Denny Hecker all gave to Republicans and Democrats, although Petters was somewhat more evenhanded. Republican Governor and presidential wannabe Tim Pawlenty, DFL Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former Republican Senator Norm Coleman are the only Minnesota politicians who have received money from all three.

Below are totals over the past decade of the political generosity shown to Minnesota politicians and presidential candidates by Denny and Tamitha Hecker, Tom Petters and Tracy Mixon, and Frank Jr. and Kimberly Vennes. Republican candidates, parties and funds are shown in bold. Draw your own conclusions about why who gave to whom.

In the case of Vennes, it’s clear that the convicted money launderer/cocaine-and-gun runner was after a presidential pardon—and he got letters from Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Norm Coleman and state GOP chair Ron Ebensteiner seeking just that.

If churches, schools and employees are being asked to return money stolen from victims of Ponzi schemes and other frauds, isn’t it time that Minnesota politicians be subjected to the same clawback of their dirty money as well?

Photo above: Governor Tim Pawlenty and Ponzi Pal Tom Petters


(Republican recipients shown in bold)


Republican Party of Minnesota $60,465
Norm Coleman: $25,600
McCain-Palin: $24,600
Republican National Committee $15,400
Mark Kennedy $12,400

Lac Qui Parle County DFL $5,500
Minnesota DFL State Central Comm $5,000
James H. Gilbert (Supreme Ct Judge) $5,000
Minnesotans for a Republican Cong $5,000
Amy Klobuchar $2,350
Al Franken $2,300
Barack Obama $2,300
Rudy Giuliani $2,300
John Kerry $2,000
Jeff Johnson (Attorney General) $2,000
Keith Ellison $1,200
John T. Finley (District Ct Judge) $1,000
Erik Paulsen $1,000
George W. Bush $1,000
Tim Pawlenty (Governor) $750

Alan Fine $500


Republican National Committee $50,000
MN House Republican Campaign Comm $50,000
Republican Party of Minnesota $50,000
Minnesota DFL State Central Comm $45,000
Norm Coleman $42,300
Republican Party of Minnesota $16,265
Minnesota DFL $21,900
Amy Klobuchar $15,300
Minnesota Democrats $15,000
Patty Wetterling $5,100
Follow the North Star Fund $5,000
Tim Pawlenty (Governor) $3,500
Jim Oberstar $3,800
David Lillehaug (Senate) $3,000
Mark Dayton (Senate) $3,000
John Kerry $2,500
Terri Bonoff $2,300
George W. Bush $2,000
Ted Mondale (Governor) $2,000
Mike Hatch (Governor) $2,000
Minnesota DFL Senate Caucus $2,000
Jim Ramstad $1,750
Betty McCollum $1,500
Minnesota House DFL Caucus $1,500
Bill Luther $1,000
Walter Mondale (Senate) $1,000
Jerry Janezich (Senate) $1,000
Mike Hatch (Attorney General) $1,000
Roger Moe (Governor) $500
Judi Dutcher (Governor) $500
Alan Fine $500
Elwyn Tinklenberg $500
Steve Novak $300
Patricia Anderson (Auditor) $250
Tim Penny (Governor) $200


MN House Rep Campaign Comm $85,750
Michele Bachmann $27,600
Mark Kennedy $11,300
Republican Party of Minnesota $10,000
John Kline $8,000
Tim Pawlenty (Governor) $7,500
Norm Coleman $6,000
Minnesotans for a Republican Cong $5,000
Erik Paulsen $4,600
Patrice Bataglia $4,000

Amy Klobuchar $2,000
George W. Bush $2,000
Ted Mondale (Governor) $2,000
Tim Tinglestad (District Cty Judge) $2,000
Republican National Committee $200

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tom Emmer goes into full attack mode in defense against former client and friend sueing him for malpractice

Lawsuit renews discussion of the temperament of the 'Wright County Bully.'

By Karl Bremer

Ripple in Stillwater’s exclusive October 7 report about the attorney malpractice lawsuit filed against Republican candidate for Minnesota governor Tom Emmer made waves coast to coast with accounts from the Washington Post to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It spread like wildfire throughout scores of other media outlets and blogs around the country. Some, like the Pioneer Press’s Jason Hoppin and the AP’s Brian Bakst, gave us credit for breaking the story, while others did not. Such is the way of the internets.

Emmer campaign spokesman Carl Kuhl, who seemed to be offended at being contacted for a response on his candidate’s malpractice lawsuit, never did respond to Ripple in Stillwater further, despite his promise to do so.

He did find time to talk to the AP, however, where he suggested that plaintiff and former Emmer friend and supporter Steven R. Hackbarth’s motives were anything but pure, and compared Hackbarth's pursuit of a legal settlement to “extortion.”

“While Mr. Hackbarth denies political motivation, he made outrageous financial demands prior to filing his suit in the hope of leveraging Tom Emmer's candidacy to advantage himself,” Kuhl told the AP. “Tom Emmer does not negotiate with extortionists.”

Emmer lawyer Michael Schwartz claimed Hackbarth sought more than $200,000 to settle the case.

Emmer, himself, is trying to link Hackberth’s 2009 house fire to his innocence in the malpractice lawsuit. According to the Pioneer Press report:

“The circumstances surrounding the fire have been called into question by the fire inspection report,” Emmer wrote in asking a judge to dismiss the malpractice case. “Additionally, other circumstances regarding the fire at Hackbarth's home will be divulged if this litigation survives ... as the facts of the fire are necessary to establish the absence of fault in (Emmer’s) defense of this baseless action.”

That raises the question as to whether it's legal for a person to withhold from authorities any information they claim to possess regarding a suspicious fire, for any reason.

Ironically, the day after Ripple in Stillwater broke the story about a small independent businessman sueing Emmer for malpractice, Emmer was endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which purports to represent the interests of independent businesses.

Above: GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, accused of malpractice.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rock and soul singer Solomon Burke, March 21, 1940 - October 10, 2010

Legendary rock and soul singer Solomon Burke passed today at the age of 70. He died on a flight enroute from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, where he was to perform at a sold-out show. Burke had a voice as big as the man himself, and he never failed to deliver it with the power of a freight train in a career that spanned a half-century.

Burke started out as a preacher and host of a gospel radio show in Philadelphia before he signed with Atlantic records in the 1960s. There, he launched a Grammy-award-winning career with such classic hits as Cry to Me, covered by Professor Longhair, the Radiators and Minneapolis bluesman Dave Ray, among many others, and Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, famously covered by the Rolling Stones. Check out versions of both songs below. Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Above: Solomon Burke gets a cooling pat-down by one of his many grandchildren during his fest-topping Congo Square performance at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Right: Solomon Burke arrived onstage like royalty at his 2005 performance at Duluth's Bayfront Blues Fest. --Photos by Karl Bremer

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tom Emmer hit with an attorney malpractice lawsuit from a former client

Lawsuit filed in Wright County District Court Sept. 21 by a longtime supporter who says he ‘thought Emmer was my friend.’

By Karl Bremer

Tom Emmer, Republican candidate for Governor of Minnesota, is the subject of an attorney malpractice lawsuit filed in Wright County District Court September 21 by a longtime supporter, friend and legal client.

The lawsuit was filed by Steven R. Hackbarth and his roofing contracting company, Hackbarth Enterprises Corporation, both of Silver Lake, a McLeod County town southwest of Emmer's hometown of Delano. Emmer represented Hackbarth in a legal proceeding that resulted in a judgment against Hackbarth and cost him his state contractor’s license.

According to Hackbarth, one of his roofing materials suppliers sued him in 2009 over money the supplier claimed Hackbarth owed him.

“People charged my account with the supplier and they weren’t supposed to,” says Hackbarth. “I was disputing that with my supplier, so I asked Emmer to represent me. But he didn’t file the documents he was supposed to file with the court. He showed up the day of the hearing,” but beyond that, Hackbarth says, “he didn’t do nothing.”

According to Hackbarth, Emmer botched his case. He says Emmer only filed discovery papers in the lawsuit a week before the hearing, and failed to properly file other court documents. Hackbarth said he couldn’t reach an agreement with his supplier to pay back the money the supplier claimed he was owed since “our money was all tied up because of our house burning down” in March 2009.

He lost the case with his supplier, and as a result of the judgment against him, the state Department of Labor and Industry revoked his contractors license in May of this year and levied a $10,000 fine against him, $8,000 of which was stayed.

Hackbarth says at the time Emmer was representing him, “he listed all the reasons why they shouldn’t have granted (the supplier) a summary judgment.” But after he lost the case, and Hackbarth hired a lawyer to file a malpractice case against Emmer, “he’s saying the reason it isn’t malpractice is because it wasn’t winnable … because he didn’t think we had a good case.” Emmer’s response to the malpractice lawsuit, says Hackbarth, “was that he didn’t file anything because he didn’t believe me. I told him, this is the first you ever said that, and you had a duty to tell me. You don’t just not file any documents. His defense (against the malpractice lawsuit) was even worse than what he did before.”

Hackbarth says he has evidence that “totally contradicts” what Emmer is saying now about the lawsuit with his supplier.

Now, Hackbarth says, “Emmer is getting all nasty about it, blaming it on me. They hired a private investigator who’s making all kinds of bogus claims. They told us we better drop the suit, and if we didn’t drop the suit, he was going to release information about the house fire.” Hackbarth says he suspects the private investigator Emmer hired is trying to “stir up some trouble.”

In addition to poking around in the circumstances of his house fire, Hackbarth says, “Now they say they’re going to sue me for slander. All he does is threaten and stuff.” And, he adds, “They keep flooding us with paperwork. They’re trying to crush me in legal fees.”

Hackbarth is represented by attorney Robert C. Hart of St. Louis Park. Hackbarth’s malpractice complaint was filed against Thomas E. Emmer and Emmer's law practice, Emmer and Associates PA, September 17. The same day, the following documents were filed by Emmer’s lawyer, Michael D. Schwartz of Chanhassen, who has represented Emmer in previous legal actions, or by others on Emmer’s behalf: a “Motion to Dismiss or Alternatively for Summary Judgment;” a “Memorandum of Law in Support of Emmer Law’s Motion to Dismiss or Alternatively for Summary Judgment;” an affidavit for Schwartz; an affidavit of Craig S. Larson (a Craig S. Larson is a licensed private detective in Minnesota); and an attestation of Patrick H. O’Neill Jr., a St. Paul legal malpractice lawyer.

The case was filed in Wright County District Court on September 21. A hearing on the Motion for Summary Judgment has been scheduled for November 8, six days after the Nov. 2 election.

Hackbarth says Emmer has represented him in previous legal matters, and that he’s been a longtime supporter of Emmer’s past political campaigns.

“If he would have just apologized, it probably never would have come to this,” says Hackbarth. “I pulled floats for him in parades for years. I have a John Deere tractor. My daughter has a goat, and we’d put a sandwich board on the goat with Emmer signs. And now all I got was kicked in the head. I thought he was my friend.”

Hackbarth’s allegations seem to fit the pattern of bullying that Emmer has displayed in past legal disputes, as reported in the Star Tribune earlier this year.

Emmer campaign spokesman Carl Kuhl says he was aware of the malpractice lawsuit but did not respond to a series of questions about it by 10 p.m. tonight. Michael Schwartz, Emmer’s lawyer, could not be reached for comment. Hackbarth’s lawyer, Robert Hart, declined to comment beyond the legal filings.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Michele Bachmann’s duck-and-cover debate strategy for 2010

By Karl Bremer

It should have come as no surprise to anyone who has paid any attention to Michele Bachmann over her second term in Congress that her campaign strategy with regard to debates this year would follow the old nuclear attack films shown to grade schoolers in the 1950s: duck and cover.

The Teabagging congresswoman has shown nothing but contempt for her constituents and anyone but the most accommodating and fawning media since her infamous appearance on Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” that almost derailed her re-election in 2008.

Once secure in her $174,000 government job for another two years, Bachmann has thumbed her nose at media requests for interviews and clarifications of her half-truths and outright lies. She holds the record at the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact of the St. Petersburg Times newspaper for Pinocchio-like behavior, racking up an incredible 0-11 record for telling the truth.

Bachmann has held only one public meeting during her entire four years in Congress at which constituents have had the opportunity to address her unfiltered by screeners and staff. Instead, the invisible congresswoman has opted for the safety of one-way communication through faceless “tele-town hall” meetings during which she and her handlers determine which constituents and questions she will respond to.

During this campaign season, Bachmann has predictably ignored invitations to debate her two opponents, DFLer Tarryl Clark and IP candidate Bob Anderson, until public pressure from even the normally reticent mainstream media became too great. And now that we are less than a month out from the Nov. 2 election, Bachmann has cowardly agreed to a mere three debates—none of which will be before a live audience and only one of which will even be in her district.

The most glaring example of how Bachmann has abrogated her duty to represent the 6th Congressional District is the October 7 debate sponsored by the Minnesota Broadcasters Association that was scheduled to be broadcast from WCCO’s television studios—again, insulated from a living, breathing audience of her constituents.

According to Jim du Bois, president and CEO of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, Bachmann was first contacted about the MBA debate in late August—at least five weeks ago. And then they waited. And waited. And waited.

The response? Crickets.

Further attempts to get Bachmann to commit to a debate sponsored by the organization that represents Minnesota’s broadcast community were futile.

“We never did receive a response from Congresswoman Bachmann’s office,” says du Bois. “We kept open the option of going with the debate with just two of the three candidates, but we weren’t really sure we could get it done within the timetable WCCO had.” Eventually, explains du Bois, “We waited so long that WCCO’s window went away … It came up to the wire and we lost the opportunity to debate.”

Was Bachmann too busy with her congressional duties that she couldn’t find time to even respond to the MBA, much less debate? Hardly. As it turns out, she had other priorities that superseded such menial obligations before the unwashed masses.

Bachmann was scheduled to offer her “insightful critique” at the “Reclaiming America: The Taking Back Congress Tour” sponsored by wingnut radio WWTC at Orchestra Hall that same night—a half-block away. Clearly, the choice was easy for Bachmann: spend a night debating her opponents in the most expensive congressional race in America, or spend a night hobnobbing with the likes of Hugh Hewitt, Ed Morrisey and Dennis Prager at a $225-per-VIP soiree.

This isn’t the only debate Bachmann is skipping out on. She couldn’t even find the time to respond to an invitation from the Stillwater Gazette, her hometown newspaper, to a debate it’s sponsoring Oct. 12 before a live audience in Stillwater. But that may be more understandable. Even her neighbors have rejected their local darling in her last two congressional elections, and facing that crowd could get a little uncomfortable.

Sadly, Bachmann’s duck-and-cover strategy may work. The three debates to which she has agreed are being held during the last week of the campaign, giving little time for voters to digest their results before heading to the polls Nov. 2. Instead, they’ll have to settle for hearing from their congresswoman in a multimillion-dollar barrage of ugly tv commercials and a blizzard of glossy brochures in their mailbox.

Better to keep ‘em dumb all over.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Minnesota Attorney General's Office confirms investigation underway into U.S. Navy Veterans Association

AG joins seven other states, IRS and VA looking into shady nonprofit and its commander-on-the-lam, who donated thousands to Minnesota Republican politicians and Minnesota GOP

By Karl Bremer

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office has confirmed to Ripple in Stillwater that it is now investigating the allegedly fraudulent U.S. Navy Veterans Association (USNVA), whose Minnesota chapter raised over $1.56 million in Minnesota from 2004-2009 using nothing more than a St. Paul UPS drop box for an address. The group’s Minnesota chapter folded mysteriously in May in the wake of growing investigations nationwide, citing pending legal problems for the organization.

The investigations were sparked by a year-long investigation of the USNVA by the St. Petersburg (FL) Times.

Although the extent of the Minnesota AG’s investigation into the group and its alleged identity-stealing leader is not known at this point, Ben Wogsland, spokesperson for Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, told Ripple in Stillwater last Friday that “we are looking into this.”

A nationwide arrest warrant for identity fraud was issued in August by an Ohio court for a suspect formerly known as “Bobby Charles Thompson,” commander of the shady USNVA. “Thompson,” the only officer among dozens listed for the organization whose existence has ever been confirmed, was listed as commander of the Minnesota chapter of the USNVA until 2009, but has disappeared since he and his group have come under fire.

The group ran largely under the radar in Minnesota until a series of investigative reports I wrote beginning July 6 revealed that “Thompson” had donated $10,000 to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Stillwater on April 7, the same day as a Minneapolis fundraiser featuring former half-term governor Sarah Palin. One of the last known public appearances by Thompson may have been at the Bachmann-Palin event. “Thompson’s” $10,000 donation to Bachmann’s congressional campaign, which was shared with the Republican Party of Minnesota, would have qualified him for a table for 10 at the fundraiser, as well as a photo shoot with the two Tea Party queens. However, Bachmann’s campaign has refused to confirm or deny whether “Thompson” actually attended her big-buck affair.

After considerable negative publicity over her connection to the alleged fraudster, Bachmann’s campaign reportedly gave her $4,800 portion of the proceeds to other veterans’ groups. The Republican Party of Minnesota claimed it was going to donate its remaining portion of the dirty money to charity as well.

“Thompson,” a former Florida resident, for unknown reasons took a shine to Minnesota Republican politicians and the Republican Party of Minnesota. Besides the $10,000 he gave to Bachmann, he made the following donations to other Minnesota Republicans and GOP entities:

• $21,500 to Republican Norm Coleman’s Senate re-election campaign from 2006-2008
• $7,000 to the Minnesota House Republican Campaign Committee in 2008-2009
• $10,400 to the Republican Party of Minnesota from 2008-2010
• $500 to former Rep. Marty Seifert’s Seifert for Governor Campaign in 2009
• $500 to Republican David J. Carlson’s Citizens for David Carlson committee in House District 67B in 2008.

In addition, the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board is investigating a different—and potentially fraudulent—$500 campaign contribution to former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert in 2009 that’s linked to the USNVA.

“Thompson “ also has ties to Stillwater lobbyist Edwin E. Cain, a close friend of Bachmann's. Cain, who was hired as a consultant by the USNVA to lobby for the group in Virginia last year, and a Mary Cain from the same Stillwater address, also a lobbyist, donated $500 each to David Carlson’s House campaign on the same day as Thompson’s donation was recorded. Thompson and the Cains represented three of the top six individual donors to Carlson’s campaign that year.

While Bachmann and the Republican Party of Minnesota reportedly gave away the $10,000 they took from “Thompson” at the April 7 Bachmann-Palin shindig, there is no indication that other recipients of “Thompson’s” largesse intend to dispense of their allegedly ill-gotten gains. Minnesota is at least the eighth state to be looking into the USNVA. Other states investigating the alleged fraudulent operations of the group include Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Attorneys general in several states have shut their operations down and in Ohio, a judge has frozen the organization’s bank accounts.

IRS, Veterans Administration, and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services agents seized computer records and documents—some already shredded—from the Tampa-area offices of associates of “Bobby Thompson” this summer. The seizures were made in connection with investigations into the organization by the three agencies.

The USNVA operated for over five years in Minnesota out of a UPS drop box on Grand Avenue in St. Paul in apparent violation of state charities laws.

State law requires charitable organizations like the USNVA to register with the Attorney General's Office and file annual reports listing both a “mailing address” and a “physical address.” Yet since it started soliciting funds in Minnesota in 2005, the USNVA never registered any physical address at all with the Attorney General's Office or the IRS—a clear violation of that requirement. Every address listed in the group's state or federal filings leads to drop boxes at UPS stores in St. Paul, Washington, DC, and Tampa, FL.

Even though the Minnesota Chapter of the USNVA officially dissolved in May, its St. Paul-area phone number listed with the Attorney General’s Charities Division—651.645.4570—still carried a message as of Oct. 3, 2010, that says “we are away from our desk” and suggests the group is still operating here.

Out of more than $1.14 million the U.S. Navy Veterans Association Minnesota Chapter claims to have spent on charitable programs and services in Minnesota since 2004, only $26,300 can be positively accounted for: two $10,000 donations to a St. Paul Veterans Center in 2007 and one $6,300 donation to Twin Cities Public Television in 2008

The rest of the money from the organization that went to benefit individuals was allegedly spent to provide such generic things as
“direct cash assistance,” food, clothing, publications, “care packages” for service members, and “psychological counseling and comfort” for survivors of veterans. But there is little evidence or documentation of those services in records filed with the state or IRS. Furthermore, the officers for the Minnesota Chapter of the USNVA cannot be found, nor can any address for the group other than UPS drop boxes in St. Paul and several other states be located.

The Ohio arrest warrant was issued by Hamilton County Municipal Court and orders “Thompson” to appear on charges of identity fraud. A detective’s affidavit accompanying the arrest warrant alleges that “Thompson” fraudulently used the Florida identification card of a Bobby Charles Thompson now living in Washington to open a UPS post office box in Cincinnati in April 2003. It also alleges that “Thompson” fraudulently solicited charitable contributions in excess of $100,000 in Ohio from 2003-2010; fraudulently filed annual reports with the state; and falsely stated that the UPS drop box was the organization’s primary Ohio office.

“Our investigators have determined that this individual stole the identity of someone else and used that as the centerpiece of an apparent scam that has continued for seven years and involved tens of millions of dollars,” Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said. “The real Bobby Thompson, whose identity was stolen, including his Social Security number and date of birth, has absolutely no connection to the U.S. Navy Veterans Association. We don't know who this individual is yet, but we do know that he is not Bobby Thompson.”

Cordray suggested that money collected under the guise of the USNVA may have been used to finance political contributions made by “Thompson.” An August 5 press release from Cordray’s office states:

“There appears to be very little evidence that the organization spent money actually helping veterans or their families. Yet public records do show hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to various candidates made by “Bobby Thompson” personally or through the political action committee he created and to which he was the sole contributor, NAVPAC.”

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, another Republican officeholder, recently announced that he was finally giving away $55,700 in campaign contributions he received from “Thompson,” but it took a firestorm of public protest for him to do it.

Anyone who saw “Bobby Thompson” at the April 7 Bachmann-Palin fundraiser, or has seen him anywhere else, is urged to contact the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation at 740.845.2224 or 800.282.3784. More information on “Thompson” can be found here.

Welcome to Ripple in Stillwater

Welcome to Ripple in Stillwater, coming to you from Stillwater Township in the St. Croix River Valley of Minnesota, about a half-dozen miles north of the 45th parallel in the Northern Hemisphere.

Just what the world needs—another blog, right? Maybe, maybe not. But when you can’t seem to get your work published anywhere else, and you still think you have something worth saying, that’s what you do. You can be the judge of that—comments are always open.

I won’t bother trying to define what this blog is or isn’t. Suffice to say you’ll get a healthy dose of political observations, opinions and snark, some original investigative reporting that you can’t find elsewhere, musical recommendations and reviews, an occasional photographic essay, and whatever else comes about when the muse strikes. If you’re looking for something new and fresh every day, you may be disappointed. But check in now and then, and you may be surprised at what you find.

Now, please allow me to introduce myself.

I’ve spent most of my life in the St. Croix Valley. I graduated from Stillwater High School in 1971, lived on the St. Croix River for 13 years through one house fire and three floods until moving to higher ground between Stillwater and Marine-on-St. Croix in 2001, where I now live with my wife, Chris, our fifth Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Roux, and part Maine Coon cat, Snaker.
Between all that, I’ve worked in a variety of journalism, writing and editing jobs, as well as a few other endeavors. Drafted into the Army in 1972, I served for two years and a day as a correctional officer with the 532nd Military Police Company, 759th MP Battalion, at Ft. Dix, New Jersey. The G.I. Bill put me through four years at Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota. I spent the last year at BSU as editor of the college newspaper, the Northern Student, where I won my first writing award—a review of Tom Waits at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.

After Bemidji, I worked at newspapers in Anaconda, Montana, muckraking in a copper-company-owned town east of Butte; Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where I won a First Place Investigative Journalism Award from the Minnesota Newspaper Association for a series of articles on a lowlife shopping-center developer that cost me my job a week after they ran; and New York Mills, Minnesota.

I left community newspaper work in 1980 for a job as editor of Statewatch newspaper, the publication of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group. There, I wrote many groundbreaking investigative stories and featured a wide range of writers ranging from then-Congressman Vin Weber to Ralph Nader, who called Statewatch “the best public-interest newspaper in America.” I also began freelance writing for Sweet Potato (predecessor to City Pages), the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader, and the Progressive Magazine, where I scored the first interview with the late Paul Wellstone after his upset victory over Rudy Boschwitz for the U.S. Senate in 1990.

A five-year stint as associate editor for a national aviation business magazine followed, and then a decade of freelance writing that produced one book on the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, a slew of articles for virtually every aviation business magazine in the country, a contributing writer slot with Minneapolis-St. Paul CityBusiness, and a number of other national magazine pieces on travel and music.

I also founded St. Croix Beer Company in 1995, which produced two innovative and nationally-acclaimed beers brewed at the August Schell Brewery in New Ulm from my recipes—St. Croix Maple Ale and Serrano Pepper Ale. We were about a decade ahead of our time, however, and a bad business decision led to the sale of the company in 2003.

In 1999, I jumped into partisan political writing with the Minnesota House of Representatives DFL Media Office until a certain power-hungry Democratic politician decided to clean house and install his own hand-picked employees to further his career.

Today, I work as editor/photographer for a corporate marketing department and have continued to do some freelance writing online, chiefly for the fine folks at the DumpBachmann blog. With the advent of Ripple in Stillwater, however, my freelance work will now appear here instead, and I’ll eventually begin archiving some of my past work on these pages as well. You can find some of my photo archives here, here, here and here. As for my other interests, you’ll probably come to hear about those as time goes on.

A couple of final notes. The image at the top of the blog is of the famous Stillwater Lift Bridge. Built in 1931 as a link between Stillwater, Minnesota, and Houlton, Wisconsin, the bridge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And if you’re wondering where the title for this blog comes from, you can thank Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead.

Karl Bremer, October 3, 2010