Murder trial begins with lawyers agreeing that Woodbury man was the shooter
On April 7, Ryan David Petersen, 37, of Woodbury shot Chase Passauer of Hastings eight times at a law office above W.A. Frost in St. Paul, then visited his children at home in Woodbury, and drove to Wisconsin to dump his weapon in the lake by the cabin, his attorney said Monday.
The first-degree murder case went to trial Monday, but the identity of Passauer's killer is not in question, defense attorney Gary Wolf said. Defense and prosecution agreed to "certain facts that constitute a stipulation," Ramsey County District Court Judge William Leary said as a preface to the trial. There were 19 findings of fact for Leary to consider.
"(Attorney) Ms. (Holly) Frame and I know the case well. These are things that would be easily proven," Wolf told Petersen in court, in front of 40-plus relatives of the victim and their supporters, as well as Petersen's mother.
Indeed, Petersen has committed prior felony crimes and he cannot legally possess a firearm, Wolf said.
On the day of Passauer's death, Petersen sent text messages to his attorney about issues with parking at his business, Eastside Grillz in St. Paul.
Having fired his attorney, he then wanted his money back, so he went from his business to the office of North Star Criminal Defense and shot Passauer, a 23-year-old law clerk, Wolf said.
According to the stipulations read by Wolf, Petersen used a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic firearm to shoot Passauer eight times.
Petersen text messaged two friends about the shooting, then went to Woodbury to speak with his girlfriend and children, whom he told about the shooting. He went to a family cabin near Milltown, Wis., and threw the gun into Bone Lake, where authorities recovered it.
"I will take these facts as true," Leary said, with Petersen acknowledging the stipulations were not in dispute.
Petersen waived his right to a jury, defense and prosecution skipped opening statements, and testimony began.
While the prosecution asked to have witnesses sequestered, Petersen's mother was allowed to sit in the audience.
Petersen has remained in the Ramsey County jail in lieu of $2 million bail and is facing a mandatory life sentence if convicted.
Passauer's employers took the stand Monday.
Dan Adkins, formerly Petersen's attorney, and James Gempeler, who returned to the office and was first to find Passauer dead, described the law clerk and the crime scene.
Gempeler and Adkins described Passauer as a young law clerk who in three years at the firm became their go-to guy for a variety of legal and office tasks. He opened and coordinated files on clients, conducted legal research, managed evidence, maintained complicated schedules, and had knowledge of constitutional law. Passauer had graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota and was considering a career as an attorney.
The first legal brief he wrote yielded positive results, Adkins said. "He was essentially self taught, and there was no limit."
At age 16, Passauer met Adkins through their love for baseball and they eventually started North Star Umpires, scheduling 50-plus umpires for 40 to 50 clients—American Legions and high schools among them.
Passauer sat at the front desk just inside the law office, so it was common for him to interact with clients. Anything a client needed, they started with Passauer.
"It's an open-door policy—at least it was," Gempeler said.
On April 7, Gempeler started his workday at North Star Criminal Defense—on the second story of the Dacotah Building, near Selby and Western avenues in St. Paul—by watching the Masters golf tournament on his computer while working in his office suite, before going to a client's 1:30 p.m. court hearing in Hastings. It was a usual morning, with 10 to 12 people going in and out of the law office, Gempeler said.
Adkins went to a client's trial and two other matters at the courthouse in Stillwater. At about 12:40 p.m. he was interrupted by a text message with multiple exclamation points, which Adkins knew to mean Petersen felt the information was urgent.
He responded from the courtroom to the text messages that he was in trial and that Petersen would have his full attention after its completion.
"About 40 minutes later, I received a rash of communication," Adkins said. "He was clearly very agitated, very upset."
On Monday, Wolf pointed to Adkins' testimony before the grand jury that the exclamation points were interpreted as: "It's telling me that he's under tremendous stress."
Adkins said Wolf was taking his words out of context.
On April 7, after a phone call, text messages, and text-messaged photos asking Adkins to take care of a parking dispute on Arcade Street, the judge asked Adkins to step out of the courtroom and take care of the distraction.
Petersen was calm on the phone, Adkins said, and Adkins told the client he could have his money back and his file. He said the retainer didn't cover costs of dealing with the parking dispute and promised to attend to Petersen after the trial.
At 3:37 p.m., Adkins saw two calls come in on his phone. It was Petersen and Gempeler at the same time. But Adkins' phone hadn't been charged all day. The phone died, and "I did not speak to him again," Adkins said.
Upon getting to his car and plugging in his phone, Adkins saw a text message at 3:37 p.m. from Petersen to the effect of: "After all this, you're going to hang up on me?"
"That call never happened," Adkins said.
He couldn't get ahold of Petersen again.
Then Adkins got a phone call from Gempeler: "Do not go upstairs."
When police asked Adkins who might have shot Passauer, Adkins told them "I had had a string of text messages that were increasingly hostile" and that he feared Petersen was the possible shooter.
Back to the office
Earlier that day, Gempeler's case took longer than planned. He stopped for gas, and rush hour slowed his commute. When he returned to the office just after 4 p.m., he saw small shards of glass on the floor—unusual "to say the least," Gempeler said.
Both witnesses spent time describing a rectangular crack in the middle of a large glass partition near the entrance to the law office, and a break in eery silence caused only by spiderweb-shaped glass cracking and falling bit by bit to the ground. They described a bullet hole, Passauer's position in his chair when they found him, and their employee's wounds.
"I yelled his name two or three times, and then I got out of there," Gempeler said.
Trying to get his wits about him, Gempeler paced across the hallway into an empty office suite, called Adkins, then went out of the building and called 911 from street level.
He feared for his safety and didn't know if anyone else was present nor if the shooter was still active, Gempeler said, and he told Adkins not to go inside, that Passauer was slumped over in his chair.
Police were there within a minute, Gempeler said. "They went flying into the building."
Adkins beat the police to Passauer. He went up the back steps "and went to see my boy," he said.
He ran down the office hallway, dialing 911.
"My boy is on the ground and I've got problems," Adkins recalled saying, calling for an emergency medical technician.
He couldn't get Passauer to respond, so he followed the dispatcher's directions and moved Passauer to the floor, where he and an EMT unsuccessfully attempted CPR.
In mid-March Passauer was present during Adkins' second visit to Eastside Grillz, where Petersen was in the business of selling gold-laced, diamond-encrusted grills for teeth.
"You could change the nature, the appearance, of the teeth," Adkins said he learned upon visiting the business.
Passauer, Adkins and Petersen discussed "at length" Passauer's role at the law firm, Adkins said. Petersen purchased a legal retainer for an upcoming case.
Another day, Petersen came to the office and teased Passauer about being a secretary, to which Passauer issued a reminder that he would be the one helping Petersen get what he needs. The interaction was "very friendly," Adkins said.
Passauer and Adkins completely rebuilt a disorganized file passed on from another attorney fired by Petersen, and they confirmed that Petersen's criminal case would not go to trial until at least March 2017.
Adkins said he was unaware of any complaints or problems until the text messages April 7.
Wolf questioned Adkins about a request from the defense for Adkins to produce Petersen's retainer agreement. It was never found, Adkins said. It had been in a brown file on Passauer's desk, but on April 7, when a police officer asked for Petersen's contact information, Adkins did not find the agreement in the file.