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Minnesota roundup: Minnesota man faces 20 counts of child pornography; Former company exec admits swindling more than $100,000

ST. PAUL—A man is accused of storing and sharing scores of pornographic images of children after investigators traced a flagged Skype account to his St. Paul address, charges say.

Benjamin Aaron Festa, 35, was charged via warrant this month in Ramsey County District Court with 20 felony counts of possessing pornographic works involving minors.

Festa could not be reached for comment Monday and does not appear to have retained an attorney.

Investigators executed a search warrant at his apartment in St. Paul last June after receiving a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that a Skype account with the screen name "willowthorns" had uploaded child pornography, the complaint said.

Agents learned that the account's IP address was registered to Festa.

Investigators recovered a computer and a USB thumb drive from his home, which were later determined to contain 53 images and 38 videos involving "known and identified child victims of pornography," the complaint said.


Two tornadoes confirmed as earliest in Minnesota history

ZIMMERMAN, Minn.—The National Weather Service on Tuesday confirmed that two tornadoes touched down in Minnesota on Monday — the earliest tornadoes on record in the state.

One of the tornadoes touched down about 5 miles west of Zimmerman in Sherburne County northwest of the Twin Cities at 5:39 p.m., and over the next 15 minutes traveled a path of about nine miles to the northeast toward Princeton. It damaged some structures and knocked down trees, and was rated an EF1 with estimated peak wind speeds of 107 mph.

The second tornado touched down in Clarks Grove in Freeborn County in southeast Minnesota. It also was rated EF1, and caused major damage to some structures in the southern Minnesota town, including a grain elevator.

The previous earliest tornado on record in the state was one near Truman, in southern Minnesota, on March 18, 1968.


Former company exec admits swindling more than $100,000, taking strategic plan

LITTLE CANADA, Minn.—A former executive at St. Jude Medical Inc. admitted in court to swindling the company out of more than $100,000 and taking a copy of its strategic plan with him after he was fired.

Bryan Charles Szweda, formerly of Plymouth and vice president of operations for the company, pleaded guilty in Ramsey County District Court on Tuesday to one count of felony-level theft by swindle for the scheme, which dates back to 2014 at the Little Canada-based medical device maker, according to court records.

The 41-year-old had previously faced fives counts of theft by swindle as well as one count of taking property without consent.

Per the terms of the plea agreement, Szweda is expected to receive a stay of execution at sentencing, which means he won't serve prison time for the offense so long as he abides by the terms of his probation. But he will have a felony on his criminal record.. During his probation, he will be ordered to provide 500 hours of community service to low-income people and pay restitution totaling about $117,000.

The rest of the charges filed against him will be dropped as a part of the agreement.

His attorney, Andrew Birrell, could not be reached for comment. No number could be found for Szweda.

The company began to investigate his out-of-pocket claims and vendor invoices in summer 2014, according to a criminal complaint.


School district settles racial discrimination case

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn.— A southeast Twin Cities school district has reached a settlement with a former employee who had sued an administrator and the district for racial discrimination.

South Washington County Schools last week settled the federal civil rights case brought by Michele Walker, who worked as a school psychologist from 2011 to 2014. Walker claimed the district and Julie Nielsen, an assistant superintendent and former Middleton Elementary School principal, did not renew her contract because of Walker's race. Walker was one of the district's few black employees. Nielsen is white.

The district disputed that, and it claimed Walker's performance and her handling of a conflict with a coworker were cause for her non-renewal.

Initially, Walker filed a race discrimination complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, but it was dismissed in April 2015. In September 2015, she sued the district and Nielsen in federal court. She was seeking $75,000 in damages.

The settlement agreement is subject to District 833 School Board approval. It will go to the board March 16, according to Trevor Helmers, an attorney for the district.

Settlement terms are not yet public.


Hours after being sentenced for theft, 32-year-old man tried to steal again, charges say

ST. PAUL—Hours after he was sentenced for theft in Dakota County, authorities say a man tried to walk out of a St. Paul Sears store with layers of apparel he hadn't paid for tucked under his clothing.

On his way out of the store, Alphonso Terry Whitelaw dropped a couple of pairs of jeans and a hoodie, catching the attention of a nearby employee trained to spot stealing, according to the criminal complaint filed against him Friday in Ramsey County District Court.

The complaint charges the 32-year-old with one count of first-degree aggravated robbery and a second count of second-degree assault for the Feb. 21 offense.

Store staff saw Whitelaw walk into a dressing room with a stack of clothing and walk out with much of the attire seemingly layered under his clothes and other articles stuffed into his clothing, the complaint said. When the employee stopped him, Whitelaw pulled out a knife and said "Don't touch me," before fleeing, the complaint said.

Police later tracked Whitelaw down after the employee found a warrant of commitment for Whitelaw left behind in his dressing room. It indicated the St. Paul man had been been in Dakota County District Court on misdemeanor theft charges earlier that morning and had received a stayed sentence.


Teen accused of making racial comments to Twin Cities school employee

VADNAIS HEIGHTS, Minn.—A teen is accused of repeatedly harassing an employee at a Vadnais Heights school and calling her racial slurs, charges say.

Uriah James Meidlinger, 19, of Lake Elmo was charged Monday with one count of felony-level stalking committed because of bias, according to the criminal complaint filed against him in Ramsey County District Court.

A female employee at the school reported in late February that a 19-year-old male had repeatedly swore at her, threatening her and calling her racial slurs, the complaint said.

Sometimes he would "place his hands by his eyes, pulling them and stretching them as if to mock her Asian race," according to the complaint. He also ran at her and made "jump kicks" in the air, the complaint said.

In addition to the derogatory statements, Meidlinger reportedly told the woman she was lazy and that he hated her.

After-school staff conducted a meeting with Meidlinger about his conduct, he threatened her, the complaint said.