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Woodbury officers named in federal lawsuit might not see trial

A federal lawsuit against three Woodbury police officers who mistakenly shot and killed a St. Paul man may be dismissed before going to trial.

Last year, Tawana Henderson, the mother of Mark Eric Henderson Jr., filed a suit alleging excessive force, indifference to her son's civil rights and wrongful death against the officers who fatally shot the 19-year-old after he fled from his captor in a 2012 hostage standoff at a Woodbury motel.

A federal judge issued a notice last month deeming the case ready for a March trial, but defense attorneys filed a motion Nov. 10 arguing that the case should be dismissed.

Attorneys representing Woodbury officers Anthony Ofstead, Natalie Bauer and Stacey Krech, who were involved in the shooting and named in the lawsuit, argued police believed Henderson was armed and was "noncompliant with officer commands."

"The officers' use of deadly force was constitutional as the officers perceived Henderson was armed and fired at them as he burst out of room 217," the motion said.

Attorneys also claimed the three-year statutes of limitations for wrongful death expired before two officers were served notice.

Bauer, Krech and Ofstead are active police officers and have been with the city for a number of years, according to their resumes.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, seeks $75,000 for wrongful death and an undetermined amount of money for alleged civil rights violations.

The court will hold its next pretrial hearing Dec. 12 in Minneapolis.

Police say they couldn't see Henderson's hand

As the case has moved forward, new information detailing the standoff has come to light.

When police responded to a 911 call at the Red Roof Inn Aug. 31, 2012, Demetrius S. Ballinger, then 25, of North St. Paul, had taken Henderson and a group of 11 young people hostage.

When Ballinger's fiancee had kicked him out of his home, he decided to rob everyone in the room "just for something to do." Ballinger is serving a 36-year sentence after pleading guilty to attempted second-degree intentional murder and four counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Officers called for additional assistance after Ballinger pointed a gun at officer Bauer through a window. She was the only officer who saw Ballinger, according to court documents.

Seeing an opportunity, Henderson decided to flee the room. As he ran out, Ballinger fired at least one shot from the room, leading officers to believe the shot came from Henderson, according to a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) investigation.

Witnesses told the BCA that police ordered Henderson to show them his hands and to stay down as he ran toward them.

According to the complaint, officers shot him after he "slowed down to a hurried walk and raised his hands when he became aware of the officers."

Henderson went to the ground, but officers said they weren't able to see his right hand and believed he was reaching for a weapon and continued firing, according to court documents.

During the encounter, which lasted several seconds, officers fired 17 shots at Henderson, hitting him a dozen times, according to a BCA investigation. Witnesses said they heard him say, "I can't believe you shot me."

An autopsy also found a bullet from Ballinger's gun lodged in Henderson's arm. Ramsey County medical examiner, Dr. Kelly Mills, determined his death was from multiple gunshot wounds.

In 2013, a Washington County grand jury cleared officers Bauer, Ofstead and Krech of criminal charges, affirming they acted properly when they shot Henderson.

Woodbury police practices

Recent cases — such as the 2015 death of Jamar Clark, and most recently, the shooting death of Philando Castile — has sparked numerous protests raising questions about police practices and race relations between police and black men in the Twin Cities.

Woodbury Police Chief and Public Safety Director Lee Vague said the department hasn't implemented new policy or training in light of the 2012 motel incident or other high-profile police shootings across the country.

"We've had a lot of changes before and after, but I wouldn't attribute it to the event," he said. "We tend to not make any policy changes based around events."

Though he could not comment on the pending civil case, Vague said the department has increased training focused on implicit bias, de-escalation, and mental health crisis exercises.

The city does not collect information on race in its police reports, but Vague speculated ongoing discussions on race relations might come up in the future. He added that he worries about the accuracy of such reports.

"I think it'd be interesting, but I'd want to make sure we start with accurate data," he said.