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Owatonna second baseman, Dawson Leer, fires the ball to first against Waseca in a Twin Rivers League baseball game at Tink Larson Field on Friday night. (Nick Gerhardt/

Person of interest sought in Sunday's fatal stabbing

Law enforcement officials are asking for the public’s help in locating a person of interest in a homicide investigation.

Owatonna police were called to Dartts Park at 5:17 p.m. Sunday for a report of a stabbing. Officers located an unconscious man on the ground in the southeast parking lot of the park with what appeared to be stab wounds.

Mohamed Aweis Mohamed, 32, of Owatonna, died at the scene as a result of a stab wound to the chest, despite efforts made by first responders, including air ambulance personnel, to provide medical aid. Mohamed was taken to the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is helping in the investigation, reportedly recovered two knives at the scene.

As a part of the investigation, the BCA and Owatonna police are seeking the public’s assistance in locating Hassan Nur Hassan, 28. Hassan is described as 5 feet, 11 inches tall, approximately 150 pounds with brown hair, brown eyes and a goatee. Investigators believe he is driving a tan, four-door 2000 Honda Accord with Minnesota license plate EGG-087.

Owatonna Chief of Police Keith Hiller said that Hassan is considered dangerous and should not be approached. While Hassan has a long criminal history, he’s not been convicted of anything more serious than giving an officer a false name and driving with a suspended license.

Investigators are asking anyone with information on Hassan’s whereabouts, who witnessed the alleged stabbing or has information about the incident to contact the Owatonna Police Department at 507-444-3800 or dial 911.

There have been a handful of homicide investigations within the city of Owatonna over the last 25 years, though this is the first in more than 20 years to involve the use of a deadly weapon.

The most recent homicide investigation was related to an overdose that took place on July 10, 2019. The investigation resulted in third-degree murder charges for the suspect who was alleged to have provided the controlled substances to the decedent.

On Aug. 3, 2007, an assault took place in which the victim died a month later as a result of complications from the injuries he sustained. The victim, 79-year-old William Eastling, was beaten inside the apartment of one of his neighbors. The suspect was charged with second-degree murder, but the charges were dropped when it was determined the suspect had a mental illness.

On Jan. 8, 2000, a double homicide took place on Mound Street. The victims were 21-year-old Juan Jasso and 25-year-old Arturo Reyes, both whom were stabbed to death. The suspect, Gonzalo Hernandez, was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder. Hernandez is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.

On Jan. 7, 1996, a homicide took placed in downtown Owatonna where the decedent died from asphyxiation. This case remains open.

Restaurants open indoor dining, business remains slow

Restaurants finally reopened last month, but COVID-19 is still taking its toll on business.

On June 10, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz loosened restrictions on restaurants, allowing dining rooms to open at 50% capacity and seat up to 250 people. The change has been welcomed by restaurateurs, but a month in, indoor service has still been slow at many establishments.

“The actual dine-in service hasn’t been that popular of an option,” said Stefan Brekke, general manager of Extra Innings Paninos and Pizza in St. Peter. “I think a lot of people are still weary about going out and being around other people. There are some days that we have several tables in there and some where we don’t have any.”

Brekke said that Extra Innings has seen more customer engagement through the restaurants’ curbside pickup and delivery service.

Amber Talbert, general manager of Crooked Pint Ale House in Faribault, reported a similar experience. Between the bar and grill’s outdoor and indoor seating, customers typically prefer sitting out on the patio.

“A lot of people I think are still hesitant to sit in the building,” said Talbert. “They would rather sit on the patio but we only have limited spacing out there.”

Both Brekke and Talbert said that their restaurants have been following Minnesota Department of Health and Center of Disease Control guidelines for public safety. Even with these precautions, some restaurant owners shared anxieties about the potential spread of COVID-19, including Maria Isabel, owner of Chabelita’s Yummy Foods and Fruits in Le Sueur.

“We’ve been a bit scared too because we don’t know if people out there that are coming in here might be sick,” Isabel said through an interpreter. “So we’ve been trying really hard with cleaning our tables, pens — we are just trying to be as clean as possible. We’re hoping this all goes by and everything comes back to normal. We’re just always hoping that all our customers are staying safe.”

Like other establishments, curbside pickup and delivery has been more profitable for the Le Sueur-based Mexican restaurant.

“Now that restaurants are reopened not as many people come here because they go to bigger businesses,” said Isabel, “But the people that have mainly been coming here since the beginning are still coming in and supporting us … We’re just always hoping that all our customers are staying safe. We’re really hoping that more people start coming in to eat.”

Minnesota guidelines for indoor dining have required restaurants to find different ways to operate. Restaurants must ensure a minimum of six feet between tables, limit service to tables of four or less, (six or less if the customers are family) and require reservations. Employees are to wear masks at all times while encouraging customers to wear masks when not eating or drinking.

For Don Juan Cantina in Owatonna, the restrictions have been manageable. Owner Silvestre Medina said that business has been fair, but it has been a change of pace for the restaurant.

“The only challenge is when we are open for dining, we have customers waiting in the lobby,” said Medina. “We have to tell them to wait outside so that we are promoting social distancing.”

However, for Crooked Pint Ale House, serving customers both indoors and outdoors while wearing face masks has made work harder for staff.

“The masks are an extreme challenge for us,” said Talbert. “It’s hard to hear us; it’s hard to breathe; it’s hot. I had one employee that had to go to the emergency room for having chest pains and air troubles, especially going inside and outside.”

She added, “I know that we’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone is safe. Everything is extremely sanitized and clean. We’re following all CDC guidelines and social distancing regulations. We hope people aren’t as fearful to come out.”

While COVID-19 has forced restaurants to approach service differently, Brekke believed that this experience could lead to better standards and practices in the restaurant industry.

“We’re just being more conscious in taking that extra step or extra bit of effort to go out of our way to make the customer feel more comfortable,” said Brekke. “We make sure to have sanitizer for people’s hands available at the front and back entrances, sanitizing surfaces every hour — things that ordinarily wouldn’t be sanitized like door handles, pens that people use to sign credit card slips. It’s just created a more conscious restaurant environment.”

Bob Molenda says face masks should be mandated. “I really think we need national leadership on this issue. We have 50 states and we probably have 30 different programs,” Molenda said. “I think eventually we’ll probably have to come to some sort of a law or some sort of a mandate because people are just, they have their own opinions about it.” (Mark Zdechlik/MPR News)

With St. Paul gridlocked, local law enforcement move ahead with reform

When Minneapolis resident George Floyd died while handcuffed by Minneapolis police in May, Minnesota overnight became the epicenter of a national conversation around police reform, with activists demanding urgent and substantive change.

Locally, top law enforcement officials say they understand the grief and anger felt by many over Floyd’s death. Even in the years before Floyd’s death, they note that de-escalation training, implicit bias training and other initiatives have been expanded throughout the region. More formal changes are likely to come, with a wide variety of police reform proposals under consideration at all levels of government. However, with Minnesota’s legislature divided between DFLers and Republicans, it’s unclear if much will get done in St. Paul this year.

Last month, Gov. Tim Walz and the legislature’s POCI (People of Color and Indigenous) caucus proposed nearly two dozen policing reforms. About half of those enjoyed bipartisan support, but still failed to pass as a result of gridlock.

Minnesota Sheriffs Association Executive Director Bill Hutton said that his organization supports many of those proposals and has provided feedback on others. Only a handful of the bills are unalterably opposed by the MSA.

Likewise, Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter has supported many of the reforms while bucking his party to vote against other bills. Brand said that he opposes calls to “defund the police” but is deeply concerned by incidents of police brutality against people of color in recent years. Since Floyd’s death, the number of emails Brand receives on an average day has increased tenfold, though many of them don’t come from his constituents. He said most of them have expressed shock and horror with the circumstances of Floyd’s death.

Brand says that he backs reforms designed to reduce incidents of racial bias and excessive use of force. The former St. Peter city councilor added that in his experience, local law enforcement departments have handled themselves appropriately.

“You get a different picture of law enforcement when you look locally,” he said. “A lot of police officers do a great job for our community.”

Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, agreed that local law enforcement agencies have handled community-police relations better than some of their metro-area colleagues. He criticized some of the recent police reform bills, saying they were written by metro-area legislators and took a "one-size-fits all" approach to the issue.

"It’s important for us to keep a balanced approach to this issue," he said. "In Greater Minnesota, law enforcement handles things a lot differently than they do in Minneapolis and St. Paul."

Reaching Out

In Northfield, Police Chief Monte Nelson said that he’s gotten a lot of feedback from community members shocked and appalled by the circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death. Nelson, who’s set to retire July 31, said he shares those sentiments.

“The killing of George Floyd was horrible and every cop watching it knew how wrong it was,” he said.”That’s why many of our police officers support the need for change and to have justice for George Floyd.”

In the wake of Floyd’s death, Nelson has reached out to Northfield’s sizable Spanish-speaking immigrant community with information in their native language, and the department is planning question and answer sessions focused on their concerns.

Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn said that building trust in the community is particularly important. In recent years, Dunn and Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen have worked side-by-side to engage with Faribault’s growing immigrant community, holding events and regularly engaging with the Diversity Coalition.

Dunn said that when people get to know their law enforcement officers, it can prove an effective way to build trust with communities. He said that too often, people have come to fear the worst from law enforcement based on highly publicized incidents.

Many members of the local immigrant community are particularly concerned that a traffic stop could lead to deportation. Currently, the prohibition on issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants means many are driving without a license.

“It's unfortunate if people don’t have a good interaction with somebody in law enforcement and then think, ‘maybe all law enforcement is all like that,” said Dunn. “The large majority of law enforcement officers are good people, and as long as people treat us with respect we’ll do the same to them.”

Dunn said that on a normal traffic stop, Sheriff’s deputies only ask about an individual’s name and birthday, not their citizenship status. If they don’t have a license, they’re typically given a ticket which can easily be paid off without going to court.

Reforms and Training

Nelson said that most of the feedback he’s received has been from residents supportive of the local department, but interested in learning about what measures Northfield Police have put in place to limit racial bias and excessive use of force incidents.

An area of particular interest has been police body cameras. Faribault’s Police Department implemented a body camera program last year, but Northfield’s Police haven’t yet been able to follow suit, despite Chief Nelson’s requests to the City Council.

One thing the department has managed to provide for its officers is comprehensive de-escalation training. Nelson praised the training for covering a wide variety of situations which officers encounter every day in the line of duty.

Under state law, officers must take at least 16 hours of such training. Thanks to a federal grant received by the Rice County Chemical and Mental Health Coalition, Rice County law enforcement have been able to take much more comprehensive 40 hour training sessions.

The first sessions were held last year, and are scheduled to continue this year and next, with the goal of training for every law enforcement officer in Rice County. Though the longer course costs more and takes officers off the streets for longer, advocates say it’s worth it.

Among the issues addressed in the course were military reintegration, officer mental health, suicide awareness, cultural sensitivity and youth mental health issues. It takes a much different approach than traditional officer training, which rarely covers de-escalation or mental health.

As part of the training, officers hear from medical professionals about the resources available in Rice County to help those struggling with mental health. However, the centerpiece is “scenario-based training,” where officers simulate a real life situation with live actors.

“We’ve found that the scenario based training is a really good way to help officers make good decisions when they’re under stress,” Nelson said.

Local elected officials have had warm words for law enforcement. At a Faribault City Council meeting last month, Councilor Peter van Sluis raised the issue of police reform, saying he'd received a letter from a constituent asking Faribault to consider signing on to the "Mayor's Pledge" on police accountability sponsored by former President Barack Obama.

Mayor Kevin Voracek noted that under Faribault's municipal system of government, he lacks oversight responsibilities over the police held by many big city mayors, like Minneapolis's Jacob Frey. Instead, city employees are supervised by City Administrator Tim Murray, who is accountable to the Council.

Bohlen noted that many elements of the Mayor's pledge are already a part of Department policy, which satisfied van Sluis. At the County level, Commissioner Galen Malecha said that he's heard positive comments from the community and is pleased with the approach of local departments.

"I think we residents of Rice County are very fortunate to have the Police Departments that we have," he said. "I would say that our local Chiefs and Sheriffs are very good leaders, very active in community engagement."

Notably, not a single current member of the Faribault City Council, Northfield City Council or Rice County Board of Commissioners is non-white. However, three candidates are running to change that this fall: Faysel Ali, who's seeking a spot on Faribault's City Council, and Ricky Livingston and George Zuccolotto, who are running for City Council in Northfield.

Change in progress

Mar Valdecantos, who serves as vice chair of Northfield’s Human Rights Commission, said that she and other commissioners regularly take the opportunity to visit with the chief and other police officials about department practices.

On the whole, Valdecantos said that Northfield police have a long history of effective engagement with the city's people of color, recent immigrants and low-income residents. She expressed optimism that Northfield’s incoming police chief, Mark Elliott, will continue that trend.

Still, Valdecantos was quick to add that while Northfield Police have made progress, racial profiling is still a fact of life for many area residents. She said that non-white members of the HRC still say they find themselves stopped by the police without merit too often.

Valdecantos said that dealing with the issue of mental health remains a particular challenge for police. She said that because of a lack of qualified mental health care providers and limited access to the system, police too often end up dealing with situations they should not have to.

“We have a mental health crisis, and we simply don’t have enough providers,” she said. “That’s a tricky issue that a lot of counties and cities are dealing with."

For his part, Nelson urged legislators to carefully consider proposed police reform legislation, to ensure that it would actually make a difference. He added that in order to achieve a more harmonious society, it's also important that the legislature look beyond simply reforming the police.

"I think it's naive to think that if we concentrate all of our issues on reforming law enforcement, that will fix everything," he said. "You can pass reforms to law enforcement, but that won’t fix poverty, homelessness, race equity issues, mental health issues... as we have the conversations, I think it’s important to look beyond law enforcement."