St. Cloud State University (SCSU) student Douglas Tanner is scheduled to be sentenced on first degree assault charges April 16 in Stearns County District Court in St. Cloud. He learned last week that his petition to withdraw an earlier guilty plea agreement was denied.
Tanner’s charges stem from a July 4, 2007, incident outside a St. Cloud apartment complex, which involved Tanner and three Black SCSU football team members and a small group of Whites. A White male was injured during a fight that occurred. [For further details, see “Black athletes and St. Cloud: Are they compatible?” MSR, January 8.]
The MSR obtained copies of the investigation reports by St. Cloud police: Our review counted at least 12 inconsistencies in witnesses’ accounts of what happened. Officers said they found the alleged victim, Anthony Kuebelbeck, lying on the ground with “an apparent head injury and was unconscious.” They were told that the assailant was “a Black male…approximately six feet tall, with dreadlocks, and wearing jean shorts.”
Several witnesses, who also were Kuebelbeck’s friends, said that the suspects were Black. “It just happened…a lot of talking [back and forth],” Jonathan Erpelding told the MSR.
Officers at the scene questioned three Black males — Fredrick Williams, Darius Dotch and Vivion Bambara — who first told police that they didn’t know anything about the fight. However, when later questioned individually, the three young men changed their stories:
• Williams said that “a male named Tim…had gotten into it with this person, and had caused the injuries to the male,” but added he was not directly involved. Later that night, he recanted his statements and told police that it was him; he was taken to Stearns County Jail and charged with third-degree assault.
Two days later, Williams told police that “he believed Douglas Tanner” was also involved in the fight.
• Dotch admitted that a fight did occur.
• Bambara said that “there had been an altercation and that it was in fact Williams who had gotten into a verbal argument with the victim”; he then vividly described what subsequently occurred. According to him, it was only Williams and Kuebelbeck who were fighting and “neither he nor anybody else was involved in that altercation.”
The police also interviewed Ben Grams, one of the victim’s friends:
Question: How many times do you think your buddy, Tony, got hit?
Grams: Um, four or five…pretty good.
Question: By the same guy?
Grams: Yeah, all the same guy, because we, the rest of us, kinda blocked off the other guys.
The MSR tried contacting Grams for comment, but he did not return our phone messages. We also tried to contact Dotch, but his phone message system was full.
However, during a July 17, 2007, phone interview, both Bambara and Williams told St. Cloud police that Tanner also hit Kuebelbeck:
Question: Did you actually see Doug hit this guy?
Bambara: Uh, yeah. Doug came out of nowhere and hit [Kuebelbeck], and then he just fell down.
In a recent phone interview with the MSR, Bambara didn’t want to discuss the incident, saying he had put the matter behind him. “The dude [Kuebelbeck] approached [Williams] and put his hands on him,” he later admitted. “The dude was so drunk that I don’t think he knew what he was doing.”
In another transcript, the police asked Williams to call Tanner to get him to confess to his involvement.
Officer: “I don’t think my witnesses are going to be able to ID him through a photo line-up, so if you’re still willing to do the phone call, I’d like to try that.”
Williams: “Okay, we still can do it.”
Officer: “I’m doing this in your best interest.”
Attempts to contact Williams for comment were unsuccessful and his phone messaging service was full.
Tanner also contacted St. Cloud police and told a detective, “I don’t think Fred [Williams] should be getting charged with this when it was pretty much a mutual fight.”
“Everything sounds fishy about the whole case,” says former St. Cloud NAACP president Mark Ochu, noting that the police didn’t conduct a formal line-up. Officers had the three Black men stand in front of a glass door for witnesses to identify, as well as using conflicting statements from Bambara and Williams in order to later charge Tanner.
“All of it doesn’t add up to me,” says Ochu.
Was Williams being protected by his SCSU coaches because he was considered a star athlete?
During that summer of 2007, Williams and Tanner were roommates, but after the incident their relationship became strained. According to Tanner, after he was released from jail, “We get back to the [rental house], and not even five minutes from being there, the coach [then-SCSU assistant coach Steve Crutchley] came and picked him up,” recalled Tanner. “I don’t see Fred the rest of the summer.”
Crutchley, now a Southern Illinois assistant football coach, declined to speak on his relationship with Williams during a phone interview, but said, “I truly believe Fred is a genuine good person. I was shocked when he got into trouble, because I didn’t think that was him.”
On September 10, 2007, Williams pled guilty to an amended charge of fifth-degree assault and was sentenced to five to 10 days in jail. The MSR obtained a copy of his plea agreement; it also called for Williams to testify against Tanner, who was charged a month later in October 2007.
Some suspect that the incident eventually led to former SCSU head football coach Randy Hedberg’s dismissal after the 2007 football season. School officials declined to answer questions, citing data privacy laws. However, SCSU football player Rocky Horn, who is president of the school’s student-athlete advisory council, told us, “The reason why Coach Hedberg got fired was because he didn’t come forward [with the assault incident] to the administration in the athletic department.
“Any incident that happens off the field, he has to come to the athletic department and report it. He [Hedberg] tried to hide it. That was one of the main reasons why he got fired,” said Horn.
Now a Southern Illinois assistant football coach, Hedberg did not return our phone calls requesting comment.
“Everybody’s statements were a complete lie,” Tanner insists. “They only charged Fred with third degree assault when they thought it was just him. They dropped his to fourth- [and then to fifth-] degree assault, then charged me and bumped mine up to first-degree assault, saying that I gave him [Kuebelbeck] great bodily harm.”
The MSR spoke to Kuebelbeck, now 20 years old, who admitted that he has no memory of what happened — he says he was told by others that it was two Black males who hit him. According to two sworn affidavits that he signed, Kuebelbeck said he had no physical problems nor missed any work time due to the incident; yet he is asking for around $30,000 in lost wages.
“I am doing fine,” Kuebelbeck told us.
After he was charged, Tanner contacted Amy Chantry in October 2007; his search for other legal representation was unsuccessful due to his inability to pay. According to SCSU officials, Chantry is not an SCSU employee but was hired by the school’s Student Government Association. She is paid an hourly rate through student activities fees, and her activities are overseen and monitored by the Student Legal Services Advisory Board. All students are entitled to one half hour of free legal advice per semester.
Tanner explained, “She said she could win this case, and that she had won assault cases and gotten acquittals with this judge.”
A school professor paid Chantry $500 to defend Tanner. Although she presumably was handling his case as part of her private practice and not under the terms of her contract with student government, which precludes taking on criminal cases, all of Chandry’s meetings with Tanner took place in her SCSU office.
“She was telling me that she could win this case,” he said. “Then, the day I went into court and they offered me that [plea] deal, she kept telling me that I have all these strikes against me: I’m Black, I’m in St. Cloud, [and] I’m going to have an all-White jury.
“I was naïve to think that my lawyer was doing a lot of work, that she was going to handle the situation,” a disappointed Tanner told us. He took her advice and pled guilty; when he had second thoughts and decided to change his plea to innocent, the judge said no.
Chantry has not responded to numerous messages we left requesting her comment, although Tanner authorized her to speak to us about his case. His attorney won’t answer his calls either, claims Tanner: “Every time I call her, it’s her voice mail — that’s all I get.”
If Tanner had instead opted from the beginning to plead innocent and go to trial, could he get a fair trial in St. Cloud?
“I don’t think it is unfair to tell an African American client that race would be a factor” in such a trial, argues St. Cloud attorney Cynthia Vermeulen, who has practiced law in the area for over 20 years. Although St. Cloud is more diverse now, Stearns County “is a community that is very religious and fairly homogenous and has a hard time with change,” Vermeulen points out in reference to possible jury candidates.
However, “Even when there are overwhelming racial factors in the case, [and] even when you are facing an all-Caucasian jury, I believe someone can get a fair trial,” notes attorney Will Stute of Minneapolis-based Faegre and Benson.
Until his sentencing hearing in April, Tanner says, “I will just continue to go to school. To not finish school would be a total loss.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.