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In June, 2019, rumors and internet speculation ran wild about an adult male predator in Patrick Eagan Park, near our house in Eagan, Minnesota, USA.

Several people saw somebody wearing a hoodie and blue mask in the park and thought an adult predator was on the loose. In one incident, this “adult predator” popped out from the woods near the park zipline and stood behind a 10 year old girl waiting her turn in line for the zipline. The girl’s grandma saw the blue-masked predator standing behind her granddaughter, screamed at her granddaughter to get away from the predator, and then ran toward her granddaughter. The “predator” ran back into the woods.

After this and other reports, the Eagan Police posted on Facebook that an adult predator was loose in the park, local news stations picked it up, and thousands of people commented on hundreds of social media shares. My daughter saw one of the Facebook threads and called the police. It was her son, my 11-year-old, 4 foot, 9 inch grandson, playing in the park in his costume. He wore the mask and hoodie to feel safe and play with imaginary friends.

The police interviewed our family and updated the Facebook post, now claiming it was a prankster. A couple weeks later, Dakota County charged my grandson with 5th degree assault and disorderly conduct. One possible penalty for 5th Degree Assault is removal of the child from his family and placement into foster care.

In the September preliminary hearing, the prosecutor offered to reduce the charges to only disorderly conduct. My grandson would admit guilt and would face whatever penalty the court decided to mete out. We declined that offer. The trial date was set for November 25 at 9:00 A.M.

We need a dialog about internet-fueled hysteria and over-eager prosecutors who like to play Chicken. And, since my family lived through it first-hand, right here is as good a place as any to start. Here is what happened at the trial, followed by a reaction from his grandpa and some thoughts about where we go from here.

Nov. 25, 2019

We thought the prosecution would drop all the charges because they didn’t have a case. We were wrong. The prosecutor came loaded for bear with four, count ’em, four subpoenaed witnesses, including the grandma I described earlier. In her testimony, she said she likes to read mystery novels and was afraid somebody was about to snatch her granddaughter and drag her away into the woods because this stuff is on the news all the time.

Testimony from the other three witnesses was similar, but not as hysterical. One man said he saw somebody in a mask, which looked disturbing. But then he realized it was a kid playing and it wasn’t a big deal. Until he heard about the Facebook reports from friends, and called police to correct the mistaken reports of an adult predator on the loose.

During cross examination, every witness said the “masked predator” never threatened anyone, never behaved aggressively, and was always polite. In a couple cases, he took a turn on the zipline and then continued playing. Even the hysterical grandma admitted that waiting in line for his turn at the zipline was a plausible explanation for him standing behind her granddaughter.

After the prosecution rested, our attorney, Nick Leverson, asked the Court for a directed verdict of not guilty on all charges because the state failed to meet any standard of proof. The judge said yes to the 5th degree assault charge, no to the disorderly conduct charge. So, now it was time for the defense case.

Nick called my daughter and she covered how she reported it to the police, how the police interviewed the family, how she gave the mask to them, and touched on what all this did emotionally to a mom. On cross examination, the prosecutor asked if it was hot in June – a veiled reference to wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

And that was it, time for closing statements. The prosecutor delivered her statement, Nick delivered his, and it was time for the judge to rule. The judge said he disagreed with the defense on the disorderly conduct charge. An 11-year-old kid should know when people are scared.

He told my grandson to do 10 hours of chores for his mom; mom to track it on a piece of paper and send it into the court in 90 days. No juvenile record, no mandated followup. The judge also compelled my grandson to obey his mom and said mom’s rules are the judge’s rules. And then he told my grandson he’s a good kid who made a mistake and sent us all home.

Reaction and thoughts

The adults in our family agree it was a good outcome to a situation that should never have gone to a criminal prosecution. Even though the situation generated lots of hysteria, we learned at the trial that people really were scared. We can live with 10 hours of grandson chores, accountable to mom. That’s what families are supposed to do anyway.

But I have lingering concerns. Back in June, why did the police change the Facebook post to say it was a prankster? What does characterizing the incident as a prank when no evidence ever supported such a conclusion do for police credibility? Why not just tell the truth–it was a boy playing in the woods in costume–instead of fueling more hysteria? And why would anyone call police to clear up a public misconception if it means putting their family through an ordeal like ours?

Charging an 11-year-old with 5th Degree Assault and forcing his family through a court trial for playing in a park while wearing a costume erodes the respect for police and government institutions we try to teach our grandsons. But we had to teach an even more important lesson; don’t back down to bullying. Not even state-sponsored bullying disguised as law enforcement. Not in the United States of America.

Our family had the means to pay for a great attorney and our outcome was positive. I’m grateful to our attorney and a judge who doesn’t tolerate BS. But what about the next family? How many families back down in situations like this and suffer the consequences? What would you do?

If you think what Dakota County tried to do to our family represents outrageous behavior and you want to do something about it before somebody tries to do it to your family, then share this blog post liberally. Call a news organization and push to start a dialog about internet-fueled hysteria and over-eager prosecutors. Contact me to come speak to your group. Make noise. Let’s start a dialog.

If you want to write to our local prosecutor’s office about this incident, the email address is attorney@co.dakota.mn.us. Keep it civil and stand behind what you say by identifying yourself. Let’s make our feelings known. But let’s not start another internet hysteria outbreak. We’re better than that.

One more note. It’s tempting to put this incident behind us and get on with life. But too many Americans fought and died to give my grandson the right to play in a public park and all of us the right to free speech. After living through this experience first-hand, if I don’t speak up, who will? So, let’s educate the public about the dangers of internet-fueled hysteria and push for common-sense safeguards against over-eager prosecutions.

Maybe it’s more than a right. Maybe it’s an obligation.