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Wednesday, June 25, 2008 - Page updated at 03:55 PM

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Minn. courthouse attacker long at odds with officials

Gordon Wheeler Sr. clashed for years with Morrison County officials over the strip club and porn shop he once operated, but he wasn't known as a violent man. So when he took a seat in the back row at a commissioners meeting, nobody paid much attention.

Associated Press Writer

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. —

Gordon Wheeler Sr. clashed for years with Morrison County officials over the strip club and porn shop he once operated, but he wasn't known as a violent man. So when he took a seat in the back row at a commissioners meeting, nobody paid much attention.

He sat quietly in his bib overalls, clutching a manila folder Tuesday as the board finished its agenda in this central Minnesota city 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

"He showed up midway through the meeting and didn't say anything," Commissioner Duane Johnson said. "When we adjourned, he said, `No, not yet,' or something like that."

Wheeler, 60, pulled a red handkerchief from his overalls, unwrapped it to reveal a handgun and began making demands, including a request to talk to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Authorities said he held the gun to the head of County Administrator Tim Houle at one point.

"It was a very, very tense situation," Houle said. "When you're in that situation, you don't know how it will end. And we know there could have been multiple endings than the one that transpired."

Wheeler held Houle, Johnson and five other county officials and employees hostage in the board's chambers, but some others were able to leave and alert the sheriff down the hall.

When Wheeler demanded to talk to Pawlenty, Houle said, he dialed the number and relayed the request to a receptionist. After she transferred him to Capitol security, he repeated Wheeler's request.

"He was never going to talk to the governor, and I think he knew that," Houle said.

Sheriff Michel Wetzel arrived at the chambers with his deputies within minutes and ordered everyone to get out. Houle and Johnson wouldn't say how Wheeler reacted or whether he pointed the gun at any of the commissioners as they fled, but both heard shots as they reached the doorway.

The officers shot Wheeler, who died at a Little Falls hospital. Nobody else was injured, but the emotional toll from the confrontation was evident Wednesday at the government center where the shooting occurred.

As Wetzel walked down a hallway, two men rushed to shake his hand and a woman hugged him. "It's OK. It all worked out," he told her.

Houle and Johnson declined to provide many details about the confrontation, saying they didn't want to compromise the investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Wetzel declined to comment.

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Dave Bjerga, the BCA assistant superintendent, also declined to give additional details pending ballistics tests and more interviews with witnesses. He said Wheeler's motive wasn't yet clear.

Randall Tigue, a Twin Cities attorney who represented Wheeler, said his former client appears to have snapped after all the disputes with county officials.

"He was a jovial, friendly, very nice guy who was doing his best to make a living," Tigue said.

"He tried to do everything he could to operate in the system legally and got dumped on. I think that it just drove him over the edge."

Wheeler was an outsider in Little Falls, a city of 8,500 best known for favorite son Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Wheeler bore grudges toward the county, complaining about corruption and a conspiracy to make his life difficult, officials recalled Wednesday.

Houle said he had had spirited discussions and disagreements with Wheeler for the past 14 years.

"There had never been any previous indication of physical violence with him," Houle said. "Often, we would disagree about the issues, but I never found him to be disagreeable."

Wheeler's dispute with the county stemmed from adult businesses he owned that were eventually closed. In 2003, the county tightened a land-use ordinance for sex-related businesses. Commissioners later moved to shut down an adult book and video store Wheeler owned near Swanville called Lookin' Fine Smut and Porno.

Johnson was the mayor of Swanville at the time. The shop was outside his jurisdiction, but residents called him saying they "didn't want an operation like that going on in Morrison County."

In 2006, Wheeler was convicted of promoting prostitution out of a strip club he owned called Camp Bar near Camp Ripley, a training ground for the Minnesota National Guard just north of here. The county denied Wheeler's liquor license for the bar, and the bar closed.

Wheeler sued the county and several officials about a year later, accusing them of corruption, but judges dismissed all his lawsuits.

On Wednesday, as a humid breeze blew across the courthouse grounds, the U.S. flag flew at half-staff - both for a public institution that has been traumatized and for Wheeler, Houle said.

"Whether you agreed with Gordon and what he did for a living, he was a human being," he said.

---

Associated Press writer Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this report from Minneapolis.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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