LITTLE FALLS - When Morrison County Administrator Tim Houle arrived at work Tuesday morning it was business as usual.
Houle, four of the five Morrison County commissioners and others - about 10 people in all - met in the board room at 9 a.m. at the Morrison County Government Center in downtown Little Falls for a regular meeting of the county board.
Aside from the absence of Commissioner Don Meyer, nothing about the morning was out of the ordinary. Business was conducted as it always is, with department heads coming in and out of the room as their issues were discussed.
But Gordon Kenneth Wheeler Sr. of Little Falls arrived at the government center with different plans.
Morrison County Administrator Tim Houle talked Wednesday about Tuesday's hostage situation that ended in the shooting death of Gordon Wheeler Sr. Brainerd Dispatch/Jennifer Stockinger
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About halfway into the meeting, the 60-year-old Wheeler - who has feuded with the county in the past over his adult-oriented businesses - entered the board room in his usual dress of bib overalls. He sat down in the audience section.
"There was nothing out of the ordinary when Gordon came into the board room," said Houle. "He, like any citizen, is welcome to attend the meeting. There was nothing on the agenda regarding Gordon, so I thought he just wanted to address the board about something."
Wheeler sat silently in the audience for about 20 minutes with a manilla envelope on his lap, said County Auditor Russ Nygren. Then, when Commissioner Gene Young called for a motion to adjourn the meeting at about 10:22 a.m., Wheeler approached the board.
"Gordon got up and said, 'No you're not' or something like that," said Nygren. "And he unwrapped his pistol with a bandana and turned back to the journalists (present) and told them that they could leave and that's when I just bolted out with them and called the dispatchers.
"I wanted to get all the employees evacuated."
The sheriff's office is on the east side of the government center building while the county board room is centrally located.
The door to the Morrison County Board room in Little Falls was locked and the room closed to the public Wednesday. Gordon Wheeler Sr. of Little Falls took county officials and board members hostage Tuesday during a county board meeting. He was killed by law enforcement officers during the standoff. Brainerd Dispatch/Jennifer Stockinger» Purchase reprints of this photo.
After Nygren and the two reporters - one from the weekly Morrison County Record and one from Little Falls public access station Channel 6 - left the board room, those who remained seated around the U-shaped board table were commissioners Young, Tom Wenzel, Jeff Schilling, Duane Johnson; Houle; Houle's assistant, Connie Waytashek; and county attorney Brian J. Middendorf.
Houle said Wheeler approached his side of the table.
"The gun was moving around the whole time," Houle said in an interview Wednesday.
"We engaged him. We wanted to keep a dialogue going. He asked me to call Gov. Tim Pawlenty and I told him, 'I didn't have the number' and he told me to find it so I called down here (the administrator's office) and asked for the number. I called there and whoever answers the phone there, it sounded like an intern, answered the phone. I told her what was going on and that he (Wheeler) wanted to talk to the governor. She asked if the phone call was for real and I said, 'yes' and she put me on hold. I had to repeat my story to a senior operator who then transferred me to Capitol security. He never was going to talk to the governor. We just had to do anything we could to try to resolve this peacefully."
Morrison County Commissioner Jeff Schilling was escorted Tuesday from the Morrison County Government Center hours after he and other county officials had been held hostage by Gordon Wheeler Sr. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey» Purchase reprints of this photo.
In retrospect, Houle realized that the situation could not have ended peacefully.
About five minutes after Wheeler pulled a gun out, Houle saw several Morrison sheriff's deputies in the hallway through the board room's tall windows. As time passed, more and more law enforcement officers approached.
Wheeler eventually told Waytashek she could leave.
"I knew Gordon," Waytashek said Wednesday during an interview in her office. "I work with him to get his issues on the agenda. He always treated me with respect. I didn't think anything of it when he came into the room.
"When he pulled his gun out the saying is true that your life flashes before your eyes. I thought of my family - my husband, two children and five grandchildren. It was a very scary situation and when he allowed me to go I was happy to go, but I was still concerned for the people who were in there."
At the government center Wednesday, Johnson said, "I didn't think we were going to be coming out of there alive. We're lucky to be alive by the way he came in. I know (of) Gordon but that was the first time I ever saw him in person."
Gordon Wheeler Sr.
After Waytashek left, Wheeler crouched in the area where Waytashek had been, which was near Houle and Middendorf.
Sheriff Michel Wetzel and at least two other law enforcement officers, while there were more in the hallway, entered the board room and asked all the hostages - the commissioners, Houle and Middendorf - to leave.
The officers repeatedly told Wheeler to drop his weapon, said Dave Bjerga, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension assistant superintendent. When he didn't, Wetzel, State Patrol Trooper Kaj Meinhardt and Morrison County Sheriff's Lt. Bruce Mose opened fire.
"As the shots were being fired, people were in the process of leaving," said Houle. "I got out after the shots were fired."
Wheeler was fatally wounded. Bjerga declined to say how many shots were fired or if Wheeler had fired any shots.
"He was displaying his weapon, that's about all I can say," Bjerga said Wednesday, citing the active investigation.
Wetzel could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Roxi Lukasavitz, Wetzel's administrative supervisor, said the sheriff was not commenting on his role in ending the hostage situation because it was still being investigated by the BCA.
The commissioners left through a door located behind the county board table that leads to the commissioner's coffee room. Houle and Middendorf left through the main door.
The courthouse was locked down and the more than 650 employees were evacuated. Law enforcement officers from several local, county and state agencies swarmed the government center armed with assault weapons.
Social Services Director Steve Reger, who had left the county board meeting before the confrontation, said employees were only given bits and pieces of information about what was happening.
Reger said employees didn't know the extent of the hostage situation.
"Rumors were flying and then staff were notified over the PA (public address) system and were told that the government center was closed for the day," he said.
Wheeler was taken by ambulance to St. Gabriel's Hospital, where he later died. Bjerga said autopsy results are expected later this week.
Wheeler has butted heads with Morrison County officials for the past several years. He was the owner of several Morrison County businesses, including the Camp Bar, Krazy Rabbit, Lookin' Fine Smut and Porno. He argued with the county board in regard to zoning regulations for adult-use businesses and over his family's repeated requests to renew a liquor license. In 2006, he was convicted of felony charges relating to promoting prostitution at the Camp Bar.
Whether those issues had weighed into Wheeler's decision to bring a gun to the county board meeting, Bjerga couldn't say.
The Morrison County Government Center became the stage for a tragedy Tuesday when Gordon Wheeler Sr. concealed a gun into a county commissioner meeting and took hostages. Wheeler was ultimately shot and killed by law enforcement. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey» Purchase reprints of this photo.
"Our focus from a BCA perspective was what happened inside the board room, were the officers correct in firing?" Bjerga said. "We don't know what he was doing there, we just know he was there and this is what happened. That's what we're focusing on."
BCA investigators spent Wednesday completing witness interviews, collecting evidence and analyzing the weapons of the officers who shot at Wheeler.
Houle made a decision at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday that the government center would be opened Wednesday and staff could come to work as long as they felt comfortable. He ordered that the American flag fly at half-staff for three days.
"This was a tragedy all around and we need to mourn for Gordon, whether we agreed with him or not because he was a human being," said Houle. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family.
"We also need to mourn for this institution. We are a family here and we are grieving. We need to take care of our own."
Houle said most of the employees came to work Wednesday. The atmosphere was somber. Counseling was available to those who wanted it.
All commissioners visited the government center Wednesday. Young and Schilling declined to comment on the hostage situation. Schilling said he was still processing all the detailsy.
Meyer said he had to miss the board meeting to help his son, Brett, look at cattle facilities. Meyer said his son received a call on the hostage situation from a friend. Meyer said they couldn't believe the news.
"I knew Gordon was a loose cannon," said Meyer. "He's a felon and was convicted of a crime and I don't like people like that and I told him this before. But I never really thought that he could do something like this. He always had such a calm demeanor.
"I can see though why he went off the deep end (referring to Wheeler's history with the county). He had a lot of stress but he brought that all on himself. I feel guilty that I wasn't at the meeting because I was part of the process with Gordon."
Though they disagreed on issues, Houle said in the 14 years he's known Wheeler he never saw a violent side to the man.
"We'd disagree on issues, but I never found him to be disagreeable. He never shouted and there was no outward display of aggression, ever," Houle said. "Gordon believed county government was corrupt and it was out to get him, but we don't agree with that. He must have become so desperate and felt he ran out of options."
JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5851.
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