LITTLE FALLS - It was business as usual Tuesday for the Morrison County Board - a deep contrast from its last regular board meeting.
On June 24, Gordon Kenneth Wheeler Sr., who had feuded with the county in the past over his adult-oriented businesses, brought a handgun to the board room and took 10 people hostage. Following a 10-minute standoff, law enforcement officers shot and killed Wheeler.
On Tuesday, Sheriff Michel Wetzel, who was among the three officers who shot at Wheeler, sat in the back corner "just to have a presence" at the meeting. Wetzel said he planned to attend the next several board meetings to offer a more comforting atmosphere for commissioners and county officials.
County Auditor Russ Nygren stood at the doorway during most of the meeting to keep track of who was entering the room. He jokingly said he was the security guard.
The Morrison County Board conducted business as usual Tuesday in the county board room, two weeks after being held hostage at gunpoint by Gordon Kenneth Wheeler Sr. of Little Falls. Following a 10-minute standoff, law enforcement officers shot and killed Wheeler. Here commissioners and county staff were listening to Sen. Rep. Al Doty (front right facing the commissioners), DFL-Royalton, and Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley.
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
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The county board room looked the same as it always had. Commissioners and county staff never mentioned the shooting incident during the meeting. The only note about the incident at the meeting was a paragraph written in the June 24 county board minutes.
Each of the four county commissioners who had been held hostage said in separate interviews after the board meeting that they had returned to the room before Tuesday's meeting. The day after the shooting many commissioners returned to the room.
Commissioner Tom Wenzel said the atmosphere was eerie when he entered the board room the day after the shooting. At that point there were blood stains in the carpet and bullet holes in the walls.
"After the room was all put together, Duane (Johnson, another commissioner) and I went back into the room to talk about things," said Wenzel. "So today coming into the room was like old times. It wasn't easy all the time (going into the room), but it was nice to see everybody again."
Johnson said being in the county board room a few times before Tuesday made it a little easier to go to the meeting.
"Today I'm feeling fine, but at this first county board meeting (after the shooting) it does take a toll on you," said Johnson. "I am starting to sleep better ... What happened that day will always be with me."
Commissioner Jeff Schilling said things are starting to settle down after the hostage and shooting incident.
"It'll take awhile for me before I'll get back to the same old routine again," he said.
Commissioner Gene Young said the shooting incident was a once in a lifetime thing.
"I had no apprehension coming in here," said Young. "I did not feel nervous. This is the people's courthouse."
Morrison County Attorney Brian J. Middendorf, who also was in the room during the incident, said it felt good to be "back in the saddle again."
Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel Tuesday sat in the back corner of the county board room "just to have a presence" at the regular scheduled board meeting at the Morrison Government Center in Little Falls. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
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County Administrator Tim Houle said it was good for the commissioners to be in the county board room before Tuesday's meeting to help them adjust. Houle said he was glad to get back to the board room and conduct business.
"What had more of an influence on me today was that this is my last board meeting," said Houle. Houle's last day with Morrison County is Friday. On Monday he takes over as the Crow Wing County administrator.
Houle took a moment during his administrator's report in the meeting to thank county commissioners for their support during his 14 years of service.
He also thanked the commissioners who hired him, two of whom - Wenzel and commissioner Don Meyer - are still on the board, saying they took a chance on him since he had no experience.
Houle said Morrison County is at a good place right now, with its strong technology and financial standing, which makes it a good time for him to move on.
"I'm proud that Morrison County has a strong culture in place," said Houle. "I'm excited about Morrison County's future and I'll be watching it closely ... This place will always be home to me."
The county commissioners thanked Houle for his work and wished him well.
Young said to Houle, "You made my time here pleasant. All I can say to Crow Wing County is 'we trained you well.' "
Wenzel said Houle was always good at researching the issues, presenting them to the county board with a list of pros and cons and then allowing the board to make the decisions.
"I can't say enough of what it has been like to have you here with us," said Wenzel. "It was an honor to work with you."
JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5851.
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