In a dimly lit, wooded area on the southwest side of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., the handgun Brent Ahlers brought to work accidentally discharged, wounding him.
As a security officer at the Catholic university, Ahlers knew the school did not typically arm its personnel, and he feared that bringing his weapon on campus would lead to his firing, police said.
And so, with blood spewing from the gunshot wound to his shoulder, Ahlers crafted a story.
At about 9:30 Tuesday night, Ahlers, who is white, told them that he’d been shot by a black man with a “short Afro” and wearing a navy blue sweatshirt.
Within minutes, 55 officers swarmed the campus, along with four police dogs and a State Patrol aircraft to search for the suspect.
Ahlers was taken to the hospital and released, according to a statement posted on the St. Catherine website. He is expected to make a full recovery.
At a news conference, police spokesman Mike Ernster said the campus had been on lockdown with “1,800 students held captive in their dorm rooms.” Neighborhood residents, shaken by reports of a gunman at large, asked police officers to check their houses.
Just after 1 a.m. Wednesday, a tweet from the St. Paul Police public information office offered scant reassurance: “UPDATE on St. Kate’s shooting: Search has concluded; no suspect located. Investigation ongoing.”
Hours later, just before 8 a.m., police sent out another tweet suggesting that, perhaps, there was nothing to fear after all: “Investigators believe there is NO THREAT to public safety,” the tweet read.
Over the course of that day, just how little of a threat there was would come clearer into view as police interviewed Ahlers, who was allegedly recanting his tale.
“He was nervous about losing his job due to the fact that he had his gun at work, and what had occurred, so he made up the story to cover what had happened,” Ernster told local media Wednesday.
Ahlers was then arrested and booked in the Ramsey County jail for falsely reporting a crime. He was released Thursday morning with an arraignment scheduled for Oct. 31, according to the Star Tribune.
The at-large suspect — the black man with the “short Afro” — never existed, Ernster said.
Police told the Star Tribune that they were immediately skeptical of Ahlers’s original story, so they chose not to publicize his description of the shooter. However, audio from police scanner traffic posted by MN Police Clips was widely shared on social media. That audio included identifiers such as the fabricated suspect’s race, navy blue sweatshirt and Afro.
On Thursday, leaders in St. Paul’s black community spoke out condemning the fabrication.
Tyrone Terrill, president of the St. Paul African-American Leadership Council, called Ahlers’s story “sickening” in an interview with the Star Tribune.
“He put not only black youth at risk, he put St. Paul police and other law enforcement at risk with his lie,” Terrill said.
The creation of a black suspect reflects age-old stereotypes, Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP, told the newspaper.
“That’s what black people live with,” she said. “We’ve been lynched, and we’ve been put in jail to find out later you haven’t done it. That’s the sad thing about it. It hasn’t stopped.”
A statement from St. Catherine President ReBecca Roloff said Ahlers was initially put on paid leave while police conducted an investigation. As of Thursday, Ahlers was “no longer an employee of the University.”
“The statements attributed to the former employee concerning the race of an alleged suspect are deeply troubling and do not reflect our values,” the university’s statement read.
St. Catherine University — popularly known as “St. Kate’s” — was founded in 1905 and is named for St. Catherine of Alexandria, an Egyptian philosopher who was martyred in the 4th century. The university enrolls nearly 5,000 students across campuses in St. Paul and Minneapolis, according to the school’s website.
Ahlers worked as a security officer at St. Catherine for 15 months, the Star Tribune reported. He had no prior reports of misconduct and underwent a comprehensive background check. The newspaper cited Roloff as saying that Ahlers holds an associate degree in law enforcement and completed law enforcement skills training at Hennepin Technical College near Minneapolis.
Posts about the shooting on a St. Catherine University Facebook page sparked debate among current students and graduates about race relations on campus. One commenter, who claimed to be a graduate of the school, wrote that the school “has definitely perpetuated racism and I have had first hand experiences.”
Another poster, who also claimed to be a St. Catherine graduate, wrote that just because others did not experience racism there first hand “does not mean a culture is not present.”
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