Sheriff Olson visits with Watertown City Council

Olson, JimCarver County Sheriff Jim Olson attended a special Watertown City Council public hearing on Thursday, Jan. 31, to address a number of concerns regarding policing in Watertown, most notably the recent arrest of Christian Oberender on Jan. 2 on charges of possessing 13 guns as a felon.

That case, which has since drawn national attention and sparked even further debate of gun control and background check procedures, involved a Watertown Township man who was convicted 18 years ago as a juvenile of killing his mother. However, he was able to obtain multiple gun purchase permits over the last several years that allowed him to purchase guns through legal channels.

In a previous meeting, the Watertown City Council had expressed disappointment that the city was not made aware of the situation — even after Oberender’s arrest — until nearly two weeks later, when it learned of the situation through a KARE 11 News report. Olson’s visit with the city council last week was arranged largely to improve communication between the city and the Sheriff’s Office, and Olson began by apologizing that the city was not made aware of the situation sooner.

“I personally take responsibility for not calling (City Administrator) Luke (Fischer) or (Mayor Charlotte Johnson) and giving you a heads up,” Olson said during the meeting. “It was in the township, and didn’t even cross my mind to let you know about this.”

Much of the discussion during the meeting focused on how Oberender was able to obtain guns after being convicted of a crime of violence and committed to a mental treatment facility after being deemed mentally ill and dangerous to the public. There was no file on Oberender in the state’s criminal database that law enforcement agencies use to conduct  background checks before issuing permits to purchase guns.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which enters the information into the database and maintains the files, has said no record of Oberender existed because it never received the necessary items from the Carver County Sheriff’s Office and Carver County Court Administration. Olson told the council that he has visited with both the BCA and Court Administration, and given the nearly two decades that have passed since Oberender’s original arrest in 1995, said it was unlikely it would ever be determined how or why that information never made it to the BCA.

Mayor Johnson also questioned Olson as to why nothing was done about the Oberender situation in July 2011, when a complaint was filed about Oberender shooting guns in his backyard. Johnson said she understands that because Oberender had no record in the system or disqualifications regarding his right to possess firearms, a responding deputy had no reason to act on the complaint initially because shooting guns is legal in the township. However, Johnson questioned why, given Oberender’s violent history and mental health history, the department didn’t investigate further as to whether he truly was supposed to have guns.

Olson said that deputies acted appropriately at the time, and that there was nothing they could have done based on what they found.

“The deputies that were working took it as far as they could,” Olson said. “They looked into it and it was legal. There was nothing in the system to prevent him from having (guns). They did checks and he was OK.”

Olson said a state law that can erase convictions from people’s records if they were convicted as a juvenile may have only added to the confusion surrounding Oberender’s records. Under state law, if a person adjudicated as a juvenile doesn’t commit another crime before the age of 28, that conviction is wiped from his record.

Oberender is 32 years old, but Olson said that law shouldn’t have applied to Oberender, because he was sentenced under extended juvenile jurisdiction, which gives the courts authority over the individual beyond the age of 18. Nonetheless, Olson indicated that Oberender’s conviction as a juvenile — and the fact that avenues do exist for convicted felons to have gun right restored — would have provided a possible explanation to deputies back in 2011 as to why there was no record for Oberender. Even before Oberender was arrested this January, Olson said investigators had to spend several days after they received the initial tip consulting with the county attorney to determine how Oberender was originally sentenced and whether or not his gun rights could have been restored.

It’s those type of loopholes, along with the communication between government agencies, that have led to so much discussion statewide since the Oberender case about the gun permitting process and the background check procedures. As part of last Thursday’s meeting, the city council also approved a letter that will be sent to the state legislature urging the government to improve those policies so incidents like this one don’t happen again. Olson also voiced his support for the council’s letter.

“I agree 120 percent there are some changes we need to make legislatively in regards to some of those topics,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the sharing of information that occurs with all the different entities.”

While the city council expressed gratitude that the Sheriff’s Office took Oberender into custody before any harm could be caused, it continued to indicate that better communication with the Sheriff’s Office is its major concern moving forward. Johnson asked Olson and the Sheriff’s Office to come up with a plan by Feb. 26 as to how the Sheriff’s Office will improve communications with the city of Watertown.

Johnson said the city needs to be assured that the county’s policing actions are appropriate for the amount that Watertown residents pay in their taxes, especially in light of other recent burglaries in Watertown that left at least one business owner concerned about the Sheriff’s Office’s response times. The city will pay just under $180,000 this year for the Sheriff’s Office to provide policing services. Olson addressed those issues as well during his visit.

“We need some action on this,” Johnson said. “It’s important to us, and it’s important to our citizens.

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]