The St. Croix River: Encountering an Outlaw
Below is a creative non-fiction I wrote pertaining to my experiences catching a criminal while working on the St. Croix River as a Graduate Research Assistant. Enjoy!
I first saw David on a Saturday afternoon in early August. At the time, I was working as a Graduate Research Assistant for the University of Minnesota. I was counting commercial and non-commercial boat users utilizing the Osceola Boat Landing and I had just finished my 12:30 p.m. count. I was swaying in my hammock, held up by the tension of my hammock straps and two ash trees when I saw a middle-aged man cruise into the boat landing area on a dark-purple mountain bike. Though I didn’t have any knowledge of him, I could tell by how he rode his bike that he was a man who lived life with deliberation. Even from far away, I could tell his eyes were piercing and intelligent, eyes that take on everything, and every movement and choice he made seemed calculated. His character intrigued me, but my gut told me to not talk to him. I followed my gut and put my book in front of my face and made myself look busy. From the outer edges of my book, I made it so I could keep an eye on him with my periphery vision.
David surveyed the boat landing, giving it a good 360-degree surveillance. The boat landing was bustling; mostly by commercial users, from the handful of boat rental companies that lay claim on the St. Croix River. After looking at all the people, he observed the two boat ramps. A family of four was launching a motorboat in the boat ramp furthest from me and there were children playing in the water at the other boat ramp. He continued his gaze and looked at all the people on the beach. Some people were on rocks, on the sand, or in their watercrafts. It was a hot day, so most people were sitting in the shade on the grass that paralleled the beach. He looked in my direction and I placed my book in his line of vision, making sure not to make eye contact.
He finished his surveillance, got off his bike, and leaned it against a nearby maple tree. He started conversations with random folks and it was evident that the people he talked to didn’t know him and didn’t want to converse with him, but David didn’t seem perturbed. He made his rounds, slowly finding his way closer to where I was stationed. As he got closer, I was able to get a better look at him. I noticed he had tattoos on both sides of his muscular arms. On his left arm was a ring of chains and on his right arm was a faded logo I didn’t recognize. He wore a gray tank top and cut-off jeans that fit snug beneath his belly and rested above the middle of his thighs. He had a shaved head, shaved face except for an untrimmed goatee, arms and legs with bulging muscles when flexed, and a rock-hard round belly.
He was only ten feet away when he started a conversation with two young men who were working over the summer as boat rental workers. Just like how he rode his bike, he spoke with deliberation. He told the young men that he grew up in the area and how he used to work on the river back when he was their age. He worked for Taylor’s Falls Canoe Rental, the same company they were employed by, doing the same job as they were doing, only 30 years earlier. As I listened, I continued to read or at least look like I was reading, and I wondered if all the things he was saying was true.
The next day, I arrived at Osceola Boat Landing at 10:00 a.m. and I saw David on the beach with his mountain bike. He was talking to a fisherman launching a motorboat into the water. Similar to the previous day, I could tell by the fisherman’s body language that they didn’t want to talk to David, but again, David didn’t seem perturbed by it. While they were talking, I set-up my hammock in the same spot, placed my cooler onto the remnants of a cut log, and started my day of counting. I finished my first count and settled into my hammock, a blanket cushioning the underside of my thighs. I do this because it dulls the sharpness of the hammock’s edge, though perhaps not enough because my thighs are still tender after a long day of counting.
I watched as David finished talking to the fisherman. David walked toward the bathrooms, while the fisherman, pushed his boat from shore, drifted for a short while, and then started his engine. His boat disappeared in my line of vision, but I could hear the putter of his engine echoing in the bluff-lined river valley. It was a picturesque moment. The dramatic view of the St. Croix River with its sandstone bluffs as its backdrop is pretty incredible.
It was while I was distracted looking at the river that David must’ve decided I would be his next person to talk to. I got shaken out of my daydream when I heard a voice yell “Looks like you’re working. Are yah?” I look over and see David staring right at me. I responded without enthusiasm, “Yep, I’m working.” I open my book and start reading, hoping he got the unspoken cue that I didn’t want to talk to him. He didn’t and walked my way with his shoulders hunched forward, hands on his handlebars, and purposeful long strides. He leaned his bike on the ash tree that my hammock was strapped to, leaned against the tree, and then introduced himself as David. He then asked, “Well, what are you working on?”
This was the first time I got a good look at David. He had blue eyes. Sober, yet I could tell that they had experienced the thralls of addiction. He was also wearing the same gray tank top and cut-off jeans as the day before. He seemed friendly, but my gut still told me to keep a distance. I responded to his question and told him I’m counting people for the National Park Service. He was impressed and mentioned it must be nice to get paid to sit in my hammock all day. I told him, “It’s pretty great.” I returned to reading my book, while he looked to the river and started to monologue about his life.
The first thing he told me was that he worked at the carnival for 28 years. When he first started at eighteen years old, someone asked him, “Why are you here? What are you doing as an 18-year old working as a carnie? You must either be running away from something, recently got out of jail, or into drugs.” David at the time said, “No, sir. Not doing any of that.” Then the guy said, “That wasn’t a yes or no question. It’s a multiple choice.” David didn’t answer the man, but David thought to himself, “Well, I guess I’m not running away from something except that maybe I’m running away from myself.”
Since that day, David told me he had been running ever since. He worked at the carnival, served in the military, went to war in Vietnam, and had been in-and-out of jail a handful of times. His first bit of advice for me was if I were ever to get a body warrant and go to prison, it is the perfect way to quit smoking. It helped him quit twice. He also told me he was a self-declared wandering poet. He shared two poems he wrote, one about the river and the other about battling addiction and PTSD. I told him they were very good and that they would be well received at an open-mic night. He disagreed and then gave me his second piece of advice, “No one should write a poem solely on paper. You could lose it. If you really care about your poetry, you have to memorize it. Then you will never lose it.”
Other than knowing he had been in jail a few times, I had enjoyed David’s company and hearing his life story. He was a good storyteller and he had compelling stories. Unfortunately, that enjoyment didn’t last too much longer because David started to ask the questions that would be categorized as creepy. He asked me how old I was; how often I work on the river; what is my schedule; and do I have a boyfriend. He also told me that he may be 51-years old, but he has the spirit of a 20-something-year old and then started telling me date ideas for what to do in the local area. I didn’t answer his questions directly and pulled out my book again and began reading. He asked me if he was annoying me and I told him, “Yeah, I would prefer to be left alone.” He nodded, mounted his dark-purple mountain bike, and said farewell. I watched him bike away, hoping not to see him again.
The following morning, I arrived at Osceola Boat Landing at 10:00 a.m. and I saw David in my hammock spot. He waved me down and said he had been waiting for me all morning. He said, “I wondered when you would start your shift today.” My instincts kicked in and I knew then and there that I would need to call the police. Fortunately, I didn’t work a till-dusk shift that day, but I knew I would be working till dusk the following evening and I didn’t want a strange man to be hanging around when it gets dark. David left soon after, saying he was going to get food, and when he left the boat landing, I immediately called the National Park Service Tip Line, 1 (800) 727-5847.
In less than 15-minutes, a National Park Law Enforcement Ranger arrived. The man introduced himself as Officer David White. After a bit of pleasantry, I gave him a description of David and shared with him my concerns about the situation. Officer White was respectful and completely understood my point of view. He said he and his ranger partner would do rounds throughout the day, hoping to get a look at David, and perhaps have a conversation with him. He encouraged me to call the Chisago Sheriff’s Office because he said they might already know the guy, especially if he had been in jail in the county. He gave me their number. I told him I would call and thanked him for the advice.
After he left, I called the Chisago Sheriff’s Office and their answering system told me an officer was on their way. I waited in my hammock, did one of my counts, and soon enough a Chisago police officer arrived. This officer didn’t give me the same friendly, respectful vibe as the other officer. This officer was named Scotty Finnegan and he had a shaved head and cocky attitude. I tried not to judge him too harshly. I told him the same thing I told Officer White, explaining my concerns about the situation. But Officer Scotty didn’t seem worried. He told me, “Oh, I’m sure it won’t be anything to worry about. He just sounds like a lonely old guy.” He continued explaining that since I’m a cute girl that it would make sense that I would get that kind of attention. He even said, “He’d talk to me too if he were the old guy.”
I was surprised and then enraged by his nonchalance and disrespect. I felt I had explained myself clearly and he completely disregarded my concerns. It almost seemed he wasn’t going to do anything about it until someone binged on his radio set. He told me it was his police partner and that his partner had just started their shift. He told me he would radio his partner to ask him if he knew of a David. While he walked to his car to use the radio, I stayed by my hammock. He returned shortly and it was evident that his attitude changed. He was more serious now and politely asked, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to disrupt your work shift, but I need you to come to the Sheriff’s Department. We need you to look at a line-up.” He gave me his card with the address and told me to leave as soon as possible. Officer Scotty got into his car and told me he would meet me there. I watched the officer drive away, his business card in my hand, and wondered what I had just gotten myself into.
The Chisago Sheriff’s Office is in the basement of the Government Building of Center City, MN. I walked in and was welcomed by two officers and a metal detection machine. I walked through without a beep and wound my way down to the basement. I found the Sheriff’s office and buzzed in. A young lady with big bags underneath her eyes appeared behind the window and asked what I needed. I told her I was meeting Officer Scotty Finnegan. She walked out of view and I waited for a few minutes until the door opened and I saw Officer Scotty with two other men, both white and both with shaved heads. Similar to Scotty, they both gave me cocky attitudes, one more so than the other. Either way, there is something about cocky, white dudes with shaved heads that rub me the wrong way.
They brought me into a room and I saw three photos on a table. The officers told me the photos are of David’s that match the description of the man I saw at the boat landing. I looked at them and one of the photos was a picture of David. I pointed to the photo and told the officers that this was the guy. One guy laughed and said, “Oh yeah, that David. He’s a weirdo.” I asked if he is dangerous and the other officer said, “Nah, probably not to you. He’s only been associated with drugs and theft. He has an assault charge, but not on any women.” I could tell the officer was trying to make me feel better, but knowing he had a history of assault did not make me feel any better. Officer Scotty thanked me for coming in and told me he would keep in touch if they find David. I thanked them, walked to my car, sat in the driver’s seat, and closed my eyes. I felt exhausted, angry, and thankful all at the same time. In the end, I drove home and called my supervisors at my graduate research job. I told them about what happened, that I wanted to be done observing on the river, and would prefer to spend the rest of my hours working on the analysis and final report. They both heartily agreed.
About two hours later, I got a call from Officer White from the National Park Service. He told me they had found and arrested David for charges on camping illegally on National Park land and for drug possession. He said they had found him camping close to the boat ramp area and that his campsite was full of drugs, mostly methamphetamines. Officer White told me I wouldn’t need to worry about David anymore because he was admitted into jail and would be in jail for a long while. He thanked me for calling the National Park Service Tip Line and wished me a good day. About twenty minutes later, I got a call from Officer Scotty Finnegan and he told me the same story. He also mentioned that my name was never discussed or brought up when David was admitted, so I should not have anything to worry about in that regard. Officer Scotty also thanked me for calling their office and for helping catch a criminal. I thanked Scotty for his time and he wished me a good day.
When all was said and done, the rest of that day and the following day were a blur. I had told my supervisors I would take the day off and I was glad I did because the reality of the situation didn’t really hit me until the day after. My mind spiraled into the thoughts of, “What if I hadn’t called the police? What could’ve happened? Perhaps nothing? Or maybe something very serious?” I was glad I had the day to reflect and to recognize how thankful I was for my instincts and for following them because, in the end, once something has happened, there is no use mulling over the “what ifs.” It is best to focus on the present and to learn from previous events and what I learned this time is that if your gut tells you to call for help, then don’t hesitate. Even if the situation ends up being nothing at all, it is always better to be safe than sorry.