Less than two weeks before the election, Sheriff Lon Thiele is breaking the silence over on-going negative campaign smears against him and attacks on his credibility.
For the first time during the current sheriff’s race, Thiele is lashing out about how the campaign is being run by his opponent, veteran deputy Darrin Helget. Thiele is calling into question the “smear tactics” being used by Helget and his supporters, which largely include members of the Blooming Prairie Police Department.
Thiele reached his breaking point last Wednesday after Greg Skillestad, Blooming Prairie’s current police chief and a former sheriff’s deputy under Thiele, issued a letter in another local newspaper accusing him denying backup to one of Blooming Prairie’s officers. The same letter is published in this edition of the Times.
In the letter, Skillestad claims Thiele ordered a deputy to not respond to Blooming Prairie for an officer needing assistance. Specific times were noted in the letter; however, no date was provided. The chief did not identify the officer’s name.
“The negative comments portrayed by that officer and accusations of me never helping Blooming Prairie are totally false,” Thiele said in a terse interview shortly after the letter was published. “How absurd of a comment from a young officer.”
Thiele could not provide the specific date of the incident in question, but knew it was within the past six months. Blooming Prairie Police was on a traffic stop when the officer requested assistance from the Steele County Sheriff’s Office. At the same time, Thiele said the sheriff’s office had a priority call in the northwest corner of the county involving a mentally unstable man that has caused problems in the past. What complicates the matter is that the request for help went directly to Thiele and not through the dispatch center where all incoming calls are time stamped.
Shortly after the Blooming Prairie officer requested help, Thiele got on the police radio to divert the deputy to the priority call. Thiele said the deputy was the only available officer responding to calls at the time. Thiele noted that it was not conveyed to him that the BP officer was in any kind of distress at the time of his request for backup. The deputy did not respond to Blooming Prairie, but rather handled the county’s priority call.
The following week Thiele received word that the BP officer was upset because the county did not assist him with his traffic stop.
Helget said he finds it “wrong” with what happened to the BP officer. “It’s absolutely ludicrous that any police administrator would specifically tell a deputy that they cannot respond to an incident of a volatile situation,” he said. “We need to work together and make our communities safe.”
But Thiele stands by his decision. “The BP officer did not have a priority call. We did,” Thiele said. “Whatever the case if BPPD receives a call and at the same time the sheriff’s office receives a call, do we drop calls for public safety to our rural areas?” he asked.
Thiele pointed out that if the call in Blooming Prairie was so severe, there are several other members of the local department near by that could likely respond quicker than a deputy coming from Owatonna or even another remote area of the county.
“The deputy advised me nonchalantly that Blooming Prairie wanted him to stop by if he was in the area,” Thiele said. “Never once did he say that he needed someone immediately for an emergency. If he had, that would have changed the whole view of everything.”
Thiele accuses Skillestad of using the situation to create negativity and smear his name in an already hard-fought sheriff’s campaign between Thiele and veteran deputy Darrin Helget. Skillestad has openly supported Helget throughout the campaign.
“Greg comments about building relationships,” Thiele said. “By falsely claiming and slandering my name and accusing me of not helping out a fellow law enforcement officer is absolutely ridiculous.”
The sheriff didn’t stop there. “I am very disappointed with the chief and the Blooming Prairie Police Department.” Thiele said. “The inaccuracies and verbal attacks are unethical and unprofessional. The residents of Steele County deserve to have the truth, and I can no longer sit back and allow the lies and personal attacks,” he added.
Implementing mock crash
Thiele is also irate over allegations leveled against him in a letter to the editor published in last week’s Times from Del Peterson, a Blooming Prairie firefighter. In the letter, Peterson accused Thiele of not implementing the mock car crash held at Blooming Prairie High School in 2016 as Thiele noted in his campaign literature. “We need a sheriff that is not misleading the public,” Peterson wrote.
The sheriff pointed out he had everything to do with the mock crash and even went as far as to provide written documents that he saved supporting his claim.
In 2016, Justin Krell, a Blooming Prairie firefighter, reached out to Thiele for assistance with implementing the mock crash as Blooming Prairie had never hosted one before. Thiele had previously done several in other areas of the county.
“He found out I had put on mock crashes before, and he wanted ideas on how to get something like that started in Blooming Prairie,” Thiele said, noting Krell even came personally to his office at the Law Enforcement Center to get the insight on the program. “I assisted him with my past experience and kept very thorough documents that would help him go forward with a mock crash,” he added.
The Times obtained an email after the 2016 mock crash with correspondence between Thiele and Krell. In the email dated April 4, 2016 at 8:12 p.m., the same day as the mock crash, Krell wrote, “I cannot thank you enough for your help on making this a great success! Thank you so much Lon!”
Thiele responded back to Krell the following day by writing, “I just wanted to say how proud I was to be able to work along-side everyone that share the same passion of safety for all. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of mock crash. It was a great idea to push… way to initiate it.”
Of his direct involvement with the Blooming Prairie mock crash, Thiele said, “Implemented ideas and assisted with the planning of role players. Even on the day of the mock crash, I was the one releasing the role players at the proper time.”
Thiele took offense to Peterson’s claim that he had nothing to do with the mock crash. “I was approached by one of their own firefighters and helped implement the program,” Thiele said. “I was an intricate part of the planning.”
Riess murder investigation
The Lois Riess murder investigation has also become a focus in the sheriff’s race. According to Thiele, another BP officer is “falsely spreading” that the sheriff’s office refused to provide assistance in the investigation.
Thiele said his department was never involved in the case because it fell outside of Steele County’s jurisdiction. The murder took place in Dodge County. Thiele said the first time he even became aware of the Riess murder was from a local news agency on the following afternoon after the body had been discovered Friday night. He had been out of town and not aware of the incident until contacted by a journalist inquiring about it.
“As quickly as I found out about it, I contacted (Dodge County) Sheriff (Scott) Rose and immediately asked if they needed our help,” Thiele said. “I was told by Rose that the BCA was assisting and our help was not needed.”
Reached about the claim last week, Rose confirmed his department received the original call and there would have been no reason for Steele County to respond. Rose also confirmed that Thiele reached out to him as he has other times in past incidents to offer assistance.
Detention Center inquiry
Thiele has also taken heat from Helget’s campaign that he has burned bridges with the Waseca County Sheriff’s Office over an email Thiele sent a few months ago inquiring about if Waseca County had any interest in saving money for housing jail prisoners.
The Steele County Detention Center houses prisoners for other surrounding counties, including Waseca.
Helget claimed the Waseca sheriff did not know anything about the idea, according to Thiele.
However, Thiele provided proof that listed the Waseca sheriff first in a long list of recipients of the email. “It was purely an idea that was sent to Waseca County with the sheriff’s name first on the email,” Thiele said. “This has been portrayed that I’m burning bridges with Waseca County with the sheriff not knowing anything about it. That’s clearly not the case,” he added.
Thiele is upset with what has become one of the most negative sheriff’s campaigns in memory.
“Greg Skillestad, Darrin Helget and members of the Blooming Prairie Police Department talk about building relationships and cooperation, but they are the ones inciting the negativity and being vindictive in their actions and words,” Thiele said.
He added, “I’ve never been involved with so much hate and ugliness in a local campaign before. I can’t allow them to continue slandering me.”