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Apparent bounty won't deter sheriff

A Minnesota sheriff attempting to clean up crime on the White Earth Indian Reservation could be a target himself. Mahnomen County Sheriff Brad Athmann has taken a tough stance on criminal activity -- including opening a sheriff's substation in on...

A Minnesota sheriff attempting to clean up crime on the White Earth Indian Reservation could be a target himself.

Mahnomen County Sheriff Brad Athmann has taken a tough stance on criminal activity -- including opening a sheriff's substation in one community this year -- and doesn't plan to back down from a threat on his life.

He received two telephone calls Thursday informing him his life was in danger.

A caller, described by Athmann as a concerned citizen, told the sheriff that five men from the Twin Cities planned to kill him for a $20,000 bounty.

They were last seen in Mahnomen in a late 1990s white Cadillac and carrying Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns, Athmann said Friday.

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"We're taking a threat like that seriously, but I'm not making any lifestyle changes," he said. "We are not backing down."

The tip prompted the sheriff to send out a statewide dispatch about the threat and vehicle description to other law enforcement agencies, but hasn't determined if the threat is legitimate.

If there is a bounty placed on Athmann, he said it's likely related to a crackdown on drug activity on the reservation.

A 22-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department, Athmann was elected sheriff by voters last year and took office in January.

Since the beginning of the year, he opened a sheriff's substation in Naytahwaush, about 15 miles southeast of Mahnomen on the White Earth reservation. Now a full-time officer patrols the town of 378 people.

Naytahwaush recently accounted for 85 percent of crime in Mahnomen County but that number is dropping, according to the sheriff.

On Friday, Athmann couldn't retrieve the number of crimes committed in the Naytahwaush area from a police database because of computer problems.

However, the Sheriff's Department and the White Earth Tribal Police Department have lowered crime in Naytahwaush by a third in the past year, he said.

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Arrests have led to the destruction of illegal drug sales in the region, including a Sept. 13 bust where police seized 8 to 9 pounds of marijuana from a rural Mahnomen home.

Twelve 5-foot marijuana plants also were seized in the operation, which resulted in the arrest of three people, authorities said.

Among violent crimes in the area, a woman's murdered body was found near the village in May 2002.

White Earth Tribal Police Chief Bill Brunelle said the threat may be linked to law enforcement cracking down on criminals.

"I think that it's people who don't like the changes that have taken place," Brunelle said.

The police chief said Athmann does have critics on the reservation, but the majority of the American Indian community supports the sheriff's efforts.

"By working together, we are managing to get crime down," said Brunelle, who manages a police force of 18 officers. "The changes are not going away."

Because of the threat, which included a reference to one deputy sheriff, Brunelle has added four more officers to the department's regular nightly patrol.

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Thus far, the extra officers haven't come across the white Cadillac or any of its occupants, he said.

Authorities do not have the names of suspects in the case.

The threat is "mostly talk," Brunelle said, but he's unwilling to dismiss any threat against the sheriff.

Among White Earth's 9,000- plus residents, there are new-to-town people who make up the population.

These people, Brunelle said, have recently moved to the reservation and brought big-city problems with them.

White Earth and other state reservations are now seeing an increase in the number of people who belong to street gangs, said Ron Ryan, statewide commander for the Minnesota Gang Strike Force.

Of those gangs, the biggest is the Native Mob.

"I do know that the Native Mob is one of the biggest threats that the Department of Corrections has," Ryan said.

The Native Mob is currently linked to a homicide in Redwood Falls, Minn., and has been involved in illegal drug operations and gun sales, he said.

The Native Mob also has connections with other ethnic gangs, Ryan said.

Athmann, though, isn't jumping to conclusions about whether gangs played a role in the threat.

The sheriff said he has more friends than enemies, but there are people who would have a motive to see him leave Mahnomen.

"There are a lot of people who could have motives, but we don't know," Athmann said. "There are a lot of suspects in this."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michael Benedict at (701) 241-5557

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