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Hit and run case on hold again

The drama continues surrounding the competency of a man who is alleged to have run over and killed a janitor at the Mahtowa rest stop in June 2013.

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Gregory Allen Scherber, 56, of Duluth appeared for a contested omnibus hearing before Judge Robert Macaulay in Carlton County Court on Monday. At the outset, Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler stated that a second evaluation of Scherber by a court-appointed psychologist has proven “inconclusive” in establishing his ability to tell right from wrong at the time of the incident. Pertler then requested a third evaluation be done.

“I need to get a grasp on his mental state at the time of the offense before I can move forward in deciding how best  to handle this case,” said Pertler. “I need some direction on which way to go.”

Scherber was found to be mentally incapable of standing trial last September and was civilly committed to Anoka Regional Treatment Center — a secure state-run facility — on an order of “restore to capacity.” Charges against him were placed on hold until he was shown to be mentally competent to stand trial.

Then, in January 2014, a psychologist determined that although Scherber was unable to tell right from wrong at the time he was alleged to have struck and killed Mahtowa rest stop janitor Greg “Blackie” Blackburn last June, he had stabilized enough psychologically since that time to be able to cooperate in a trial setting.

Pertler reacted to the dual findings at the time by stating they were highly unusual and he requested permission to seek a second psychologist’s opinion regarding Scherber’s mental state.

“We’re talking about an offense that could lead to life in prison [if Scherber is convicted],” said Pertler. “It’s a good idea to have a second set of eyes on this.”

Judge Macaulay agreed, and a second evaluation was completed by a different psychologist. But at Monday’s hearing, Pertler said the findings of the second psychologist were more in the form of a report and termed them “noncommittal.” It was at that point that he requested the third evaluation.

Scherber’s attorney, Kevin Cornwell, objected to Pertler’s request. Cornwell said the first evaluation was done at the time closest to the incident itself and argued that the opinion voiced by the psychologist was “unequivocal” regarding Scherber’s mental state at the time of his arrest.

“I didn't object to Mr. Pertler’s request for a second opinion,” Cornwell said, “but it came back essentially not what they were looking for. The State is looking for an opinion that fits their criteria.”

Cornwell argued he doesn't believe a third evaluation is necessary.

Another point of contention raised at Monday's hearing concerned questioning that occurred after Scherber was apprehended following a high-speed pursuit on the night of the alleged hit-and-run. In a sustained period of questioning, Pertler asked Minnesota State Trooper Erick Sjodin, who was the primary law enforcement officer to spot Scherber’s vehicle headed north on I-35, about the series of events that followed. Sjodin said that after an estimated 20-25 minute pursuit involving seven to eight law-enforcement personnel, one officer was able to conduct a “pit maneuver” with his squad car that caused Scherber’s truck to slide sideways into the ditch. At that point, Sjodin said, he and the other officer approached Scherber and ordered him to lie prone on the ground with his arms extended. He was then handcuffed and taken to a Proctor squad car with a security cage in the back.

Sjodin said during the course of the apprehension Scherber volunteered a number of comments, mentioning his fear that the Native Mob was after him and that he had taken lithium. At that point, Sjodin did not yet know that the hit-and-run in Mahtowa was a fatality, and he was not certain that Scherber was the even the same man driving the truck at the rest area.

“I was just trying to get to the bottom of it,” said Sjodin, stating he then proceeded to ask Scherber if he had stopped at the Culkin rest area near Mahtowa that night.

“He turned his head away, lowered his eyes and said he wasn’t saying anymore,” testified Sjodin. “At that point all conversation ceased.”

Cornwell argued that since Scherber had not yet been issued his Miranda warning at that point, the information regarding Scherber’s reaction to the question should be suppressed from the evidence, stating it was “meant to elicit a response that could be incriminating.”

Pertler countered by saying there was no formal questioning going on at that time and classified the give-and-take between Scherber and the officer as “banter” that went back and forth erratically and had not been a calculated attempt to elicit evidence.

“Throughout that time, Scherber had been talking both rationally and irrationally,” said Pertler. “The officer didn’t take any kind of statement. He was simply trying to get to the bottom of the case.”

Pertler said the audio tape from the body microphone worn by Sjodin that night is the best evidence in detailing just what happened and said he would be prepared to play that audio for a jury.

Judge Macaulay agreed to take the requests under consideration and issue a written conclusion at a later date.

According to the criminal complaint filed in the matter, the Minnesota State Patrol was informed of the hit-and-run at the Culkin rest area on northbound Interstate 35 near Mahtowa about 5:30 p.m. June 19. It was shortly after that when Sjodin — who was in the vicinity of Highway 210 and I-35 — saw a vehicle matching that description traveling fast northbound on I-35. Sjodin chased the vehicle, a blue Ford pickup, at speeds approaching 100 mph in heavy traffic on northbound I-35.

The complaint noted that Sjodin used his lights and siren to attempt to pull over the vehicle, but it continued to flee toward Duluth. When the truck entered the construction zone near the St. Louis County border — where the highway narrowed to one lane each way — the truck began passing traffic on the shoulder and hitting barrels and cones as it did so. It then exited the freeway on Boundary Avenue and drove through the city of Proctor, heading westbound on U.S. Highway 2. Other law enforcement agencies assisted and attempted to stop the vehicle, with no success.

Eventually Trooper Michael LeDoux passed Sjodin and was able to make contact and spin the truck out of control at the intersection of Stebner and Arrowhead roads, where it came to rest in a ditch, the complaint said.

According to the complaint, as the chase unfolded, emergency personnel were on scene at the rest area and confirmed that Blackburn was deceased. Witnesses said the pickup was at one end of the vacant semitrailer parking lot and accelerated rapidly toward the other end of the lot where Blackburn was picking up garbage.