By Tim Eberly
All but one of the Havre police officers had spilled from the slender hallway of a Havre apartment complex into its parking lot, satisfied they were sniffing the wrong trail.
Acting as the caboose of a departing train of law enforcement officers, Rory Romberg disengaged from the pack. He turned a corner in the complex's labyrinth and propped his back against the wall, not convinced the suspect had not taken refuge with friends in one of the apartments. With his right hand gently covering the handgun strapped in his holster, Romberg waited for the wanted man to emerge from the closed door under the illusion that the officers had abandoned their search.
Thirty-five seconds passed until Romberg joined his comrades outside, ready to move on with their investigation and the rest of their night's work. Within seconds, four police vehicles vacated the parking lot.
That particular evening last Saturday the Havre police allowed a Havre Daily News reporter to ride with members of its organization, and document the range of activities during the course of the night.
The elusive suspect had allegedly pulled a knife on an off-duty Rocky Boy police officer outside P.J.'s Restaurant & Casino less than an hour before, Havre police said. The suspect and the police officer had been acquainted for quite some time, as they grew up near one another on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, according to the police.
Bad blood boiled over when the officer, who had attended the District 9C girls basketball championship at Havre High, ran into the suspect at the restaurant. According to police, the suspect threw a glass at the officer while in the restaurant, and dared him to step outside for a fight. He did, and then, police said, the suspect brandished a knife, an act the officer responded to with an unlikely weapon his cell phone.
"I think the cop was willing to fight but the guy decided to pull a knife," police Sgt. Bill Wilkinson said. "So he said if you do that, then I'll go grab my gun. And he pulled out his cell phone" to fool the assailant.
The risky ploy worked. The suspect, on federal probation until Oct. 2000, fled on foot.
"I would think that he's moving around," Wilkinson said. "He's got plenty of friends."
A half hour after dispersing from the apartment complex, Wilkinson checked on a noise complaint directed at a gathering inside a garage in the rear of Holden's Hot Wheels. Officer Tim Carroll met Wilkinson behind the business, and they warned about 30 party-goers about their noise volume.
One of the men at the party "apparently checked with his neighbor and it was OK," Wilkinson said. "But the music had (become) too loud for some of his other neighbors. They have a live band in there and everything."
From there, Wilkinson commenced his patrol of the town. With his vehicle, he crept through the Oakwood Village apartment complex, where police have responded in the past to fights and disturbances. "It's not so much the people here that cause problems," Wilkinson said. "It's the people (the tenants) know and allow to come in."
But at 11:25 p.m. Saturday, no suspicious activity attracted Wilkinson's attention, so the 11-year member of the police force moved on to the Sideshow Saloon, where he flashed his spotlight on a conversation between people in the rear parking lot. A young woman scampered inside a side entrance when the beam of light illuminated her meeting. "These kids, they could have not been doing anything wrong but we have to let them know we're around," Wilkinson said.
Three sharp turns later, Wilkinson's vehicle cut a path through the parking lot of the Noon's conveinence store on First Street, a favorite hangout for Havre youth. "This has been robbed a couple times," said the 6-foot-7 Wilkinson, a native of North Dakota. "The last time it got robbed, it was a juvenile that robbed an older guy."
Conversation at the police station centered on an incident from the previous night. An out-of-town band played at Shamrock's Bar, drawing a good-sized crowd. Police said two brothers, Anthony and Jeremie Brandon, age 26 and 25, respectively, allegedly engaged in a fight with a bartender and bouncer, prompting a phone call to the police. When police arrived at the bar, Anthony Brandon attempted to flee, and several police officers tackled him and sprayed him with pepper spray, police said. Both brothers were charged with simple assault, and Anthony Brandon was also charged with resisting arrest.
A green spiral staircase in the police station leads to the basement, where an underground tunnel connects the police station to the fire department and City Hall, on opposite sides of the hallway. A firing range, used by a local shooting club, is closest to the staircase.
Next to the firing range is a recreation room, consisting of a heavy punching bag, free weights, a ping-pong table and makeshift driving range with a safety net to catch golf balls. Upstairs, the only thing smaller than the locker room, which has just enough room for 19 metal lockers, is the laundry room.
"The only thing we need is a treadmill," police Sgt. Stan Martin said. "It's a small place but I guess we get around in it. It's not like all 19 of us are working at once."
Backing up police officer Mike LaBaty, Wilkinson made a beeline at 11:53 p.m. for the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, which is already closed for the winter. Prior to Wilkinson's arrival, LaBaty had found two parked trucks, with two passengers in each of the vehicles. LaBaty had witnessed one of the passengers, 20-year-old Ryan Barkus, urinating outside his truck, Wilkinson said.
In Barkus's vehicle, LaBaty discovered a 12-pack of beer, three hunting rifles and the reason Barkus was driven to the Hill County Detention Center: a 16-year-old girl, Wilkinson said. Like the three other under-age individuals, Barkus was charged with minor in possession. Because he had a juvenile in his car with weapons and alcohol, he was also charged with endangering the welfare of a child, police said. Eighteen-year-olds Matthew Kemp and Lisa Larson, both of Havre, were released after they were issued MIP citations. The 16-year-old, however, was taken to the police station. Her father picked her up 1:26 a.m.
Wilkinson deposited Barkus at the detention center, where he was held on $210 bond, until members of his family posted bail for him.
At 1:45 a.m., Wilkinson circled back to the Oakwood Village, where he and two other officers responded to a disturbance call. A woman complained about two other women banging on her door, threatening her with bodily harm. One of the women she identified, 25-year-old Jamie The Boy, had an outstanding arrest warrant.
When the complainant refused to open her door for the officers, Wilkinson knocked on The Boy's apartment, a familiar residence since he had arrested her before. To her detriment, she opened the door, and Wilkinson detained her on the misdemeanor warrant.
En route to the detention center, The Boy said the woman who called in the complaint, her cousin, had been the one harrassing her.
"Jamie says they were drinking together earlier," Wilkinson said. "Maybe there was a falling out and they were trying to get each other in trouble."
Regardless, detention officers booked The Boy for failure to pay fines for a previous conviction. She removed her shoes and jewelry before she was placed in a holding cell.
"I've arrested her a few times before," Wilkinson said. "I've never had a problem with her but she can be a scrapper when she wants to be."
While Wilkinson filled out The Boy's paperwork, he received an unexpected call from the Rocky Boy officer who had been threatened with a knife earlier. The officer told Wilkinson he did not want to press charges against the suspect, and Wilkinson informed his co-workers to drop the search.
As the end of his shift 4 a.m. crept closer, Wilkinson fielded a question about his ability to sleep after an action-packed night.
"It depends," he said. "Sometimes you'll go home and you'll be tired and ready for bed. Other times, you go home and you're awake, depending on what you were involved in. You go through the day in your mind, making sure everything was done properly."
So would this be an evening where Wilkinson falls asleep the moment his head touches the pillow?
"It could be," he said. "I come back to work at 2 p.m."
Editor's note: This is the first of three stories about the jobs of local law enforcement officers.