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Minnesota man who shot at federal helicopter sentenced to 60 months

Carstie Clausen

MINNEAPOLIS—A defense attorney claims a Clearbrook, Minnesota, man sentenced this week for shooting at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter is a "nonviolent, peace-loving human being" who overreacted to what he believed was a life-threatening situation.

U.S. District Judge Michael Davis sentenced Carstie Lee Clausen, 72, on Wednesday, Nov. 29, in Minnesota's federal court to 60 months in prison for assault of a federal agent and damaging an aircraft under the jurisdiction of the U.S. A third charge of discharging a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence was dismissed.

Clausen was arrested for an Aug. 8, 2016, confrontation with law enforcement in Clearwater County after officers received information that Clausen was suspected of growing marijuana at his property about 16 miles northwest of Bagley, Minnesota, according to court documents.

A bullet shattered the window of CBP helicopter as it flew about 300 feet above Clausen's property, spraying glass and injuring a deputy inside the aircraft, according to a criminal complaint.

Clausen told investigators he pointed "finger pistols with both hands" at the helicopter and "used a rake and hoe and pointed them at the helicopter as if it was a rifle," the complaint said.

Clausen said in other court documents filed in early November that he thought the helicopter may belong to the mafia, a drug cartel or terrorists and may have had a rocket, which "extremely frightened him." He said he couldn't see any signs the aircraft belonged to law enforcement.

"The helicopter was so loud that Mr. Clausen felt like he was inside a cement mixer," court documents from the defense said. "The dust was rising up and there were leaves flying around him in the air, floating up into his face."

He later realized he wasn't thinking logically, the defense argued.

"But he never thought that law enforcement would use a helicopter to fly so low over his land to see his marijuana plants," the defense said. "He envisioned a situation where law enforcement would walk up to his house, knock on his door, and tell him that there's a problem."

Clausen initially was charged in Clearbrook County District Court with attempted murder, among other charges, but county prosecutors dropped the case after the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minneapolis took over.

Clausen pleaded guilty in late June, with prosecutors asking for a sentence of 108 months in prison, according to court documents filed in early November. The U.S. Attorney's Office also argued he needs mental health and chemical dependency treatment, a point Clausen disputed.

"Without mental health services he will remain a threat to public safety," acting U.S. Attorney Gregory Brooker said in court documents. "The defendant thinks deep down inside that he is the victim and that his actions were not serious."

A presentencing report said Clausen should serve 121 to 151 months in prison, but the defense asked for a 24-month sentence, arguing Clausen was shooting in the general direction of the helicopter but did not intend to kill anyone.

"Mr. Clausen was acting with a mistaken belief as to the identity of the individuals operating the helicopter," Clausen's attorney, Shannon Elkin, wrote in court documents. "Although he did not act rationally or reasonably, he had no intent to harm innocent people."

Elkin admits in court documents the defendant has mental and physical health problems, but the defense describes Clausen as a master gardener and "passive, peace-loving artist" who enjoys his seclusion from "the hustle and bustle of the Cities."

"Additionally, Mr. Clausen smoked marijuana and grew some for his personal consumption," Elkin said, adding he is not a threat to the public. "He did not have to plant it because it spread like a weed, just like the catnip that sprinkled his property."

The prosecution rejected this characterization, saying Clausen intended to shoot at the helicopter and that the sentence should reflect the seriousness of the crime.

The court granted a downward departure from the pre-sentencing recommendations due to Clausen's "significantly reduced mental capacity," according to a sentencing order.

Clausen made requests on his own behalf on Wednesday to withdraw his guilty plea. He also asked for a trial, a new defense attorney and to be released from custody.

Davis denied all of those motions.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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