When Capt. Joe Meyer of the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office was a boy, he spent a lot of time in the field with his father, who was a game warden for 30 years.
Meyer, who grew up in Staples, said in the spring when the northerns and walleyes were running in the creeks, his father would take him out and show him how the game wardens hid in the woods waiting for people to take the fish illegally out of the creek.
Game wardens at that time — his father Orville worked as a game warden from about 1961-91 — also handled the vehicle crashes involving deer and his father would take him out in the middle of the night to respond.
“He would wake me up and on a lot of occasions I would go with him,” Meyer said. “So that was my upbringing. I got to spend some time with a lot of the game wardens in the area, the law enforcement guys and got to see the camaraderie and, you know, just working together as a team.
“Initially, my dream was to be a game warden. But as I went through training and started trying to get a job after graduating from the law enforcement program my shift went to law enforcement.”
Now, Meyer himself — who has dedicated 30 years of his 54 years of life to the law enforcement field — is getting ready to hand in his badge. Meyer, who has moved through the ranks in the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office, is retiring. His last day is Thursday, Dec. 31.
Meyer, a 1985 Staples-Motley High School graduate, attended the law enforcement program at the vocational college in Alexandria right out of high school. He then got his part-time police officer license and worked for Staples for two years. During the summer of 1986, he also worked for the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office boat and water division. In 1988, then-County Sheriff Frank Ball hired him as a full-time deputy with the sheriff’s office.
When Meyer started his career with the county, he was assigned to cover the city of Nisswa. At that time the city contracted with the county for police services.
Law enforcement appears to run through Meyer’s blood and he didn’t waste any time, he jumped right in. He was assigned to the drug task force in 1989, which at the time was called the Net 6 Drug Task Force. It was his chance to be exposed to drug investigative work, which he found to be something he loved to do.
“I really enjoyed being exposed to the drug work and I met a lot of good people,” Meyer said during an earlier December interview. “The work got me interested in investigations and doing more in-depth work.”
After Meyer’s stint on the drug task force, he went from covering the city of Nisswa to working as a full-time deputy for the entire county, working nights until 1994. He was promoted to investigations by then-Sheriff Dick Ross. Meyer worked in investigations through 2011, when he was promoted to sergeant of investigations where he oversaw both general investigations and the investigations with the Lakes Area Drug Investigative Division.
“I got involved in a lot of good cases, some high profile stuff, some federal cases,” Meyer said.
Meyer said one of the bigger drug cases occurred in 2011-12 in the Garrison area. The case involved the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang and resulted in a number of convictions throughout the state. The case ended up going to the federal agents and was a long investigation involving several months of surveillance, stakeout and undercover drug buys.
When asked if covering drug cases has gotten easier or harder through the years, Meyer said it is a twofold question.
“It has gotten easier because there’s more technology advancements for tracking individuals and surveilling them,” Meyer said. “But harder because of the restrictions that are being put on law enforcement. In order to surveil someone by electronic means or do something with their cellphone you need a search warrant. Back in the day when we were doing it, we didn't have that option of electronic surveillance or it was very, very limited. It wasn’t required to have a search warrant at that time but obviously it is now so it gets difficult. It's more difficult in the sense that there's a lot more restrictions and strings to pull to get what you need done. But, on the other hand, there's a lot of different tools in our toolbox to do it.”
Meyer was promoted to lieutenant in 2013 under then-Sheriff Todd Dahl and then to captain in 2019 under Sheriff Scott Goddard.
Over Meyer’s more than 30-year career in law enforcement, he worked on a lot of difficult cases. Meyer, like many law enforcement officers, had to give up family time to work on cases, including during the holidays.
One of the hardest calls in Meyer’s law enforcement career occurred on Christmas Eve Day in 2001. Meyer and Crow Wing County Chief Deputy Dave Fischer, who were both investigators at the time, were called to a double homicide on Barbeau Road in rural Brainerd — where they found the victims, Theodore and Angeline Bieganek, shot to death in the bed. Their 19-year-old grandson Joshua DeRosier was arrested for their murder and ultimately convicted on two counts of premeditated first-degree murder, serving two consecutive life sentences.
“We were the first ones on scene,” Meyer said, noting the shock value alone was intense, let alone the fact it occurred on Christmas Eve. “I was married and had a family, had kids. For the next week, I wasn’t home. The whole Christmas thing was put on hold. Sheriff Dick Ross was the sheriff at the time and he made sure that we had time to spend with our family. But during that time, there was a job to be done. It was really hard to take that time away from your family, but that’s what you do. I mean you sign up for this stuff. This was probably one of the most memorable calls I’ve had in my career .... one that was most impactful, but also very emotional careerwise. I mean you ask a lot of your family when you do this job and that was a test right there.”
Meyer said officers have to be ready to go to work when they get an emergency call — whether it is during the holidays or the middle of the night. He said it is not always easy.
Meyer said his heart goes out to all the victim families who have dealt with tragedies, especially the Bieganeks.
“I feel for the families as the holidays will always be marked with that tragic event,” Meyer said.
Meyer said during his career when he was an investigator, the county sheriff’s office investigated a homicide a year. Irv Tollefson was in charge of investigations at the time and it was Meyer along with DJ Downey, Todd Hines, Fischer and Dave Larson, who were a tight group who investigated a lot of big murder cases.
Biggest career challenges/changes
Technology is by far the biggest change over Meyer’s career. When he started with the sheriff’s office they had a four-channel radio — which was the statewide channel, Crow Wing 1, Crow Wing 2 and Boat and Water. And today they have many channels, along with computers in their squad cars with GPS, so they know where every deputy is at all times.
“When I started I had a four-channel radio, a flashlight and a six-shooter revolver,” Meyer recalled. “Everything has evolved over time.”
Meyer said currently the biggest challenge in the law enforcement career is the new expectations and restrictions being placed on law enforcement officers. Officers have a lot more responsibilities and more training for the job.
Meyer said it used to be when he would testify in court, his word, as he swore on the Bible, was what happened.
“That’s not good enough anymore,” Meyer said. “Now they want video, they want recordings so that can be an extreme challenge. It’s a challenge to know that your word is not good enough anymore. You know, but that’s the times and the life we live in right now and people want recordings.”
Meyer said there is a lot more state-mandated training in areas to include hazmat and deescalation. Meyer said with the COVID-19 restrictions in place, it is tougher to do the additional training as they can’t be in large groups. He said there are online or virtual trainings, but it is not the same as being able to train in person.
Retiring in a pandemic
Meyer never thought he would be retiring during a pandemic.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Meyer said, retiring now. “The pandemic has really put a damper on things. I’m not going to be able to say goodbye to individuals, to friends like I would have liked. I mean there are people here who I’ve worked with nearly for my whole career, or at least the last 20-25 years. So now it’s just going to be a phone call or a text message or something.
“It’s a bittersweet type of thing, you know. I’m ready to go, but yet with all the restrictions in place right now I’m not able to say goodbye like I would have liked.”
Meyer said when he decided to retire, it was because he was ready. He said he has done everything he wanted to do in his law enforcement career, so now was the time. He said he could have stayed another year to when he turns 55 as he then would receive his full retirement benefits, with no penalty. But he didn’t want to retire because of financial reasons.
Meyer said he plans to spend more time with his family — his wife Michele and her two adult children, Stacy Stranne and Kelly Fisher, and two grandchildren, John and Sadie. He is building a new house so he will have more time to do that.
Meyer made the decision to retire long before the pandemic and when the world went into mass protests and riots after the death of George Floyd.
“A lot of people have come up to me in the last year ever since the death of George Floyd and all the riots down in Minneapolis,” Meyer said of the people asking him how he was doing. “It definitely adds some stress ... but my general answer is thankfully, I live and work in a community that is very supportive of law enforcement, as a whole. We really haven't had to deal with the criticism, the riots, the protests. There was some small stuff here ... and people have a right to do that and that's fine. We live in a community that is so supportive of law enforcement and to have structure in order. And there's expectations and I think we provide that pretty well and so we have tremendous respect from the community.”
How do you entice young officers to profession?
“It’s a good career, it really is,” Meyer said. “For the most part it is very well respected. You can raise a family and get a great retirement.
“What my dad told me years ago when I was getting into this field — you’re not going to get rich by being a police officer or being in law enforcement, no matter what level you are at. But what you can hope for and what you strive for is to make a difference. You can make a difference in your community. Or you can make a difference in somebody’s life, so that is gratifying.
“It is a needed profession and it can be very fun. It’s a great place to meet friends and have the opportunity to work with some of your closest friends.”