A St. Paul law clerk was shot and killed Thursday by a client who was upset with how his case was being handled and who couldn’t reach his attorney, according to murder charges filed Friday.
Ryan D. Petersen, 37, of St. Paul, was charged in Ramsey County District Court with one count of second-degree murder in the death of Chase Passauer, who was shot six times in the stomach about 4 p.m.
Passauer, 23, of Minneapolis, was a law clerk at North Star Criminal Defense, which is on the second floor of the Dacotah Building in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood.
According to the criminal complaint, Petersen had hired attorney Dan Adkins from the law firm but was “displeased with the way his case was being handled.” He expressed his concerns to Adkins via phone calls and text messages before and on Thursday.
“On the afternoon of April 7, Petersen fired [Adkins] by text message and demanded his money back,” the complaint said. “Petersen expressed a belief that [Adkins] was ignoring his messages.”
Adkins was in court at the time and couldn’t respond to Petersen, according to the complaint.
When Petersen arrived at the law firm, located above St. Paul’s historic W.A. Frost & Company restaurant in the 300 block of Selby Avenue, he apparently found only Passauer. Adkins and colleague James Gempeler arrived at the firm just after the shooting and found Passauer fatally wounded, sitting in his desk chair. He was pronounced dead at 4:30 p.m.
Petersen declined to provide a statement to police when arrested. The complaint says he may have mistaken Passauer for Adkins. “… I just shot my lawyer,” Petersen allegedly texted one of his friends about 4:55 p.m. Thursday.
Court records show that although Petersen hired Adkins in late March to represent him in two Washington County cases, Petersen hadn’t had any court appearances between then and Thursday. It’s unclear if Petersen and Adkins had met in person.
“It is impossible to fathom or understand what happened yesterday at our office,” said a statement issued by the law firm Friday. “We are working through this difficult time as best as we can. But we are grieving the loss of an incredible young man with such a bright and promising future.
“He wasn’t just our employee. He was our friend. Our brother. He will be missed, but never forgotten.”
Passauer started work as a law clerk at the firm last May, according to his LinkedIn profile. “I draft all attorney correspondence, research complex legal issues, draft legal memorandum, draft motions and other trial documents,” his summary said. “I am in charge of scheduling for all attorneys and maintaining positive relationships with our clientele.”
He graduated from Hastings High School in 2011 and from the University of Minnesota in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy, his profile said. He was considering law school in the near future. A woman who answered the phone at Passauer’s family home Friday declined to comment.
While in college, Passauer spent 11 months volunteering at FairVote MN, where he taught young people how to use ranked-choice voting and bolster participation throughout state. Mike Griffin, Passauer’s superviser at FairVote, hired him as an intern in 2013 because of his passion for politics and easygoing personality.
He said Passauer had a contagious smile and an infectious laugh. “It just breaks my heart,” Griffin said. “Someone who was just trying to live his life and make the world a better place is now taken from us in a senseless act of violence.”
Friends said baseball was a passion for Passauer, who umpired American Legion and collegiate games. Over the past few years he had served as a mentor to young umpires.
‘Come on, Chase’
A woman who was walking by the law office Thursday around the time of the shooting said that she heard yelling.
“ ‘Come on, Chase, come on man,’ ” the woman, who asked not to be identified, recalled hearing another man “plead.”
“I just felt like there was danger,” the woman said Friday. “It’s not normal to hear yelling in this building.”
Across the hall, Tom Eckstein was hosting an open house at the time for his business, Arundel Metrics Inc. “We didn’t hear anything,” Eckstein recalled Friday, noting that sound is generally muted in the old building.
Eckstein said the first sign that something was amiss was when a friend called him at 4:32 p.m. saying he couldn’t get to the open house because of police on the block. Eckstein said he spoke to an officer in the building, locked his group inside his office and waited 30 minutes before leaving.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said Friday of what transpired in the law office. “Gun violence is totally out of control. It’s amazing how it impacts the victim, the victim’s family, the whole neighborhood.”
Chisago County authorities arrested Petersen without incident late Thursday after he led law enforcement officers on a pursuit through Washington County.
Charges say that after the shooting, Petersen fled and began calling and texting his friends, telling them he was going away for a long time for “doing something bad,” according to the complaint. One friend called police and reported the phone calls.
Violent criminal past
Another friend went to police headquarters and told them Petersen had sent a text message saying he had shot his lawyer, and another text with a news clip about the shooting.
Petersen also allegedly stopped by the Woodbury home of his children’s mother, told their children he was going to “where they spend the summers together” and left in the woman’s car. The family has cabins in Milltown and Spooner, Wis.
St. Paul police tracked Petersen’s movements toward Taylors Falls via his cellphone location. The phone was turned off around the Wisconsin border on a route consistent with travel to the cabins.
Around 9 p.m., Petersen’s cellphone came back on line, showing he was traveling back into Minnesota on Hwy. 8. Police tried to stop him, and a 25-mile pursuit ensued. He was arrested in Stillwater.
Authorities searched the Woodbury home, where Petersen occasionally lived, and a St. Paul home where he also lived with a girlfriend. They recovered live .40 caliber rounds at both homes that matched the brand and markings on spent casings found at the murder scene.
Petersen has a lengthy and violent criminal past that includes convictions for drive-by shooting, second-degree assault, carrying a pistol without a permit, first-degree damage to property, aiding and abetting in the sale of narcotics, fleeing police in a motor vehicle, drunken driving and disorderly conduct, court records show.
In a prepared statement, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi called the killing a “senseless and horrific act.”
“Our office will do everything in its power to seek justice in this case,” he said. “I am calling on all of us, as a community, to get serious about preventing tragedies like this by asking how this convicted felon was able to obtain the gun used in this murder.”
Attorney Anthony Bussa represented Petersen in a drunken driving case and in another case for allegedly punching a Woodbury police officer in the face last November while drunk. “He was never aggressive toward me in any fashion,” Bussa said. “Everything was amicable.”
Bussa said Petersen, who owned a business on St. Paul’s East Side, liked to be heavily involved in his cases but was respectful in his dealings with Bussa and all courtroom personnel.
Petersen decided about a week ago to switch attorneys, and hired Adkins of North Star Criminal Defense.
Bussa said Petersen’s tone had changed in early March, but that there was never any indication that he could lash out violently against anyone.
“I can’t pinpoint what exactly the change of tone was,” Bussa said. “It was just different. He just changed a little bit. Never in a million years would I think of this happening.”
Staff writers Tim Harlow and Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.