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County attorney wants two Basswood shooting suspects tried together

TWO HARBORS -- Nearly nine months after last summer's shooting spree on Basswood Lake, the man authorities believe is a primary suspect in the case still has not entered a plea in court.

TWO HARBORS -- Nearly nine months after last summer's shooting spree on Basswood Lake, the man authorities believe is a primary suspect in the case still has not entered a plea in court.

Barney James Lakner, 37, of Ely appeared in Lake County District Court Tuesday but made no formal plea and has been rescheduled to appear again June 2.

Lake County Attorney Russ Conrow signaled at today's hearing that he wants to try Lakner and another man, Jay Andrew Olson, 19, also of Ely, together.

It's likely both trials will take 10 days each, considered a huge block of Lake County courtroom time, Conrow said, and each will require potentially dozens of the same witnesses to testify.

In addition to law enforcement officers from local and federal agencies, many of the witnesses are campers from across the U.S. who were in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on the night of Aug. 7 when Lakner, Olson and four others are charged with terrorizing and threatening campers with gunfire, fireworks and threats.

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The two were in the same boat during the incident.

"It would be a huge expense to do this twice. There are a lot of witnesses. ... A lot of people [who were threatened] want to be part of this,'' Conrow said after today's brief court hearing.

Olson's attorney, David Keegan of Duluth, likely will reply to the formal request to join the two trials at a May 12 hearing. Lakner's attorney will formally respond on June 2. Olson has pleaded not guilty. Keegan was not immediately available to comment today.

A trial or trials probably would be held later this year.

Authorities say Lakner was essentially the leader of the group of five Ely men and a juvenile who brought loaded guns, fireworks and beer into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the night of Aug. 7 and proceeded to fire dozens of rounds, terrorize and threaten many campers. In September, Conrow leveled 79 charges, many of them felonies, against the suspects.

Lakner is charged with 13 felonies and 12 other crimes. All six suspects were apprehended at a boat landing shortly after the shooting. Lakner was arrested wearing a knit cap with fake dreadlocks and with a .45-caliber handgun and several clips. He has previously been cited for alcohol-related crimes and was charged with operating a snowmobile in the BWCAW.

According to the criminal complaint, the men brought cases of beer, a bottle of schnapps, mortar-like fireworks, a Russian-style semi-automatic assault rifle, a .45-caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun, a .22-caliber handgun and a .22 rifle into the wilderness for their evening boat ride. They stopped at and near several campsites where they fired rounds and threatened campers.

Three of the men who arrived on Basswood Lake later and joined the group after the incident had started have pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for agreeing to testify against Lakner and others:

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--Zachary Ross Barton, 19, pleaded guilty to one count of felony aiding and abetting terroristic threats and one misdemeanor count each of reckless discharge of a firearm and underage consumption of alcohol. Barton will serve 20 days in a local jail and three years' probation on the felony charge and has been ordered to stay out of the BWCAW for three years.

--Casey James Fenske, 19, pleaded guilty to one felony count of aiding and abetting terroristic threats, a gross misdemeanor for criminal damage to property and a misdemeanor charge of reckless discharge of a firearm. Fenske will serve at least nine months at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center or a similar facility and will be on probation for three years. He also will pay restitution for damage he inflicted on a federal water level-gauging station on Basswood Lake in an earlier incident and will be banned from the BWCAW for three years.

--Travis John Erzar, 20, pleaded guilty to a felony count of aiding and abetting terroristic threats and a misdemeanor count of underage consumption of alcohol. Erzar will serve no jail time but will serve three years of probation on the felony charge. The felony will be reduced to a misdemeanor in Erzar's court record if he serves the probation without problem. Erzar also is banned from the BWCAW for three years.

An as-yet unnamed juvenile also has been charged in the case. Efforts are under way to try the juvenile under a state statute that effectively treats him as an adult until he is 21, Conrow said.

Federal charges may be leveled in the case, and it's possible the men will face firearms and illegal border-crossing charges in Canada.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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