Inside the manhunt for a Northeast Regional Corrections Center escapee
Across five days earlier this month, a 33-year-old man with a violent past evaded authorities. The News Tribune pieced together what those days looked like, and why one neighbor is calling for a better alert system.
Much about how an escapee spent 103 hours evading local authorities earlier this month isn’t well-known.
He could have spent most of it at the Superior Inn near the foot of the Blatnik Bridge. That’s where Keith Bellanger, alias Josh Lightfeather, was apprehended without incident Nov. 17 when he stepped out for a cigarette.
The manhunt to locate Bellanger, 33, featured a half-dozen agencies and initially covered 4 miles over road and through the woods on Nov. 13 after Bellanger ran away from Northeast Regional Corrections Center in Saginaw in broad daylight.
In the end, a bout with social media proved to be the error that led to his capture.
To better understand the effort, the News Tribune spoke with the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office and Arrowhead Regional Corrections. Both helped piece together the manhunt to locate Bellanger, an alleged attempted murderer whose record includes violent abuses of women and burglary .
The newspaper also spoke to a resident who lives within walking distance of the facility. She and her husband didn’t know about the escape until receiving a text message from a family member who had read about it in the newspaper.
“It was very unsettling and frustrating to hear about, because we missed the (TV) news that particular morning,” Dawn Moen said. “We feel that immediate and communitywide notifications should be required going forward.”
To hear the authorities tell it, Bellanger didn’t stop at any neighborhood residences on the day of his escape. Instead, he made haste with tracking K-9s on his trail.
“We had four K-9s tracking him and it was an extensive track,” Sheriff Ross Litman said. “Looking at the map, he made it from NERCC all the way over to Lindahl Road, about 4 miles through woods and some roads, but mostly through a wooded area.”
When Bellanger hit the area at the corner of Lindahl Road and tiny Dubla Drive, he was gone.
“The K-9 lost his scent,” Litman said. “Which led us to believe he was probably picked up there, though we can’t rule out that the dog, for whatever reason, lost him.”
The authorities gave consideration to Bellanger being possibly hypothermic in the woods or even dead. But in the end, Litman said they were "pretty confident he got out."
An investigation into any accomplices is ongoing. But another piece of Bellanger’s escape suggests it’s possible he had help. The motel room he appeared to hole up in was registered to a person Bellanger had contact with at NERCC, Litman said.
“Whether or not that person had anything to do with his escape or preventing his recapture is a good question,” Litman said, providing no further details of that subsequent investigation.
NERCC is a male-only, minimum/medium-security facility located fewer than 20 miles northwest of Duluth. It features a mostly open campus. As of this week, there were 58 people between the general population and secure unit.
It’s a more expensive place for local counties to house people than a normal prison, but it’s well-regarded for its rehabilitative properties, which include vocational training in things such as farming and meat processing as well as counseling for mental health, chemical dependency and sex offenses.
Most of the men remanded there are not even considered to be in Minnesota Department of Corrections custody, explained Wally Kostich, the executive director for Arrowhead Regional Corrections, which oversees NERCC.
Unless a person is part of the 24-bed secure unit, walking away from the facility isn’t even constituted as an escape. Instead, it’s termed a "walk-away." And that happens from time to time, though Kostich said the most recent one prior to Bellanger's was in 2019, when two men walked off an outdoor work crew and were located a short time later.
Prior to his escape, Bellanger’s stay at NERCC was about to intensify. He’d been charged with attempted murder Nov. 4, an elevation of felony domestic assault and domestic assault by strangulation charges related to his May 8 assault of an ex-girlfriend.
He was in the process of being moved to the secure unit when he ran from NERCC.
When asked if it was the murder charge and subsequent move to a higher-level incarceration that prompted Bellanger to escape, Kostich said: “I would say so, yes. He was going to move into our secure unit and it’s at that point in time, when he was made aware of that, that he fled the facility.”
Prior to that, Kostich said Bellanger had been on his best behavior, so much so that he was part of the resident counsel made up of peers and NERCC staff to bring grievances and suggestions to administration.
“For all practical purposes, he was not a problem in any way, shape or form,” Kostich said. “He interacted with fellow residents fairly well, with no write-ups with respect to attitude or behavior.”
That all changed when he ran on Friday, Nov. 13. Bellanger was on the wind until he took to social media to make contact with the outside world.
“We received information that he was communicating through Facebook,” Litman said. “That information came into the Superior Police Department.”
The tip to Superior police came from someone contacted by Bellanger. It wasn’t long afterward that members of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force set up surveillance outside the Superior Inn.
Bellanger was taken into custody Tuesday, Nov. 17, at 3:15 p.m. His escape spanned parts of five days.
And for Dawn Moen, it hit too close to home. Walk-aways often use the railroad tracks that pass across her and husband Ron's property.
“To the best of our knowledge, there has never been a public safety notification when someone escapes from NERCC — not even if the person has a history of violent offenses, home invasion or burglary,” she said.
Kostich fielded that question.
“I do know that in this particular case law enforcement did some canvassing of the area,” he said, while acknowledging authorities didn’t get to everybody.
Regarding the implementation of a system around the Saginaw and Pike Lake areas that would alert residents to future walk-aways or escapees, Kostich sounded open-minded.
“That is something definitely on our radar,” he said. “We’re exploring and willing to speak with civic groups or associations. I did meet with a couple township boards. We’re certainly willing to do that and are open to ideas.”