Jury finds Ely man guilty of Boundary Waters snowmobile chase

Barney Lakner made a split-second decision when he encountered three conservation officers while illegally snowmobiling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in January 2014.

Barney Lakner
Barney Lakner

Barney Lakner made a split-second decision when he encountered three conservation officers while illegally snowmobiling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in January 2014.

Rather than stopping, he thought he could shake the officers by speeding across the dangerously thin ice and open waters of Goose Narrows, the most dangerous stretch of Basswood Lake, Assistant Lake County Attorney Lisa Hanson argued Monday.

"He knew that ice was dangerous, and he took a calculated risk that those officers wouldn't follow him across that treacherous ice," Hanson told jurors in her closing statement in a three-day trial.

A Lake County jury made quick work of the case, taking less than an hour to convict Lakner of all six charges against him, including a felony count of fleeing a peace officer in a motor vehicle.

Lakner, 45, of Ely, could be headed back to prison. The leader of a group that terrorized campers on Basswood Lake in 2007, he did not take the witness stand or introduce any evidence in his latest run-in with the law.


Judge Michael Cuzzo scheduled sentencing for Aug. 3 and ordered Lakner, who is free on conditional release, to stay out of the Boundary Waters.

Defense attorney Chris Stocke acknowledged that Lakner "made some bad decisions," but insisted to jurors that he did not flee officers. Instead, the attorney built his case around Lakner's contention that he was trying to find a safe location to stop his snowmobile when he was flagged down by officers.

"If Mr. Lakner wanted to not slow down and keep going, he would've had a heck of a lot of land," Stocke argued. "The BWCAW is enormous. He could've kept going."

That Lakner was illegally snowmobiling in the Boundary Waters, where motorized vehicles are banned by state and federal law, was not in dispute.

Lakner and his friend, Edward Zupancich, were stopped by three Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officers on Jan. 11, 2014, on Basswood Lake. All three officers testified that the two men were passing south through Goose Narrows when they approached the officers.

The officers testified that Lakner completed a 180-degree turn, hitting one officer's snowmobile in the process, and led Zupancich back through the narrows, where there were areas of open water.

The chase ended only when one officer lept off his moving sled to tackle Zupancich and another grabbed a hold of Lakner's backpack, forcing him to a stop, according to testimony.

In a 20-minute closing statement, Hanson ridiculed Lakner's contention that he could not immediately stop because the ice was unsafe.


"If you're planning to stop, you don't speed up when you see emergency lights, you don't turn around 180 degrees, you don't ram a cop and you don't take off toward the most treacherous ice you saw that day," Hanson argued. "That's not logical."

Stocke said his client's story was clear and consistent from the beginning. Immediately after he was apprehended, Lakner told officers that he continued because he felt that the ice was unsafe, the attorney said.

He also noted that it was pitch-dark at the time of the pursuit and said that officers only learned the ice depth when they went back out the next day.

"What a sad state of affairs when you keep telling the truth, and police officers, who you're supposed to be able to trust, flat out won't believe you," Stocke told jurors.

On rebuttal, Hanson argued that Lakner "knew the area like the back of his hand" and noted that he had passed through earlier in the day, when light was ample. She conceded that the case lacked direct evidence like an admission, but argued that circumstantial evidence proved Lakner's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

"In this case, actions speak louder than words," the prosecutor argued. "People who aren't trying to flee don't do what they did."

In addition to the felony fleeing conviction, Lakner was found guilty of misdemeanor counts of possessing cans and a mechanical device in the Boundary Waters, littering, failure to display registration and operating a snowmobile in a careless manner.

Hanson said she was withholding comment on the case until after sentencing. Stocke did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


Lakner faces a maximum of three years and one day in prison on the sole felony count.

He previously served a three-year sentence when he pleaded guilty to a several charges stemming from the 2007 Basswood Lake incident.

In that case, he led a group that illegally took two motor boats into the Boundary Waters, where they drank beer, fired semiautomatic firearms randomly into the night, terrorized campers and fired large, professional-size fireworks, as well as damaging a federal water-level gauging station.

Evidence of that case - and several other snowmobiling arrests on his record - were not heard by jurors in his most recent case. Cuzzo previously ruled that the offenses could not be mentioned unless Lakner chose to take the stand in his own defense.

Earlier in the day, Lakner waived his right to testify. The decision, he said, was recommended by Stocke and was at least partially influenced by the fact that the jury would hear about the 2007 incident.

The 10-man, three-woman jury delivered its verdict shortly before 1 p.m.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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