Sudden gunfire, standoff put Cloquet officers to the test

Tom Hallfrisch trained a spotlight on the young man walking along the dark Cloquet street. The man glanced over his left shoulder, and seconds later the driver's side window in Hallfrisch's squad car exploded.

Tom Hallfrisch trained a spotlight on the young man walking along the dark Cloquet street. The man glanced over his left shoulder, and seconds later the driver's side window in Hallfrisch's squad car exploded.

That's how the 11-year Cloquet police veteran knew he was taking AK-47 gunfire on a cold November night.

In the moments that followed, Hallfrisch and fellow officer Rick Benko responded to what Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande described as the most violent incident in the department's recent history.

It was a night of instant reactions and long negotiations, a night when a young man first endangered others, and then took his own life. It became a night that made both responding officers more cautious, more wary while on the job.

Hallfrisch and Benko recently were honored with medals of valor for their role in stopping John Barrett, 20, of Redby, Minn., on Nov. 3 after he fired at Hallfrisch and attempted to carjack a vehicle with several young women inside. Barrett, who had family in the Cloquet area, had a minor criminal history but nothing to suggest he would act so violently, police said.


Both officers said their training helped them respond to an unexpectedly intense situation.

Hallfrisch, his breathing constricted by a huge dump of adrenaline, managed to follow Barrett and communicate his description and location by radio.

Seconds later Benko spotted a man running down the street. Hallfrisch radioed that Barrett was getting into a car, and Benko saw several people flee from a vehicle. The two facts clicked, and he acted. Benko, who had been an officer for about a year, stopped Barrett from taking off in the seized car by crashing into it.

"I jumped out of my squad, and we both had him at gunpoint," Benko said.

For the next hour, Benko tried to keep Barrett calm and persuade him to surrender.

"He said that all he wanted to do was to see his daughter, so I tried to build on that," Benko said. "But he was also saying 'There's no way I'm coming out of this car alive -- you'll have to shoot me.' He was on a roller coaster. One minute he would be really calm, then he would flip out."

Hallfrisch's hands began shaking -- a common side-effect after an adrenaline surge -- as he backed away and took cover behind his own squad car. Benko, coatless in the frigid air, was only dimly aware that more than two dozen other officers had arrived at the scene. His attention was focused on Barrett.

For a few brief moments, Benko thought he could talk Barrett into surrendering. But moments of hopelessness followed, as Benko wondered how long this standoff would last. Benko began to prepare himself to act if Barrett started threatening others with his weapon.


"The longer it went, the more I thought I would have to shoot him," Benko said. It was a fact of the job he had thought about before that night.

"If you haven't thought about [using deadly force], you won't make it as a cop," he said. "You have to be OK with that."

Benko's fingers grew numb as he kept a tight grip on his shotgun. After about 45 minutes of talking with Barrett, Benko sensed that "something just wasn't right." Barrett, as can be seen on the police video of the incident, seemed to rev himself up, "pounding on the dashboard, whooping and hollering," Benko said.

Though he doesn't remember doing it, the video shows Benko shifting his body and readjusting his gun.

"I think it was my mind telling my body, 'You had better be ready,' " Benko said. Moments later, Barrett shot himself.

Though Benko said hewasn't feeling fear, even routine procedure became difficult. "I remember trying to unload my shotgun, and I couldn't remember how to do it," he said.

Fine motor skills often suffer in the wake of an adrenaline surge, according to law enforcement officials familiar with critical incidents. But after he slipped on his police jacket, "it was almost like business as usual," Benko said.

Paramedics moved in to attend to Barrett, and both Benko and Hallfrisch stayed on the scene about 20 minutes more. Hallfrisch helped search for bullet casings near the scene.


"That's when it started to sink in," Hallfrisch said. "You start to think about your family, about how life is so precious."

Cloquet Deputy Police Chief Terry Hill drove the two officers to the station to make a formal statement and, though their shift was hours from ending, told them to go home.

They were still "buzzing" from the night's events, Benko said, so they met some colleagues for coffee and to talk about it. Both managed to catch a few hours of sleep before Hill and Lamirande came knocking on their doors to see how they were doing.

For the next few days, both officers slept fitfully, and both were deluged with calls from friends and colleagues. Hallfrisch wondered over and over again if he could have done anything differently. Benko wondered how he would respond to his first call when he went back to work: Would he freeze up, or would he work through it?

A few days later, Benko and Hallfrisch were part of a formal incident debriefing at the police station, facilitated by the Head of the Lakes Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

"We sat in a circle and rehashed it all, what's common to feel, what's uncommon," Benko said.

"I felt a sense of relief, being there, talking about it," Hallfrisch said. "I'm a talker."

The experience also has had lasting effects for both officers.


"I feel badly for [Barrett's] family, that this happened," Benko said. "It's unfortunate that his daughter will never know him. But he made this choice."

"It's made me more aware, more alert," Hallfrisch said. "Responding to gun calls now, I'm more focused. This is an unfortunate part of our job when it comes to guns."

None of the critical incidents highlighted for these stories, whether or not they involved using deadly force, were found to involve criminal wrongdoing by the law enforcement officers. But that doesn't mean the outcomes weren't painful for the family members left behind.

Sometimes officers never meet those family members.

But sometimes they do, either by accident or by design. Some of those meetings reopen wounds, while others offer some measure of solace.

Cloquet police officers Tom Hallfrisch and Rick Benko initially responded to a violent carjacking in early November. Hallfrisch took gunfire, while Benko tried to negotiate with John Barrett to surrender. Barrett ultimately shot himself.

Hallfrisch was at a gas station when Barrett's girlfriend approached him.

At first, he felt uncomfortable, Hallfrisch said. But afterwards, he felt good that he could provide "accurate information," he said.


"She asked, 'Did he love me? Did he love our daughter?' " Hallfrisch said. He tried to offer reassurance. "She gave me a hug, and I hugged her back. I said I was sorry, we did everything we could. We try to help people, not hurt people."

About a year after Duluth police officer Dan Fogarty shot and killed Donald Herold of Duluth because Herold was brandishing a kitchen knife at this wife, Fogarty learned that Herold's wife wanted to speak to him. He was reluctant to do so, but realized the conversation might be part of her healing process.

"It was very stressful for both of us," Fogarty said, and the hours-long conversation brought back some difficult memories.

In 2001 Duluth police Sgt. Marty LeRette, the department's use of force coordinator and an expert marksman, killed an armed assailant with a single shot after the assailant assaulted several people, fired multiple rounds inside a Gary-New Duluth home and repeatedly said the police would have to kill him.

After the incident, James Balen's mother called LeRette to let him know her son had "many problems," LeRette said.

"You did what you had to do," she told LeRette. That's also what he thought.

"I knew it in my heart, I did what I had to do," LeRette said.

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at .

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