Unpacking Stauber's escape from death
Fact-checking Congressman Pete Stauber's claim that a gun misfired in a long-ago criminal attempt to shoot him reveals a stunning link to the present.
Their paths are forever crossed, but when U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber and the late Timothy Majchrzak converged almost 20 years ago, it wasn’t for very long.
It was a confusing and frightening scene that found Stauber and another Duluth police officer, then-Sgt. Jim Wright, facing the barrel of Majchrzak’s 9-millimeter handgun inside an apartment house located at 1820 London Road, next to what is still a Taco John’s.
The ensuing melee was quick and the officers reacted on training and instinct.
To hear Stauber tell it, he was fortunate to escape with his life.
“It was one of the most violent incidents I was a part of in 23 years as a police officer, including my years on the tactical response team,” Stauber, a Republican from Hermantown, told the News Tribune in the fall. “The whole incident unfolded so fast.”
Stauber has referenced the confrontation repeatedly throughout the past year. He uses it to explain his defense of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and its right to bear arms. Despite being a victim of gun violence himself, Stauber will say, he continues to support the law-abiding citizenry’s right to carry firearms.
Stauber makes a point of not identifying Majchrzak when stumping about gun owners' rights. But because of Stauber’s repeated references to the incidents involving Majchrzak, the News Tribune attempted to fact-check the details involving their run-in in 2000.
Speaking to a phone audience in June, Stauber recounted a version of the story he told during three of four phone town halls he conducted in 2019: “I had a career criminal approach me quick from behind a corner, put the gun to my face and pull the trigger. By the grace of God, it malfunctioned and I was literally fighting for my life.”
For Majchrzak, felony assault charges, a plea deal and prison time followed the incident.
Then, last May, the 37-year-old Majchrzak was killed by law enforcement after he’d fled authorities on a motorcycle and then exchanged gunfire with officers in Hermantown. The fatal scene was captured in graphic squad car video. County prosecutors determined that the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office deputies involved in subduing Majchrzak were justified in their use of lethal force .
Stauber has referenced this incident publicly, too — as a way to hammer home his point that it’s criminals, drug dealers and people in mental health crisis who ought to be restricted from accessing guns, not people outside of those categories.
“That criminal who tragically died six or seven weeks ago was the same individual who 20 years ago wanted to take my life,” Stauber said again in June, his voice piquing during the phone-in town hall with constituents in the 8th Congressional District.
Majchrzak’s father, Tim Sr., doesn't argue those details.
“I’m not going to be hurt by them calling him a ‘career criminal,’” Tim Sr. told the News Tribune. “I already know who my son was and what my son did. I’m not going to hold excuses for his lifestyle. He chose what he did and how he lived.”
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The older Majchrzak believes in protecting gun owners’ rights, too, he said. But the father of six sons also remains protective of his namesake, and was less enthused to learn that his late son has become the subject of a political argument.
“What my son did in the last moment of his life was a big mistake on his part,” Majchrzak Sr. said. “The police officers involved — I will never disrespect them for what they had to do. As for Stauber, he’s a politician now. Take it for what it’s worth. They all jump on the bandwagon and try to make themselves look good and upright.”
The officer with Stauber that day, Wright, confirms the congressman's story.
Wright spoke with the News Tribune in August at his home in the Cody neighborhood of Duluth. He retired from the department as a deputy chief in 2005. The day they encountered Majchrzak, June 23, 2000, Wright recalled he and Stauber gathered at the bottom of the apartment house’s unusually long interior staircase. Wright remembered Stauber in plain clothes, because he had a trainee with him and it was Stauber’s job to blend in as he observed the rookie — details confirmed by police reports.
They’d been called in the middle of the night, around 3 a.m., after two male victims inside the apartment house reported to dispatchers they'd been held at gunpoint. The men were petrified and afraid to leave, fearing a gunman who threatened to be back, they told police.
Later, the police would learn that the man who perpetrated the gun threats on the reporting victims was not Majchrzak at all. Given the opportunity, the witnesses couldn't identify Majchrzak as the gunman. Officers never learned why he moved on them in the apartment, gun raised, like he did. The police weren’t even after Majchrzak.
Following his arrest, Majchrzak wouldn’t cooperate. Before the police turned off the video camera in the interview room, he had fallen asleep, according to police reports.
But several hours earlier, the apartment house was a live wire. Officers planned their move outside. Not wanting to give himself away, Wright, in uniform, covered up with a green civilian jacket he borrowed from Stauber, a detail written about in Stauber's own report.
“We’re ready to go up the stairs and Pete grabs me and says, ‘You can go after me, Jim,’” Wright said. “Pete later told me he did it because he knew I had children.”
Stauber’s wife, Jodi, had also given birth to the couple’s first of four children earlier in the year. But that day, she was getting ready to go into work at the 148th Fighter Wing by the time he got home, Stauber said. He didn’t tell her about the incident. He didn’t sleep either, and he said he threw up the crackers he tried to eat.
“I remember that day sitting on the steps of City Hall and you’re still high on the adrenaline rush,” Stauber said. “The grass was beautiful green, the flowers were yellow and purple — just bright. The sun was coming up, and I just felt like I escaped death.”
Even before the light of day, Wright would take Stauber for a cool-down walk along London Road, and the next day referred him to the police psychologist after hearing Stauber say he hadn't yet told his wife what happened. Stauber confirmed those details.
“He was really shook,” Wright said.
Before they climbed the stairs, Stauber and Wright determined they didn’t want to barge in, and didn’t have enough information to even do so, Wright said, so they made a plan to use the victims' apartment in order to listen for voices or movement next door, where they thought their gun-wielding suspect was.
They were clearing the victims' apartment when Stauber noticed through the open door Majchrzak bearing down on them from the hallway. Wright saw Majchrzak as he appeared through the door. Wright wrote in his report that the gun “was within 2 feet of my face, causing a high degree of fear.”
He grabbed and pulled Majchrzak and the two spilled into the room, toppling over furniture. Stauber was on Majchrzak in an instant, striking the suspect with closed fists to the legs as Wright desperately searched for the gun, which, unbeknownst to him, had flown through the air.
Multiple reports note the gun was recovered near the bottom of the stairwell. One officer wrote: “It had the hammer to the rear and a round loaded in the chamber and ready to fire. The gun could have easily discharged as it was bouncing down the stairs.”
Another officer’s report seemed to contradict that one, and was supportive of Stauber’s repeated claim that the handgun misfired.
“The one round that was ejected, when I unloaded the gun, that was in the chamber I noticed a dent in the primer which looked to be from a firing pin,” the report said.
A second report also noted a chamber round with "a dent in the primer which looked to be from a firing pin."
The round was logged into evidence. Neither Stauber nor Wright addressed the round in their own reports.
Tim Sr. knew well of the incident on London Road. His son had given him “a whole different story.” But the basic disagreement was simple.
“He didn’t know they were police officers,” Tim Sr. said. “Once he saw they were unmarked, he threw the gun down the stairs.”
As for Majchrzak pulling the trigger on Stauber: “Not a chance,” Tim Sr. said. “I don’t believe that one iota.”
In his own report, Stauber never wrote that Majchrzak attempted to fire on him. The closest Stauber comes is noting multiple times that the gun was pointed at him.
Wright sees it otherwise, believing Majchrzak intended to fire his weapon and describing it as “the primer was hit, so he pulled the trigger.”
Wright recalled grabbing and propelling Majchrzak forward as an attempt to get clear of him, so that Wright could shoot him. But the ensuing physical scuffle with Stauber led to Majchrzak being handcuffed and taken into custody. In the charged apartment, it was Stauber who said “stop” once Majchrzak had been brought under control, Wright said.
Wright recalled the comforting words he delivered to Stauber later that morning: “I told him, ‘There was no one I would rather have with me on this call than you.’”