Just after 2:45 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 29, Northfield authorities received a phone call that an employee of the America’s Best Value Inn had just been robbed at gunpoint. Officers were immediately dispatched to pursue the alleged robber.
The hotel, located on Riverview Drive, just off of Highway 3, is about three miles from St. Olaf. The college was careful to take any precautionary measures possible on behalf of its students, staff and faculty.
At about 9:50 a.m., anybody subscribed to the college’s emergency notification system received a text message or an email notifying him or her that an armed robber was at large in the Northfield area. At about the same time, President David Anderson ’74 sent an email to all students, staff and faculty to alert them of the robbery.
The email notified students that an armed robbery had occurred south of town, and that the suspect was still at large in the Northfield and Dundas area.
Anderson’s email urged everybody at St. Olaf to be “on heightened alert,” encouraging them to contact Public Safety if they saw anything “unusual” and to call 911 directly if they saw anything “alarming.”
Monday morning, Cassie Paulsen ’15 and Kate Panning ’15 traveled to town to HeadStart Preschool, where they volunteer every Monday morning.
“On our way home, we saw a dozen police cars, a few SWAT team vans and the search helicopter by the Walgreen’s and gas station near campus,” Paulsen said. “This was before any information had gone out on Ole Alert, so we decided not to raise the alarm.” The alarm was indeed raised shortly after, so soon almost all students, staff and faculty were also aware of the criminal’s capture.
St. Olaf’s emergency notification system, called Ole Alert, has been in place since September of 2007. Though occasional test messages are sent out, Ole Alert had only been used to notify subscribers of an actual emergency once before Monday’s robbery incident.
According to Fred Behr, director of St. Olaf Public Safety, on July 14, 2010, a message was sent out to alert campus of an approaching tornado. Because the severe weather reached Northfield in the middle of the summer, however, far fewer people were actually on campus. Monday’s robbery marked the first time that Public Safety has used Ole Alert during the school year.
According to reports, Northfield Police Chief Charles Walerius said that in addition to the SWAT teams, police officers and deputies that Paulsen and Panning spotted, the State Patrol helicopter and K9 teams were dispatched in the search.
Eric McDonald, professor of education and biology, had a first-hand encounter with the police, who suspected the alleged robber may have traveled through his wooded backyard.
“I am amazed at the response of the area to what seems like a local issue, though when it happens in your backyard it gets really big,” McDonald said. He was happy to cooperate.
Shortly before 11 a.m., alleged burglar Eric Wade Forcier, 26, was nabbed in a wooded area near the Cannon River and taken into custody, where he remains. Police also arrested an alleged accomplice, who drove the car in which Forcier originally escaped the hotel before fleeing on foot.
Less than two hours after the first notification, at approximately 11:20 a.m., Public Safety sent out a second Ole Alert message.
“The suspect in this morning’s armed robbery in Northfield is in police custody,” the message said.
According to Behr, Ole Alert sent 1,597 total messages on Sept. 26. Behr also noted that between the 1,032 text messages and 565 emails, there was likely overlap.
“Many people subscribe to both email and text, so numbers can be misleading,” Behr said. He estimated that the alert system reached approximately 1,400 people total.
Northfield’s renowned status as a small town that stands up against the threat of robbery was upheld by Monday’s manhunt. What is more, Oles learned not only that they can depend on their town to keep them safe, but also that Ole Alert is succeeding at its function of keeping the campus informed and aware of any potential danger.