Taking prisoners

While facing a huge docket of backed up cases, Renville County’s new prosecutor is showing defendants that crime won’t pay.

The list of criminal offenses on the docket at times reads more like a police blotter in Minneapolis than a rural county some 80 miles west of the Twin Cities. Along with the usual lower-level crime, a rash of murder, drug, sex offender and domestic violence cases has struck Renville County in recent years, testing the authorities’ capacity to deal with it.

An officer-involved shooting in Olivia, a 13-year-old Bird Island boy stabbed to death, a fatal fentanyl overdose and another homicide in Renville all occurred within the last 10 months alone. There’s concern the southwestern Minnesota county of nearly 15,000 may be losing its way, amid a feeling the criminal justice system needs to do more.

“There was this weird sense that the slow slide in the metro was creeping in here and that we were going to lose what made us unique in the process,” says Dan Coughlin, city administrator of Olivia, the county seat.

Yet it still caught Coughlin and others by surprise when Kelsie Kingston, a 28-year-old assistant prosecutor on staff for five months, abruptly took over the Renville County Attorney’s Office in April. Her hard-nosed assessment of the challenge ahead belies her status as one of the youngest county prosecutors in the state.

“If I was a drug dealer this is where I’d go. I’d deal drugs here and I would sell drugs here,” the unusually blunt-speaking Kingston said in an interview in her office. “I would because it’s like this pie in the sky castle that has been built upon years of not doing anything about it and not being harder on drug crimes and too many second chances.”

There’s a new prosecutor at the county government center in Olivia, and she’s definitely taking prisoners.

“I think there was just a different philosophy about how to prevent getting into the situation we’re in,” Kingston says. “We are currently living in a situation that’s been created by our past. High crime, lots of drugs, lots of homicides, lots of murders by drugs, and a lot of domestics. And now we’re seeing a cyclical version where kids of parents we know from the past who may have gotten off based on previous ways we did things.”

The Renville Board of Commissioners took the unusual step of promoting Kingston after her predecessor announced he would not run for reelection this fall for the office he’s held since 1999. By all accounts, the Rochester native has hit the ground running with the same determination that led her to hike the entire Appalachian Trail following graduation from the University of St. Thomas Law School.

“This is a new regime,” says Renville County Sheriff Scott Hable. “Once you meet her you won’t forget her. Not only is she enthusiastic, but that young lady has energy. Just everything about her screams throttle wide open. She’s not afraid to work.”

Good thing, since Kingston faces a caseload of hundreds of criminal and civil files big and small, a backlog exacerbated by the pandemic. It disturbs her that some complaints will never be adjudicated due to the statute of limitations running out, leaving victims without closure.

“Do I think a case should ever sit on my desk for a year? Absolutely not,” Kingston says. “But I’m finding a lot of those. I just charged out a predatory offender a month ago from an incident that happened two and a half years ago and his defense is, why do you care now?”

Adding to the backlog is Kingston’s tough new policy of taking defendants to trial who don’t plead guilty to the highest charge facing them. Yet her resolve to hold offenders accountable rather than accepting lesser plea deals has not escaped the attention of both defense attorneys and police officers.

“Things are a little more hard-nosed, and a little bit more standardized,” says Scott Tedrick, editor of the Renville County Register. “I think there’s mixed feelings about that and I think probably, in general, a willingness to try some different things, recognizing that something needed to happen.”

In her first month in office, Kingston opened 31 new cases, including 17 criminal files, while closing 43. Two assistant county attorneys help shoulder the workload, including her predecessor. The decisive outcome of a recent jury trial in an attempted murder case shows Kingston means business.

“I’m hopeful. I do like to think that what I’m doing will make a difference eventually,” Kingston says. “I’m not going to get super bogged down by the fact that it’s hard right now.”

“Her ability in the courtroom is just tremendous,” Hable says. “I think it was a two-day trial. That jury got the case, they deliberated, I’m not kidding you for 6 minutes, and came back with a guilty verdict on all counts.”

Yet Kingston may be guilty of not knowing when to quit. Besides cleaning up crime, she leads the local Lions Club, volunteers at Olivia’s Corn Capitol Days festival and occasionally lends her husband a hand with the pigs on the farm.

“She’s making it a priority to get everything done now,” says Renville County Commissioner Randy Kramer. “My concern is that she doesn’t get burned out, because she’s burning the midnight oil.”

In her first election campaign this fall against former assistant county attorney Glen Jacobsen, Kingston will take her case to the public. It may come down to how fast the word spreads among criminals and residents alike that anyone intending to break the law should avoid Renville County or else.

“I’m hopeful. I do like to think that what I’m doing will make a difference eventually,” Kingston says. “I’m not going to get super bogged down by the fact that it’s hard right now.”