The case - or lack thereof - against Zumbrota-Mazeppa teacher Joe Halvorson
There was absolutely nothing remarkable to Joe Halvorson about his drive home from work April 22, 2008.
He left Zumbrota-Mazeppa High School just after 3:30 p.m. and drove down Highway 52 to his Rochester home.
"I didn't think anything peculiar happened that day," he later recalled.
But something peculiar did happen. Unbeknownst to Halvorson, a man pulled up alongside a moving busload of Cannon Falls High School girls that afternoon and exposed himself on Highway 52.
Halvorson would not become aware of the incident until nearly a month later - after receiving a cryptic letter from the Minnesota State Patrol requesting him to call a trooper about his activities from that April day.
Halvorson didn't realize it at the time, but the letter represented the beginning of his descent into the wormhole. He would later be charged with indecent exposure, allegations that drew wide media attention and instantly stigmatized him as a teacher.
He would eventually be cleared of the charges by First District Court Judge Kevin Mark, who determined "it would have been factually impossible for the defendant to have committed the offense."
But that conclusion was not reached until more than a year - and thousands of dollars in attorney's fees - later.
For most people, the case represents a nightmare scenario: being wrongly accused of a disturbing crime. Halvorson lived the nightmare, but said the stigma behind the allegations continues to haunt him.
"The true impact of these false allegations can never be determined," he said a year after being exonerated.
So just how did Halvorson end up in this predicament? A review of his case file and court transcripts indicates Halvorson was the victim of misidentification, his alibi dismissed by prosecution.
Nobody involved in the case doubts the offense the girls on the bus say they witnessed actually occurred.
According to multiple accounts, the bus left Cannon Falls High School around 3:15 p.m. for a softball game in Rochester. While the bus entered a stretch on the highway that divides northbound and southbound traffic with a grove of trees north of Zumbrota, the girls witnessed a man in a car expose his genitals.
The motorist then hit the brakes and dropped back behind the bus, according to witness statements. The girls, stunned and sickened, groaned aloud. One later said she felt "emotionally raped."
One witness would later testify she got a good look at the suspect, describing him as a bigger, bald male in his 30s. The general description matched Halvorson's appearance, though the eyewitnesses' recollection of the suspect vehicle did not: The girls reported seeing a bluish car, while Halvorson's car was green.
Coaches on the bus learned of the incident moments later and told the girls to get the vehicle's license plate number if they saw it again.
As they entered the Rochester area, the girls cried out, "There's the car, there's the car," according to a statement from the team's head coach.
They jotted down the license plate as it passed the bus. The plates came back to Halvorson.
After returning from the game, coaches alerted the Cannon Falls athletic director, who advised them to report the incident to police.
State trooper Troy Siems investigated the case. On May 29, 2008 - more than a month after the offense - he interviewed players and coaches.
After giving statements, the two girls who witnessed the incident were issued a photo lineup. Both independently identified Halvorson as the suspect.
The case appeared virtually airtight -- all except for the part that Halvorson couldn't have committed the crime.
Some people look at the daily routine as a drag. Halvorson now sees his former work routine as his saving grace.
After wrapping up the school day April 22, 2008, Halvorson went back to his office at Z-M, fired off an e-mail, logged off his computer and drove home.
Pretty typical day, he said.
According to school records, Halvorson logged off at 3:36 p.m. - likely just after the offense occurred.
As his attorney Joe Friedberg would spell out in court, the logoff data proved Halvorson could not have been present at the time and place of the offense that the witnesses described.
Even if going by the bus's latest possible departure time - 3:20 or 3:25 p.m., according to one account - Halvorson would have had to leave the school, speed north on Highway 52 for about 18 miles and make a U-turn before zooming up next to the bus. All in about 10 minutes.
Judge Mark described that possibility as a "beam me up Scottie" scenario during the June 5, 2009, hearing that led to dismissal of the case.
However, that didn't prevent prosecution from offering a double-hearsay statement based on one person's version of the events.
Assistant Goodhue County Attorney Erin Kuester raised the possibility at the 2009 hearing that the cluster of trees the witnesses reported seeing at the offense site might have been closer to Pine Island.
That setting, Halvorson said, allowed prosecution to coordinate the offense location with his actual travel route.
"Conveniently, my alibi no longer becomes valid," he said.
Kuester noted at the hearing that the bus driver told an assistant coach he didn't hear a commotion until they were near Pine Island, opening up the possibility that the offense occurred there and not north of Zumbrota.
Defense attorney Friedberg refuted that possibility, saying it directly controverted testimony by the two eyewitnesses who placed the site at the wide tree-clustered median near the Edgewood Motel between Cannon Falls and Zumbrota.
Trooper Siems admitted under cross-examination that if the offense occurred 10 or 15 minutes after the bus left Cannon Falls and near the Edgewood - as the witnesses stated - then it ruled out the southern tree cluster near Pine Island.
"We're talking about the northern spot, aren't we?" Friedberg asked Siems.
"That's what I would assume," he replied.
Siems eventually agreed that if Halvorson left the school at 3:36 p.m., and the girls identified his car around 4 p.m. near Rochester, then "that's about the right time that he should be getting there, right?"
"Yes," Siems replied.
Kuester declined to comment on any aspect of the case to the R-E, noting that it remains under the statute of limitations. Siems did not respond to multiple requests seeking inquiry into the investigation.
The judge, who noted during the hearing that he grew up in the area and is familiar with its geographical landmarks, sided with Friedberg's analysis, which included testimony from a private investigator who inspected the possible travel routes.
"Based upon the record, the court can surmise that the commotion which occurred near Pine Island was the area where the students saw the defendant's vehicle shortly before he exited off of Highway 52, not the location where the actual exposure took place," Mark wrote in his dismissal order.
The loose ends
But what about those eyewitness accounts that fingered Halvorson and his vehicle as the perpetrator?
That remains a mystery, but different aspects of the case indicate it could be a combination of unfortunate circumstances.
Halvorson suspects that when he drove past the bus near Rochester, the girls, eager to get a good look at the suspect and the car, simply remembered his face and confused it with the perpetrator's.
"That was the lasting impression they had in their brain," he said.
He also noted that he volunteered as a ticket-taker during a May 17, 2008, softball tournament - during the interim period of the offense and the May 29, 2008, photo lineups - in Zumbrota. Halvorson said Cannon Falls was among the teams at the tournament and offered another opportunity for the girls to see his face.
But it was that delay between the offense date and witness interviews that also colored Mark's ruling. Siems had interviewed an assistant coach the day after the offense, but waited another five weeks until conducting the photo lineups, the judge noted in the dismissal order.
Mark also pointed out that the primary details witnesses collected were during the second sighting, not during the offense.
"The statements establish that the license plate of the suspect vehicle was not recorded until the second sighting of the alleged offender," he wrote. "No plate number was recorded at the same time the suspect exposed his genitals to the girls on the bus."
Despite being exonerated, the saga has left a lasting impact on Halvorson's life, including questions as to whether he'll ever teach again. Those aspects are explored in Part 2 of this series running soon.