Doffing trial: Doffing took the stand in his defense WednesdayOn Wednesday morning, Rene Doffing took the stand in his defense. He was sworn in at around 11 a.m. and was questioned by his attorney, Paul Engh. After a lunch break, prosecutor Bill Bernard cross-examined Doffing.
By: Chad Richardson, The Hastings Star-Gazette
On Wednesday morning, Rene Doffing took the stand in his defense. He was sworn in at around 11 a.m. and was questioned by his attorney, Paul Engh. After a lunch break, prosecutor Bill Bernard cross-examined Doffing.
Engh first walked Doffing through his background, including a sobering story about the morning his father passed away in 1979. It was Thanksgiving morning and the previous night his father had worked at a water main break.
Doffing awoke to hear his dog barking, and learned shortly thereafter that his father was having a heart attack. He and his older brother Randy started CPR but weren’t able to save their father.
His relationship with his mother was strong before that and is even strong now, he said.
“I would consider her my best friend,” he said. She works at his restaurant two days a week and he talks to her every day, he said.
Doffing said he completed his course work at Hastings High School a semester early, and he attended Inver Hills Community College to earn some college credits. He then attended Mankato State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in law enforcement.
He had a hard time finding a job out of school since the economy was in a recession. He ended up taking a position at the Prairie Island nuclear power plant, where he worked in security. He soon earned his peace officer’s license and began to volunteer with the Hastings Police Department as a Reserve officer.
Eventually he was hired and began work at the city in January 1994.
“I was ecstatic,” he said. “It was my hometown … and it was a chance to give back to my community.”
He was married by this time and was starting his family. He’d eventually have three children and he is still married some 26 years later.
Engh asked Doffing if his wife was “still the love of his life?”
“She is,” Doffing replied.
While he was an officer, Doffing followed in his father’s footsteps and dabbled in the restaurant business. He and his brother-in-law purchased a bar in Vermillion, where he employs his wife, his children, his mother and many other family members.
Engh then began asking Doffing about the various promotional items that are given away to bar owners. Doffing supplied two plastic garbage bags full of promotional items, and Engh asked about things ranging from a Corona beer bucket to a hat, a golf towel and a bottle opener.
Doffing said he didn’t initially plan to attend the union meeting because he had a 7 p.m. pool game at his bar that he needed to be on time for. If he were late for the match, his team would have needed to forfeit the game. Since, though, the union meeting was important to officers with seniority (like Doffing), he attended.
He had gotten off work at 6 p.m., gone home to change clothes and pick up his son (who is also on the pool team) and by 6:15 p.m. or 6:20 p.m. he had arrived at the Green Mill.
His son took a seat in the bar, and Doffing approached the bar to get a Diet Coke. While he was walking to the bar, he observed the bartender drop something into a bucket behind the bar.
Doffing ordered his Diet Coke and as the bartender was getting his soda, Doffing looked into the bucket. He saw a number of items and on top was a folding corkscrew. He reached in, grabbed it and then examined it. He observed it was a flat piece of metal, that it folded out into a T and that it had a knife to presumably cut the foil away from the corks. He said he was curious about the corkscrew and the brand of wine that was advertised on the side of the item.
He said he planned to ask the bartender about the corkscrew, but immediately after he was served his Diet Coke, the bartender spun around and went to fill the orders for two servers who were waiting at the bar.
Doffing decided to take the corkscrew with him and said he planned to “inquire with Tim about it” later. He said he had met O’Brien when the restaurant originally opened, and that he had visited the restaurant two to three times a month since then.
He said he wanted to ask O’Brien where to get the openers and general questions like that. He later learned, he said, that O’Brien was not in the restaurant that night.
Doffing said he walked into the meeting room, got a few chicken wings for his son, then came back in to get some pizza for himself.
He sat down and soon after he saw Schuenke enter the room. He overheard a conversation about a stolen bottle opener.
“It’s not stolen,” Doffing said. “I have it right here.”
Engh asked Doffing if he had intended to commit a crime, and Doffing said he did not.
Doffing then testified he showed the corkscrew to Bukkila. The two then had a conversation about it.
“He thought it was pretty neat,” Doffing said. “He wanted to get one.”
Doffing told Bukkila that he could talk to O’Brien and see if he had any extras.
Doffing testified that three to five minutes later, the restaurant’s manager approached him and asked for the corkscrew back. It was sitting on the table under the lip of his plate. He reached for it and gave it to her.
At about 6:45 p.m., Doffing said he received a phone call from his daughter. She told him he would have to be leaving soon to get to the pool meet in time. He and his son left and drove to Vermillion to play in the league. They made it in time, he said, and he produced a league sheet that he said backed up his story.
Doffing learned from Chief of Police Paul Schnell about the investigation, and he later made arrangements to speak with the investigator assigned to the case. On Jan. 7, Schnell informed Doffing that he had been charged in the case.
Engh then asked Doffing about the investigation and about its fairness, considering he wasn’t given a chance to tell his side of the story.
“They didn’t hear you out?” Engh asked.
“No,” Doffing answered.
“Would you have preferred that interview take place before you were charged?” Engh asked.
“Yes,” Doffing answered.
“Was the investigation here fair and thorough for you sir?” Engh asked.
“No,” Doffing answered.
Engh concluded his questions and a break was taken for lunch.
During the lunch break, Engh asked for a judgment of acquittal from Judge Michael Mayer, who denied the request.
The prosecutor, Bernard, then began his cross-examination of Doffing.
Bernard asked Doffing about his intention to ask O’Brien about the corkscrew. Bernard pointed out that Doffing had walked by a door on his way to the bar and his way back from the bar that led to O’Brien’s office, and he made no attempt to stop in and talk to him. Doffing said that since O’Brien’s office is through a pair of doors near the kitchen, he wasn’t comfortable just walking in there.
Bernard then moved along and began asking about the promotional items that bars are given. Doffing said he typically uses the items as give-aways during karaoke contests and the like. Bernard asked if people could just come in and grab those promotional items from behind the bar, and Doffing agreed they couldn’t.
“This is not a free-for-all, correct?” Bernard asked.
“Correct,” Doffing said.
Bernard then asked Doffing if his son was a member of the union. Doffing said his son was not. Why then, Bernard asked, did Doffing give him a plate of buffalo wings that was paid for by the union?
“It’s a perk,” Bernard said. “You took advantage of that perk and provided food to a non-union member.”
Bernard asked Doffing if O’Brien had ever come to his restaurant and taken his things. Doffing said he hadn’t.
Bernard then moved on and began talking about Doffing’s employment at the nuclear power plant. He asked Doffing if his duties included preventing people from leaving the facility with sensitive documents, like important drawings and plans. Bernard tried to draw a correlation between protecting those nuclear secrets and property belonging to a restaurant. Doffing challenged that question and said, “Some trinkets are made to be given away. They’re not giving away plutonium. They’re not just putting it on a keychain.”
Bernard then asked Doffing about theft cases he has responded to, and what importance is placed on the dollar value of the item that was stolen. The two went back and forth a bit before Bernard asked Doffing a hypothetical question.
If Doffing were responding to a theft call and while en route he learned that the item stolen had a value of $3, would he turn around? Doffing answered that he would not.
Engh took another opportunity to ask questions of Doffing, and he concluded by asking:
“Had (Tim O’Brien) come into your bar and asked for a trinket, would you have given him one?”
Doffing replied: “I would I think I would.”
Brock Bukkila, a Hastings officer, was then called as a defense witness. He testified that he was seated next to Doffing and that he remembers seeing him fiddling with the opener.
“I said it was real nice,” Bukkila said.
Bukkila said his wife drinks wine and that their corkscrew is broken. Doffing agreed to talk with O’Brien in an effort to get a similar corkscrew for him.