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Guardian Angels hit Rochester streets

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- It's getting late on a Saturday night as a group of Guardian Angels anxiously await closing time at the Aquarius dance club in Rochester.

Rochester
Dayton Buege, Rocket Andersen and Mike LaPlante all members of the Rochester, Minn, chapter of the Guardian Angles walk the downtown streets in Rochester, Minn. on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Scott Jacobson, Rochester Post-Bulletin)

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- It's getting late on a Saturday night as a group of Guardian Angels anxiously await closing time at the Aquarius dance club in Rochester.

It's been a quiet night for the red beret-wearing crime prevention volunteers. Anticipation is building, though, as they sit in a pair of vehicles on the far side of the Aquarius parking lot. Just last month, they point out, police reported gunfire in the lot at 2:15 a.m., shortly after the club closed for the night.

"Only 10 minutes until they shut it down and there's still a lot of cars in the parking lot," said 55-year-old Jim Andersen of Rochester.

The retired carpenter's concern shows in his voice. Large crowds leaving the club at once can quickly lead to trouble as people gather outside and get into arguments, he says.

Closing time comes, and the club starts emptying. A Rochester police officer who has been patrolling the parking lot whisks her squad car to the entrance.

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The group of five Guardian Angels watch the scene unfold a minute, then decide it's time to help club bouncers keep the crowd moving to their cars.

Andersen and Guardian Angel Vicki Zook climb out of Andersen's SUV and join the rest of the group, falling in line as they walk across the parking lot toward the crowd.

The Aquarius parking lot has become a regular destination for the Rochester chapter of the Guardian Angels in its first four months of conducting independent patrols. The group has six full members and four in training.

One of those trainees is Corey Sheldon, 26, a Rochester Community and Technical College law enforcement student who was on patrol with the group at Aquarius that night.

Like other Guardian Angels, Sheldon has a street name, "The Jackal," that can be used to either protect his identity from criminals or to ensure clear communication between patrol members if they get involved in an altercation.

Joining Sheldon on patrol at the Aquarius were four Guardian Angels who have already completed their training. Among them was another RCTC student, 21-year-old Dayton "Wolf" Buege, a serious-looking young man who is minoring in criminal justice and says he wants to work in an anti-drug law enforcement group.

Rounding out the group is the wiry Andersen, or "Rocket," who joined the Guardian Angels because he's concerned about rising crime in Rochester; the straight-talking Zook, or "Griz," a 50-something bail bond agent who has connections with law enforcement; and chapter founder Mike "Walker" LaPlante, 54, a health information manager at Mayo Clinic, who said his Guardian Angels street name comes from his slight resemblance to "Walker, Texas Ranger" star Chuck Norris.

Aquarius is just one of many places around the city where the Rochester chapter has gone on its weekly Saturday patrols. The group also conducts one or two patrols on other days of the week, varying locations and times. Patrol sizes vary from four to eight Guardian Angels, Zook said. The group carries no weapons. They do typically carry handcuffs, cell phones, flashlights, and pens and paper to record information such as license-plate numbers and descriptions of suspicious vehicles.

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The Rochester chapter of the Guardian Angels hasn't made any citizen's arrests yet and hasn't physically broken up any altercations, LaPlante said.

They did find a weapon for police at a fight in northeast Rochester, however, and they have interrupted suspicious activity at a housing complex in southeast Rochester, he said.

The Guardian Angels patrolled a handful of places around Rochester before going to Aquarius on Saturday night.

They met at Gilligan's Cove bar, then walked a quick loop around downtown Rochester, paying particular attention to alleys. Next they drove to 4½ Street Northwest, where they had heard complaints about suspicious activity.

Finding nothing there, they drove across town to walk around the neighborhood of Silver Lake Apartments in northeast Rochester. It was their first time patrolling the area, which was chosen because a shooting happened there a week earlier, Zook said.

From there they drove to 8½ Street Southeast, where they walked through a housing complex parking lot and searched a bus stop that has been used for drug deal dropoffs, according to a tip the Guardian Angels received from a nearby resident. They found nothing.

After a quick drive-through of a neighborhood off Marion Road, the group pulled into the Aquarius parking lot.

"Let's let 'em see we're here," Zook said, and the group circled the parking lot on foot.

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Near the end of their loop, LaPlante spotted a man in a hooded coat walking by himself on the far edge of the parking lot.

LaPlante nudged Andersen in the elbow and the group turned slightly toward the man. He responded by casually turning around and heading back to Marion Road, away from the club.

It's not clear what the man was doing, but it looked suspicious, LaPlante said later. Instances such as that illustrate the visual deterrent that the Guardian Angels hope to have, he said.

Deterring problems was also the goal later at closing time as the Guardian Angels stood in a row by the Aquarius entrance as patrons spilled headed to the parking lot.

"Come on you guys, get in your cars," LaPlante said as people milled in the parking lot and bouncers yelled at patrons to leave.

About 20 minutes after the Guardian Angels went to the club entrance, the parking lot was mostly empty and quiet.

"That was very peaceful," Andersen says, relief showing on his face.

From there the night ended quietly. The SuperAmerica on Fourth Street Southeast was quiet, and the Gilligan's parking lot was calm as the group called it a night at 2:30 a.m.

"It was a good night -- boring," Zook said.

Reactions to the Guardian Angels varied throughout the night, from gratitude to curiosity to the occasional wisecrack. But throughout the patrol, the Angels talked about how encouraged they are. They told stories about a cab driver who insisted on shaking all their hands, elderly people who have come out of their homes to thank them, and positive feedback from police officers. The positive relationship they have with officers was seen at Aquarius, when one officer pulled up to the group and chatted collegially with them.

Police Chief Roger Peterson said he's heard nothing negative about the Guardian Angels and he has no cause for concern about them so far.

"It's little difficult to quantify the upside (of the Guardian Angels patrols), but that doesn't mean it's not there," he said.

Less guarded in his assessment of the group was Gilligan's owner Harland Morehart, who said he thinks the group is helping "clean up" downtown.

"We appreciate what they're doing," he said.

Feedback like that encourages the Guardian Angels to persevere in cold weather as new members are hard to come by, Buege said.

"If the community didn't want us here, we wouldn't be here," he said.

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