Charges against an 83-year-old Champlin man in a crash at a bus shelter that injured six men this summer continued to draw attention to racial tensions on the North Side of Minneapolis as authorities investigated the incident.
George R. Jensen was charged Friday with five counts of criminal vehicular operation in the July 9 incident, but activists questioned whether authorities were being lenient because the victims are black.
At an afternoon news conference about the case, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said there was not enough evidence to support tougher charges. Activist Spike Moss, accompanied by fellow activist Tyrone Terrill, accused Freeman of treating black victims and defendants differently from their white counterparts, like Jensen.
“This is a strange case and this is a place where Minnesota statutes seem lacking,” Freeman said. “Criminal vehicular operation is about a one- to five-year felony, and without a previous criminal history, no prison time. Most judges are not going to give an 83-year-old man prison time with no priors.”
Jensen was charged via summons and is not in custody. He could not be reached for comment Friday, and he had no attorney listed for his case.
Moss asked Freeman why Jensen wasn’t charged with a hate crime or attempted murder, saying that if the driver were black, more serious charges would have been filed.
“We have to show murderous intent. We don’t have that here,” Freeman said. “We don’t know why he did it. We don’t know what happened.”
Moss refused to accept the answer. He asked why Jensen, who was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time, was never arrested.
“If they’re not a danger to the community …” Freeman said.
“He got nine people trapped under the truck, he’s already proven he’s a danger,” Moss said.
Several days after the crash, members of the Racial Justice Network and Black Lives Matter Twin Cities gathered at the scene at W. Broadway and N. Lyndale Avenue to express dismay that charges had not been filed against Jensen.
According to the criminal complaint: On July 9, Jensen was seen talking to three women in front of the bus stop. One of the women told police that she knew Jensen as “Howard,” and that he had been coming by over the course of three years, giving women $10 in exchange for their phone numbers.
Freeman declined to say whether he believed Jensen was looking for a prostitute. The charges said that one witness told police Jensen was “circling the area trying to find a woman to pick up,” and that the women turned him down.
Surveillance video from the scene shows Jensen driving his van away from the women and then sideswiping a Metro Transit bus as he traveled south on Lyndale Avenue.
He backed up and hit the bus again, but never stopped to check the damage or talk to the bus driver.
Jensen then pulled into the intersection “in order to give himself a view of the bus shelter on Broadway,” the charges said. He “very slowly” turned onto Broadway Avenue.
“The video captures Defendant tapping his brakes at least four times for no apparent reason as he drifted between lanes,” the complaint said, adding that there were no pedestrians or vehicles near him to explain activating the brake lights.
Jensen then veered onto the curb and accelerated “slowly,” striking a bench, news stand and a bike rack before crashing into the bus shelter.
“At no point once he was up on the curb, did Defendant activate his brakes even though he had activated the brakes seconds before,” the complaint said.
Jensen’s actions, Moss said at Freeman’s news conference, indicate that he meant to harm his victims.
Three men were pinned under the shelter debris and a fourth was pinned under the passenger side of the van.
Three men were taken in critical condition to North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale. Two others were transported to HCMC with noncritical injuries.
One man was treated at the scene and released.
The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said one man suffered several pelvic fractures and “significant” blood loss; another suffered rib fractures, a lacerated spleen and broke both legs, among other injuries; a third suffered a traumatic brain injury and several broken ribs; a fourth suffered a fractured spine; and a fifth suffered several rib fractures.
Freeman said he believed two men continue to receive medical care.
Jensen gave conflicting statements to authorities, according to the charges.
“He did acknowledge that he has been to that area several times before and talks to one woman in particular, sometimes giving her money just to help her out,” said a news release from Freeman’s office. “He said he hit the gas accidentally instead of the brake, but could not explain why he needed to hit the brake or why he was on the sidewalk.”
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib