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Before Jon Prentice was deputy chief of the Minneapolis police, before he led its "morals" unit or served as a hard-charging member of its Flying Squad, before he joined the elite diving team and before he was shot chasing a rape suspect, he was the confident hunk lifeguard who captured Nancy Nordholm's heart at Nokomis Beach.

"That's where I met Jon. I thought he was the cutest guy there," Nancy Prentice said of the man who became her husband and father to their three children. "He was headstrong and my kinda guy and he liked me a lot. That all helped."

Prentice, 83, died Aug. 15 after a life seemingly created by a true-crime novelist. In fact, his 1964 gunfight with a suspected rapist — who shot Prentice before the pursuing officer returned fire, killing the suspect with a single shot — was the subject of a story in Master Detective magazine. An Army veteran and graduate of Augsburg College, Prentice served 30 years in the Minneapolis Police Department, retiring as the head of its patrol division.

That he was a natural leader was obvious early on, said longtime newspaper reporter Wayne Wangstad, who was a lifeguard with Prentice for three summers.

"Jon was lifeguard manager one year. I remember they had an open area where the dressing rooms were, and there was this one guy, huge, a weightlifter," Wangstad said. "He was out there, naked, lying on his back. Jon went right up to him and said, 'Goddammit, put something on and get the hell out of here or I'll call the cops.' "

Wangstad added: "I wouldn't have had the guts. … He was a hard-charger."

In November 1964, Prentice was a member of the Flying Squad, an elite unit of police officers who were former military sent into high-crime areas. While the unit was investigating a series of break-ins and rapes near Franklin Steele Park, Prentice heard gunshots and saw a man running away. He gave chase, shouting that he was a police officer. As Prentice turned a corner, he saw a flash from only a few feet away and felt something slam into his hip.

"I either fell or was spun around," he told the Minneapolis Tribune. "When I recovered, I saw him running. I leveled my gun and shot."

A later search of the suspect's apartment turned up burglary tools and masks that matched those described by two rape victims.

"You wonder when you're face to face if you can kill a guy," Prentice said. "And after it happens, you keep wondering."

It took Prentice a long time to heal — physically and emotionally, his family said.

As commander of the "morals" squad, Prentice's men raided adult bookstores, shut down nude model photo studios and arrested prostitutes and johns. A 1973 New York Times story about Midwestern prostitution and porn quoted him: "Our main hang up in dealing with commercial sex and pornography in Minneapolis is that so many people these days just don't think it's a serious problem."

In a 1974 Tribune story, after he was reassigned, Prentice lamented a job where he was "damned if you do, and damned if you don't" and said he was "thrilled to be off."

While he was a "tough guy," his wife said, Prentice lavished his children "with hugs and candy bars" after work each day. Years later, he was the guy who handed out frozen pops to neighborhood kids, said his daughter Johni Levene.

After retiring, Prentice served at the Chester Bird American Legion Post. It surprised no one that he became post commander.

He is survived by his wife and children Johni Levene, Grant Prentice and Stephanie Elwell. Services have been held.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428