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A policy fellow for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey whose story of incarceration helped influence criminal justice reform in recent years has been charged with selling drugs and illegally possessing a gun.

Police say they pulled over 28-year-old Keegan Rolenc for running a stop sign late Sunday and searched his car after smelling marijuana. They found 40.6 grams of cocaine, $2,200 and a loaded 9-millimeter handgun in a backpack, according to charges filed Tuesday in Hennepin County.

Police also found a digital scale and a notebook with a list of handwritten names under the title, "owe me," according to the complaint.

Rolenc has been working 30 hours a week for Frey since January, making $15 per hour, on policy issues related to economic inclusion and real estate. He is suspended pending the outcome of the case.

Frey said he learned about Rolenc's arrest Monday, a day before Rolenc was scheduled to appear alongside the mayor at a public event.

"I was gutted — totally gutted," said Frey. "If the allegations are true, the disappointment is cavernous."

Rolenc is facing three felony charges and a violation of probation. He posted bail Tuesday evening.

In an interview Tuesday, Rolenc maintained his innocence. "I'll be waiting for my due process and my day in court for the facts to come out," he said, asking the public to reserve judgment in the meantime.

In 2016, the Star Tribune profiled Rolenc in a series of stories investigating Minnesota's solitary-confinement practices. The report featured a journal Rolenc kept during his year in the state's harshest isolation unit, in which Rolenc documented his daily experience, reflected on his crimes and dreamed of the life he'd lead when he got out.

"My great great great grandparents were slaves," reads one passage. "Great great grandparents the children of slaves. It's in the bloodline to survive."

Outside of prison, Rolenc's mother, Sharon Rolenc, advocated for more humane prisoner treatment at the Capitol alongside mental health advocates. Last year, with bipartisan support, Minnesota legislators passed the state's first-ever laws addressing prisoner isolation.

Rolenc's story has been one of an unlikely redemption: after a drive-by shooting landed him in maximum-security prison, he returned to society determined to start a new life. Rolenc took up competitive boxing, spoke to rooms full of people about incarceration and race and has recently appeared in photos at events alongside politicians like former Attorney General Eric Holder. Rolenc also struggled with the obstacles his felony record posed, such as finding a job that paid more than minimum wage to support his family.

Frey said he met Rolenc shortly after his 2016 release from prison, at a meeting for a city-sponsored gang intervention program. Frey said he was struck by Rolenc's charisma, eloquence and determination to turn his life around.

"He talked about how the presence of his son changed his life and he was going to do everything he could," Frey recalled.

The two struck up a friendship. "I started working with him and mentoring him," Frey said.

Rolenc was studying for his real estate exam, and Frey used his connections to get him meetings with people in the industry. In his first budget address, Frey called out Rolenc by name as an example of success in the city's gang intervention programs.

"After staying up for multiple nights studying his tail off, he passed the first phase of real estate exams," the mayor said, introducing Rolenc. "Please give him a round of applause."

Rolenc did pass the Minnesota real estate exam. But the Department of Commerce rejected his license because of his criminal history. In March 2019, Frey helped Rolenc find attorneys who appealed the ruling pro bono, and Frey spoke on Rolenc's behalf at the hearing. In August, an administrative judge denied his appeal.

Frey then gave Rolenc a job in his office. Frey said he had not talked to Rolenc since the arrest.

Rolenc's first court appearance is scheduled for Wednesday.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036