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Akeley man convicted in assault on state trooper

Elijah Lee Knowles

An Akeley man who testified Wednesday that he feared being shot during a drunken driving arrest last fall was acquitted on the most serious charge in connection with the incident.

Elijah Lee Knowles, 26, was convicted of lesser but still serious charges in the Oct. 22 assault on a state patrol trooper but the Cass County jury of 12 did not find him guilty on a charge of First Degree Assault that would have carried a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence and could have been punishable by up to 20 years.

Knowles was charged after Trooper Darcy Gagnon stopped him on suspicion of drunken driving east of Park Rapids and tried to take him into custody.

Both she and Knowles testified to a struggle that took place in a ditch, and that she radioed for extra help with the stop.

Troopers arrived from Brainerd and Park Rapids to come to her assist during the early morning hours.

Knowles testified he stopped cooperating with Gagnon's orders when her demeanor changed and she pulled a weapon on him, threatening to take him to jail. Knowles thought the gun was Gagnon's duty weapon, he testified, not a Taser. He feared being shot in the head and grabbed the weapon by the barrel, he testified.

The dashboard camera shows only parts of the struggle because the two were out of camera range, but audio portions indicated Gagnon asking Knowles "to go back to being a nice guy." The audio portion of the tape makes it clear a struggle is under way.

"She pulled her Taser" Knowles testified. "I thought t was a gun. I instantly put both hands on it to keep her from pointing it at me."

Knowles testified he repeatedly asked Gagnon to use the phone during the stop to call his girlfriend. He then intended to ride with her to the jail, he said.

Gagnon testified to a much different account, of an uncooperative and surly man who refused to comply with her orders. At one point, Gagnon testified being choked in the struggle, and of being struck several times with her own Taser.

During her testimony, jurors repeatedly sized up the diminutive officer and the 6-foot man sitting at the defense table.

Knowles said once he got the Taser "I threw it as hard as I could.

"Would you want to be shot?" he asked Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne during a blistering cross-examination.

Once Dep. Adam Williams approached the scene, Knowles fled in his vehicle.

"I was hoping to God I wouldn't get shot in the back," Knowles testified, adding he thought his car was "the safest place to protect myself."

As he fled, "a firearm and Taser were pointing through my window... My body went into convulsions" as the Taser hit him in the arm and chest.

"Under the circumstances I was in, I believed I would be treated hostile," Knowles told the jury. "I would escape the danger I thought I was in" by fleeing.

The jury sat riveted as Williams described what was going on during the 18-minute high-speed chase as filmed on his dashboard cam.

A third vehicle driven by Dep. Jeff Stacey joined the pursuit, which reached speeds of 110 mph and criss-crossed Highway 34 several times.

The pursuit ended in a horrific crash south of Akeley. But it was unclear in the video if Knowles turned around on a dead end street earlier in the chase and was heading directly to Williams' vehicle. It appeared he was going around the squad car in an attempt to avoid a collision.

Trooper Dion Pederson testified Knowles was going so fast, part of his taillight lens was deeply embedded in one of the trees he sideswiped.

Stacey and Williams testified on two occasions, they thought Knowles was going to ram their vehicles at high speeds.

Stacey, who positioned his SUV on the highway at one point to cut Knowles off, testified he quickly moved when he saw the headlights bearing down on him.

"I knew if he were to hit me I would have suffered a major injury," Stacey told the jury.

Once Knowles crashed, deputies testified that he resisted their attempts to cuff him and get him into Stacey's car.

Defense attorney Jennifer Nelson said Knowles was partially blinded by chemicals seeping out of the deployed airbag, and when officers pepper sprayed and kneed him, he was unable to walk or talk.

He was eventually taken to St. Joseph's Emergency Room, for treatment of his wounds and removal of the Taser probes, in the examining room next to where a doctor put several staples in Gagnon's head for treatment of her wound.

Trooper Suzanne Pederson testified she arrived on the scene to find a frightened and bleeding Gagnon in the ambulance receiving treatment.

"She looked at me and said, 'He wanted me dead,'" Gagnon told Pederson.

Pieces of the Taser were found at the scene with Gagnon's blood on them.

The jury deliberated for approximately almost four hours, returning verdicts of guilty on Assaulting Trooper Gagnon with a Dangerous Weapon, Causing Bodily Injury, Disarming a Police Officer, Fleeing, DUI, and Obstructing. The verdict came down late Wednesday night.

Knowles was acquitted of four assault charges involving Williams and Stacey. The jury deadlocked on another charge of assault with bodily fluids.

The most serious charge would have required a finding that Gagnon had suffered great bodily injury, said Dearstyne.

"I guess they didn't think a gash on the head was great bodily injury," he said. He thanked the jury for its deliberations.

Nelson, too, thanked the jury, expressing relief her client wouldn't be facing the ten-year mandatory sentence.

Throughout the two-day trial, Knowles' family members packed the courthouse on one side of the room, while several troopers and Gagnon's husband came to support her on the other side of the courtroom.

Judge John Smith presided. Knowles, who was taken immediately into custody, is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 15.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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