Shooting death in West Duluth leads to standoff, arrest

A tense five-hour standoff in the East Hillside neighborhood ended Wednesday with a 24-year-old Duluth man in custody, suspected in the city's third homicide in less than six weeks.

West Duluth shooting death
The suspect surrendered to police at 3 p.m. Wednesday after a five-hour standoff at his cousin's home.

A tense five-hour standoff in the East Hillside neighborhood ended Wednesday with a 24-year-old Duluth man in custody, suspected in the city's third homicide in less than six weeks.

More than 40 law enforcement officers swarmed the 600 block of East Sixth Street on Wednesday morning after determining that Stephen A. Cobenais was at a home rented by his cousin. A shooting shortly after

1 a.m. at Cobenais' West Duluth apartment left Marion Demon Highler, 31, of Duluth, dead.

Highler was shot once in the head, police said.

Many residents of the East Hillside block were kept from their homes and traffic was diverted from a four-block stretch of Sixth Avenue East as police negotiated with Cobenais to surrender.


Cobenais was armed, police said. At one point during the standoff a shot was heard in the house and Cobenais said he had fired his gun accidentally, said Deputy Chief John Beyer.

The waiting ended just after 3 p.m. when Cobenais gave himself up to police.

Cobenais is being held in the St. Louis County Jail on preliminary charges of second-degree murder.

The shooting happened in Cobenais' apartment above a flooring store at 3930 Grand Ave.

Officers responded to the building about 1:10 a.m. after witnesses heard a shot fired at the Grand Avenue address. Three women were seen leaving the scene. Beyer said police have talked to the women and all of them said they saw parts or all of the incident.

Police have responded to address of the fourplex 22 times since Jan. 1, mostly for medical calls, unwanted persons and disturbances.

The apartment is above the Nor-Floors Carpet and Flooring, where there are four apartment units. Ruth Norland, owner of Nor-Floors and the apartments, said Cobenais had not been a problem tenant.

"I've never had any problems with him," Norland said. "He was very laid-back and nice to me. He was quiet but would come in and talk to me once in a while."


Kingbird and Dan Fairbanks of the Duluth Urban Office of the Red Lake Nation confirmed that, contrary to some rumors, the suspect is not the same Steven Cobenais who survived a 2005 school shooting at the Red Lake Indian Reservation.


Cobenais has a criminal record in Hennepin and St. Louis counties. He was convicted of robbery in 2000 and burglary in 2005, both in Hennepin County. In St. Louis County, he was convicted of motor vehicle theft in 2005, assault on a police officer, assault causing substantial bodily harm, and domestic assault in 2007; and fifth-degree assault in 2008.

Highler had a criminal record that included at least five drug convictions in Minnesota and Il-linois, court records show. In St. Louis County, a 2007 conviction for possessing a felony level of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine resulted in 33-month prison sentence.

He served 22 months in prison and was freed July 7 on supervised release. Illinois records show at least three felony convictions from 1997 to 2002 for felony drug possession, including possessing cocaine.

Police tracked Cobenais to a house at 612 E. Sixth St. where his cousin, Melanie Kingbird, lives. Dozens of officers armed with rifles and shotguns were supported by tactical team vans and an armored vehicle that police called the "Peacekeeper.'' The armored vehicle was used as a shield for several officers, parked on the lawn in front of the house just a few feet from the front door.

A Gold Cross ambulance was kept at the scene all day, and tactical team squad members used a Duluth Transit Authority bus to take breaks between shifts of training their weapons on the house.

The standoff ended when Cobenais, wearing a white T-shirt, was taken into custody about 3:05 p.m. He walked out of the house and lay face-down on the front lawn while about 20 law enforcement officers looked on. He was handcuffed, quietly placed in the back seat of a Duluth squad car and driven away.



Cheryl White, Cobenais' mother, watched her son's arrest from behind police barricades about a block away. Weeping and visibly shaken, White said she was happy her son was unharmed and that the incident was over. But she criticized the police for dragging the incident on longer than necessary. Police had cut phone lines and access to Cobenais' cell phone.

"The police wouldn't let us talk to him. ... Everything could have been done earlier,'' White said.

Kingbird said she's not sure why Cobenais came to her house after the shooting.

"I woke up and he was standing there. He said, 'Cuz, I need to talk to you. ... And I said: 'Not now, I'm sleeping,' '' Kingbird said.

Kingbird said she fell back asleep and awoke several hours later to find her house surrounded by police. Kingbird and others left the house about 10 a.m. with Cobenais still inside. Kingbird, her boyfriend and two others in the house were handcuffed and taken into police custody but later released and returned to watch the standoff unfold.

Neighbors said police first showed up on East Sixth Street about 5:30 a.m. Lueretha Johnson, who lives next to the house where the standoff occurred, said police knocked on her door just before 10 a.m. and told her she wasn't safe. She took her daughters and left the house.

After more than five hours of standing on the street, Johnson said she was hungry and tired and glad to be getting back in her house.


"It's been a long day,'' she said.

Johnson said Cobenais had been a regular visitor to Kingbird's house and that he never seemed violent.

"He was real nice. The whole family is,'' Johnson said.

Highler's shooting was the third homicide in Duluth in 5½ weeks after experiencing none the first half of the year.

"It is concerning that we've had three in close proximity,'' Deputy Chief Beyer said, "but I have no indication or reason to believe that that trend will continue. In fact, if history dictates anything to us, it's just the opposite -- that this is a big anomaly that we've had three homicides in a short time and we may well go a long stretch without having another one.''

Crystal Norris, who lives two doors from Nor-Floors, said before she went to sleep Tuesday night she heard the sound of a loud party coming from the building.

Norris' roommate told her later that she twice heard someone yell: "No, please, don't," before hearing a gunshot. The roommate and her boyfriend then called 911, Norris said.

Police wouldn't speculate Wednesday on a motive for the shooting. Cobenais' relatives said that it might be related to a custody dispute.


Court documents showed Cobenais and the mother of his baby were scheduled to be in St. Louis County District Court Wednesday for a Child In Need of Protective Services hearing. The mother, Michaela Rabideau, lost custody of the baby and Cobenais gained custody after a hearing in July.

Rabideau was in the St. Louis County Jail from July 2 to July 22. A St. Louis County social worker discovered the baby with Rabideau last week. St. Louis County Social Services then filed a petition seeking custody at a hearing that was scheduled Wednesday. It was canceled when Cobenais and Rabideau didn't appear.

At one point during the standoff, Rabideau showed up at a nearby gas station, where she was recognized by Kingbird. A physical confrontation occurred until Rabideau fled into the gas station.

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