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Police chief faced tough decision in robbery investigation

During the search for an armed robbery suspect, Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels was faced with a tough decision: whether to release information about the sexual assaults that were committed during two of three robberies.

He wanted to keep the public informed and safe but at the same time, protect the privacy rights of the victims who were assaulted. He also didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation by letting the suspect know everything that investigators knew.

Wyffels said he talked to law enforcement agencies, expert investigators, legal counsel and others for advice, and ultimately decided to not release details about the robbery suspect touching the private areas of female clerks in two of the stores that were held up.

It was a decision that weighed heavily on Wyffels’ mind throughout the investigation.

“I struggled with it every day,” the chief said in a phone interview with the Echo Press Wednesday.

Victims of crimes are offered protection under the law, the chief said. Law enforcement does not release names of victims during investigations and, because the Alexandria community is small, even generalized details about the sexual assaults could cause the victims to be identified, he said.

How the investigation played out was another factor in Wyffels’ decision.

The first robbery included sexual assault but the second one at Premiere Video didn’t. Wyffels said that’s likely because there was a male customer in the store at the time and because another customer dropping off a video saw what was happening and called 911.

Wyffels said that investigators believe the suspect was closely watching how the case was being reported in the media because he changed his clothing and altered his behavior. Investigators didn’t want to tip him off about all the aspects of the case that they were looking into.

After the arrest of Michael Wayne Warren, 27, of Alexandria, who has been charged with 12 felonies in connection with the robberies, details of the sexual assaults – and Warren’s past criminal history – became public court documents.

Warren is a “level one” registered sex offender, which is determined by the courts to be at the least risk of repeating similar crimes. In 2008, he was convicted of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl in Big Stone County in 2002. He served his sentence and is on probation until 2038.

If he would have been a “level two” offender, law enforcement would have notified day cares and schools in the area when he moved to the Alexandria area about five years ago.

Level three offenders, considered to be the highest risk sexual predators, trigger communitywide notification and typically, a public meeting.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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