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The Timberjay’s ongoing investigation into the tasing of an Ash River business owner by rangers in Voyageurs National Park has raised troubling questions about the actions of park law enforcement. Despite the Park Service’s refusal thus far to provide any information regarding the June 25, 2022, incident, the Timberjay’s own investigation is beginning to fill in the details.
What we know is that a houseboat that had been rented by Ebel Voyageur Houseboats had run aground on rocks in Lake Kabetogama in windy weather and the couple who had rented the boat contacted business owner Justin Ebel to assist.
Mr. Ebel responded in a service boat and was able to free the houseboat and subsequently asked his clients to pilot the boat back into the protected waters of Sullivan Bay, where he could inspect the vessel for possible damage. In other words, the situation appears to have been well in hand and orderly when the park rangers chose to intervene, just as the houseboat was entering the narrows leading into Sullivan Bay.
The rationale for their intervention is unknown at this time because the Park Service refuses to answer any questions pertaining to the incident. The couple who had rented the houseboat, who spoke to the Timberjay for our update on this incident in this week’s edition, said the rangers ordered them to return to the open waters of the lake, where they indicated they wished to speak to them. The purpose of the conversation is entirely unclear, particularly since the rangers had spoken to the couple earlier in the day when they were still lodged on the rocks. The couple had assured the rangers at that time that they were fine, and that help was on the way. At that point, the rangers should have found something better to do. Instead, they chose to lurk in the vicinity.
Ebel informed the rangers that he intended to lead the boat to sheltered waters and said they could talk to his clients at that point. The disagreement on a plan of action escalated and park rangers subsequently boarded Ebel’s boat and tased him twice.
By all appearances, this incident was a flagrant violation of law enforcement protocols. In this case, the rangers gave the houseboat an unreasonable and potentially dangerous order, knowing that it conflicted with the plan that had already been developed by Mr. Ebel.
When Mr. Ebel resisted, as was reasonable on his part under the circumstances, the park rangers CHOSE to escalate the situation to an extreme degree, clearly putting Mr. Ebel’s life in danger.
This incident absolutely must be investigated by an Interior Department Inspector General and the results of that investigation should be made public. If an investigation reveals that the rangers involved acted improperly, as we believe any independent analysis would conclude, they should be disciplined and subject to additional training, or be removed entirely from their position of trust. We have seen too many cases in recent years where overzealous law enforcement officials abuse their authority — and this incident suggests that the officers involved are predisposed to that kind of overreach. Without significant action to address their abuse, they will almost certainly engage in such actions in the future. This time, these two officers injured someone without legitimate cause. Next time, it could be worse.
The infractions here, unfortunately, go well beyond these two officers. The leadership at Voyageurs National Park, including Superintendent Bob DeGross and enforcement chief Josh Wentz, has been violating the Park Service’s own policies regarding the release of information for months. A 2015 Park Service manual reviewed by the Timberjay calls on Park Service law enforcement officials to cooperate as much as possible in answering questions from media. Further, the manual lists releasable information, which includes charging documents, criminal complaints, the time and place of an incident, and much more. To date, despite numerous phone calls and emails seeking answers to questions, and a Freedom of Information Act request filed last August, no one from Voyageurs or the Park Service generally has been willing to give this newspaper the time of day. It’s been more than six months since we filed our FOIA request, and we’ve received no relevant response.
While we were able to obtain copies of the citations and the brief probable cause statements attached to them, that was only because we found another government agency that could provide them. To date, the National Park Service has been nothing more than a black hole.
When an agency circles the wagons to this extent, you know they’re involved in a cover-up. It’s time the Park Service came clean on what transpired during this reprehensible incident. The public has a right to know.
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