By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
— More than three years after watching his son die from gunshots fired during a fight with a deputy in a Kasota parking lot, Mark Heilman has settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Le Sueur County.
Heilman wanted Todd Waldron, a sheriff’s detective who was in plain clothes when he shot 24-year-old Tyler Heilman on July 20, 2009, to face criminal charges. After a grand jury decided Waldron shouldn’t be charged, Mark Heilman filed the lawsuit in federal court claiming Waldron assaulted his son and used unreasonable deadly force. The suit also claimed the county was partially responsible due to a lack of training and because Waldron was an employee.
After a settlement conference that lasted more than seven hours, the two sides reached an agreement that will pay $750,000 to Heilman’s family.
That settlement was in exchange for the Heilman family dismissing all claims against the county and Waldron, who weren’t required to admit any liability in the shooting. Because Tyler Heilman had a young son who will benefit from the settlement, it has to be approved by federal Judge John Tunheim before it is final.
James Behrenbrinker, Mark Heilman’s attorney, said he expects Tunheim to approve the settlement because it’s fair and was agreed to after negotiations by Heilman’s family, Waldron and the county.
“A young man was brutally killed,” Behrenbrinker said. “A mother and father lost their son and a young boy lost his dad. While it seems like a lot of money, when it’s put into perspective, it’s really not because it’s not going to bring back the life that was lost.”
The settlement will be paid by the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, an organization that provides property, casualty and workers’ compensation coverage to counties and other public entities that are members. The county was represented by Jason Hiveley of Iverson Ruevers, a Bloomington law firm that works with the trust.
“The main reason for settling cases like this is to avoid the high cost of litigation,” Hiveley said. “Trials are expensive and with the costs of going to trial in a case like this, it certainly makes a lot of sense to settle the case, especially at this amount, and have the county put this behind them and for Mr. (Mark) Heilman to get on with his life.”
Tyler Heilman was wearing only swimming trunks when Waldron confronted him in a Kasota apartment complex parking lot about his driving and demanded to see a license, which Heilman didn’t have. The two men exchanged words before wrestling on the grass.
Witnesses with Heilman said they didn’t know Waldron was a deputy. They said Heilman was winning the fight, but had possibly seen a badge on Waldron’s belt and was backing away when Waldron pulled his gun and shot him in the chest.
Waldron said his life was being threatened by Heilman, who had a criminal record that included an assault conviction. He said Heilman was choking him to unconsciousness when his gun fell from its holster. Fearing for his life, Waldron said he grabbed the gun and shot Heilman once while he was still in a choke hold. Waldron said he shot Heilman three more times as they were both standing up.
Several people witnessed the shooting. Mark Heilman, who lived about seven blocks away, ran over to the apartment complex in time to see rescuers attempting to revive his son.
Attorneys from both sides had interviewed potential witnesses and gathered background information about Tyler Heilman and Waldron. In early October Tunheim issued an order saying Waldron would have to turn over records related to any post-shooting counseling that was required by Le Sueur County, records about medical treatment he received for his neck and back before and after the shooting, and information about any performance-enhancing drugs he had used during the previous five years.
Minnesota law protects people from having to disclose medical and mental health information, but federal laws aren’t as strict. Tunheim’s order said he would review the counseling records for relevant information. The other information was necessary for Heilman’s attorneys to determine if performance-enhancing drugs or a pre-existing neck or back injury influenced Waldron’s state of mind at the time of the altercation with Heilman, the order said.
Behrenbrinker’s search for one piece of information about Waldron’s background ended at the Mankato Department of Public Safety’s records department.
A list of involvement with Mankato police shows Waldron was arrested in May 1994 for a “dangerous weapons violation.” The Blue Earth County court file was destroyed in 1997, but computer records show Waldron pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct in December 1994.
Police records from the incident are on microfilm, but they couldn’t be obtained because the film is on a broken reel, said Kay Schultz, Mankato records supervisor. The department is only required to maintain records for 10 years, so the reel hasn’t been fixed, she said.
Waldron was a law enforcement student at Minnesota State University at the time, but Behrenbrinker said records about a weapons violation could have been important for his case if it would have gone to trial.
“I don’t understand why something like that wouldn’t be available,” he said.
Court records that were available shortly after the Kasota incident showed Waldron also was arrested in Le Sueur County for drunken driving in 1995. Those records were not available to Heilman’s attorneys because they had been closed, which is common for old court cases.
In that case Waldron initially lied to deputy David Tietz, now the Sheriff Department’s chief deputy, about who was driving when the vehicle crashed in a ditch. He told Tietz another MSU student was driving but later admitted to being the driver after that student was interviewed.
Officials from Le Sueur County referred all questions regarding this story to their attorney as did the plaintiffs.
Waldron could not be reached for comment.