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Bemidji pastor facing charge of obstructing legal process

BEMIDJI - A local pastor believes an armed police officer should have provided him an explanation before going through his church in pursuit of a woman suspected of a probation violation.

The Rev. Bob Kelly, 63, pastor at Peoples Church, now is leaving it to a Beltrami County judge to decide whether he obstructed justice on Nov. 29 when he ignored officers' orders to go back inside his church as they arrested a 32-year-old woman who had tested positive for methamphetamine on a drug screen.

Kelly repeatedly demanded an explanation from the Bemidji police officer who had pursued the woman, on probation for a conviction of felony aiding an offender to avoid arrest, through Peoples Church.

"I don't like heavily armed people coming into my building without checking in with me first," Kelly told the Pioneer.

Charged with misdemeanor obstructing the legal process, Kelly appeared Wednesday morning for an arraignment before Beltrami County District Judge John Melbye. A motion hearing was set for Jan. 16 before Judge Paul Benshoof to consider probable cause.

According to police incident reports, police learned the woman might have been at Peoples Church awaiting a ride from Paul Bunyan Transit.

The woman, standing on the front steps of the church, went inside when she saw an approaching police officer, according to a Bemidji officer's written report.

The officer followed her into the church and then went to the rear exit after a worker said he saw her outside the building.

A man later identified as Kelly, according to officers' reports, began to loudly demand that the Bemidji police officer stop and talk to him. Kelly followed the police officer as he left in pursuit of the suspect.

Kelly, according to the officer's report, was yelling and stating that the officer had no right to enter his church with a gun.

Kelly, according to the police report, was asked at least three times to go back into the church but he continued to follow and yell at the responding officer and Beltrami County sheriff's deputies.

Kelly, acknowledging that he has a loud voice, said he repeatedly asked for an explanation from the Bemidji officer, who ignored his questions.

"I asserted in a loud, clear voice that lethally armed people could not run through our building without an explanation of their presence and purpose," Kelly wrote in a written account of his experience.

According to a police report, Kelly and the Bemidji officer got up "chest to chest" with one another until Kelly backed away.

"I now was concerned that Kelly was too close to me and the deputies and that with his anger, he would further the interference with physical confrontation," the Bemidji police officer wrote in his report. "Kelly continued with his angry verbal aggression, telling me he did not have to return to the church and that he demanded I talk to him."

Kelly, inhis version of events, said he did not specifically refuse to go back inside, "but I did continue to demand an explanation of (the officer's) presence and behavior."

After Kelly refused to go back into the church after a third time, he was arrested.

"It seemed to me that to be arrested was the best course for me to take since I had not threatened any one of the officers with any sort of violence and had not gone off from Peoples Church property and into the alley where (the woman) and the arresting deputies were standing," Kelly wrote.

Kelly was arrested and booked into the Beltrami County Jail.

Kelly's one phone from jail was to Audrey Thayer, coordinator of the ACLU office in Bemidji and member of the Peoples Church board.

Thayer said she immediately called Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin. Peoples Church representatives meet monthly with Mastin.

Thayer said she asked that Kelly be released from custody, but was told the booking process already was underway. Kelly, who was arrested just after 1:30 p.m., said he was released from jail at about midnight.

Mastin, noting that he could not comment on an active case, said the Bemidji Police Department treats all churches the same as public buildings.

The circumstances of a specific case would dictate whether a pastor or building manager would be notified in advance of a police officer's pursuit of a suspect, Mastin said. If a matter is not time-sensitive or urgent, for example, an officer would have more time to check in with someone at the site.

Blair W. Nelson, a Bemidji attorney, now is representing Kelly pro bono. He is being assisted by Teresa Nelson, the legal director for ACLU-MN.

"My opinion is that I didn't do anything wrong," Kelly said.