A Crookston man who stole a police squad car and killed a Thief River Falls man with it last year will spend a minimum of 12 years in prison after a sentencing hearing in Polk County District Court Wednesday.
Ricardo Mello, 24, was given a 20-year sentence by Judge Michael Kraker, the same as Assistant County Attorney Scott Buhler requested. In September, Mello offered a Norgaard Plea – used in cases where the defendant wants to enter a plea of guilty but is unable to recall facts due to intoxication or amnesia – to felony second-degree murder without intent while committing a felony, felony criminal vehicular operation causing great bodily harm, felony fourth-degree assault of a peace officer and gross misdemeanor obstructing legal process. Four other charges in connection with the incident that left Eddie Briggs, 78, dead were dismissed.
The sentence falls in the upper range of the state guidelines for the charges, which both Buhler and Kraker said was appropriate due to a number of aggravating factors in the case. These include Mello's criminal history of several misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor convictions, chemical dependency, violent tendencies, repeated failures at treatment options and his actions following the accident. He is required to serve a least 2/3 of his time incarcerated, although the approximately 450 days he's already spent confined in the Northwest Regional Corrections Center was credited toward the sentence. Along with other felony-level impositions such as not being allowed to possess a firearm for the remainder of his life and submitting a sample for DNA testing, Mello was ordered to pay restitution totaling more than $36,000.
"Simply put, this man is a menace to public safety," Buhler told the court when arguing for the longer sentence. "He does not give a wit about another human's life."
While Mello's attorney, Public Defender Corey Harbott, stressed that there was no excuse for what had happened and they expected a "significant sentence," he asked for five years less than what was ultimately imposed. He maintained that his client had suffered from mental health issues since he was a child as well as addictions later on and hoped to now get his life in order and on the path to recovery.
"I know what I did was wrong and there's no justifying my actions," Mello addressed the court. "I killed someone and I'll never deny that. I just want to do my best now for my baby daughter."
Kraker made note of Mello's family situation and allowed arrangements to be made so he could hold his daughter before being transported from the jail here to prison.
According to the criminal complaint, Crookston Police Department officers Ryan Bergquist and Don Rasicot responded to a call the afternoon of Sept. 3, 2011 at the V.F.W. Club, where a woman said two men, identified as Mello and Carlos Romero Jr., had pounded on her vehicle and damaged it while demanding money from people. The officers tracked Mello down at Crooks Club, where he became belligerent and started attacking them, punching Rasicot in the face a few times. The officers used a Taser on Mello and maced him repeatedly, but he appeared unfazed by these preemptive tactics and managed to overpower the officers. He proceeded to hop into and steal the running squad car, even as the officers tried to hang on to the door and remove the keys.
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Mello took off at a high rate of speed and made it only a few blocks before losing control, slamming into the driver's door of a pickup driven by Briggs on South Main and Old Highway 75. Briggs was pronounced dead at the scene and his wife Patricia, now 58, required treatment for her injuries at RiverView Hospital. The Minnesota State Patrol estimated that Mello was traveling approximately 55 MPH in a 30 MPH zone. Both the squad car and pickup were totaled.
A witness to the crash said Mello just missed hitting his vehicle and struck Briggs's pickup, even though it had pulled over to the right. The witness went back to the scene, where Mello, who was bleeding, jumped into his vehicle and said he needed to go to the hospital. After transporting him there, the witness called 911.
Polk County Sheriff's Deputy Phil Juve, who had responded to the crash, caught up with Mello at the emergency room and arrested him, where he was "very belligerent and uncooperative." Mello was later transported to Altru Hospital in Grand Forks for additional treatment where, upon learning he would be transported back to Crookston, he started yelling and swearing at officers and medical staff, saying he was going to shoot them at their birthday parties and then take a picture next to them.