Liquor store owner acquitted in Thielen case

by Tim Sturrock

Yibeltal Mebratu, the West Bank liquor store owner accused of selling alcohol to Jonathan Thielen and three other University students, was found not guilty of furnishing liquor to a minor Tuesday.

The trial concluded with Hennepin County Judge Jack Nordby calling the University police investigation “awful.”

The jury of four women and two men deliberated for less than 45 minutes.

Thielen died Feb. 17 after falling from a lofted bed in Bailey Hall hours after allegedly buying liquor from the store.

According to the criminal complaint, Thielen and his friends were driven to Cedar Riverside Liquor Store Inc. where he and three others bought alcohol.

Mebratu’s attorney, Peter Wold, referred in his closing argument to inconsistencies in several of the students testimonies, the evolution of their stories during police investigation, and offers of immunity within days of the incident.

A primary police report taken from students in the room inferred that 22-year-old Kenneth Haycraft rode to the liquor store in a car with four minors, not including Thielen. Two days later, Haycraft was left out of the story when witnesses – including two questioned in the first report – had a different account.

Jurors were asked to determine beyond a reasonable doubt if Mebratu sold alcohol to a minor and, if so, whether it was likely those minors showed identification.

Wold pointed out police didn’t ask whether the students had false identification until April.

Anthony Rochel, a student who said he went to the liquor store with Thielen on Feb 16, told Wold that before the trial he wouldn’t give names of other liquor stores he’d been to because he “didn’t want to be a snitch.”

Wold asserted in his summation that anyone who would protect liquor store clerks he didn’t know would certainly go farther to protect his friends.

Wold suggested a friend had supplied the alcohol and the students lied to the police to protect the supplier.

City Attorney Karen Herland said inconsistencies in the students’ stories happened because the students didn’t check with each other.

Herland said she was disappointed with the outcome of the trial and would not comment on the police investigation.

Neither counsel could use liquor store security tapes as evidence because they were of poor quality.

After the trial, Wold said jurors were the first people to listen to Mebratu.

“The University didn’t listen to him. They didn’t care,” he said.