Cold Spring council promises action against racism after vehicle crashes into home

A family hugs while people surrounding them applaud.
Jackie Umerski hugs her step-father Phil Robinson following her statement during the city council meeting Tuesday in Cold Spring. The Robinson's home was attacked Saturday when a stolen SUV with a piece of granite on the accelerator was driven into their home.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times

By Nora Hertel, St. Cloud Times

Olivia Williams' little brother could have been killed by the truck that ran into her family's Cold Spring home Saturday morning.

Williams, who is 15, said as much to the members of the Cold Spring City Council Tuesday night. 

"You guys have more power than we do," she said. "I want action taken by people who can do more than I can."

That was a common refrain during two-plus hours of testimony and discussion about racism in Cold Spring. It was spurred by months of alleged harassment and the apparent attack Saturday morning at the home of Andrea and Phil Robinson, Olivia's parents, when an SUV barreled into the home, a block of granite on the accelerator. 

City council members unanimously agreed to ask Gov. Tim Walz to have Attorney General Keith Ellison take up the case against the suspect, Benton Louis Beyer, 32, so it could be considered for hate crime charges. And the council agreed to form a committee and collaborate with community members to start addressing systemic racism. 

'It's hard to be Black here'

Around 100 people attended the Tuesday meeting, and many spoke to show support for the Robinsons and ask City Council members to act. Several people from multiracial families described examples of racism they or their children have experienced in Cold Spring.

A hand-painted sign says "Hate Crime - Call it what it is."
People hold signs during the Cold Spring City Council meeting Tuesday.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times

"It's hard to be Black here," said Erin Bonitto, who has two Black children. She said the family takes vacations to cities like Chicago, Detroit and Miami so her kids can catch their breath and have a break from the "hard looks" they garner at home. 

Jackie Umerski, the Robinsons' 23-year-old daughter, cried through much of the testimony. She lamented that her siblings are treated differently than her, because she has white skin.

"I haven't been able to sleep at night, not for 83 days, but for years," Umerski said. "These babies (my siblings) they have such a different life than I do, and I don't know how to rationalize that or go with that. I guess I just want them to be OK."

Andrea Robinson said she and the family have been harassed for 83 days by Beyer. Stearns County Court issued a harassment restraining order on May 21, barring him from any contact with Robinson for two years. Since then, he's been charged four times with violating the restraining order.

Beyer, of Richmond, has been charged with felony theft, stalking, first-degree damage to property with potential risk of bodily harm as well as violating a restraining order in connection with the incident Saturday morning.

Racism and hate

Several people who spoke at the meeting also want to see Beyer charged with assault and a hate crime. If a felony assault is found to be motivated by bias against a victim's race, color or other characteristics, the maximum penalty can be increased by 25 percent, according to Minnesota state law.

Robinson says the harassment began when she reported her Black children were the target of racist bullying in ROCORI public schools.

Several people who spoke at the City Council meeting shared frustrations, saying school officials had not taken action to address incidents of racism. They asked council members to reach out to the district.

Council members said they were frustrated that they didn't know the Robinsons were being harassed until a vehicle crashed into their home and it made the news. 

A group of family members
Robinson family members gather with supporters to take questions from the media following the city council meeting Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Cold Spring.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times

"I will be the first to say, we need help," said council member Gary Theisen. "We've got to do something. And goddamnit, we're going to do it." 

The Robinsons have felt abandoned by community leaders and police, Andrea Robinson told the council. She said police left them unprotected when Beyer was still at large Saturday morning and shared that Beyer was eventually cornered by a neighbor, rather than by police. 

Since the harassment began, Robinson said, she reported two of their windows were broken and their security cameras were shot at.

Beyer has been charged with following her around Waite Park in mid-July.  In another incident, Andrea Robinson said Beyer called 911 and claimed Phil Robinson threatened him. 

"When the police arrived, my husband was treated like a suspect and Benton Beyer was not arrested," Andrea testified. She asked police for more patrols by their house. And Cold Spring/Richmond Police Chief Jason Blum said there have been regular patrols by the house, including in unmarked cars. 

'Get something going'

After the first round of formal testimony Tuesday night, council members talked with attendees about what they should do to address the now-visible problem of racism. 

"We need to get something going," said Mayor Dave Heinen. 

Theisen asked the crowd to help them stay on track, "so that we go down the right trail."

And as the testimony wrapped up, Olivia told all the parents in attendance that she would like to be there to support their kids who might be going through a hard time. 

"I'll be there for them," she said. "You can just text my mom."

Community members have donated funds to help the Robinsons and promised to help clean up and repair the damage caused by the crash. And the Robinsons invited their neighbors to come by and visit. 

Nora Hertel is the government watchdog reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-255-8746 or nhertel@stcloudtimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @nghertel. Read this report on the St. Cloud Times website.

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