Families Fear 'Revenge' as Embezzler Leaves Prison Early
With tens of thousands of dollars unaccounted for from a Native American charter school in Minneapolis and a police investigation underway, suspicion began swirling around Joel Pourier, himself a Native American, who had led the school as executive director for five years.
"No, there is no money missing," Pourier told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS emphatically in 2008 when he was interviewed at the school.
"It will be justified, it will be fixed, everything will be documented and it will be corrected," Pourier vowed.
Two years later, he was a convicted felon.
At his sentencing on Aug. 30, 2010, Pourier rose before the court and came clean.
"My actions were wrong," he told a Hennepin County courtroom. "I lied and I did manipulate and I apologize for everything."
But Judge Joseph R. Klein showed no mercy, telling Pourier "your acts have stabbed your culture in the heart. And your motivation to do so was no great or noble purpose; it was simple greed."
In a rare move, the judge then doubled prosecutors' recommended sentence to 10 years, "at least two-thirds," the judge wrote, "or 80 months of that sentence shall be served in prison."
But despite the judge's order, it won't happen.
Joel Pourier is already out of a traditional prison after just 32 months, now housed in the idyllic woods near Moose Lake at a Department of Corrections military-style boot camp officially known as the minimum-security "program" at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Willow River.
There are no fences, no armed guards, and no guard towers.
Warden Becky Dooley, who has seen the Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP) double from 90 offenders to 180 since she began working at Willow River in 2003, says discipline and order are key values taught in the six-month course.
"The purpose is to instill discipline and structure in their lives," Warden Dooley said in an interview last week. "If you have structure and you're engaged in all the elements of programming here, it helps keep them focused and on track. And in a six-month period, we will see a significant change in behavior, attitude, and decision-making."
During the visit, a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reporter and photojournalist were shown the various parts of the program: the drug and alcohol dependency treatment that approximately 90 percent of offenders here participate in; the physical labor in the strong summer sun that included hand-sawing wood; offenders tending to the garden, which provided 10,000 lbs of food to the facility last year; and school courses that help offenders get a GED or high school diploma.
Offenders march in "squads" around the grounds, living in "barracks" and addressing civilians and staff as "sir" or "ma'am."
When offenders graduate after their six-month stint - 30 offenders a month leave and 30 a month arrive - they are then released into the community on "intensive" supervised release for one year, authorities said. A violation of the terms of release will send an offender back to prison for their full term, in addition to extra time commensurate to the time spend in the CIP.
Successful completion of the one-year release period, however, will mean an offender's prison time is over.
Fifty-three offenders washed out of the six-month boot camp in the past 12 months, according to DOC records; that's approximately 10 to 14 percent of the more than 300 offenders who graduate each year.
Joel Pourier would not grant an interview to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS during our visit. He's scheduled to leave boot camp for his one year of intensive release in the community on Oct. 15, corrections officials said, just 38 months into his 80 month "minimum" in-custody sentence as handed down by Judge Klein in 2010.
Pourier arrived at the boot camp Apr. 17.
When asked what she would say to people who may think the boot camp program equates to special treatment for some offenders deemed non-violent, Warden Dooley answered: "This program isn't about letting offenders off easy. It's an intense, rigorous program. We hold offenders accountable."
Without specifically addressing the Pourier case, the warden acknowledged that despite a typical judge's order that an offender spend "at least two-thirds" of a sentence physically in prison, offenders get out far earlier in the Legislature-approved CIP.
"It's part of the law and we follow the law," Dooley said.
"The citizens of society are better off when we provide effective programming to reduce crime and to reduce cost to the taxpayers," she said.
The Dept. of Corrections estimates each CIP participant saves taxpayers $4,600.
But that explanation and assurance does not comfort Angela Hernandez, who says, "I know he's going to come back for revenge."
"I'm going to go get - purchase a gun for my safety and my family's safety," Hernandez said in an interview in her family's south Minneapolis home. "I am very scared that he is getting out because I was one of them that put him where he is."
Hernandez sent her twin boys to Heart of the Earth charter school and worked there for 16 years.
She lost her job, and her children lost their school, when investigators exposed Pourier's theft. He's now paying Hernandez $19 a month in restitution from prison.
"I will never - to this day, until I go into the ground - I will not forgive him."
In an emailed statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, Judge Klein, who sentenced Pourier, wrote, "I can respond to the extent that I am able. When a judge sentences a defendant to be committed to the Commissioner of Corrections, the District Court relinquishes jurisdiction to the Commissioner of Corrections. It would be unethical for me to comment further on any specific case."
Hennepin county Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office prosecuted Pourier, said Monday he's "disappointed" in the Dept. of Corrections guidelines that allow such an early release and wants lawmakers to increase the amount of time someone must serve in prison before qualifying for the program.
"I think people ought to serve a little bit more than a third of their time. And (Pourier's 38 months) is too short. But I think the program, properly done, should ensure that the person spend some real time in prison and complete the grant and then be able to get out. In this case, I think he should have done at least 50 percent of his time," Freeman said.
Mona Stegeman, the charter school employee who first raised questions about discrepancies in the school's financial books which ultimately led to the embezzlement's unraveling, has now moved out of Minnesota.
She told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS recently that she fears for her safety once Pourier is out and declared, "There is something wrong when the Department of Correction without any input from the victims can overturn a court mandatory sentence. What was the use of any of this?"
Click here to watch an extended interview with the boot camp's warden, Becky Dooley.
Click here to watch an extended interview with Shawn Lukaswicz, an offender in the boot camp as of July 2013.
Click here to learn more about the boot camp, known as the Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP).
Click here to see the crimes the offenders at the CIP have committed and more in an Inmate Profile.
Click here to sign up for a notification when an offender is released from the Minn. Dept. of Corrections.
Click here to read the court transcript from the Aug. 30, 2010, sentencing of Joel Pourier.
- (Pg. 51) Judge: school children "were denied field trips, science labs, books, an improved computer lab, community activities including parent feasts, powwows, teacher training, physical education and equipment, school nurses and debt reduction…your acts have stabbed your culture in the heart. And your motivation to do so was no great or noble purpose; it was simple greed."
- (Pg. 47) Judge: "…you are committed to the custody of the Commissioner of Corrections for a total of 120 months. At least two-thirds or 80 months of that sentence shall be served in prison. You shall serve a maximum of one-third or 40 months of that time on supervised release…"
Click here to read the original complaint against Joel Pourier.
Click here to watch one of our original stories from 2008 on Joel Pourier's charter school embezzlement.