Recently, the Koller family took a canoe trip with the intention of enjoying the secluded wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness way up in Northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. What should have been a nice family get-away turned into a night of terror as they were threatened and pursued into the woods by armed and drunk local punks.
Boundary Waters is supposed to be a nice quiet place. Motorized boats are barred. But this night. a gang of local hoods piled into a motorboat "to have some fun". They descended on a Forest Service water-gauging station and spent hours vandalizing it, and they shot up and down the waterways, yelling and swearing at campers and firing guns into the air and surrounding woods. Finally their attention focused on Emmerich Koller after he called out to them and asked them to quiet down.
“I wanted to hear the loons, not them. … I turned on my flashlight and the swearing started immediately. All I said was ‘Nice language. What’s your problem?’ and that set them off even more,’’ Koller said.
The men fired a fireworks mortar above the Kollers’ campsite.
“I’ve never heard swearing like that. I’m 64 years old and I’ve heard a lot,’’ Koller said.
Marina Koller yelled out from the tent, asking the men to ‘please leave us alone. We don’t want any trouble,’ ’’ Emmerich Koller said. The sound of a woman’s voice changed the focus of the men’s obscenities.
“They immediately started swearing about what they could do to her and us,’’ he said.
That should have been incentive to Koller and his family to pack up and relocate, or at least call 911, but the Kollers did neither. The punks left and the Kollers convinced themselves that it was over.
But it wasn't. They came back, with more friends, more guns, and a second boat. And they came for the Kollers.
He grabbed a duffel bag and ordered his 11-year-old son, Andrew, and 26-year-old daughter, Marina, to go with him into the woods. They hid about 30 yards from their campsite as two motorboats pulled up on the rocky shore.
“We could hear the boats scraping up on the rocks. I thought they were coming to kill us,’’ Koller said. “I’m convinced, because they seemed out of their minds with rage, that they would do serious damage to us.’’
For the next 45 minutes the men rummaged through the Illinois family’s belongings, making fun of their freeze-dried food and mummy-style sleeping bags, all the while hurling obscenities, Koller said.
“They described in vivid detail how they were going to kill me and how they were going to rape my daughter for hours,’’ Koller said. “They were very upset we weren’t there.’’
The Kollers hid in the woods, defenseless, until finally the punks left. They and other groups of campers called 911 and the Forest Service and local law enforcement were able to track the punks and catch up with them at a boat landing where they arrested five adults and a juvenile and confiscated several guns.
According to the criminal complaint, the men brought cases of beer, a bottle of schnapps, mortar-like fireworks, a Russian-style, semi-automatic assault rifle, a .45-caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun, a .22-caliber handgun and a .22 rifle into the wilderness for their evening boat ride.
According to eyewitnesses and the criminal complaints:
Starting at sunset and for the next three hours the men motored about the lake in two boats, including into Canada, and fired hundreds of rounds from their guns. They also fired several large fireworks shells. According to the complaint, in videotaped statements made to law enforcement officers the morning after the shooting, four of the Ely men — Zachary Ross Barton, 19; Travis John Erzar, 20; Casey James Fenske, 19; and Jay Andrew Olson, 19 — admitted to taking part in the spree.
A fifth man arrested at the landing, Barney James Lakner, 37, apparently has not made a statement to police. He has been charged with 13 felonies and 12 other crimes. Lakner was arrested wearing a knit cap with fake dreadlocks and with a .45-caliber handgun and several clips.
Federal charges are pending in the case, and it’s possible the men will faces firearms charges in Canada.
But even with the arrests, the terror's not over for the Koller family. They'll relive this forever.
“I’ve seen the term harassment [used to describe the incident]. This wasn’t harassment, it was terrorism,” Koller said. “They said they were going to kill us. I keep having this ‘Deliverance’ moment, from the movie. … I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t hidden. ... But I think the deputies would have found corpses.’’
Now I can relate to this. Many years back, two friends and I were camping in northern Michigan. It was late fall and we were the only ones in a rustic State Forest campground. We had a fire and were sitting back drinking beers and just enjoying the crips fall evening, thinking that it couldn't get much better. And then they showed up.
All of a sudden, three men walked into our fire circle. One of the guys told us that we were on their land and had to leave.
Now being a bit slow, we politely informed them that this was a State Forest campground and offered to show them the map. Then one told us that this whole area was theirs, and if we were still here when they came back, we wouldn't be leaving. We noticed that they had long guns and pistols with them. We had no guns with us, so as soon as they walked off, we thought it over for about ten to twenty seconds, then doused the fire and took off. We flew down to the local State Police post and found both a trooper there and the local DNR officer. We told them what happened and they rather casually informed us that we'd probably run into either poachers or dope growers and told us: "we've got both of those around here." To the best of our knowledge, they didn't go looking for them. Knowing what I know now as a lawman, I wouldn't have either. And I never forgot how vulnerable we felt that night. Those guys could have done anything and we had no way of fighting them. So I can imagine how the Kollers felt.
And because I've been there, and because I won't ever be victimized or go out like a character from Deliverance, when I camp now, I've always got, at a minimum, a large-bore handgun--typically a .357 Magnum revolver--and more often than not a rifle. My preferred camping rifle these days is an AR-15A1, chosen for it's reliability and it's light weight.
When I backpack or truck camp back in the bush, I don't rely on my cell phone which may or may not work much less get me help right when I need it. I accept the weight penalty of a gun and ammunition because a safe hike is the best hike, and .223 is faster and more reliable than 911 when the bad guys come prowling.
And had it been me in Boundary Waters instead of the unarmed Mr. Koller, and had it been my wife and children facing the threat from armed attackers who'd made their intentions all too clear, one thing's certain and that's that not one of those punks would have landed alive on that beach. I will fight and if need be I will kill because my life has value to me and so do the lives of those that I love.