Arrest ends 9-hour south Fargo standoff
By Brittany Lawonn
and Dave Olson
A nearly nine-hour standoff in south Fargo ended Wednesday night with the arrest of a man who was involved in a standoff with police 15 years ago that led to the creation of a local SWAT team.
Fargo police arrested Leonard Ritter, 55, just before 8 p.m. after he jumped from Apartment 203's balcony at 2433 20th Ave. S. and attempted to flee. Officers used a Taser on Ritter, who continued to struggle until he was handcuffed, Lt. Steve Lynk said.
An hour earlier, Ritter fired a handgun several times at a SWAT robot after it breached his apartment door. He then began communicating with a negotiator through the robot and with authorities who were trying to get him to give himself up, Lynk said.
Police were called to the apartment complex just after 11 a.m. with a report of a man in a hallway with a shotgun who was threatening someone. They had been at the same building Monday afternoon in response to an argument between Ritter and another individual, Lynk said.
Ritter had recently been given a three-day notice that he was being evicted; Lynk was not sure what day that was given.
Officers on the scene spent the first several hours containing the area, blocking traffic and evacuating the complex and others nearby.
Several people were forced to leave the area, including a young couple with their month-old son who fled as officers with guns approached the building.
Police called in a negotiator and SWAT because of Ritter's September 1994 arrest after a two-hour standoff during which Ritter threatened neighbors and police from his second-floor balcony.
"They chose to not attempt negotiations with him until a point to where they got the SWAT team here and the negotiators," Lynk said.
Attempts by police to open a dialogue with Ritter were unsuccessful because he would not respond, Lynk said. Authorities then sent in the robot.
No one was injured, but the robot appeared to have a flat front tire.
Ritter was then spotted at least twice on his balcony smoking a cigarette. He appeared to make gun gestures and yell at one point.
During the September 1994 incident, Ritter told police officers to line up on the lawn in front of him so he could shoot them down in retaliation for an incident he alleged involved the rape of his wife, according to a Forum article on the incident.
One of the first officers on the scene in 1994 stood behind a sign and wore a bulletproof vest to maintain a periodic dialogue with Ritter by using a bullhorn. Ritter surrendered after the then-Clay County high-risk team responded with a negotiator, the article states.
At the time there was no regional SWAT team, but one quickly formed after the incident, said Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney.
"He was the reason we were created," said Laney, a former SWAT commander.
Ritter entered an Alford plea in East Central District Court to a terrorizing charge that stemmed from the 1994 standoff, a December 1995 Forum article states.
Under the plea, Ritter denied specific allegations made in the charge, but agreed there was enough evidence to convict him. At the time, he lived at 3401 15th St. S. and he had several guns in his home.
Under a plea agreement, two other terrorizing charges, one from the September 1994 incident and one from a 1993 incident, were dismissed.
Ritter was given a suspended prison sentence and placed on five years of supervised probation.
Ralph Erickson, who was then an East Central District Court judge and who is now a federal judge, told Ritter at the time: "You received a tremendous break. The next time around, you can't expect these kind of breaks."
Willie Kirschner, Ritter's attorney at the time, said his client was under the influence of chemicals and was delusional during the 1994 incident.
Wednesday's standoff forced the closure of a nearby convenience store and left several residents homeless for most of the day, including Cody and Rachael Rothenberger, who live in the same building as Ritter.
Cody Rothenberger didn't even grab his shoes as he darted out the door with Rachael and their newborn son, Conor. Their apartment manager had called and told them to leave, but they initially thought it was just a gas leak, he said.
The family spent several hours outside in the shade before heading to nearby First Assembly of God Church, which offered shelter and food to people displaced by the standoff.
Because of the standoff, the Rothenbergers missed Conor's scheduled doctor's visit.
The family remembered to grab formula and a blanket but forgot diapers and a bottle, which The Salvation Army provided.
The Rothenbergers said Ritter was an acquaintance they had recently found increasingly worrisome. They said Ritter believes police had bugged his apartment and semi-trailer, and he told them of once getting into a fight with five police officers and coming out on top.
"He thinks that he's being watched," Rachael Rothenberger said.
Ritter, an avid hunter, showed Cody Rothenberger about 10 firearms he kept in a spare bedroom.
"In the beginning, we thought he was OK," said Rachael Rothenberger, "but he started acting stranger lately."
This morning, she said, Ritter stopped by their apartment twice just after 7, looking for Cody. She said he appeared unusually clean-cut, with a new haircut and his shirt tucked in.
Ritter was arrested on suspicion of reckless endangerment and terrorizing. He was taken to a local hospital for evaluation. Authorities were still clearing the scene late Wednesday and found several guns inside the apartment, Lynk said.