BY: MAX NESTERAK – MARCH 15, 2023 11:54 AM
When Steven Cooper found a gun and ammunition in the Chevy Blazer his brother gave him, he did what he thought was the right thing.
He wrapped the gun in a sweatshirt, put it inside the secured door of his apartment building, and waited for his parole officer to show up.
As a felon for a violent offense, Cooper isn’t allowed to possess a firearm and doing so could send him back to prison for years.
He turned the gun over to his parole officer and told her it probably belonged to his brother, who recently died and left behind some belongings in the car.
Cooper’s parole officer called the Duluth police, who put Cooper in handcuffs and took him to jail.
“I just wanted to do the right thing,” Cooper told a police officer from the back of a squad car on July 14, 2022. “This is something I can’t even fathom me going to jail for ‘cause I turned it in.”
Minnesota law doesn’t grant exceptions for people convicted of violent felonies to accidentally or briefly possess firearms.
The Department of Corrections chose not to send Cooper back to prison for violating parole. A spokesperson for the department said Cooper was formally sanctioned and had conditions of his supervised release “restructured.”
But the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office charged him with felony possession of a firearm, which carries a minimum sentence of five years.
St. Louis County prosecutor Tony Rubin wrote in an email to the Reformer that office policy prohibits him from commenting on a pending criminal matter.
“Though, clearly we do not agree with (Cooper’s) version of what happened,” wrote Rubin, who was hired in 2019 by his father when he was the St. Louis County attorney.
Rubin did not respond to a follow-up question asking for more details.
Cooper and his attorney, Joe Vaccaro, say charging him for turning the gun into law enforcement sends the wrong message to other felons who find firearms or ammunition in their possession.
“I could have easily thrown that thing in a river. I could have easily gave it to somebody … dumped it in the garbage,” Cooper said in an interview. “Here’s the difference from the person that I used to be in 2006 and right now.”
In 2006, Cooper was 15 years old when he shot two Duluth convenience store clerks in their backs during a robbery. Both victims survived but with bullets lodged near their spines that couldn’t be removed, according to the Duluth News Tribune.
Cooper pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted first-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ultimately served 13-and-a-half years.
The first few years of prison were rough, but Cooper said he eventually found hope and turned his life around. He earned an associates degree and certificates in welding, carpentry and architectural design.
It hasn’t been a smooth transition out of prison, however. Cooper has struggled with chemical dependency and was sent back to prison more than once for violating parole by using drugs. He hasn’t been charged with any new crimes apart from traffic violations, however.
The day before he found the gun, Cooper confessed to his parole officer that he was using drugs again. Cooper’s brother had recently overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl.
“It took a toll on me,” Cooper said. “Life kind of spiraled out of control then, which I’m not blaming anything, but I did end up relapsing.”
Cooper found the gun the night before his parole officer was scheduled to meet with him to deliver a restructured agreement for his probation for using drugs. He found it in a compartment in the back of the Chevy along with ammunition. The car wasn’t operational, and Cooper had been using it for storage until he could get the transmission fixed. He believes the gun belonged to his brother, who was also on parole and not legally allowed to possess a gun.
When Cooper’s parole officer arrived, he told her he put it inside the apartment building behind a locked door. He didn’t want the gun in his car or his apartment, so he put it in a place he felt was secure until she arrived.
From the back of the squad car, he told police he probably should have left it in the car and called the police right away.
“But either way…” the officer replied, according to body camera footage.
Vaccaro, Cooper’s attorney, says he thinks prosecutors should drop the charge because crimes require volition and Cooper didn’t want to possess the firearm.
He also thinks there should be an exception written into state law for felons who unknowingly come into possession of guns or ammunition and take reasonable steps to promptly turn it into law enforcement.
Since Cooper was arrested in July, the prospect of returning to prison for years has weighed on him. But he’s continued trying to build a solid foundation for his life.
He completed chemical dependency in-patient treatment, and has been sober for six months. He now lives in the Twin Cities and works in a manufacturing plant.
“I’ve never been doing this great ever,” Cooper said.
*This story has been updated with comment from prosecutor Tony Rubin and the Department of Corrections.