One of four men convicted for 1992 murder of Minn. officer up for release
The execution-style killing of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf was one of the most shocking murders in city history
By Randy Furst
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Thirty years after Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf was shot to death by gang members as he sat in a Lake Street pizza shop, one of the men convicted of the crime faces a hearing Tuesday to consider whether he should be granted supervised release — an outcome opposed by a number of police.
Amwati Pepi Mckenzie, who was 19 at the time of the shooting, was sentenced to 30 years in prison along with three other young men who belonged to the Vice Lords street gang. The execution-style killing was one of the most shocking murders in city history.
Mckenzie, now 49 and incarcerated at the state prison in Lino Lakes, is expected to be questioned Tuesday by Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell on video. Schnell will review Mckenzie's prison record and psychological evaluation, and speak to members of Haaf's family.
After consulting an advisory committee, Schnell will render his decision.
"I take this element of the commissioner's role very seriously," Schnell said. "We balance public safety and input of the community and rehabilitation efforts of the individual being considered for parole. Public safety is the dominant consideration."
Mckenzie's supporters say he has gone a long way toward improving himself. Abena McKenzie of Yuba City, Calif., said her cousin has earned college degrees. He has self-published five books — three urban mysteries, a book of poetic reflections and a philosophical work — that are listed on Amazon.
Pepi Mckenzie expressed contrition for Haaf's murder in an author's note for his 2021 book, "The Osirian Archtype," on the Amazon website.
"I was convicted and sentenced to thirty-years-to-life, for the role I played in unjustly taking another human being's life," he wrote. "That was a tragedy for which I am remorseful, and I deeply regret. ... I am paying my price, and I will spend the rest of my days repairing the harm I have caused."
He added that he was dedicated to encouraging others to abandon the anti-social behavior he once embraced and to develop "pro-social" behavior to help them "refocus and reach their full potential." He declined a request to be interviewed by the Star Tribune.
When Mckenzie was convicted in 1993, state law provided for possible release after 30 years. In 2015, the Legislature made first-degree murder of a police officer a life sentence with no possibility of release — but because that was not in force in 1993, it doesn't apply to his case.
Around 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 25, 1992, two gunmen burst into the Pizza Shack, a hangout for police officers, and shot Haaf while he was at a table reading a newspaper. He was on a break in the middle of an overnight shift.
Haaf was able to radio a dispatcher to say, "Officer down." When shift Lt. Mike Sauro arrived a few minutes later, he said he could see that Haaf's wounds were fatal. Today Sauro is adamant that Mckenzie remain behind bars.
"I think there should have been a death penalty," Sauro said.
Four young men were arrested in the crime along with a juvenile, said to be one of the drivers. Prosecutors alleged the killing was a gang-inspired plot to get even for the alleged mistreatment of a blind black man on a Metro Transit bus the day before.
The four men were convicted and the juvenile served several years of detention before being set free. Convicted along with Mckenzie were A.C. Ford, who changed his name to Adl El-shabazz, now 56 and imprisoned at least until 2036; Montery Trymaine Willis, now 55, imprisoned until at least 2036; and Shannon Bowles, who changed his name to Nantambu Noah Kambon, now 50. He faces review on Jan. 4 for possible release.
Mckenzie, who declined to testify, was found guilty of aiding and abetting first-degree murder. He was acquitted of premeditated murder of Haaf and attempted murder for wounding another restaurant patron. He was represented by Twin Cities attorneys Art Martinez and Mike McGlennen, both of whom say he should now be released.
"We proved in court he was not the shooter," Martinez said. "His clothing did not match the shooter. ... He is an aider and abetter and from what I've heard, he has been doing very well when he was in prison."
McGlennen, now retired, said that during the trial Mckenzie had looked at Haaf's family and "told me he didn't care if they convicted him because he could see their pain."
"Toward the end of the trial, I told Pepi he was too smart to go into the Pizza Shack," McGlennen said, adding that Mckenzie responded: "You are right. I was the lookout."
Former Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Robert Streitz, who prosecuted the case with the late George Widseth, offered a sharply different view.
"Pepi Mckenzie was one of the two gunmen," Streitz said. "Pepi and Shannon Bowles. They each went in. They each had a gun, and they knew police officers went there on their breaks and the purpose of them going in was to shake things up in the city by making a name for their gang. Their clothing was recovered at another gang member's house and fit the description of what the witnesses said they were wearing."
Streitz said that Mckenzie and Bowles should never be released.
"These were people who devised a plan to kill a police officer and went there and did exactly that. There is no reason in the world that they should be given leniency for doing such a heinous act."
Cindy Haaf Benson, Haaf's daughter, urged people on Facebook to write corrections officials opposing supervised release for Mckenzie.
"These cowards shot [Haaf] in the back just months before his retirement," she wrote. "They killed him not because [of] who he was, but because [of] what he was. A cop! ... The Haaf family was sentenced to life without their husband, their father and their grandfather." The Star Tribune could not reach Benson for comment.
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, also thinks Mckenzie should not be let out.
"Cold-blooded murderers of public safety officials are rightfully given a life sentence and must never be considered for release," he said in a statement.
Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza called the shooting "a horrible crime" and said Mckenzie needed to show he's become "a better human being" before being considered for release. But John Laux, who was police chief at the time of Haaf's murder, said he should remain locked up.
"It was intentional to go into the Pizza Shack at 17th Avenue and Lake — to look for a cop," Laux said.
Spike Moss, at the time a leader at City Inc. — a controversial Minneapolis program that worked with gang members to curtail street violence — said if Mckenzie has done his time under the law, "they have to let him go."
Local NAACP official Yusef Mgeni, who was board chair for City Inc., said corrections officials need to look at Mckenzie's record. "If he has made an attempt to turn his life around, that should be given consideration," Mgeni said.
Schnell, a former St. Paul police officer who has served as chief of two metro suburban police departments, will have to weigh two competing pressures, said Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
"I have no doubt he is getting letters from police and many people in the correctional community saying, 'Do not release this person, he's done a heinous act,'" he said. "I also have no doubt he is getting letters from family, friends and people who know this guy, saying he's changed his life."
Staff librarian John Wareham provided research for this report.