Al Ditty dedicated his life to Minneapolis, a city that one day would take it away

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Al’s grave a year after the memorial service when hundreds of shocked mourners came to pay their respects, including many city of Minneapolis workers. Galen Fletcher

Dorleen Ditty was marinating in a Newlywed Game marathon when she heard Al’s feet on the stairs. The 79-year-old knew why her bachelor son, with whom she shared her Brooklyn Center house, was disappearing into the basement again. Maternal worry dictated she ask anyway.

“So I can sleep. I sleep good down there,” said 54-year-old Al Ditty just before noon.

He’d slept for an hour that night, if at all. The last time he ate a regular meal, God only knew.

This unsettled life had been Al’s lot going on three months now. It began when his bosses at the Minneapolis Public Works Department suspended him and refused to tell him why.

Al’s insomnia meant seesawing between bedrooms. He’d start upstairs in the room with the framed Homer Hankie and the Jesse Ventura bobblehead. When his frustration got too thick, Al headed for the mattress in the basement. Foiled again, he’d hike back upstairs. So the cycle churned.

He needed rest. He wanted peace. He’d been denied both. His malfunctioning had grown more pronounced in the past week, ever since the city fired Al after 32 years on the job.

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Sister Sheila (left) and mom Dorleen Ditty holding a picture of Al Ditty Galen Fletcher

Dorleen recused herself from another rerun of her game show. She walked down the hall to her bedroom, where she used her cane to rap on the floor.

“Al? Al? Are you okay?”

She worried about the welfare of her boy, with his pudgy six-foot frame and a quick-draw smile that in a span of 10 weeks had become a concave shell below PTSD eyes.

Fetching the laundry from the dryer provided Dorleen an excuse.

She pressed an ear against the basement bedroom door.

“Al? Are you okay?”

No answer.

She bought time emptying the dryer. Then she gently turned the knob, nudging open the door. The bed was empty. Al’s feet were sticking out from the closet.

They call me the working man

Suburban dreams carried Jim and Dorleen Ditty from northeast Minneapolis to Brooklyn Center. Jim was a union pipefitter, Dorleen a stay-at-home mom. They moved into their new home on Logan Avenue with two young daughters, Sheila and Debbie. Gender equity would arrive with the births of sons Allan and Richard.

In the 1960s, Brooklyn Center resembled present-day Ramsey. It was prime terrain for making forts and riding dirt bikes, which helped frame Al into a lumberjack of a young man who always seemed to roll with whatever, his wants amounting to KISS tickets and a Vikings Super Bowl win.

He’d inherit a blue-collar work ethic. After graduating from Anoka High, he worked as a laborer for a sign company, swiftly rising to foreman and overseeing 25 employees.

It was a decent job. But Al fancied a profession.

A hit-and-run accident in 1985 claimed sister Debbie. The 25-year-old single mom left behind a daughter, whom Dorleen, by then a divorcee, would adopt. Debbie’s premature goodbye would teach Al that you can’t wait around for life to happen.

Al was his niece’s father figure, homework consultant, field trip chaperone, snack fixer, and suppertime cook. He relished the role.

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Al’s wants were few: a Vikings Super Bowl win during his lifetime and retirement with a good pension after faithfully working decades for Minneapolis Public Works.

“When I went through a divorce... he’s whom I turned to,” sister Sheila says. “After the split... Al was my on-call handyman. He was there when my son would have to write reports or interview somebody for school. He was there on the sidelines for his Orono High School soccer games and tennis matches.”

Al applied to be a sanitation worker for the city of Minneapolis. Legions of others pined for the same gig. A lottery decided which names advanced to the next step in the hiring process. Al scored. He started as a garbage man in 1986.

“He was all smiling and so excited,” says Sheila. “By working for the city, he talked about how he would earn a good living, a pension. How he was looking forward to the future. How he was going to be able to have a career.”

Commendations came regularly, official and otherwise. He was recognized for excellence in 1994. A decade later, a representative from a 60-unit townhouse complex in Marcy Holmes wrote then-Minneapolis City Council Member Diane Hofstede to specifically call out Al for going out of his way to visit with the condo association and provide “answers to all our questions” concerning “garbage and recycling bins.”

He called in sick just four days over three decades, and served as the president of his laborers union local. In 2015, he was promoted to foreman.

According to three fellow employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of talking to a reporter without city approval, Al’s gentleness filtered into his professional life.

“Al cared about us people. He cared about us workers,” says one. “He loved the city he worked for. He loved the people he worked with, and he always looked out for our safety.”

No way out

September 2015 brought reasons for celebration. First came Al’s 32nd anniversary with the city. Two days later, he turned 54 years old, meaning he was a year removed from early retirement eligibility.

“He’d mentioned moving to Las Vegas, living in one of those age-55 and older places,” says Dorleen. “But I never thought he was serious about it. Work was everything to Al. When he wasn’t working, he went up north to the cabins of co-workers and to sporting events” with Dave Herberholz, Minneapolis’ director of Solid Waste and Recycling.

He read the Bible daily.

On November 15, two Minneapolis police officers shot and killed Jamar Clark. Turmoil invaded the city.

Protesters squatted outside the Minneapolis Police Fourth Precinct on Plymouth Avenue North. Molotov cocktails and rocks were hurled at officers. A dozen people appeared at the front door of Mayor Betsy Hodges’ home, demanding she release video footage that might show whether Clark was handcuffed when he was shot.

City Hall was a house divided. Some council members, like Cam Gordon and Lisa Bender, joined protesters. Blong Yang and council president Barb Johnson lobbied on behalf of neighborhood residents for an end to the demonstration.

Hodges navigated the crisis as an island, in frequent contact with Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C., seeking direction.

A lack of communication would eventually be flagged in a Department of Justice report. Hodges’ methods, the feds noted, “likely contributed to... poor communication and inconsistent, uncoordinated leadership.”

These issues would trickle down to sanitation workers.  

In the wake of the demonstration, higher-ups were determined not to allow a long-term encampment, like those occurring during the Occupy protests a few years earlier. City workers began hearing rumblings about dismantling the camp.

The way garbage workers understood the whispers, the raid would occur in the early morning. Protestors would be given warning to pack up and leave. Officers in riot gear would clear out the area as firefighters extinguished fires and sanitation staff tossed everything else into a garbage truck. The whole operation would be over in 20 minutes.

But garbage workers hadn’t been trained to enter hostile situations.

“We’d done cleanup after the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood in 2007 and the North Side tornado in 2011,” Al would write weeks later. But “our guys have never had training dealing with working in riots where I felt they could get hurt.”

Safety wasn’t the only worry.

“Al was concerned about us because half of us live up there in north Minneapolis, and they know all those people, and it would have been an all-out war if they’d gone in there,” says one employee. “This was safety and them being neighbors. It was a real touchy situation at the time. A lot of anger, a lot of tempers up.”

Al’s notes from that week show he mentioned workers’ concerns to Herberholz, his immediate boss. According to Dorleen, Al didn’t want any sanitation workers to participate in the cleanup.

“But he told me Dave was telling him they didn’t have a choice,” she says.

When he left work Friday afternoon, Al didn’t know if a weekend raid was a go. He’d soon find out.

A simple plan

According to city documents, the operation would involve three departments: fire, police, and public works.

“The cops were going to protect all the firefighters and everything like that,” says a source inside city government with direct knowledge of the ops plan. “They’d put out the fires that were burning, and the Public Works people would come in.... Everyone was reassured the cops were there to protect the firefighting people and the public works people.”

But those assurances didn’t reach the sanitation department. Al believed that he, along with laborers Jay Lutz and Mitch Swanson, were being ordered into a danger zone armed with plastic bags.

Late at night on November 20, Al surfed the internet. He watched a YouTube video showing two masked men brandishing handguns, supposedly headed for the encampment. The men would later be identified as white supremacists heading to confront protesters.

In Al’s mind, the stage was being set for violence. Believing that he had nowhere else to turn, he decided to summon outside help. At 9:59 p.m., he emailed KARE-11 TV.

“Black lives matter tip,” read the subject line. Included in the message was a copy of the police department’s plan. “This is going down Saturday and Sunday morning,” he wrote.

Al would later explain his motive: “I feared for the health and safety of subordinate employees who were being sent into an unsafe work environment without adequate protection.... I felt if media cameras were present and filming, protesters would not be violent toward employees.”

By midnight, police officials inside the Emergency Training Operations Facility on 37th Avenue Northeast were reading his email. Someone at KARE had sent it to police spokesperson Scott Seroka, a former reporter at the station. It included the tipster’s AOL address.

(KARE President John Remes would only say that the station is still “investigating what may have happened with this story.”)

Some cops were infuriated by the leak. After being informed of KARE’s email, Chief Janee Harteau called off the raid, says a source with knowledge of the events inside the ops building.

Sometime during the night, Al received an email saying the raid was aborted.

“RE: Street Cleanup Strike Team,” read the subject line.

“For many reasons,” the email said, “this has been CANCELLED.”

Two or more other raids were also planned and scotched, say city council members.

The missed opportunity didn’t sit well with some inside City Hall, people with the power to make certain a tipster was going to pay.

Al “was a nervous wreck for weeks and over Christmas,” says Dorleen. “He was always worrying with it in the back of his mind. But once it got into the new year, I think he felt all of it was behind him and he could move on with life.”

Unbeknownst to Al, forces inside city government were conspiring to uncloak him. What had started as a few pissed-off cops had gained traction behind closed doors.

Down and out in Brooklyn Center

On January 22, 2016, Dorleen saw Al pull into the driveway, wondering what he was doing home in the early afternoon.

“I had to turn in my keys and my cell phone and they made me go home,” she recounts his words. “I’m under investigation, and I’ve been suspended from my job. I have no clue why. They won’t tell me.”

According to a letter dated that day, Deputy Director of Public Works Lisa Cerney had placed Al on “paid investigatory leave,” the duration “undetermined.”

When Sheila visited his Brooklyn Center home, she found her brother “in a daze.”

Al didn’t know what to do with himself. His co-workers were his social circle. Why hasn’t Herberholz called to see if I’m all right? he wondered. Why hasn’t anyone from Public Works called?

He wouldn’t fare any better as the days passed. Family members knew things were bad when he stopped watching sports. He wasn’t eating, not even French silk pie from Baker’s Square, his favorite. A doctor would finger anxiety as the culprit behind his raging insomnia. He’d pass the days reading his Bible, pacing, and visiting Menard’s, where he’d roam the aisles for hours.

City investigators asked about the email to KARE. He readily admitted to sending it, saying he feared for the safety of his workers.

“I sat in his bedroom with him, and said you’re going to get your job back,” Sheila says. “All he could think about is he didn’t want to start over. He didn’t think at his age he could.”

Though vested in his pension, Al remained three years shy of the Rule of 90, which said a worker’s age, added with years of service, must equal 90 years in order to collect a pension without penalty. That hit, along with taxes, would have whittled his monthly benefit by half, down to around $700, he calculated.

The weeks dragged, becoming months. Communications with the city came through his lawyer, Laura Spartz, who was angling to set up a meeting with various city officials. The meetings never happened, according to email chains between Spartz and Al. Despite Spartz’s assurances he might be rehired in a demoted role through arbitration, Al’s struggles amplified.

“I’m going nuts.... I... am full of anger and depressed,” read a February email. “They all want to know why I’m not at work so this better get done this week. It’s ridiculous.... I feel like I’m in prison.”

Eight days later, he’d write Spartz, “I’m losing my mind.... Either get me back to work or they can fire me.”

Al would soon get his answer.

The scapegoat

According to city rules, discipline “will normally be administered progressively.” It can range from verbal warnings to termination.

Minneapolis spokesperson Casper Hill says the only prior instance of a city employee being cited for improper communication with the media happened in 2013. Sgt. Marvin Schumer was given a letter of reprimand.

Al’s case would not receive the same kind of treatment.

On March 4, 2016, Al was at last called to a meeting with the city. He was fired.

According to the termination letter signed by Cerney and Steve Kotke, then head of Public Works, Al’s leak had “jeopardized public safety and the safety of city employees, as well as caused adverse financial impact.”

It also claimed that he had never discussed his concerns with superiors, and that his email “violated the ethical aspirations” of the city’s employee code.

“He was devastated,” says Sheila. “He couldn’t believe it. They basically flat-out called him a liar.”

Spartz recommended he look for a job while considering his next move, which included “appealing your termination.”

Sheila made plans to come by the house over the weekend. They would map out a plan in which Al would write a letter to OSHA, saying how sanitation workers had been ordered into a situation for which they weren’t trained. They’d also start looking for a new lawyer because “we weren’t happy with the job Laura had been doing,” says Sheila. “She wasn’t upholding her end of the bargain. She’d say she’d do A, B, and C and she wouldn’t. She didn’t have my brother’s best interest at heart. I truly believe that.”

(Spartz declined comment for this story. Kotke, Herberholz, and Cerney directed interview requests to spokesperson Hill. The city “is unable to respond” to specific questions regarding Al Ditty, he says, citing “classified private personnel data.” Likewise, police spokesperson Sgt. Catherine Michal declined comment, citing confidentiality rules.)

But three of Al’s co-workers are unanimous in their judgment.

“We all think that Al got screwed over,” says one. “They isolated the man.... He felt the city had really abandoned him and given him a bad deal.

“Al was a blue-collar guy, a working guy. If he knew something he would tell you. He wouldn’t play no games with you. He was only looking out for his employees. Somebody had to be the scapegoat, so it had to be Al Ditty. They took everything away from him.”

In the meantime, Al was spiraling into despair. Dorleen and Sheila had no idea how deep or how fast.

Unforgiven

The sight of Al’s feet sticking out from the closet confused Dorleen at first. Panic sent her up the stairs to find her cell phone. She called Sheila and youngest son Ricky before hitting “9-1-1.”

Ricky arrived before paramedics. Al had hanged himself and wasn’t breathing. Ricky performed CPR. It didn’t work. Al was dead.

Some 350 people, many of them city workers, started a week in late March by driving to Glen Haven Chapel in Crystal. A truck with the City of Lakes’ script and sailboat logo was commandeered for the memorial. Most in attendance had no idea of Al’s private battle until news of his death broke.

Strangers and some with familiar-sounding names volunteered their help to the family.

“Mom was told, I was told by all these people how they thought what happened to Al was wrong,” Sheila says. “They said they’d help our family in any way they could. I understand now how scared they must be. If this could happen to Al, it could happen to any of them.”

Spartz signed an agreement on behalf of Al’s estate last summer with Human Resources Director Tim Giles. According to Sheila, the family never agreed to this. Regardless, it greased the wheels for Dorleen’s modest beneficiary payout. It also meant “the merits” of Al’s termination would “remain unresolved with no admission by either party.”

The deal would freeze Al’s termination in a permanent state of appeal. Hence, his personnel file is sealed.

This was for the best, Spartz explained to Dorleen in a letter. If Al’s termination wasn’t appealed, she wrote, his case would be closed, meaning it would become “public data. That means journalists or other interested parties could request the information and have it made available to them.... Once we get to mediation, the file will be secret.”

The move, she told Al’s mom, will protect “your privacy.”

The autopsy report was less cryptic. Suicide, read the medical examiner’s cause of death.

“My brother really died of a broken heart,” Sheila says.

Weeks after the service, she and Dorleen uncovered, among Al’s papers, a hand-scribbled note.

“Forgive me for my sin,” he’d written. “Let them forgive me too.”


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