Man convicted in Richard Walton's death receives parole

Twenty-nine years after the anniversary of Oakdale Police Officer Richard Walton's death, the Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy announced that the man who killed him, Timothy Eling, will be paroled from his life prison sentence.

An advisory panel, including Department of Corrections commissioners and the Stillwater prison warden Michelle Smith, reviewed Eling's parole eligibility on Sept. 19 and decided he must serve a separate 98-month sentence for conspiracy to sell cocaine before being released in 2015.

Eling, now 62, began his life prison sentence for killing Walton on Jan. 27, 1983, according to Department of Corrections Spokesperson John Schadl. He is diagnosed with terminal cancer, according to several media reports about the state's parole decision.

Walton died on Oct. 25, 1982, a day after Eling shot him while he was moonlighting as a security guard at Mounds Park Hospital in St. Paul.

Walton had received a call of an armed robbery at the hospital pharmacy and was shot as he walked off the elevator to help at the scene. He left behind a wife and five children.

Oakdale Police Capt. Mike Grill worked with Walton on the day shift that Oct. 24. He recalled Eling was injured during the robbery and was the first suspect arrested following a manhunt.

Grill said Walton started working as a reserve officer in Oakdale in 1972 before being hired full time in 1975. Grill was hired in 1978.

"I considered him a friend although he was older than I was," Grill said last week. "He was 43 at the time he died. He was a very, very likable guy. When I started (in Oakdale) he made you feel like you were part of the department."

The news of Eling's parole eligibility came as a shock to the Oakdale Police Department's current and former staff.

"It's very frustrating," said Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton, who worked in the Oakdale Police Department from 1983 until after his election as sheriff in 2006.

Hutton never met Walton, but said he consistently heard stories about the slain officer.

"When you're in an office together and in (squad) cars together, you have a lot of time to have conversation and a lot of those stories would come out," he said.

The environment at the department was still one of recovery among the officers when Hutton joined the force in 1983, he said, adding that Walton is remembered as a "community-oriented" officer.

"Every one of them spoke extremely, extremely well of him and the work he did for the department and the citizens of Oakdale," Hutton recalled.

Asked about Eling's parole approval, Hutton said, "I vehemently disagree with it. Mr. Eling should never breathe free air; he took the life of a police officer. It's just absolutely crazy that the commissioner would entertain something like this."

Release date
Eling's sentence for the drug offense will be complete on Dec. 15, 2015, and he will be released then as long as he keeps a clean record, Schadl said.

According to the letter from Commissioner Roy to Eling, his parole approval centered on the "significant changes" he's made while in prison.

"You've transformed yourself by hard work within a multitude of self-improvement programs from an individual with a criminal orientation and thought pattern that permeated every aspect of your life, to one who focuses on positive growth and the betterment of others through mentoring," Roy wrote in the letter.

He added, "(You) realized many years ago the devastating impact your crime has had on your victim, Richard Walton's family, friends, the law enforcement community in general, and your own family.

"Your rejection of criminality and pursuit of positive activities and relationships demonstrated over many years has been, as you indicate, your testament to your victims and the single element of apology you have control over."

Eling has served as a mentor to young inmates and to those with chemical dependency problems while at the Stillwater prison, according to Roy. He co-founded an offender restorative justice program and has no discipline on his record for the past 15 years.

As his parole date approaches, Eling will move to minimum security custody and then a work release program.

"Mr Eling is not a noble figure because he turned away from a life of crime," Roy said. "His parole was granted because he met the requirements laid out in the law that permit it. If he can't stay on that path, he will not be allowed to remain in society."

Times change
Since Eling was sentenced, laws regulating parole eligibility for first-degree murder convicts and anyone convicted of killing a peace officer have changed.

According to Schadl, someone convicted of first-degree murder before 1989 could be eligible for parole in a minimum of 17 years. After 1989, the eligibility requirement changed to a minimum of 30 years, he said.

Additionally, years after Walton's death, members of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association lobbied to the state Legislature for a sentence of life in prison without parole for anyone convicted of killing a peace or correctional officer. The law became effective on Aug. 1, 1993.

Before 1993, conviction for killing a peace officer could result in a life without parole sentence if the individual had committed a "heinous offense," Schadl said.

Dennis Flaherty, the executive director of the association, worked with the Legislature for the law to be passed and said it was disheartening to know the Department of Corrections didn't consider it while reviewing Eling's parole.

"We led the charge on that," Flaherty said. "It was not really that difficult to convince the Legislature that it required the harshest penalty and in Minnesota (that) would be life without parole," he said.

While the law is not retroactive, Flaherty said the Department of Corrections should have considered the severe penalty the Legislature passed for anyone convicted of killing an officer.

"After having time to think about it and to have it sink in, I am surprised that the Department of Corrections didn't refer to the current law and allow that to be instructive to them as for what the Legislature had in mind in how they handle cop killers," Flaherty said.

"I am sure it is heartbreaking for his family and his friends and members of the Oakdale Police Department who all tragically suffered. When an officer is killed it impacts so many people ... we can't forget the impact that it has on the police department on the community," Flaherty added.

For Grill, the new law will not bring his friend and colleague back, but he said Walton's tragic death likely did influence the Legislature's decision.

"I am more certain that cases like Dick's murder were factors in the laws becoming more severe," Grill said. "Nothing changes what happened 29 years ago, whether Mr. Eling is paroled or spends the rest of his life in prison, (it) doesn't bring Dick back. The loss to this department and the loss to the profession is still there."

Regardless of the timing of the more severe law, Hutton said Eling should continue to spend the rest of his life in prison.

"It wasn't an accident; they were committing a felonious act and a robbery for narcotics, and they killed a police officer on his way to help someone," Hutton said. "They ambushed him. Mr. Eling needs to stay the rest of his life in prison."

Remembrance
Before the news broke about Eling's scheduled parole, Oakdale police officers and others who knew Walton were in the process of creating a new memorial in his honor outside City Hall.

A committee is raising money to build a Veterans Memorial, and the police department will use its funds to add a new monument for Walton at the site.

There is an existing memorial on the north side of City Hall and police department parking lot, which consists of a boulder and plaque with flowers and a flagpole.

Several officers organized a fund-raiser to build a new department memorial and have about $3,000 to help fund it. The department will use forfeiture funds collected from money or assets they seize during criminal investigations to contribute more to the memorial project.

"Regardless of all of this, I think it's great that people remember just what an outstanding individual (Richard Walton) was and what a really exceptional police officer he was," Grill said.

Katy Zillmer can be reached at kzillmer@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7822.

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