Police looked into how journalist got photos of Hennepin County sheriff’s wrecked SUV

Independent photojournalist Rebecca Brannon said police interviewed her about photos

By: - December 29, 2021 1:33 pm

Photojournalist Rebecca Brannon took this photo of Sheriff Dave Hutchinson’s crashed Ford Explorer at the Hennepin County Public Works Department in Medina. Photo by Rebecca Brannon

At the request of Hennepin County officials, a Medina police officer investigated how an independent photojournalist got photos of Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson’s totaled, black Ford Explorer he crashed while driving drunk.

The officer, Josh McKinley, visited the home of conservative journalist Rebecca Brannon’s parents in Eden Prairie after she posted photos on Twitter of the county-owned vehicle Hutchinson crashed near Alexandria, according to a recording of a phone conversation with Brannon provided to the Reformer.

“It startled me,” Brannon said in an interview with the Reformer. “I was mostly concerned with my parents because they were worried. They worry so much. I think I was more concerned for them.”

Hutchinson, who was elected in 2018 with support from Democrats, pleaded guilty to driving drunk after leaving a state sheriff’s conference on Dec. 8.

Brannon has a large following on Twitter, where she primarily tweets about politics and protests. She used to be heavily involved in the state Republican Party, and her “day job” is a videography business that produces videos for churches and candidates, including a launch video her company produced last summer for Bloomington police officer Jai Hanson, who is running against Hutchinson for sheriff. She said it was a three-day contract, she hasn’t done any work for him since.

Brannon tracked down Hutchinson’s mangled SUV while it was parked in a fenced lot behind the Hennepin County Public Works building in Medina. 

Brannon was led there through tips from several sources — including a “couple of them from law enforcement.” 

She went there around 10 a.m., drove through an open gate and took photos. The SUV was unlocked, so she opened the door and took shots of mail, cigarette packages, clothing, a prescription and business cards strewn about. She also took photos of a nicotine salt vaping device and what she called “weed gummies” but what are hemp-based gummies, and posted some of the photos on Twitter.

A couple of days later, McKinley showed up at Brannon’s parents’ home asking for her (she doesn’t live with them). She called the Medina police department, and McKinley called her back.

According to an audio recording of the call Brannon provided the Reformer, McKinley said his boss had been “alerted” by the county sheriff’s office about her photos of the sheriff’s SUV on Twitter, and McKinley was called in on his day off to find out how she got access to the photos, vehicle and public works lot.

“We kind of got involved just because Medina kind of covers the whole area and stuff, so they just wanted us to look into it,” McKinley said on the recording.

Brannon asked whether she had trespassed or something, because she saw no signs indicating it was private property.

“Not that I can see,” McKinley replied.

McKinley said on the recording he looked at surveillance video of the lot and saw Brannon’s SUV follow another vehicle into the lot and go “right to” Hutchinson’s vehicle. Asked how she knew which vehicle it was, Brannon said “several sources” told her but she declined to give him names. He said he respected her right as a journalist not to divulge her sources, and apologized for inadvertently going to her parents’ home.

McKinley told her he just prefers to speak to people in person and he said the Medina police looked into it because it’s in their jurisdiction.

“Sorry to alarm you or anything like that,” McKinley told Brannon before hanging up. “I get told to do something, I say ‘OK I’ll go do it.’ ”

Contacted by the Reformer, McKinley said he couldn’t comment, the police chief was out, and that a copy of the police report should be available next week.

While McKinley said on the recording that the Sheriff’s Office asked his department to look into Brannon, a spokesperson for the county, Carolyn Marinan, said in an email that “Hennepin County administration” made the request, not the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, to see whether anything inappropriate happened – like trespassing.

“In light of allegations made and pictures on social media, the county requested the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction, Medina P.D., to investigate the matter,” Marinan wrote. “They conducted an investigation and at this point have concluded no charges will be filed.”

Hutchinson’s lawyer Fred Bruno and Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson told the Star Tribune Brannon’s photos were “staged,” but Brannon isn’t sure what they’re alleging. She said she only moved some business cards from the floor to the console to take photos of them.

The sheriff, Bruno and Larson have not responded to a request for comment.

This story was updated at 6:17 p.m. to include the fact that Brannon’s company produced a launch video for a candidate for sheriff running against Hutchinson.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.