FARGO — Elaine Diesem and Amy Gibson laughed as Diesem’s dog Bell jumped on a patio table, smiled and wiggled her small body toward a reporter in an attempt to elicit a few pets.
The welcoming yard at Diesem’s Fargo home was adorned with flowers, climbing vines and lawn decorations, making it hard to believe that, just a month earlier, a 14-year-old girl was fatally stabbed multiple times by a stranger in the nearby parking lot of a Party City store.
“I saw them take her away,” Gibson, who lives near Diesem, said as she described what she observed from her condo in the aftermath of the June 4 attack on Jupiter Paulsen. “It was very difficult to see.”
The deadly assault rattled the Fargo community, and it’s not this year’s only high-profile incident in the metro area. Last weekend, police arrested a Fargo man who allegedly shot a stranger at a gas station near North Dakota State University. A taxi driver was fatally shot in Moorhead after an attempted robbery on May 5.
In West Fargo, a child sitting in his home was hit by a stray bullet shot outside by someone connected to a botched robbery in late March.
Jupiter's fatal stabbing is part of the reason Gibson said she is moving to another part of the city.
“Since I moved here, it’s gotten bad,” she said of crime around her home, where she has lived for five years. “I have to take her (my dog) and walk her, and I’m scared.”
Violent crime numbers are trending on par or below this year for Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo compared to last year, but annual figures have been climbing over the last five years. Statistics provided by the metro area police departments show officers took 813 reports last year for violent crime for all three cities combined. That’s compared to about 400 so far this year and 601 in 2016.
When it comes to violent crime per capita, West Fargo and Moorhead have stayed relatively steady from 2010 through 2019, with spikes and dips over time. Fargo has gone from 286 crimes per 100,000 in 2010 to 542 per 100,000 in 2019, the latest year available through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
“I think it’s terrible,” said West Fargo man Mike Wigginton when asked about his thoughts on crime in the metro area.
Wigginton, who lives near where the boy was hit by the stray bullet, said he feels safe in the neighborhood he has lived in for 15 years. Down the street, children were playing in an inflatable pool, and multiple people were seen running or walking along the sidewalks.
“We love our neighbors,” Wigginton said as he swept the floor of his open garage.
West Fargo Police Chief Denis Otterness, Moorhead Chief Shannon Monroe and Fargo Chief David Zibolski agreed that their towns are still safe places to live.
“We’re a pretty safe community when you compare Fargo-Moorhead to the rest of the nation,” Monroe said.
Diesem recalled that her daughter, who lives in California and found out about the stabbing incident before Diesem, asked the Fargo woman if she was moving because of the Jupiter attack. Diesem said she plans to stay.
“It’s not like there’s major crimes every day,” Diesem said.
Behind the numbers
The Forum analyzed violent crime numbers from the FBI, which includes homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault in its figures. Fargo and Moorhead had numbers for this year through June, while West Fargo had figures to July 23.
When looking at raw numbers from area police departments, violent crime has mostly stayed steady in Moorhead and West Fargo over the last decade. For the most part, the two cities have stayed below the national and their state’s violent crime rates. In 2019, West Fargo had 175 violent crimes per 100,000, about the same in 2010.
Moorhead went from 171 violent crimes per capita to 142 from 2010 to 2019.
Fargo was trending along U.S. violent crime rates until 2016, when it started its upward trend. As of 2019, it was well above the U.S. rate of 379 per capita and North Dakota’s rate of 285.
Minnesota's rate was 236.4.
Raw numbers have steadily increased in Fargo over the last five years, Zibolski said, contrasting some large cities that have seen large spikes. According to the Fargo Police Department, the city has gone from 458 violent incidents in 2016 to 569 in 2020, while West Fargo reported no change in the same time period.
Jupiter's killing was a significant egregious act, but it also was an outlier when it comes to random crime in Fargo, Zibolski said. Most victims in Fargo know their attackers, he said.
"I think from the safety perspective, most people have really nothing to worry about in terms of walking freely around anywhere in Fargo and being safe," he said.
West Fargo saw a drop in violent crime last year, going from 85 to 75 reports in one year, Otterness pointed out. This year, the city is on track to be below 2020 in some categories.
“You hear a lot of conversations about a spike in violent crime in some of the large … cities throughout the nation,” Otterness said. “We kind of bucked that trend a little bit here in West Fargo.”
Residents have access to more information faster than ever before, the chiefs said. And there are more avenues to find it, including 24/7 news networks and online neighborhood forums, they noted. Local news outlets also can report news online faster, instead of waiting for the evening broadcast or for a newspaper to be published.
“It may give a perception that there’s maybe more things going on because people are just much better informed now,” Otterness said.
People are also interested in crime stories, Otterness said. With the national narrative that crime is going up, they may be concerned if the trend is similar in their own communities, he added.
Perception also varies for different people depending on their age, experiences and what they see, Zibolski explained.
"Fear of crime is always greater than the actual statistics," he said.
In Moorhead, violent crime went from 68 to 61 reports between 2016 and 2019 but jumped to 169 last year. That’s because it started counting the number of total violations instead of total responses, Monroe said.
For example, a person who may have robbed and killed someone would previously have been counted under the homicide category only. Now both charges would be counted in the numbers, Monroe said.
He agreed crime is increasing in Moorhead, which is following a national trend. There are a lot of factors, including police backing off due to use of force reforms and being short-staffed, Monroe said.
That has resulted in officers being reactive instead of proactive, Monroe said. Crimes are solved and prevented by officers being able to do proactive police work, he said.
“When we're in that reactive mode only, they're going call to call to call,” he said. “So unless it’s involving one of those people that has warrants or is a wanted person in some fashion, a lot of them are flying under the radar.”
Policing is just one part of preventing crime, Zibolski said. He noted Arthur Kollie, who is accused of killing Jupiter, had a criminal record.
He wasn't faulting what judges and prosecutors did in that case, but the judicial system could be another place to look to when it comes to preventing crime, he said.
"Police always are the first focus because that's what everyone thinks of in terms of these situations," he said.
‘A freak thing’
Not everyone worries about crime in the Fargo-Moorhead area. That includes Matt Pederson, who has lived in his Moorhead home for eight years. He moved with his family from Houston to the area for the job market.
“We don’t feel unsafe,” Pederson said. “Our kids play outside all the time.”
The tree-embellished cul-de-sac is peaceful and clean. Toys could be seen outside Pederson’s house.
Pederson remembers seeing the crime scene for the taxi driver fatally shot in May. It’s the first time he has seen flashing lights in his neighborhood, apart from a traffic stop.
Pederson described the shooting as “a freak thing.”
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He didn’t change any of his habits, unlike Gibson and Diesem. Gibson said she no longer walks her dog after dark because of what happened to Jupiter. She also carries a self-defense device.
Diesem said she now closes her garage door instantly when she gets home from work.
Gibson also said she would walk her dog early in the morning by Party City. The morning of the attack on Jupiter, Gibson said she overslept.
"I kind of feel bad because I feel like I should have been out there sooner, and I wasn’t," she said. "It’s impacted me a lot. It’s been very hard.”
Gibson and Diesem said they moved into the home because it was quiet and close to so many amenities.
“It is close to everything,” Diesem said. “It is so central.”
The two said they have noticed people lingering under trees near her home, possibly using drugs and begging for money.
“When you don’t know they’re there, that’s scary to walk up on,” Gibson said.
Diesem’s bicycle was also stolen in the year she has lived there.
In West Fargo, Wigginton said he started carrying his gun after an incident where someone came into his garage in August 2020. He also bought his wife, Cheryl, a handgun, he said.
His neighborhood seems safe, but it hasn’t been without its issues. Someone broke into his child’s car a few years ago, which is why the Wiggintons installed security cameras, the husband said.
That includes one near the doorbell, Cheryl Wigginton said.
“I won’t answer the door unless I know who it is,” she said.
Pederson said he doesn’t fault anyone for changing their habits, especially if it makes them feel safer. For him, he feels like nothing has changed for him since the taxi cab shooting.
“Now if something like that happened every week, or every two weeks, then yeah. Then I’d probably be getting out of here,” he said. “But if that was the one thing that happened in the eight years that we've been here, then that's kind of just the exception to the rule. So I'm not going to really necessarily change my behavior just because one thing happens one time.”
Gibson, Diesem, Pederson and the Wiggintons all agreed that police work hard to try to prevent and solve crime.
“The cops around here have been outstanding,” Mike Wigginton said. “I think they’ve done a great job.”
Fargo and Moorhead have hired crime analysts to determine trends in crime, find ways to target problem areas and prevent crime. Otterness said he plans to do the same in 2022.
It also should help with figuring out how many officers need to be on the force and how to use resources more efficiently, he said.
Fargo plans to add a second crime analyst, and possibly a third, Zibolski said.
Police in the metro area educate the public on how they can help prevent crime, the chiefs said, and officers have developed supportive relationships with residents. While officers police the neighborhoods, they rely on residents to spot suspicious activity more than ever, Moorhead Police Capt. Deric Swenson said.
“It’s a return back to community policing that slowly we’ve drifted away from in our society because crime got so much better for many years,” Monroe said. ”Now we are seeing an increase kind of quickly, and we've got to return to some of those things that worked really well, which is those connections with our neighborhoods.”
Residents have contributed to helping the Fargo Police Department in solving crimes, which is a very important piece in policing, Zibolski said.
Cheryl Wigginton advised people to use common sense, know your surroundings and get to know who your neighbors are.
“We definitely watch out for each other,” she said.
Gibson said she believes Fargo is still a good place to live.
“I hope things will improve,” she said.