FARGO — Drew Wrigley remembers trying to describe to a child victim of sexual assault what he did as a prosecutor.
The head federal prosecutor in North Dakota was the district attorney in Philadelphia at the time. He prosecuted the girl’s attacker. As he explained his job, the child cut him off and said she understood: “You’re the what goes-around, comes-around lawyer,” she said.
“At that moment, I never hoped so more than in that moment,” he said Friday, Feb. 26, in an interview. “I've had a lot of moments over the years where I never hoped so more.”
The 55-year-old said his focus as the U.S. attorney in North Dakota has been making the largest impact he could instead of stacking bodies in prison. With his resignation submitted, he will turn over the reins to First Assistant United States Attorney Nick Chase, who will serve as acting U.S. attorney until the U.S. Senate approves Wrigley's replacement.
Sunday is Wrigley's last day in office.
Wrigley said it has been a privilege working with dedicated staff who care about public service. He knew he was going to leave at some point, so he said he wanted to make sure his staff had the power to continue the U.S. Attorney's Office's work.
“I sleep really well at night knowing that I've done my best to put that power in the hands of people who have the ethics, who have the objective mindset and believe in the idea of justice,” he said.
Wrigley said he doesn’t have any immediate plans other than to watch his children play postseason high school basketball in Bismarck for Shiloh Christian. President Joe Biden asking for Wrigley's resignation came up faster than expected, he said, so the lawyer is taking time to figure out what is next.
“I am not feeling anxiety about that,” he said. “I actually embrace the idea of taking some time to really work through some options.”
Wrigley said he hasn’t ruled out a run for public office. He also said he owes a lot to the public, noting his community doesn’t pull him and his family in different directions.
“We live in a very special place,” Wrigley said. “It's worth protecting, and I believe in my work here.”
In the end, he said, he has no regrets.
“I was asked several times recently, ‘Do you feel it was worth it for you to come back for two years?’ I said, ‘It would have been worth it to come back for two weeks.’”
The Bismarck native graduated from the University of North Dakota before getting his law degree at American University in Washington, D.C. After Serving as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, he returned to North Dakota to serve his first stint as U.S. attorney in 2001.
At age 36, he was one of the youngest U.S. attorneys in the country, he said.
Rodriguez is the only person convicted in North Dakota on death row after being sentenced in 2006 of Sjodin’s killing. His attorneys continue to argue he shouldn’t be put to death.
Wrigley said he stands 100% behind his decision to pursue the death penalty against Rodriguez. In his second tenure as U.S. attorney, he continued to argue Rodriguez’s previous actions of raping and injuring other women, as well as the cruelty with which he treated Sjodin, warrants capital punishment.
After leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2009, per former President Barack Obama’s request, he served as lieutenant governor from 2010 to 2016. He then worked for Sanford Health before being appointed as U.S. attorney by former President Donald Trump in 2019.
There have been light moments and challenging days, Wrigley said. He noted he focused on several values, including transparency, accessibility, accountability and service-minded efforts.
“The public pays our salary, and we don’t have the right to not talk about what we’re doing to the public,” he said.
Wrigley highlighted his office’s civil practice. That included a settlement that gave adults with disabilities more support to allow them to remain in their homes. He also noted a federal agreement over an accessibility violation at a North Dakota State University multisport arena dubbed The SHAC.
On the criminal side, Wrigley focused on increasing drug enforcement on Native American tribal lands, which resulted in some of the largest fentanyl indictments in North Dakota’s history. He also emphasized efforts to go after firearms violations, saying they prevented violent crimes.
“That's somebody extracted from the community who next week may be on the front page for murdering somebody in a drug dispute,” he said.
Wrigley has been criticized for prosecuting several protesters accused of rioting in downtown Fargo last summer. He called the behavior displayed during the riot outrageous, noting that officers were injured, the public’s safety was put at risk and property was damaged.
He pledged to go after every federal case he could prove in connection to the riot. He said he treated the person who threatened former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and a defendant accused of vandalizing Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven’s office in Fargo with the same response.
“We're not going to tolerate crossing the line away from speech and away from freedom of assembly to violence and threats and mayhem," he said.