La Crosse police drug investigator Jim Mancuso spent the early evening of Dec. 22 with his pregnant wife and two daughters downtown visiting Santa.
A phone call from work interrupted their dinner.
“Jim told me that he had a bad feeling about the night,” his wife, Stephanie, wrote in a letter to the court. “He asked me to pray for him while he worked.”
Hours later, Brandon Ritter had his car pointed at Mancuso. Trying to escape arrest for selling methamphetamine, Ritter accelerated.
“Steph, I am OK, but I am on the way to the hospital,” Mancuso said during a phone call to his wife.
Ritter, a drug dealer and convicted felon, was sentenced Monday to 10 years in prison and 10 years on extended supervision that he begins serving after he completes his current prison sentence.
“That’s the least I can do given the gravity of what I see here,” La Crosse County Circuit Judge Todd Bjerke said. “You’re lucky something worse didn’t happen.”
Ritter, of La Crosse, sped toward Mancuso in the parking lot of Festival Foods, 600 N. Holmen Drive, late Dec. 22 after selling $380 worth of meth to an informant, according to the complaint.
Mancuso jumped to avoid being struck and fired four shots into Ritter’s windshield before he was thrown onto the hood and fell from the moving vehicle. Investigators arrested Ritter when he drove into a nearby snowbank, where police found a bag with 36 grams of meth.
Calling Ritter’s one of the most dangerous arrests, Mancuso told the judge Monday that he shouted, “POLICE,” multiple times before Ritter struck him with the car.
“Brandon Ritter absolutely knew I was a police officer,” he said. “There is no doubt Ritter tried to hit me intentionally.”
La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke later ruled that Mancuso acted in self-defense. Ritter was not struck by gunfire.
Mancuso asked the judge to impose a sentence that sends a message to the community that those who peddle drugs and inflict violence on others will be held accountable. The officer underwent months of physical therapy for his injuries and still must deal with the near constant pain and endless thoughts of that night.
Mancuso told the judge he’s aware of the everyday risks posed to law enforcement, a career he began 11 years ago in La Crosse.
“Brandon Ritter’s senseless and dangerous actions won’t stop me from doing this in the future,” he said.
Ritter, who was on extended supervision for burglary at the time of his arrest, pleaded guilty to delivery of meth and second-degree recklessly endangering safety.
As a condition of the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to leave the length of the prison sentence to the judge’s discretion, but noted the seriousness of the charges and Ritter’s significant criminal history that includes convictions for resisting or obstructing police.
Public defender Rachel Krueger told the judge that Ritter did not know the person in front of his car was a police officer and was frightened by the sight of the investigator’s gun. Mancuso, she said, had “no emergency signals activated” and was not in uniform.
“He did not intend to harm anyone that night,” she said.
Krueger asked for a short prison term for Ritter, whose criminal history is “relatively minor” compared to other defendants. She asked the judge how imprisoning Ritter for an extended period would help Mancuso’s family.
Ritter also is experiencing a “great amount of trauma” because he also could have been killed that evening, Krueger said.
“He’s starting to work through that,” she said.
Ritter apologized to the officer and his family, telling Mancuso he never planned to hurt him, and to the community for selling drugs to support his own addiction. He took responsibility for his conduct but asked the judge for mercy.
“Any day the police go out they have to assume something can happen,” the judge told Ritter. “And here you are, sorry. But sorry doesn’t cut it.”
“Brandon Ritter absolutely knew I was a police officer. There is no doubt Ritter tried to hit me intentionally.” Jim Mancuso, La Crosse police drug investigator