Spotlight Story

The morning of February 9, 2021 was typical for a winter Minnesota day. Bone-chillingly cold. The sun was blazing, but provided little relief. The two top cops in the Wright County Sheriff’s Office – Sheriff Sean Deringer and Chief Deputy Matt Treichler – were going through normal activities. At 10:52 a.m., Deringer was getting his squad car washed at the Highway Department shop. Treichler was getting out of a dental chair.

For such a seemingly random day, it was all about to change – transforming into a day the City of Buffalo will never forget.

At 10:52 a.m., Gregory Ulrich entered the Allina Crossroads Clinic in Buffalo and began detonating bombs and shooting at those inside the building. The incident itself was shockingly brief – the first call to dispatch came at 10:54. The first officer arrived on the scene at 10:57. Ulrich was in custody by 11:07. Within 20 minutes of the first 911 call, there were about 70 responder vehicles at the scene – sheriff’s squads, local police, fire trucks and ambulances.

In those harrowing 15 minutes, the small town of Buffalo became the focus of national and international news coverage – with immediate speculation that the event could be tied to domestic terrorism. As law enforcement personnel descended on the scene, they had little idea what they were going to be facing. But they had a job to do and their jobs are to go headlong into harm’s way when every instinct tells most people to flee.

“Vehicles started arriving immediately when the alert went out that there was an active shooter,” Deringer said. “The Buffalo Police Department, our office and the State Patrol all converged on the scene within minutes. While we don’t regularly train together as a cohesive unit, we all have that training and started setting up a command post and deciding who would take on what tasks.”

Anyone on the streets of Buffalo that morning knew something was horribly wrong with such a huge law enforcement presence, as the sound of sirens ripped through the cold air one after another after another. Ulrich was in custody, but there was a lot of work still to be done and the scene was getting gridlocked with emergency vehicles. 

“The biggest problem you have with any kind of critical incident is that agencies are self-dispatching because they want to help,” Treichler said. “There were vehicles everywhere. Some squads had to park a couple blocks away and run up to the scene. It was hard to figure out whose vehicle was whose after a while, but we had a lot to do in a short time frame – set up a command post, close off streets, those sorts of things.”

Unclear if they might be dealing with the potential for additional shooters or explosives in the building, officers used a State Patrol vehicle as rolling cover to provide a protective barrier in order to approach and get inside the building. Training had taught them that a suspect surrendering could be an ambush. The sun was blinding as it reflected off the glass exterior of the clinic and, while Ulrich had called 911 and said he was acting alone and would surrender, the agencies involved weren’t going to take a bombing suspect at his word.

“We didn’t know there were bombs involved until Mr. Ulrich called dispatch and said he had bombs,” Treichler said. “He was basically lighting them and throwing them while he was talking to dispatch. There were multiple calls that came in from inside the clinic identifying shots fired and bomb explosions. In the video, you could see him lighting a bomb, throwing it and getting back on the phone with dispatch.”

In all, Ulrich arrived with four bombs and a handgun. Two of the four bombs brought to the Allina property detonated – one in the front lobby and one in an office. A third bomb was lit and thrown into an office, but didn’t detonate. A fourth bomb was found in Ulrich’s briefcase.

While officers were clearing the building checking for additional dangers, they witnessed acts of pure heroism. Allina medical personnel and patients tended to their injured co-workers and strangers became heroes by virtue of their actions.

“There was a patient who was in an exam room waiting, hears the commotion outside and peeks out the door,” Treichler said. “She saw one of the wounded nurses crawling on the floor, grabbed her, dragged her into the room and tried to barricade themselves. That’s heroic.”

Deringer was among the first inside the clinic and what he saw took his breath away. He had seen a lot in his years in law enforcement, but nothing like this.

“It looked like a war zone,” Deringer said. “Two bombs had detonated, so the entire right side of the lobby had absolutely been blown up. There was damage everywhere. Light fixtures were hanging. By the time I got there, you could still smell the gunpowder and there was a haze that hung in the air. It was very surreal.”

Although they pray the day will never come, law enforcement officers and their families are all too aware that danger is part of the job. Nobody knows when the day arrives that a life-threatening incident will take place and it’s their job to bring it to an end.

“This was kind of a worst-case scenario type of day,” Treichler said. “We do a lot of active shooter training, but since Columbine there has been a paradigm shift in how you respond to those types of incidents. You never think it’s going to happen in your area. But when it does, on one hand it’s a crisis and it’s tragic. On the other hand, you’re really proud of your people for how they performed. It’s strange because they’re totally different emotions.”

The first priority was to cordon off the crime scene and get whoever was inside – whether it was another suspect, additional victims or those hiding – out of the building. Deringer said for agencies that don’t often work together addressing mass situations, law enforcement put their training into real-time practice that morning.

“What impressed me most was the level of communication and heroism at the same time,” Deringer said. “Hands down this is what we train for, this is why we train and this is why it is so critical to take all of that training seriously.”

Deringer applauded the efforts of Buffalo Police Chief Pat Budke and his officers, who were the first on the scene and the ones who handcuffed Ulrich and removed him from the clinic.

“Chief Budke and his officers were critical when this incident happened,” Deringer said. “These were their neighbors in there. They responded quickly and did what needed to be done. While other agencies came pouring in hours and days later, I spoke with Chief Budke three or four times a day because we have a great relationship with the Buffalo PD and were glad to have them as part of the investigation team over the next several days. It’s those partnerships with our police departments, EMS and fire departments that are valuable. We had five helicopters at the Buffalo airport within 40 minutes. That’s why these relationships are so important.”

With their suspect in custody and victims being cared for by medical personnel, the second level of work began. That process always begins with the most basic of questions. Law enforcement would learn later that Ulrich had a calm, uneventful bus ride via Trailblazer Transit from the Super 8 Motel in Buffalo to the Allina Clinic, but, at the time, all they were being told was one word – Trailblazer.

“One of the first things we tried to determine was how did he get there?” Treichler said. “We got word he came in a Trailblazer. We aren’t thinking a Trailblazer Transit bus. We’re thinking a Chevy Trailblazer and there was a Chevy Trailblazer in the parking lot. Whenever you have a situation where someone has bombs, you treat the vehicle as if it has bombs in it, too. We set up a perimeter and made sure that vehicle was clear. It was only later we found out he came in a Trailblazer bus and didn’t have a vehicle on-site.”

The initial search of the clinic was to locate other shooters if there were any, potential additional victims and those who were hiding for their own protection. However, after viewing the video from inside the clinic, Deringer and his team made a startling discovery – a bomb intended to go off hadn’t.

“When we watched the video, we could see him throw a bomb into a second office and there hadn’t been an explosion,” Deringer said. “We went back to the office and the bomb had apparently bounced off the wall and fell directly behind a phone. It didn’t even knock the receiver off the cradle. We were able to watch his every step with the quality video provided by Allina’s security system and document every shell casing.”

At the scene, it didn’t take long for the Wright County Sheriff’s Office and Buffalo Police Department to have their law enforcement colleagues arrive to provide assistance. The State Patrol. The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. All the acronym agencies – FBI, BCA, ATF, DNR. It was all hands on deck to collaborate on working the case.

After gathering preliminary information, the Wright County Sheriff’s Office took the lead role and was assisted by the Buffalo Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The ATF and BCA assisted the Wright County Major Crimes Unit in processing the scene over the next few days.

“When it comes to crimes scenes with bombs, that’s the ATF’s specialty,” Deringer said. “The FBI was extremely important for us, too. Ulrich had family in Florida and within two days an FBI agent was knocking on their door. Having partners in this case that had the resources of the federal government was really a game-changer.”

The clinic wasn’t the only focus of the investigation. There were three crime scenes that needed to be locked down and secured – the clinic, the Super 8 Motel where Ulrich had been staying and a residence in a Buffalo trailer park where he lived.

As is often the case in serious crimes, other local agencies offered their assistance if needed – and it was needed in this case. The Minneapolis Police Department Bomb Squad was on its way within a half hour. The sheriffs of Anoka and Hennepin counties immediately offered their assistance, with Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson sending his Mobile Command Center for Wright County to use while the clinic remained an active crime scene, as well as providing 10 detectives from his office to assist in interviewing witnesses. Within 90 minutes of the incident, the Wright County Mobile Command Post was set up. Soon thereafter, the Hennepin County Command Post arrived.

The Sheriff’s Office faced another challenge back at the Law Enforcement Center. Witnesses had either run out of the clinic on their own or been ushered out – many without coats, purses, cell phones, car keys, etc. Needing to obtain witness statements, about 30 witnesses were brought to the LEC, where another section of the Sheriff’s Office team stepped into action.

“This is where our team approach is so amazing,” Deringer said. “Unbeknownst to any of us out at the scene, our staff at the Sheriff’s Office had 30 people show up in different levels of distress. Some had just seen their co-workers shot up. Some of them had seen some unbelievable horrors. Many of them ran out of the clinic without their coats and it was incredibly cold that day. Our staff was finding blankets, getting bottled water, getting them phones to call their loved ones – anything they could do to make them as comfortable as possible. We had an entire team back at the Sheriff’s office doing what we do – taking care of people.”

Less than four hours after the first explosion, Deringer held a press conference. Two days later, joined by Wright County Attorney Brian Lutes, Deringer held a second press conference. In his initial press conference, he didn’t have the chance to thank his staff for their professionalism because the focus was where it should have been – on the victims of the tragedy and their families. He got that opportunity the second time around and the memory of that time still lingers with him.

“I can still get a little emotional talking about it – even eight months out,” Deringer said. “My job is to take care of my people and they did some amazing things. My team worked countless, endless hours for days on end and did an awesome job.”

While it took two days for Deringer to publicly acknowledge the work his staff had done, he made sure they knew exactly how grateful and proud he was. The night of the shooting, Deringer went back to his office at about 1 a.m. and wrote an email to his staff thanking them for their teamwork and professionalism.

“This case truly affected every member of the office,” Deringer said. “It was important to me before I went home that night to make sure I communicated my appreciation for what they do on a daily basis and what they did that day.”

The Allina tragedy remained in the public spotlight for several weeks, but eventually the news trucks stopped showing up and things began to return to more of a sense of normalcy, prompting Deringer to joke, “If I’m never part of national news again, I’ll be happy.”

The Allina Crossroads Clinic re-opened for business Sept. 27, marking a new chapter in the process of healing and moving forward. But, few will forget the incident that spawned the term “Buffalo Strong.” The community came together as a result of the tragedy, reminding themselves of the many positives about living in the community and why it is so tight-knit.

For Deringer, Treichler and the rest of the WCSO staff, they have returned to business as usual. There are crimes that need to be solved, those in need of medical emergency assistance and criminals that need to be taken off the street. However, recollections of that frigid February morning will remain in their memories – both for the tragedy that took place that day and the actions taken by those who responded to the desperate pleas for help.

“Wright County can be very proud of the men and women that represent them in the law enforcement community,” Deringer said. “As others are running away from a scene like this, we can’t drive fast enough to get there. To follow our guiding principles of professionalism and caring, the level of care they gave the people inside that building and the heroism it took to knowingly walk past a bomb that hasn’t detonated – not knowing if it needed to be lit to be detonated or if it could be on a delayed-action fuse. To see the devastation that had already taken place, to walk past that bomb and still render aid to the injured and think only of everyone else’s safety. Their own safety was secondary. My appreciation and gratitude for what they did is second to none. I could not be more proud of our team.”