Authorities in St. Paul arrested and later released a registered sex offender allegedly caught hiding on a school bus as it was taking a group of young children back from a field trip. No children were harmed, but a parent who was aboard the bus said the incident was unsettling.
Twenty-six kindergartners, a teacher, a teacher's aide and two parents were on the school bus. It was taking the group back to Chelsea Heights Elementary in St. Paul after a Thursday field trip to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
After the bus pulled onto Interstate 94, parent chaperone Maggie Zimmerman said a teacher sitting up front turned around and spotted a man crouched down in the back.
"She saw him pop up and then pop back down and we looked and didn't see anybody and then he kind of peeked over the seat again," Zimmerman said.
The driver cleared a seat up front and had the intruder sit there so she could keep an eye on him. The man asked the driver to pull over so he could get off the bus, but she kept on driving and radioed dispatch, Zimmerman said.
After the children returned to school, St. Paul police arrived and arrested 61-year-old Michael Charles Friedrichs and booked him into jail.
MPR News typically does not name criminal suspects unless prosecutors have charged them. However, Friedrichs pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct in 2004, 2011 and 2016 and he is listed on Minnesota's sex offender registry.
In the case eight years ago, Friedrichs boarded a Minneapolis school bus that was carrying elementary school children. Investigators later found Friedrichs' semen on one of the seats.
After this latest incident, St. Paul police spokesperson Steve Linders said Friedrichs told an officer that he was confused and got on the wrong bus. Linders said the man was released after investigators determined that he's registered as a sex offender in Minneapolis. It's not clear where he lives now.
Zimmerman said she and other parents of Chelsea Heights students are concerned that Friedrichs presents a continued danger to children, and that his quick release from jail raises questions about whether adequate legal safeguards are in place.
"How many buses has he gotten on and off of without people knowing? How many more buses will he try to get on? In theory if he gets hammered for some probation violation and then serves another short sentence, as soon as he gets out I feel confident that he'll do the same thing," Zimmerman said.
Friedrichs was sent to prison after failing to attend sex offender treatment following a 2016 conviction for molesting two boys at a hotel swimming pool in South St. Paul. He was released last April. One of the conditions of his 10-year probation is that he's not allowed to board school buses.
Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson John Elder says that's something officers are looking at.
"We have opened up an investigation into this," Elder said. "And that includes a possible violation of his registration as well as any conduct that may have occurred on the bus."
In a statement, St. Paul Public Schools spokesperson Kevin Burns said students on the bus were "under direct supervision of school staff at all times."
Burns said the district is conducting its own investigation and has informed its school bus contractors about the incident in an effort to reinforce safety procedures.