Family, community members say Black man’s stabbing was a premeditated hate crime

Photo by Feven Gerezgiher Artist and organizer Tish Jones speaking at a press conference

Family members describe 27-year-old Arnell “AJ” Stewart as a “very giving person” who liked to support friends in need. He grew up on St. Paul’s East Side and attended Highland Park High School. A loving uncle, son, cousin, and brother, he had returned from Georgiawhere he studied business managementto visit family in St. Paul. Then Stewart was stabbed over a parking spot.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has charged 50-year-old Brian Harry Kjellberg with second-degree murder without intent for the incident on Dec. 2.

Community members, however, believe the killing was premeditated. Along with Stewart’s family, they are urging local officials to upgrade charges to first-degree murder and to investigate the incident as a hate crime.

According to court documents, 50-year-old Kjellberg prevented Stewart from entering his car, which was parked at the back of private property along a shared alley. Kjellberg called to have Stewart’s car ticketed and was waiting for a tow truck.

Following an alleged altercation, he stabbed Stewart with a metal tube sharpened to a point. Asked why he didn’t just let Stewart take the car, Kjellberg said “he was tired of dealing with the parking problems.”

Stewart died on the operating table at Regions Hospital.

Photo of AJ_courtesy of mother Tabatha Lewis AJ Stewart

“This man had so much hatred in his heart towards Black youth, period, that if it was not A.J., it would have been someone else,” said Stewart’s mother Tabatha Lewis at a press conference Thursday, Dec. 30.

Lewis said officials have not communicated with her at all about the investigation. She feels Stewart’s death is being “swept under the rug.”

Stewart’s cousin and East Side resident Lateesha Coleman said Kjellberg is known to threaten neighbors and yell the N-word. In an interview with the MSR, Coleman claimed Kjellberg has harassed a mixed-race family next door.

Coleman called on officials to release tape of Kjellberg’s 911 call where she suspects he used the N-word when referring to Stewart. She said her cousin was a light-hearted person and questioned the narrative that he put up a fight.

Artist and organizer Tish Jones noted Kjellberg carried a weapon that he seemed to have created.

A judge allowed Kjellberg to post bail of $500,000 following a Dec. 6 hearing. He was released until his Zoom court appearance on Jan 3, 2022. Jones is concerned about the message that sends to would-be vigilantes. “We need to set a precedent for people who are trying to determine what is right. We need to set a precedent that we don’t get to take the law into our own hands,” she said.

Photo courtesy of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office Brian H. Kjellberg

Who is Brian H. Kjellberg?

Kjellberg’s home, a former firehouse, sits on a quiet corner of the working-class East Side neighborhood. A sign at the back marks the entrance to a dead-end alley.

In a February 2014 letter to the city requesting rezoning of the property to a single-family residence, Kjellberg wrote, “I am a disabled veteran, having served 10 years in the military. I feel that this property will allow me to live in better comfort than I do currently.” 

He wrote that he worked as a chief boiler technician and had been employed at Andersen Corporation for almost 11 years.

To make his case, Kjellberg emphasized the improvements he would make to the property, over $300,000 in investments that would use local businesses and vendors when possible.

For almost as long as the seven years he has lived there, Kjellberg has had issues with his neighbors, according to court documents. He told a police investigator that friends of the neighbors park at the back of his property despite several calls to police and signs marked “No trespassing. No parking. Private property.”

Court record has Kjellberg listed as a St. Cloud resident.

“This man is part of a troubling and increasing trend of White perpetrators acting under the presumed authority, killing People of Color over their perceptions that a minor violation of the laws is taking place,” said long-time St. Paul resident Michael Kleber-Diggs at the press conference. 

Kleber-Diggs said media coverage that led with news that the incident was Saint Paul’s 35th homicide of the year created a climate of fear, making communities feel less safe and more violent.

East Side activist Danielle Swift shared that the neighborhood was formerly a sundown town. She said racially motivated incidents are still common in the area. 

Activist and attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong said the case had been “whitewashed.” She said local officials should devote resources to prosecuting Kjellberg to the “fullest extent of the law.” She also called on the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI to investigate the incident as a hate crime.