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While doing yard work, unsuspecting firefighter encounters a wanted murder suspect

Thomas Hilpisch stands outside his Lake Elmo home on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, where he came face to face with Lucifer Nguyen, who has been charged in the shooting death of 48-year-old Beverly Cory in Mendota Heights. Hilpisch was working in his yard on a skid loader when Nguyen approached and asked for a ride to Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake in exchange for cash. Nick Ferraro / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
Lucifer Vincent Nguyen, 44, was arrested late Monday July 31, 2017 in Blaine, Minn., after a three-day manhunt. Nguyen is charged in the fatal shooting of Beverly Cory, 48, of Maplewood, while fleeing authorities following a robbery July 29 in Mendota Heights. Courtesy photo / Dakota County Sheriff's Office2 / 2

LAKE ELMO, Minn. — Thomas Hilpisch wasn't scheduled to work as a St. Paul firefighter on Saturday morning, so he was doing yard work at his Lake Elmo home.

At about 11 a.m., while driving a skid-steer loader, Hilpisch looked up and saw a man in his front yard frantically waving his arms, trying to flag him down. The man, who was wearing sunglasses and had a drawstring bag on his back, approached him.

"I was like, 'What the heck? Who is this guy?' " Hilpisch recalled. " 'What does this guy want?'"

Little did Hilpisch know at the time that the "guy" was Lucifer Nguyen, who police say had fatally shot 48-year-old Edward Jones financial adviser Beverly Cory about an hour earlier in Mendota Heights while on the run following an earlier home invasion and armed robbery of another woman.

"I had no idea what had been going on," Hilpisch, 27, said. "I'd been working in the yard since like 8 in the morning."

It turns out Nguyen wanted Hilpisch to be his getaway driver.

After killing Cory in her office building, police say, Nguyen, 44, stole her 2005 Toyota Corolla and drove it to Lake Elmo, where he abandoned it across the street from Hilpisch's home in a parking lot at the Washington County Fairgrounds.

"He says, 'Hey, do you want to make some quick money?' " Hilpisch recalled. "He says, 'I'll give you $100 if you drive me down to Mystic Lake Casino.'"

Hilpisch, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2010, was immediately hesitant and suspicious, partly because he says Nguyen was fidgety, sweating and talking fast.

"I said, 'I gotta pass on that ... I'm sorry,'" Hilpisch recalled, adding that he noticed Nguyen had a large red bump on his head. "And he says, 'OK ... $200.' And I was like, 'I'm renting this Bobcat and I have to get this work done.' Then he pulls out this wad of cash from his front pocket and offers me $300."

When Hilpisch asked Nguyen where he had come from, he said he did not know. It was then that Hilpisch suggested that Nguyen take a walk down Stillwater Boulevard and catch a bus.

"It was like, OK., let's just get out of my yard here, buddy," Hilpisch said. "Whatever he was up to was not something I wanted to be a part of."

Hilpisch didn't see the man's face again until later Saturday on the TV news.

"I could hardly believe it," he said of Nguyen, who has an extensive criminal record.

According to investigators, after walking away from Hilpisch, Nguyen somehow traveled 3 miles to the Walmart in Oak Park Heights, where at around 1:30 p.m. Saturday he bought a cellphone. He then took a cab to another east metro location.

After that, according to investigators, Nguyen's trail went cold — until 58 hours later when he was captured after a traffic stop on Central Avenue in Blaine.

Hilpisch's face-to-face encounter with Nguyen is one of the few glimpses of what the murder suspect was doing and where, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie said Wednesday.

"He's not talking to us," Leslie said. "We're not sure what he was doing. I was kind of hopeful that we'd talk to him and figure that out. ... We tried to get his cellphone, but he must've thrown it in the bushes or something because he wasn't using that one."

Leslie said the big break in the case came when one of Nguyen's two brothers called a St. Paul police investigator. Early in the investigation, Leslie said, Nguyen's brothers "were very resistant to that at first, but eventually they came to the point where they thought that was not such a bad idea."

With one brother driving Nguyen and another brother following in a second vehicle and talking to an investigator, they helped guide a cavalcade of police, including a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter flying above, to their location.

When pulled over, Nguyen "followed our commands — his hands were out the window, he stepped back to us," Leslie said. "He did everything we asked of him."

Nguyen was not in possession of the 9-mm handgun he allegedly used to shoot Cory, Leslie said, adding that investigators have yet to recover the weapon.

"We're looking for a 9-mm ... so if anyone finds a handgun, let us know," he said.

On Wednesday, investigators with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension processed Cory's Corolla, Leslie said.

Also on Wednesday, Cory's family and friends spoke publicly for the first time, issuing a statement that described the Maplewood resident as "our most beloved spouse, sister, aunt, friend, community member, colleague and advisor."

"She will be missed terribly by all who knew her intelligence, kindness, loyalty, integrity, spirituality, and playful enthusiasm for life," the statement read. "Our grief is overwhelming as we come to terms with her sudden loss in our lives."

They thanked law enforcement "for the successful capture and arrest of the man who so violently ended the life of our dearest Beverly. ... Our greatest relief is that no one else was hurt."

Memorials in her name may be directed to the Beverly Cory Memorial Fund, 8362 Tamarack Village, Suite 119-460, Woodbury, MN 55125.