By Rosemary Rawson
December 19, 1977 12:00 PM

A minister turned cop offers young runaways a safe escape and a Christian alternative

My father is a Lutheran Swede with a family tree filled with ministers,” says Al Palmquist. “My mother is a full-blooded Irish Catholic with a family full of cops. I made them both happy.” Palmquist, a 35-year-old athletic redhead, is a member of the Minneapolis police department’s community relations unit and an ordained Independent Lutheran minister.

Rarely has Palmquist’s unusual background been more useful than in his current assignment: trying to break the “Minnesota pipeline,” the flow of blond, blue-eyed teenage runaways to New York to work as prostitutes.

Interested less in stomping out sin than in offering the girls an alternative, Palmquist went East last month with his partner, Gary McGaughey. The trip was bizarre. News of their visit spread quickly, and pimps yanked their young hookers off the streets. The notorious “Minnesota Strip” along Eighth Avenue suddenly was as deserted and tranquil as a Mexican plaza at high noon. One girl did call to say she was afraid her pimp would kill her if she made contact with the cops.

Palmquist credits TV with opening his eyes to the plight of the young prostitutes. An episode of Police Story early this year described in cruel detail a pimp’s seduction of a runaway teenager. “I just didn’t believe it happened,” Palmquist says. “The next day I talked to my partner about it. Gary had been working in prostitution. ‘It’s true,’ he said, ‘that’s exactly how it happens.’ He told me the areas in Minneapolis where girls were being picked up and recruited, and he showed me pictures of girls who had been murdered—split open with axes, acid baths. They were just babies, some of them. They had tried to escape.”

Palmquist dates his police mission from that moment just as he attributes his devotion to God to the day he “met Christ at a Billy Graham rally” in 1961. Two years after that he enrolled in Bethany Fellowship, an Independent Lutheran school, to study for the ministry. He met and married his wife, Gayle, there. After graduation they left Minneapolis, where both had grown up, to work together in a New York center for drug addicts, Teen Challenge. But they were soon homesick, tired of the “18-hour days, the dirt, the noise.” Most important, Gayle was pregnant—they now have Julie, 9, and Ricky, 6.

Back home in Minneapolis, Palmquist decided to become a cop and, at the request of Mayor Charles Stenvig, organized a drug program similar to New York’s Teen Challenge called Midwest Challenge.

Next came the opening of a “safe house,” where the girls could hide from their pimps while they found a way back into normal life through counseling, work training and Bible study. “They need something to live for,” Palmquist says, “and that is not met by a $100-a-week job. They need Christ in their lives.” Says one of the rescued about Palmquist: “He has such faith that we can make it that it makes us believe we really can. He helped me believe I was important enough for the Lord to love me.” Now 21, the former prostitute is about to make a home for her daughter, 4, and finish high school.

Palmquist’s wife still works part-time with him. “At first I wasn’t sure I liked the fact that he was working in prostitution,” she admits. “But these girls are so young and so scared. The Bible has a lot to say about helping prostitutes, you know.”