Pivotal hearing set for Tuesday in ex-principal’s Dicksinson school arson case
DICKINSON, N.D. -- Tom Sander could win big Tuesday.
Sander, the 30-year-old former principal of Dickinson’s Trinity High School, is charged with starting the early March fire at the school that displaced students for the rest of the school year. He’s scheduled to go to trial July 23 on felony charges of arson and endangering by fire, and faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $40,000 fine if convicted.
But since the state charged Sander in the crime a couple of days after the fire, the Missouri native’s defense team has tried to break down Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning’s case.
Perhaps the most impactful, if granted, is a motion to suppress. Defense lawyers Jackson Lofgren and Lloyd Suhr alleged that two Dickinson police detectives coerced Sander into a confession, and violated his Miranda rights during the interrogations in the first days of the investigation.
If Southwest Judicial District Judge William Herauf agrees at a hearing Tuesday that the confession and other parts of Sander’s interrogation interviews are inadmissible, the state would lose what could be a lynchpin in its case just weeks before the trial.
The defense also recently brought a scuffle over evidence to the judge, saying the state hasn’t provided access to all forms of evidence ahead of trial. In emails to Henning, Suhr requests a diagram Sander drew in his interrogations; photos taken by an investigator with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives during the arson investigation; jail call records from Sander’s time in custody; juvenile court records of a student who allegedly confessed to the fire; a floor plan of the school; results of a search warrant into Sander’s laptop and cellphones; and other products of the investigation.
Lofgren filed a motion to compel Thursday, writing in the brief that the state hasn’t acted in response to emails April 10 and May 7 requesting the various forms of evidence. The defense apparently won’t get access to the evidence without court intervention, Lofgren wrote. He added that much of the evidence is favorable for Sander’s defense.
Sander will rely on an alibi defense if the case goes to trial, with testimony from three people showing he was at home when the arsonist was in the school, according to the defense.
In arguing for throwing out Sander’s confession, the defense also brought up the student who allegedly knew accurate, nonpublic details about the fire and had a grudge against the school.
They say investigators ignored other evidence because they “had already announced to the world that Sander was their guy.”
The student came to investigators’ attention after leaving an anonymous letter at the jail with a confession and proclamation of Sander’s innocence. When law enforcement tracked him down, they learned he had a grudge against the school because a family member had been terminated. The interview showed the student knew further details about the fire that aligned with the arson investigator’s findings, while details Sander gave didn’t align with the findings.
“The evidence shows that Sander did not start the fire but was bullied into telling (Dickinson Detectives Kylan) Klauzer and (Terry) Oestreich that he did,” Suhr and Lofgren wrote. “His statements were a surrender, not a confession.”
At the time of the fire, Sander was in the middle of his first year at Trinity, and had already given notice he wouldn’t be principal next school year.