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Ex-principal charged in Dickinson school fire moves to suppress confession

Ex-principal charged in school fire moves to suppress confession

Defense claims he was pressured in interrogation with detectives

By Katherine Lymn

Forum News Service

DICKINSON, N.D. -- Lawyers for school arson suspect Thomas Sander have asked the court to suppress a confession he made while being interrogated, alleging investigators coerced the former Trinity High School principal and violated his rights.

In an 18-page brief filed this month, attorneys Lloyd Suhr and Jackson Lofgren wrote that, based on tapes of the interrogations, Dickinson police detectives Terry Oestreich and Kylan Klauzer violated Sander’s Fifth Amendment and Miranda rights. That means the confession Sander made -- that he started a fire at Trinity High School -- should not be allowed in court, they wrote.

Losing the confession as evidence could hurt the state’s plans for prosecuting Sander, whose trial is set to begin July 23.

Southwest Judicial District Judge William Herauf is expected to decide on the suppression July 1.

Oestreich and Klauzer interrogated Sander for several hours between the early morning of March 3 -- hours after the fire was discovered -- and March 5.

The fire at Trinity displaced students for the rest of the school year. Investigators determined the fire started in a file cabinet inside the main office vault. Sander was charged shortly after the fire with Class B felonies arson and endangerment by fire, the second charge coming because Trinity religion teacher Robert Storey was in an apartment in the school at the time of the fire.

Alleged pressure to confess

About an hour into the March 4 interrogation, Oestreich begins insinuating Sander is the department’s “sole suspect and not just a witness,” according to the court brief. About 20 minutes later, Sander requests an attorney and says he didn’t start the fire, and is told by Oestreich, “Tom … stop and … stop and think a minute, OK? I know this is bothering you, and that’s certainly your right, you know, but … but it never gets any easier and it’s certainly more complicated.”

Shortly after, Sander attempted to leave, thinking he wasn’t under arrest, but Klauzer physically blocked him in the hallway, according to the brief.

“Hey Tom … Tom, you gotta go have a seat, OK?” Klauzer said, according to the brief. “You gotta go have a seat here. Go ahead and have a seat there, OK? … You might not be free to leave.”

As both detectives interviewed Sander, they allegedly began pressuring him to make a confession.

“You have got to talk about this, because if you don’t this will be immensely, immensely worse for you,” Klauzer said.

He and Oestreich repeatedly said the case was a “done deal,” and that there’s “no other way out.”

“They repeatedly emphasize that the question is not … ‘if’ Sander started the fire, only ‘why’ he started it,” the defense wrote in the brief.

Klauzer also allegedly hinted that if Sander confessed to starting the fire, the detective would try to get the case pleaded down to no jail time.

Two times, Sander asked to use the bathroom but wasn’t allowed to. He allegedly was allowed to only after he confessed to starting the fire and then asked a third time.

Video recordings of the interrogations have been entered into evidence but are sealed from the public.

In an interrogation the next day, Sander repeatedly “asserts his innocence and explains that his statements the day before were the result of the officers’ representations that he had to cooperate to help himself,” to which Oestreich allegedly chuckled.

“During the interrogation, Klauzer and Oestreich’s attitude towards Sander quickly dissolved from cordial to accusatory, confrontational, and at times deceptive,” with Sander repeatedly being told “it was a waste of time for him to deny starting the fire.”

Oestreich didn’t read Sander his Miranda rights until the third interrogation, on March 5, according to the brief.

The defense lawyers bring up a 2013 North Dakota Supreme Court case in which justices ruled Klauzer and another officer failed to comply with Miranda rules. That ruling led to a suppression of the statements at issue.

A note at the scene

The defense also accuses the detectives of misrepresenting the evidence -- a note left at the scene by the suspect, for example, was analyzed for handwriting comparison to Sander. The detectives told Sander there was a “10-point match” with his handwriting when in reality, the handwriting report concluded it is reasonably possible that someone else wrote the note.

The detectives also allegedly told Sander there was video evidence of him committing the crime, but there is not.

“Any time Sander tried to explain that he was innocent the officers belittled his denials, cut him off, and flatly refused to listen,” Suhr and Lofgren wrote in the brief. “They told him that they wanted him to be ‘honest,’ but also made it clear that the only statement that they would accept as fitting that description was a confession. They told him that anything he said that was not an admission was ‘going to be a lie.’ They told him that if he continued with his denials, he was throwing away his family and his career.”

The state has yet to respond to the brief, and Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning said he couldn’t comment.

The defense alleged the detectives were scaring Sander into a confession.

“These officers are not inexperienced rookies who mistakenly crossed a line in overenthusiastic zeal,” the lawyers wrote. “... they engaged in a deliberate and blatant violation of Sander’s Fifth Amendment and due process rights.”