Thomas Alexander Starks, 30, of Lisbon, North Dakota, walked out of the federal courthouse Thursday, Sept. 9, in Fargo after federal Judge Peter Welte sentenced him to time served for injury or deprivation against government property. Starks pleaded guilty in April to the charge that alleged he used an ax to smash parts of the entrance to Sen. John Hoeven’s 123 Broadway N. office the morning of Dec. 21.
“It wasn’t right,” Starks said before he was sentenced. “Violence has no place in politics.”
The maximum sentence was 10 years in prison, though sentencing guidelines suggested he should get between 10 to 16 months in prison since he has no criminal history. There is no mandatory minimum sentence for the charge.
Starks will be under supervised probation for two years and could be subject to up to five months of home confinement at the discretion of federal probation officials, Welte said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office recommended five months behind bars plus five months of home confinement for Starks. Defense attorney Tatum O'Brien recommended no prison time.
Starks suffered stress from the coronavirus pandemic and was waiting for a relief check, O’Brien said. When Congress refused to vote on a relief package, he decided to visit his congressional leaders' offices in Fargo.
O’Brien said Starks first went to see U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., but got no answer when he arrived the morning of Dec. 21 at the federal building in downtown Fargo. Starks then went to the downtown office of Hoeven, also a Republican from North Dakota, around 9 a.m. that day.
Again, no one came to the door, O’Brien said.
“He snapped,” she said.
Video showed Stark returning to Hoeven’s office with an ax before using it to smash an intercom and two windows next to the entrance door.
No one was in the office when Starks came up to the entrance, police said.
Congress passed a coronavirus relief package late that night. The bill signed by former President Donald Trump less than a week later included direct payments of $600 to Americans.
Starks was arrested Dec. 24 and served five days in jail.
Starks had no intention of hurting anyone, O’Brien said. He had the ax in his vehicle because he previously attended a pipeline protest, she added.
Born in Florida, Starks moved to North Dakota with his wife and family in 2015, according to court documents. O’Brien said Starks worried about losing his job and supporting his children if he was sent to prison.
“Mr. Starks is a really good guy who made a terrible mistake,” the attorney said.
Starks said it is important for members of the public to use their voices in politics, but they should avoid using violence.
Starks was ordered to pay $2,784 in restitution. His friends plan to help him pay, he said as he wiped away tears and expressed gratitude for the family and friends who attended the hearing.
Voters in North Dakota do not have to register with a party, and Starks had previously registered in Florida as a Republican, Democrat and Independent.
A GoFundMe account was set up to help raise money to pay for a defense attorney. As of late January, it had gathered $8,400 in donations.
That included donations from prominent North Dakota Democrats. The GoFundMe page has since been taken down.
In response to the sentencing, Hoeven's office said, “We appreciate the hard work of law enforcement in investigating this incident, and are grateful to court officials for bringing this case to a close.”