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Jury convicts Thief River Falls man in attempt to extort money from brothers

THIEF RIVER FALLS - It took less than 90 minutes Wednesday for a Pennington County jury to find Gerald Sunsdahl guilty on three felony counts, including terrorizing brothers Dean Hanson and Dale Hanson in an attempt to coerce them into giving him...

Gerald Sunsdahl
Sunsdahl,Gerald Laverne

THIEF RIVER FALLS - It took less than 90 minutes Wednesday for a Pennington County jury to find Gerald Sunsdahl guilty on three felony counts, including terrorizing brothers Dean Hanson and Dale Hanson in an attempt to coerce them into giving him money.

"People don't do that," said Ted Curfman of Thief River, one of three men on the 12-person jury, when asked about reaching a verdict in less than 90 minutes, including a lunch of pizza.

"And to me, in some of those interviews (with investigators) he admitted to it."

State District Judge Jeffery Remick set sentencing for Sunsdahl, 52, of Thief River Falls, for Dec. 16. Each count - two charges of making terroristic threats and another for attempted coercion - carries a maximum prison sentence of five years.

But Sunsdahl's attorney, Scott Collins, citing his client's lack of any previous criminal record, asked Remick to release him pending sentencing, saying the 169 days he's served since being arrested June 5 might suffice.

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Remick denied the request, but said Sunsdahl can continue serving on work release.

Before the verdict was read, Remick cautioned the audience, which included about 15 relatives and friends of Sunsdahl, to not react when it was read.

But a few minutes after the verdict was read and most others had left the courtroom, Sunsdahl's wife collapsed in tears, while others comforted her. Directed to leave the courtroom, Sunsdahl's relatives helped his wife out into the hallway, where she lay face down on a bench and sobbed loudly.

"How cruel can they be," said a male relative angrily as they were ushered out of the courtroom.

Sunsdahl's relatives, and supporters of the Hanson brothers, declined to comment to reporters after the verdict, as did Collins.

Pennington County Attorney Al Rogalla said it was "a just and righteous" verdict and praised the jury for its work.

Curfman said he arrived at guilty verdicts because it was not simply the threat-filled letter Sunsdahl left in Dean Hanson's mailbox, where Hanson found it June 3.

"There was a follow-up telephone call," Curfman said of the June 5 call Sunsdahl made to Hanson, using a disguised voice to demand a drop-off that morning of $10,000 in a ditch just northeast of Thief River Falls.

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"And then he acted on it."

Sunsdahl was arrested that day in a sting operation after he flashed his headlights twice at a deputy driving Hanson's vehicle.

In recorded interviews by investigators, heard this week by the jury, Sunsdahl admitted he had written the threatening letter to Hanson.

Debating the letter

Earlier Wednesday, attorneys for both sides used the same strange letter in their closing arguments.

Waving the weird letter written by Sunsdahl in June to his former high-school mate Dean Hanson promising mayhem if Hanson didn't produce $500,000, Sunsdahl's defense attorney Collins told the jury, "It's a sad, pathetic piece of paper."

But it was no terroristic threat, Collins said.

"It contains references so ridiculous, so outlandish, so preposterous, it's not to be believed," he said. "It's like a comic book, like a DC or Marvel comic book."

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The jury began deliberating Sunsdahl's fate about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Sunsdahl faced three felony counts alleging he made terroristic threats this summer to Dean Hanson of Goodridge, Minn., and to his brother, Dale Hanson, and that he tried to coerce the Hansons to fork over money. Each count carries a top prison sentence of five years.

Prosecutor Rogalla said Sunsdahl had drained his parents' bank accounts and spent much of it on gambling at casinos.

In the crude, anonymous letter Sunsdahl admits penning and putting in Dean Hanson's mailbox on June 1, the author wrote that a group of men had been watching Hanson and his family and if he failed to drop off the cash at a certain mile marker, he and his family would be hurt and killed.

Rogalla also waved a copy of the same letter before the jury during his closing argument.

"He sat down at this work bench and wrote this letter," Rogalla said of Sunsdahl. "He wrote the words 'kill,' 'dead,' 'hurt,' 'lives,' 'Dean', 'your brother.' He sat down and wrote those words with the intention of terrorizing those people to get money."

Sunsdahl had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his parents' money on gambling at casinos, Rogalla said. His mother's bank account, which had $530,000 in it in 2010 from the sale of their farm near Goodridge, east of Thief River Falls, had only $700 left by June, Rogalla said.

Sunsdahl's father died in 2012 and Sunsdahl's sisters were asking questions and had scheduled a meeting June 5 this year with him and lawyers to take over power of attorney over their mother's affairs, Rogalla said.

That was the day Sunsdahl called Dean Hanson before sunrise from a pay phone at the Cenex in Goodridge, disguising his voice, to set up a "drop" by Hanson of $10,000 on a road northeast of Thief River Falls.

Hanson had already gone to the Pennington County Sheriff's Office with the threatening letter. In a June 5 sting operation, Sunsdahl was arrested after he flashed his headlights as he had arranged in the phone call.

He's been in custody since.

Collins said Sunsdahl never had been in any trouble and there was no reason to think he ever would hurt anyone. Despite the "over-the-top" prosecution that "has blown this case out of proportion," Sunsdahl did not terrorize the Hanson brothers, Collins argued.

Dean Hanson said the letter "made him nervous, not scared," and Dale Hanson said "it was over the top" and "concerned" him, Collins said.

The letter's strange threats about a band of criminals watching and monitoring the Hansons at all times with the ability to kill them in various ways were more like "a practical joke" than a viable threat, Collins said.

"No one was hurt. No one was in harm's way. There were no knives, no guns, no bombs, no sharpshooters, no bugs," Collins said. "Was it the desperate act of a desperate man? Yes. But it was not a terroristic threat. It was no coercion."

Rogalla said Sunsdahl's letter scared the Hanson brothers enough that they got out guns to have at hand in the days after the letter arrived.

Sunsdahl faces separate charges based on a state investigation of his tax returns, alleging he failed to pay taxes on $250,000 he took from his parents' account and spent on gambling.

He is scheduled to appear on those charges next month.

Call Lee at (701) 780-1237, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1237 or send email to slee@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: THIEF RIVER FALLS
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