DICKINSON, N.D. — The former principal of Trinity High School says he wasn’t read his rights prior to interviews with officers and some of his statements were coerced.
Thomas Sander, 30, has pleaded not guilty to Class B felony arson and Class B felony endangering by fire. His trial is set for July 23.
Sander is accused of starting a fire that destroyed Trinity High School on March 3 and, in the process, endangering the life of religion teacher Robert Storey, who lived in an apartment at the school.
Sander is scheduled to appear in court at a suppression hearing on July 1. His attorneys, Lloyd Suhr and Jackson Lofgren, have asked Southwest District Judge William Herauf to suppress statements made by Sander during two interrogations with Dickinson police. Prosecutors have not responded to the motion yet.
In an 18-page brief, the attorneys outlined their case that the interviews with detectives violated Sander’s rights.
“They utilized everything from deception and threats to deprivation of human comforts (such as the simple use of a bathroom) in order to obtain the statements they wanted and then attempted to salvage their misconduct by shuffling in a strategically placed and wholly ineffective Miranda warning provided long after the point it should have been to provide the intended protections,” Suhr and Lofgren wrote.
Dickinson investigators interviewed Sander from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. on May 3, the day of the fire. He was allowed to leave following that interview. The next day, they talked to him from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., which was videotaped. They videotaped a third interview on May 5.
During the second interview, Sander requested an attorney after being told he was the only suspect in the fire. Detective Terry Oestreich acknowledged the request but attempted to talk Sander out of it, the brief said. Sander then said he wanted to leave if he was not under arrest, and Oestrich and Detective Kylan Klauzer prevented him from leaving. The two detectives also told Sander things would be easier for him if he talked to them, the brief said.
At one point, Sander asked to use the bathroom but was not allowed to leave the room. He asked several more times but was not allowed to use the bathroom until more than 40 minutes later.
“This time, having given the statements ... Oestreich and Klauzer demanded, he is immediately allowed to use the restroom,” the brief said.
After he used the bathroom, the detectives left Sander in the room to write a statement. Sander made a phone call and told the person he called about the interview.
“He explains that he is innocent but felt bullied into telling the officers what they wanted to hear because they told him he was not going to leave if he denied responsibility and would get a harsh sentence,” the brief said. “But if he told them what they wanted to hear, he would be allowed to leave and would get a lenient sentence.”
Sander was arrested following the second interview. Oestreich interviewed him again on March 5 for one hour. Oestreich read Sander his Miranda rights for the first time during that interview. He never previously had been read the rights, and Oestreich never asked if Sander had any questions or whether he was willing to talk, the brief said. During the third interview, Sander reiterated that he was innocent and only made statements to suggest otherwise at the direction of the investigators, the brief said.
Suhr and Lofgren moved to have all of the statements made on March 4 and 5 suppressed. On March 4, he was not allowed to leave, showing he was in custody of police, but he never was given his Miranda warnings, the brief said.
“Sander was most certainly in custody. He was physically and verbally prohibited from leaving,” the attorneys wrote. “Similarly, given that the entire focus was on getting Sander to provide incriminating statements about the fire, this was most certainly an interrogation.”
The statements that day also were coerced, based on the length of time he was interviewed March 3 and 4, the conditions in which the interviews were conducted, his lack of knowledge of the criminal justice system, deceptive statements by officers and his inability to use the bathroom, the attorneys argue. Sander also requested an attorney and asked to discontinue the questioning but was not allowed to leave.
The attorneys argue Sander’s statements on March 5 also should be suppressed, because, while the Miranda warnings were given, Oestreich never gave Sander the option of not answering questions. The third interview also was a direct continuation of the second, the brief said.