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Principal accused in Dickinson school fire says student confessed

All entrances to Trinity High School in Dickinson, N.D., including these at the front entrance, were taped off Monday, March 3, 2014, after a fire. Classes are canceled the rest of the week. Katherine Lymn/Dickinson Press

DICKINSON, N.D. – A student interviewed in the Trinity High School fire investigation knew accurate, non-public details about how the fire was started, the combination of the vault where it began and had a grudge against the school, according to the latest court filing in the case against the Catholic school’s former principal.

Lawyers for Thomas Sander wrote about the student in their brief to show how investigators allegedly 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 proclaiming Sander’s innocence. When law enforcement was able to track 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 don’t align with the findings.

Trinity High School’s office was set on fire March 3, leading to the displacement of students for the rest of the school year. Sander is the only one charged in relation to the blaze.

The brief is the latest in a series of back-and-forths as Sander’s defense lawyers Lloyd Suhr and Jackson Lofgren try to get statements made by Sander on March 4 and 5 – including a confession – suppressed before his felony jury trial on charges of arson and endangering by fire. A hearing on the motion is July 1 and the trial is set to begin July 23.

‘No evidence against Sander whatsoever’

In the brief, the defense lawyers bring up Dickinson Police Detectives Terry Oestreich and Kylan Klauzer’s experience, saying they knew better.

“To be blunt, they had no evidence against Sander whatsoever and purposefully avoided giving him the proper Miranda warnings because they needed him to confess,” Suhr and Lofgren wrote.

They wrote the Miranda violations and coercion came because the state knew it didn’t have a case, and pointed out how the state didn’t respond to the coercion allegations in its latest brief.

“This silence speaks volumes,” the defense wrote. “The interrogations were captured on video and the State has no facts in its favor.”

The lawyers also brought up how within days of Sander being charged, a Trinity High School student sent an anonymous letter to the jail stating Sander’s innocence, including combination numbers for the vault where the fire was started and details on how the fire was started.

Once law enforcement tracked down the student, he showed in an interview that his account of the fire “perfectly matched the arson investigation even though the details had never been made available to the public,” according to the brief.

“But, officers had already announced to the world that Sander was their guy. They dismissed the student as a suspect after one interview with no follow up investigation,” the lawyers wrote.

They added that details Sander shared about the fire – like holding a match – were a product of him being forced to confess and “invent the details.”

“As a result, everything that he told them about the fire was wrong,” Suhr and Lofgren wrote.

In fact, the case’s arson investigator determined the fire did not and could not have started the way Sander described, they wrote, citing a recent deposition.

Arguing for suppression

In trying to fight the suppression of Sander’s confession, the state cites statements by Oestreich as a Miranda warning – Oestreich told Sander he was not under arrest, could go whenever he wanted, didn’t have to talk and that what Sander said would be used in the investigation.

But Suhr and Lofgren responded that while the last parts “could be an ambiguous equivalent of the advisement of the right to remain silent,” the statement must state explicitly that any statements would be used against the individual in court.

The defense also cites the U.S. Supreme Court Miranda opinion, which states as soon as a defendant requests an attorney, any interrogation must cease until said attorney is there. Sander’s lawyers point to the March 4 interrogation, during which he said, “I need to get an attorney, because that was not me.” The interrogation continued.

The defense paints a picture of an intimidated and coerced Sander, according to the defense.

“Two very large detectives took this quite shy academic, who had spent his whole life around priests and teachers, and pinned him in the corner of a very small room. They cut him off when he tried to profess his innocence. … They told him they ‘... fully intend on trying to get the max penalty without you being honest today,’ but made it clear that the only thing they would accept was a confession. … Conversely, if Sander told them what they wanted they intended to get it pled down to no jail time, a ‘working deal,’ a ‘slap on the ass,’” according to the brief.

Citing further depositions, which were conducted June 5 and 6 with school officials and others, Suhr and Lofgren wrote that interviews confirmed Sander to be at home in bed when the fire started.

“The evidence shows that Sander did not start the fire but was bullied into telling Klauzer and Oestreich that he did,” they wrote. “His statements were a surrender not a confession.”