FARGO — A 55-year-old man will defend himself at trial this week against allegations that he shot at police nearly two years ago outside a downtown Fargo hotel, despite warnings from a judge and prosecutor that he faces a complex case.
Henry Isalee Aiken of Fargo appeared Monday, Sept. 27, in Cass County District Court for a pretrial conference to prepare for his trial, which begins Tuesday. He has been charged with felony counts of attempted murder, aggravated assault with a firearm, terrorizing, reckless endangerment and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The charges stem from the Nov. 15, 2019, shooting that unfolded outside the Radisson Hotel, 201 Fifth St. N. Prosecutors alleged Aiken fired a gun at Fargo police officer Joseph Vegel before shooting his weapon into a hotel lobby window.
Aiken then entered the hotel through that window, according to court documents. He surrendered to officers shortly after that.
The bullets fired from Aiken’s gun did not injure anyone, though Sgt. Matt Ysteboe was injured after an accidental discharge during the incident.
The attempted murder charge typically carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison, but prosecutors are seeking life for Aiken if he is convicted, according to a court document provided to The Forum by Aiken.
Prosecutors said he should be deemed a habitual offender and deserves a harsher sentence due to his past criminal history. In 2015, he was involved in a nursing home shooting.
The court document labeled him a habitual offender, meaning his past criminal history warrants a harsher punishment. That included a 2015 report of shots fired at the Bethel Lutheran Nursing Home in Williston, N.D.
Aiken claims he did not try to kill police and that he is innocent of the attempted murder or aggravated assault charges. He has previously said he would plead guilty to the other felonies.
During Monday’s hearing, Judge John Irby asked Aiken a number of questions before declaring the defendant understood what could happen if he elected to defend himself. Aiken has fired four attorneys and said he would rather represent himself in the trial.
“I’m going to lose anyway, so why not build a case for appeal?” he said.
The case is complex, prosecutor Renata Olafson Selzer said. The Cass County Attorney’s Office has more than 100 exhibits and plans to call 11 witnesses, she said.
“I’ve been a prosecutor for about 14 years now, and I can say that this is a fairly complex case, even for a law-trained person,” she said.
An attorney is trained to make motions that could help Aiken exclude evidence that could unlawfully prejudice him, if that happens. Without an attorney, he may miss those opportunities, Irby noted.
However, if he doesn’t have an attorney, he can’t appeal based on ineffective counsel, Irby said.
Aiken has a history of mental illness that may have played a role in the shooting, Selzer said. Aiken said he doesn’t plan to use that as a defense.
He also said he will wear his jail uniform instead of other clothing. Defendants have a right to wear civilian clothing to keep jurors from assuming a defendant is guilty.
People who have worn suits to trial still get convicted, Aiken said. Jurors should be more concerned with facts than clothing, he explained.
“I would like to have an impartial trial,” he said.