FARGO — When Will Gardner was leaving his job at North Dakota State University just after midnight on Friday, Jan. 13, 2006, he said he was surprised to see a young woman undressing in front of a window at a freshman dormitory on campus.

He went closer to get a better look.

"I messed up. It was stupid. I was young and immature," the Republican-endorsed candidate for North Dakota Secretary of State told The Forum when asked Friday, May 18, about the 12-year-old incident.

An NDSU security guard making the rounds that 2006 night began watching the then-29-year-old Gardner's behavior and summoned police, who then began watching him from afar, too, before confronting him outside the west wall of Weible Hall.

Gardner pleaded guilty the following month to disorderly conduct. The reason given by prosecutors was he had "peeped in numerous female dorm rooms." Gardner was initially charged with surreptitious intrusion, listed as a sexual offense in state codes, but reached a deal with prosecutors for a lesser charge.

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Police officers at the scene noted in their reports that Gardner's pants were unzipped and his shirt front pulled out, but Gardner said Friday that wasn't accurate.

Asked if he thought peeping was a problem for him, he said the situation presented itself that night and he's never done anything like it before or since.

He said the incident embarrassed him and he's changed for the better.

"It made me more passionate about just being a good person, giving myself higher expectations than simply feeling bad about it," Gardner said Friday. "I knew that I needed to be better than this in my life."

Today, Gardner is a partner in a Mandan software firm and a rising star in the North Dakota GOP. At the party convention in April, he defeated longtime incumbent Al Jaeger for the endorsement, causing Jaeger to drop out.

North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Rick Berg said Friday that he just learned about the incident, which he described as "unfortunate." The party, he said, doesn't have a formal vetting mechanism other than letting members vote at district and state conventions. He said he expects party officials will gather more information and decide how to proceed in the future.

Gardner noted Friday that his Democratic rival, Joshua Alan Boschee of Fargo, has had more run-ins with the law than him. He said he's not trying to excuse his own actions by saying that.

The Forum reported several years ago that Boschee had pleaded guilty to reckless driving in 2006 and again in 2010 with the court requiring him to get a chemical dependency evaluation both times. He also pleaded guilty in 2011 to drinking in public. All are misdemeanors that state law considers to be the same level of seriousness as disorderly conduct.

Midnight incident

Around midnight Jan. 13, 2006, an NDSU security guard named Timothy Motl was locking the doors at the residence dining center when he saw a man walking near a silver van and across the PH parking lot toward the west side of South Weible Hall, according to the police narrative.

Motl wrote in his report that day: "I observed the individual approach one of the windows on the lower level near the center of the building and peer into the window and then move onward towards the next window and moved along the building in a northerly direction"

Most of the windows were not lit or had window coverings closed, he wrote. "Where there were interior lights within the room, I observed this individual try to peer in-between the window covering partitions and then move to the next window."

The man was Gardner, who was NDSU libraries' webmaster at the time. Gardner said Friday that he worked out of the health science library, then in Sudro Hall just south of the dining center, and had parked the van there for work.

Motl alerted NDSU police and continued his observations.

The security guard wrote that he saw the man double back while peering into the windows, walk towards the van and act as if he was tying his shoes. The man then walked back to the dorm where he continued to peer in the windows.

Police officer Marc Baetsch, one of three officers who responded to Motl's call, wrote in his report that, when they arrived, they saw the man "standing right up against the west wall of South Weible. He did not appear to notice us, and was walking slowly in a half-crouch along the wall."

This seems to contradict Gardner's claim that he just watched one woman undress. Asked about that contradiction, he said Friday that he hadn't dwelled on the incident and didn't want to comment about such details.

When police confronted Gardner, he tried to talk his way out, according to the police narrative. He initially wouldn't identify himself and denied that he was a student or NDSU employee.

"He insisted he was just out for a walk, and didn't know the campus or that he was by a girl's dorm," Baetsch wrote. Gardner, the officer wrote, claimed to be on his way home from a hard day at work and pulled into the PH parking lot to get some fresh air. Even when told Motl saw him peering in windows, Gardner denied he had done so, the office wrote.

Officer Vicki Berg noted that "his pants were unzipped and that his shirt front was pulled out." She could see his wallet and his belt in the front seat of the van. Baetsch tried to get Gardner to explain, but he gave "vague answers... mainly just saying that he was coming from work."

Paying a price

The week after his arrest, Gardner was charged with surreptitious intrusion, which is described in the state Century Code as an intrusion of privacy meant by "an individual, with the intent to arouse, appeal to, or gratify that individual's lust, passions, or sexual desires." The maximum punishment is 360 days in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Gardner was able to plead to disorderly conduct, which includes "intrusive" acts meant to adversely affect the "privacy of another person." The maximum punishment is 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Court records show he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, but all of it was suspended if he didn't commit another crime during his year-long probation. He also paid $225 in court fees but no fines.

Gardner was already married then with a couple of kids - he now has seven - but he said Friday, "I guess I wasn't a very mature person at the time."

He said he told his wife all about what happened - "Obviously she was sad that I would make that poor decision." - but they've worked it out since that time 12 years ago. "Just raising a family changes a person and the decisions they make."

The same month he was caught near the women's dorm, Gardner also stopped working at NDSU. His LinkedIn profile said he left his job to start his own company after winning the support of an investor.

He said Friday there was a job opportunity but he also quit because he felt bad about the incident.