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Sykeston murder trial to begin

Jury selection begins this week for a Fargo man and woman accused of scheming to kill a rural Sykeston, N.D., couple found shot and burned beyond recognition inside their home last year.

Aron Nichols

Jury selection begins this week for a Fargo man and woman accused of scheming to kill a rural Sykeston, N.D., couple found shot and burned beyond recognition inside their home last year.

Authorities responding to a report of a fire on April 7, 2007, found Donald and Alice Willey inside the destroyed home, their limbs burned away and the man's head missing from his body.

Alice, 67, had been shot in the head and back. Donald, 70, was shot behind the left shoulder. Shell casings found at the scene have been linked to a .45-caliber handgun that had been recently purchased by Aron Nichols. Authorities say Nichols shot the couple before setting their home ablaze.

Prosecutor Ladd Erickson has argued that Tamara Sorenson, who is charged as an accomplice, had the motive to kill the Willeys, but manipulated Nichols, her fiance, into killing them.

Court records show that Sorenson and Nichols battled with the Willeys over visitation rights to Sorenson's 8-year-old daughter, who was the child of the Willeys' late son, Andrew. Andrew Willey was killed in a helicopter crash in 2002, and his daughter was awarded $2.2 million in a lawsuit against the helicopter manufacturer.

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The Willeys and Sorenson disagreed over how to raise the girl, and Sorenson cut off their visitation. The Willeys sued for visitation in June 2006 and were granted it just two months before their deaths. Nichols' co-workers told investigators Nichols said he would not allow visitation to take place, according to a Wells County search warrant.

N.D. Bureau of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Craig Zachmeier testified during a July court hearing that phone records from Nichols and Sorenson place Nichols at the homicide scene and show that they had contact when authorities believe the couple was killed.

Nichols' cell phone used a tower near the Willeys' farm during a 105-minute call with Sorenson that ended at 8:55 p.m. He used the same tower when he called her at 11:41 p.m., Zachmeier said.

David Ogren, Sorenson's defense attorney, argued during the preliminary hearing that she and Nichols were engaged, so phone contact between them would not be unusual. Ogren has also argued that Nichols confessed to the shooting in a letter that Ogren said clears Sorenson.

Numerous court documents have been sealed in the case, including motions regarding evidence, security during the trial and expert witnesses, according to an online court docket regarding the case.

A gag order - a judge's instruction telling participants in the case not to talk about it - also prevents attorneys involved from discussing the matter.

Several witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify during the trial, which is expected to begin sometime next week after jury selection concludes.

The trial, which will take place in Devils Lake, N.D., could last up to 18 days.

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Both Sorenson and Nichols have pleaded not guilty and face up to life without parole for the Class AA felony charges.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541

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