Judge dismisses arson charges against former high school principal
DICKINSON, N.D. — Felony arson charges against the former Catholic high school principal accused of setting fire to the school were dropped Monday.
Southwest District Judge William Herauf signed off on the state’s motion to dismiss charges against Thomas Sander, who had been in his first year as principal at Trinity High School in Dickinson. The state had alleged that Sander started the March 3 fire that caused millions of dollars in damage and displaced students for the remainder of the school year.
Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning filed the motion Thursday, saying in an interview that there was “insufficient evidence to go forward with reasonable expectation of convictions” after much of Sander’s confession was ruled inadmissible in court on July 1.
Sander’s defense effectively argued that Dickinson Police detectives Kylan Klauzer and Terry Oestreich had not properly read Sander his Miranda rights during their interrogation March 4 and 5. Herauf ruled to suppress statements Sander made after the first 1 hour, 55 minutes and 22 seconds of the interview.
Sander’s defense lawyer Lloyd Suhr confirmed Herauf’s decision Monday afternoon.
“As far as this prosecution, it’s done,” Suhr said.
The state could still bring a new criminal case against Sander if new evidence surfaces within the three-year statute of limitations, but Henning said nothing further will actively come out of the state’s attorney’s office unless new evidence is produced.
“It’s back in investigation’s corner to see whether anything else comes up,” he said Monday.
Defense attorneys Jackson Lofgren and Suhr contended that Sander was coerced by investigators into the confession and said that if the case had gone to trial, they would have called witnesses, including a school board member, establishing an alibi for Sander that he could not have been in the school when the fire started.
No other suspects have been named in the case. However, a juvenile allegedly left a note at the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center, proclaiming Sander’s innocence. The defense argued that the note helped prove Sander’s innocence because the student knew accurate, nonpublic details about the fire and had a grudge against the school.
Dickinson Catholic Schools board of directors, along with diocesan officials and attorneys, has received a copy of the note and will be assessing it, according to a message posted Thursday on the St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church’s Facebook page.
The post by Monsignor Patrick Schumacher calls the note “startling.”
Repairs have cost $17 million “and climbing” already, Schumacher said last week.
After months of structural engineer reports, Schumacher said it has been determined that the school’s main office, where the fire began, will have to be razed.
“It’s obviously becoming worse and worse,” he said. “This will not be easy to do. It’s going to be a very delicate demolition.”
At the time of the fire, Sander already had given notice that he wouldn’t return the next school year.