Becker County case over stolen skid steer ends in mistrial after 'inappropriate conduct' by defense attorney
Due to "inappropriate conduct" by a defense attorney, a mistrial has been declared in the trial of a Menahga man accused of receiving 18 Bobcat-type skid steer loaders, stolen from around the state, and selling most of them to a Sebeka implement dealer.
Bobby John Anttila, 52, of 56346 145th St., Menahga, has been charged in Becker County District Court with 18 felony counts of receiving stolen property.
According to court records:
In April of 2006, the Becker County Sheriff's Department received information that Anttila was involved in the sale of a stolen skid steer loader.
Around that time, it was learned that he had allegedly sold four stolen skid steer loaders to Darwin's Equipment in Sebeka. The loaders had been stolen from various cities around the state.
Three of the four loaders were picked up by the dealership at Anttila's residence in Becker County, according to court records.
Anttila allegedly claimed he had bought the skid steers from a man "with cash and a handshake" and had no records to document the purchase.
Investigation by the Wadena and Becker County Sheriff's Departments revealed that Anttila had sold 15 skid steers to an equipment dealer and sold others to private individuals.
The loaders ranged in value from $4,500 to $24,000, and had a total value of $274,500.
A jury trial began in Becker County District Court on Oct. 19, and on Monday morning, during a discussion in chambers, it was learned that defense attorney Zenas Baer of Hawley had talked by telephone to a key witness for the state and allegedly tried to dissuade him from testifying.
"It was revealed by the county attorney (Mike Fritz) that he had learned from William Kenneth Saarela, a possible co-conspirator and witness subpoenaed by the state ... that (Baer) had contacted him by telephone over the weekend," District Judge Peter Irvine wrote in his order declaring a mistrial.
Saarela told the county attorney that Baer had warned him that the statute of limitations may not have run out on a number of charges, and that he could face criminal charges if he appeared at the trial and testified on behalf of the prosecution.
Baer failed to inform the county attorney's office about the call, or to provide a written or verbal summary of the conversation. He did offer to do so at that time, and subsequently provided the summary.
Saarela was brought into chambers, advised of his right to remain silent, and questioned by the county attorney. Saarela indicated that in court he "would not answer or testify of certain matters, and would invoke his rights (not to testify) under the Fifth Amendment," Irvine wrote.
At this point, Irvine brought up the issue of Baer creating the possibility that he may become a witness in the case, which would be unacceptable.
The state's case required Saarela's testimony to link the defendant to the thefts.
Saarela was called to testify by the state. In some respects he testified inconsistently with a statement he gave to law enforcement, with the county attorney present, about a month before the trial.
As his testimony progressed, Fritz asked him about his phone conversation with Zenas Baer. In response to one question, Saarela testified:
"That conversation is when he told me about the five year statute of limitations, I think, and he spoke to you about that. You told him there was possibly a five year statute of limitations and that I'd probably end up being charged with this."
Counsel approached the bench at the request of Fritz, and Baer denied that he had made such a statement, which "clearly challenged the integrity and veracity of the county attorney, based on his prior contact with the witness and prior testimony of the witness," Irvine wrote.
Irvine challenged Baer and Fritz to "suggest a way to repair this damage without calling (Baer) as a witness. They offered no solution.
"In the view of this court, defense counsel cannot be a witness in a criminal case under any circumstances," Irvine wrote.
The court considered reading a stipulation into the record, but "that approach would simply establish that the witness, in the view of the attorneys and the court, was not credible," a finding that should be left to the jury to decide.
"In addition," Irvine wrote, "the defense counsel's inappropriate conduct in contacting this witness without any protection regarding what was discussed (e.g., recording the discussion or having another person present who could testify to what was said) would only inure to the benefit of his client."
The damage was done, Irvine decided. "It was fatal and it was irreversible." Although Baer objected to a mistral, he offered no suggestions as to how the damage could be undone.
And neither Fritz nor Irvine could "imagine any viable solution in order to salvage the integrity of the proceeding. Both parties are entitled to a fair trial; but (Baer's) conduct had irretrievably denied any fair trial for the state."
Because Baer was solely responsible for the necessity to declare the mistrial, jeopardy should not attach, Irvine concluded in his findings of fact.
He declared a mistrial, and directed Becker County District Court Administration to schedule a new pretrial conference and jury trial.
His pretrial hearing has been set for Dec. 9, with jury trial set for Jan. 5.