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A 2010 fire at 901 9th Ave. S. in Moorhead left two people dead. Forum file photo

Mahnomen man challenges statement in fatal arson case

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As police were collecting DNA from him without a warrant on the night of his arrest, Tracy Zornes made a remark about the double homicide he'd just refused to talk to the cops about.

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"This wasn't anything sexual," said Zornes as he furrowed his brow, the lead detective recalled in court testimony on Monday.

Zornes faces two counts of murder linked to a fire Feb. 19, 2010, at 901 9th Ave. S. in Moorhead. The bodies of Megan Londo and John Cadotte were found at the scene of the apartment fire.

In a brief filed last week, prosecutors say they consider the comment - which they call a self-implicating admission - as critically important in the murder case against Zornes, given "nearly all" of the physical evidence was burned in the fire for which Zornes also faces an arson charge.

Zornes' attorneys argue the statement shouldn't be admissible in trial because, they claim, it's the product of a search illegally done without a warrant.

In a Clay County District Court hearing on the defense motion to throw out the statement, police investigators who conducted the search were questioned in testimony on Monday.

Clay County prosecutors say police had the right to collect DNA from Zornes before securing a search warrant because the situation qualified as an exigent circumstance - an exception precluding the typical requirement for a warrant.

Eric Jaeche, a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent, said police believed Zornes may have raped Londo because she was found at the fire scene naked below the waist. Heidi Davies, chief assistant Clay County attorney, said in the brief last week that Londo was found with her legs draped over a bed and her torso on the bed.

Though the fire and the homicides occurred 14 days before Zornes was arrested March 4, police thought Londo's DNA could still be on Zornes' penis, Jaeche said.

"We believed there would be a small amount yet," he said. "That's why we decided to take it."

Zornes was arrested 100 yards off a rural road in Mahnomen County, where he was camping in a hut made of sticks, cloth and rope, Jaeche said Monday.

Police were worried that in the several hours it took to write a search warrant application and get a judge to sign it, Zornes would've been able to destroy DNA that could've still been on his body, said Ryan Nelson, the Moorhead detective heading the investigation.

Joe Parise, an attorney for Zornes, questioned why police would have thought there would still be 14-day-old DNA on Zornes, seeing as a witness who helped them locate his hideout had said she'd let Zornes take a shower at her place while he was on the lam.

A BCA forensic scientist testified Monday that two weeks between contact and collection was too long to expect DNA from a victim to be identifiable on a suspect, and prosecutors say tests found no DNA from either victim on Zornes' genitals.

Zornes' remark that the incident "wasn't anything sexual" came just after he was told police were swabbing his penis for DNA.

Davies argues that even if the search was illegal, the statement can be used because it was not dependant on the search.

"Stated another way, nothing about the search itself would logically cause the statement made by the defendant," Davies wrote in the brief, adding, "even though the two events are related in time, they have little causal relationship."

It wasn't clear from the testimony Monday if police still think Londo had been sexually assaulted.

Authorities have so far released few details about the case, saying the investigation is ongoing. They have not publicly alleged what the motive of Zornes might have been, disclosed what evidence is linked to the allegations or said if Londo and Cadotte died in the fire or before it began.

The case against Zornes was presented to a grand jury for charges, and grand jury testimony is secret.

Zornes is charged with first-degree murder, and in Minnesota, a grand jury indictment is required for a first-degree murder charge.

However, Zornes is also charged with arson, theft of a vehicle and a pair of lesser counts of second-degree murder - none of which must be taken to a grand jury. In most criminal cases, a summary of the case meant to establish probable cause is filed with the charges. No such filing was required in the Zornes case because of the grand jury indictment.

Prosecutors again took steps to limit disclosure of the investigation Monday. Judge Galen Vaa agreed to the state's request to seal the application for a search warrant for Zornes' DNA, a document that includes an outline of the case, after it was entered as an exhibit in Monday's hearing.

Revealing the warrant's backing would compromise the continuing investigation and might bias potential jurors in the case, said Matthew Greenley, assistant Clay County attorney.

Another element of the state's case is also being contested by Zornes, who wants to bar the witness from testifying.

Three days after the fire, Jodi Anderson, who dated a tenant in the three-unit apartment complex, wasn't able to identify Zornes as the man she saw entering the apartment on the night before the fire with people matching the descriptions of Londo and Cadotte.

After later seeing his photo in news reports, she testified Monday, she realized she had seen Zornes. She didn't tell police about that realization until August 13, when interviewed again before she testified before the grand jury.

Zornes' attorneys argue the identification process was suggestive, while the prosecution says the issue of Anderson's reliability should be left up to a jury.

Vaa said he plans to rule on the defense motions by May 11, after briefs are filed by both sides.

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