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Lengthy testimony heard at Wright omnibus hearing

Sonja Hennagir1 / 2
Richard Wright2 / 2

Updated Saturday

Nine hours after Sonja Hennagir's lifeless body was discovered in her Park Rapids home one year ago, Richard Wright was sitting in a cell block of the Hubbard County Correctional Center watching TV.

He was moved to a booking room to take a phone call.

"Hello," he said to the caller. "Baby I love you. I've done something really bad. I've been charged with second-degree murder.... I was drunk at the time. I love you."

That was the testimony Wednesday at a lengthy omnibus hearing in the case of Wright, who was indicted by a grand jury in September on first-degree murder charges in Hennagir's Jan. 29, 2008 death.

The hearing concluded Wednesday night. The testimony of Wright's jail phone call was provided by Jason Eilers, a correctional officer who'd been on the job less than two weeks when he was asked to escort Wright to the phone.

Eilers testified he didn't know who was on the other end of the phone, but he didn't think it was standard procedure for inmates to receive calls from persons other than their attorneys.

Eilers was one of nine witnesses to testify. Police officers, Hubbard County investigators and two agents from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension recounted that day from the time of an initial frantic 911 call at 3:42 a.m. until Wright was jailed on the murder charges later that morning.

Prosecutors played a 90-minute tape, recorded during a search warrant executed to extract DNA samples from Wright's body after his initial arrest.

Wright waived his Miranda rights and talked to investigators, telling them Hennagir's death was accidental. He said she died of a seizure and convulsions during an intimate encounter.

Prosecutors maintain Wright, a pipeline worker from Michigan, choked or asphyxiated Hennagir.

The level of Wright's intoxication that morning may be an issue in the case. Witnesses gave conflicting testimony as to whether he was lucid enough to understand the predicament he was in, particularly whether he was able to understand he'd waived his right to remain silent after initially requesting an attorney.

One officer testified Wright was slurring his words; a sheriff's department sergeant and an emergency room nurse said he was fully able to follow directions, was ambulatory without staggering and was able to give responses to questions.

But it also may have a bearing on the prosecution's ability to prove the first-degree murder charges. The defense, which has declined to discuss the case, appears to be trying to negate some of the elements of first-degree murder such as premeditation and intent.

Wright, dressed Wednesday in orange scrubs and shackled at his ankles, sat quietly through the proceedings, hands folded in his lap. His court-appointed attorneys asked that his handcuffs be removed so he could communicate with them or take notes. Judge Paul Rasmussen ordered his handcuffs be removed.

Wright, who was 40 at the time of the crime, responded only briefly when the judge asked him if he understood he had the right to testify - or not to testify. He said yes.

Wright's public defenders, Walker attorney Jay Sommer and Duluth attorney Scott Belfry, repeatedly asked him in the judge's presence if he understood that he could testify.

"What is your wish?" they queried their client.

"To not testify at this time," he responded quietly.

The graphic testimony included the playing of the 911 tape. The call was placed by Hennagir's friend Jenny Larson, who had just driven up from Minneapolis to visit. Larson came upon the scene that morning and observed her friend not breathing, slumped over in a chair.

She called authorities because she believed Wright was assaulting a child in the home. She ran to an outside window to see what was happening.

The call, which is garbled because of the phone connection, the recording and the multiple voices on it, became more hysterical as Larson repeatedly implored the dispatcher to get officers to the home "right now!" During portions of the tape Larson could be heard screaming, "Oh my God! Oh my God!"

Toward the end of the 2-minute recording, Larson is heard shouting, "You stop right there!" The rest of the tape was filled with her screams.

A male voice could be heard saying, "Hey, hey hey!"

There were more screams and the tape went dead.

During the search at the hospital, Wright told investigators he spent the evening in a bar consuming beer and Jagermeister. He continued drinking at Hennagir's home after the bar closed, where he was drinking straight from a bottle of Jagermeister.

"I was grabbing the bottle taking pulls off it," he told the officers.

When Hennagir went limp and didn't respond to him, he said he panicked, put on his clothes and raced for his cell phone, which he thought was in his car. He said he was trying to summon help, but didn't want to call police on Hennagir's phone.

"I freaked out," he told the officers. "She wasn't moving. I panicked. I wanted to get her some help."

He said he raced outdoors for his phone and encountered Larson.

"All of a sudden this girl jumps out screaming and stabbing me," he recounted to the officers. "She was screaming, 'What the hell did you do? Sonja's hurt!'" he told them.

He later remarked to investigators it only seemed to take "20 seconds" before they arrived after the driveway scuffle.

Park Rapids police officer Dan Kruchowski testified he arrived first. "Mr. Wright was on top of Jenny Larson in the driveway," he testified. "I could see a struggle taking place... Jenny Larson was on her back. He was using his arms against hers holding her down."

Kruchowski testified he twice ordered Wright to get up and off Larson; when Wright began walking away, the officer used his Taser on him. Testimony indicated the Taser probes were stuck in Wright's chest until an emergency room doctor removed them several hours later.

Wright suffered numerous injuries in the scuffle. The nurse testified they were "superficial." He was treated for stab wounds to his thigh and knee. Both areas required sutures. Officers and the emergency room nurse testified his abdomen was scratched, his elbows were scraped and he had numerous cuts and puncture wounds on his arms and legs when he was seen at the hospital.

Kruchowski testified he thought Wright was wearing a tank top that night and it was "extremely cold" out. Wright was face down on the driveway handcuffed five to 10 minutes, Kruchowski testified.

Officer Tom Haag arrived in time to see Wright being Tased. He said Larson told him to check a child in the house. Haag said he had to kick in the door to gain entrance.

The child "appeared to be sleeping" in bed with the TV on, he recalled. While emergency personnel were removing the child, Wright "asked me if Sonja was OK," Haag testified. "I advised him to wait until the investigators talked to him."

Because of the cold and Wright's clothing at the time "we knew the elements had to be an issue," Haag said. Wright was put into a squad car after Haag arrived and transported to the hospital. Haag said he smelled of alcohol.

Larson was in the courtroom for the first part of the hearing Wednesday, but did not testify. As Wright was first led into the room, bailiff Phil Stuemke moved protectively toward her. "Are you going to be all right, Jen?" he quietly asked. She nodded yes.

The 911 tape details the fierce struggle between Larson and Wright in the driveway of the Discovery Circle home. Officers testified they were responding to what they initially believed was a domestic dispute. They handcuffed both Wright and Larson until they could ascertain Larson was also a victim.

Toward the end of Wright's comments on the search warrant tape, he repeatedly indicated how scared he was when Hennagir appeared unresponsive. He sobbed, "I'm not a monster."

He is also charged with an alleged assault on the child. It is unclear if Haag's testimony that the child was asleep when he entered the house, undermines this charge.

Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne and Assistant Attorney General Eric Schieferdecker are prosecuting the case.

An omnibus hearing is used to determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. Attorneys, who now have six weeks to file briefs, will also argue evidentiary matters in the case.

Rasmussen will then rule as to whether the case should be bound over for trial.