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Fargo judge tells convict: 'I'm just not quite sure I believe that you're remorseful'

Carol Wambheim, landlord of assailant.1 / 2
Joel Donald Johansen2 / 2

FARGO - Dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, Joel Donald Johansen turned around in a Cass County courtroom Wednesday and faced the 83-year-old woman he beat bloody with a dumbbell on Jan. 2.

"I'm so sorry for putting you through the pain that you've gone through," he said, his shackled hands outstretched and voice cracking as he verged on crying. "I just hope you can forgive me."

His victim and former landlord, Carol Wambheim, may have believed him. But Judge Wade Webb wasn't convinced.

"I'm just not quite sure I believe that you're remorseful, sir," Webb said. "I hope you are."

Webb sentenced Johansen to 10 years in prison, with the final two years suspended while he serves five years of probation, for what Webb called a "violent, heinous assault" on an elderly woman.

Johansen will receive credit for 256 days served in jail since his arrest. Under state law, he must serve 85 percent of his sentence before he's eligible for parole, his court-appointed attorney said.

Johansen, 42, pleaded guilty May 25 to aggravated assault, a Class C felony that normally carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

However, Webb granted the prosecution's request to classify Johansen as a habitual offender under state law because he has at least two prior Class C felony convictions. The Cass County State's Attorney's Office doesn't keep statistics on how frequently it requests or receives habitual offender status.

In one of his prior convictions, Johansen was convicted in 1990 of hitting a Moorhead High School teacher with a tire iron when she interrupted him burglarizing her home.

He served 42 months of a 62-month prison sentence for the crime.

During Wednesday's hearing, Webb referenced the notes of Johansen's 1990 sentencing that showed he also apologized to that victim in court.

"You did well for a period of time, sir, but you hurt someone like that again," Webb said.

Earlier, Wambheim took the stand. She described how she had just walked into the laundry room that only she and her husband use in the apartment building they own when a gloved hand grabbed her by the mouth and someone started beating her with a heavy object, which turned out to be a 5-pound dumbbell.

Doctors initially thought her skull was fractured, but that turned out not to be the case, she said. A cut on her head required 20 stitches, and she spent two days in the hospital.

Since then, she's suffered from anxiety and depression, she said. She and her husband have put their apartment building up for sale and moved into a secure apartment building.

"As time goes by, this doesn't become less vivid," she said, later adding, "For this to happen at this time in my life is sad."

Webb also sentenced Johansen to undergo a psychological evaluation and follow its recommendations when he's on probation, and to have no contact with Wambheim.

In an evaluation conducted as part of the pre-sentence investigation, Johansen was described as manipulative and having anti-social and impulse control problems, Assistant State's Attorney Ryan Younggren said.

Johansen "seems like a likable young man," but he must have "some sort of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality" to commit such crimes, Younggren said in court Wednesday.

Public defender Nick Thornton recommended a five-year sentence, arguing that Johansen's felony convictions were dissimilar in nature and the most recent one happened more than a decade ago.

"This is aberrant, horrible behavior. However, saying that he's a habitual offender who's always going to do this is a stretch," he said.

Thornton said Johansen perceived the Wambheims as attacking him verbally by threatening to evict him before he attacked Carol Wambheim. That doesn't excuse Johansen's actions, but it helps to explain them, Thornton said.

Carol Wambheim said after the sentencing that Johansen was always behind in his rent, but they never threatened eviction.

"The one thing I did say to him was, 'Why don't you just pay it on time, Joel, so we don't have to deal with this every month?' " she said.

The court received letters from Johansen's fiancée in the Philippines, who described him as a "nice person" and pleaded for a short jail term, and from North Dakota Teen Challenge, which had accepted Johansen into a 12- to 18-month residential faith-based Christian drug and alcohol program.

Johansen's parents, who attended his sentencing, also wrote in a letter that they aren't happy with his actions and decision-making "and haven't been for a long time.

"He never seemed to grow up. He said the right things at times but didn't act wisely, especially regarding his finances," their letter stated.

However, they noted Johansen has "made a confession of faith in Jesus Christ since going to jail."

"He did this the last time he went to prison too, so we're wanting to see concrete, lasting changes so we know this is real," their letter stated.

Johansen waved to his parents as he was escorted out of the courtroom. His parents declined to comment.

Wambheim said she was "relieved" with Johansen's sentence, "just because his problems are so deep-seeded, you just wonder how that can ever change."

She said she forgives Johansen and thinks his apology was sincere.

"I believe him," she said, "but he forgets that so fast."