Morrison County Attorney’s office dealing with unprecedented number of murder cases

Nine suspects facing charges

By Terry LehrkeNews Editor

While the latest murder charges leveled in Morrison County against Byron Smith have garnered state and national attention, the Morrison County Attorney’s Office is also dealing with eight other murder cases.

The Morrison County Attorney’s office is in the process of prosecuting nine murder cases, in addition to its regular caseload. Pictured in one of the courtrooms at the Morrison County Government Center are attorneys and support staff (from left): Administrative Assistant Cindy Smith; Assistant County Attorneys Todd Kosovich and Todd Chantry, County Attorney Brian Middendorf; Assistant County Attorneys Mike Chisum and Amber Kusler and Executive Administrative Assistant Tara Selinski. Administrative Assistant Patty Braunchaud was unavailable for the photo.

That many murder cases in just more than a year, is highly unusual, said Morrison County Attorney Brian Middendorf.

Before October 2011, the office handled just two murder cases since the time Middendorf became county attorney in 2007.

A week after Middendorf started his first term as county attorney in January 2007, a Lincoln man was charged for killing his parents. Another murder case related to a drug overdose was prosecuted by the office since then.

Four assistant attorneys, Todd Chantry, Todd Kosovich, Amber Kusler and Mike Chisum, work with Middendorf. The five attorneys share three administrative assistants and handle everything from traffic offenses to provide legal counsel to the commissioners to, well, murder.

The current stream of murder charges began when Dustin Brown was found murdered at a mobile home in west Little Falls in October 2011. Jason Dominguez, a 36-year-old Hutchinson man, was indicted for the murder. His trial is set to begin Jan. 9, 2013.

In February, Keon Mangun was charged with third degree murder in the heroin overdose death of 19-year-old Miranda Gosiak of Little Falls. Three Little Falls residents — Tanya Ashby, Brandon Bedford and Christian Dahn, were charged with third degree aiding and abetting in the murder. The next hearing for Mangun is Feb. 19, 2013.

In April, Nancy Meyer of Pierz was charged for conspiracy to murder, when she tried to pay someone $200 to kill her ex-husband, Jeff Fisk.

In June, Warren John Okerman was arrested for murder in connection with the meth overdose of his fiancé, Leslie Peterson of Little Falls. His next hearing is set for Monday.

In early November, Kevin Stuckmayer of Pierz was charged with attempted murder for trying to kill his wife, Natalie, in October. Stuckmayer pleaded guilty to the crime Thursday, and a plea agreement was reached capping his sentence at 90 months in prison. Stuckmayer’s sentencing hearing has been set for Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.

And in late November, second degree murder charges were brought against Smith, for going beyond the point of self-defense when shooting alleged burglars Haile Kifer and Nick Brady on Thanksgiving Day and not reporting the incident until the following day.

Each case has a primary attorney assigned, Middendorf said. “But we’re a team, and we assist each other,” he said.

Middendorf said the team is working many additional hours.

“These days, they’re spending evenings and weekends in the office to handle additional workload, which is something that works in the short-term, but not in the long-term,” he said.

Middendorf said he is concerned about his staff getting “burned out.”

The county attorney’s office also handles cases for nearly every city in the county and has contracts with many of them.

The attorneys work closely with law enforcement.

“They’re doing a great job,” said Middendorf. “We have good communication with them, and I know we all appreciate their hard work.”

Not only the number, but these kinds of felony cases are not normal for Morrison County, Middendorf said.

“It’s been a very tragic year for Morrison County,” he said. “Nobody could have anticipated the number of murder cases we’ve charged out.”

“I don’t think these recent murder cases reflect the type of community we are,” he said. “Morrison County is a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family.”

The county attorney’s office tries to plan for the worst possible scenarios.

“This has gone far beyond anything we could have anticipated,” Middendorf said. “It’s been very challenging for us.”

As for the cost to taxpayers for prosecuting this many murder cases, “It doesn’t affect the budget as much as one would think,” Middendorf said.

This is largely due to the fact that all five attorneys are salaried.

“The county doesn’t pay overtime for the nights and weekends they spend on these cases,” said Middendorf.

About a dozen other county attorneys have offered assistance, said Middendorf.

“They are willing to offer any assistance to me that I need,” he said. “I’ve seen some amazing support from other county attorneys from throughout the state.”

He described county attorneys as a tight-knit group.

“Other county attorneys recognize what we’re going through and are willing to help out in any way they can,” said Middendorf. “We might take them up on that offer, whether it be them helping on a specific case, specific case load or even helping us out with legal research.”

Meet Morrison County’s attorneys

Brian Middendorf has been practicing law for 15 years, 14 1/2 of those with Morrison County. He was elected as county attorney in November 2006 and started those duties Jan. 1, 2007. He is in the middle of his second term.

Todd Kosovich became assistant Watonwan County attorney in St. James in 1992. He also served as the St. James city prosecutor from 1995 to 2004. In 2004, he was hired as an assistant Morrison County attorney.

Amber Kusler began her career clerking for District Court Judge Karla Hancock in Sherburne County, from 2006-2009. In 2009-2010 she worked in private practice for a Bloomington law firm. She was hired as an assistant Morrison County attorney in 2010.

Todd Chantry was an associate in a law firm in Long Prairie from 1995-2000. During this time, he also worked as a part-time public defender. From 2001 – 2006, he worked as a private criminal defense attorney for a law firm in St. Cloud. He was hired as an assistant Morrison County attorney in 2007.

Mike Chisum was a private criminal defense attorney from 1993-1995 and an assistant public defender in Ramsey County from 1995-2002. He was a police officer for a city in Colorado from 2002-2004. Chisum was hired as an assistant Morrison County attorney in 2004.