CARLTON — Lying on a gurney in the back of an ambulance after a brief manhunt resulted in his arrest in the chilly woods of the Fond du Lac Reservation, Sheldon James Thompson allegedly made a brief, yet significant, utterance to a police officer.
"I messed up," the homicide suspect purportedly said. "I'm going away for a long time."
Those two sentences, not recorded in any audio or video format but included in a written report from the officer, were the focus of a hearing Wednesday in State District Court.
Thompson, 34, faces eight counts of murder and a potential life sentence without the possibility of parole if convicted of killing his pregnant girlfriend, 27-year-old Jackie Defoe, and her 20-month-old son, Kevin Shabaiash Jr., in March 2020.
Defense attorney Steve Bergeson has filed a motion asking the court to suppress the statement, which is likely to be relied upon by prosecutors as an admission of guilt, on the basis that it was "not given freely and voluntarily," in violation of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.
Nils Hansen, then a Fond du Lac police officer, testified that Thompson made the comment to him on the evening of March 8, 2020, a short time after he assisted fellow officers in locating and arresting Thompson.
Hansen said officers found Thompson in a pile of brush off Mission Road, east of Cloquet, around 7 or 7:30 p.m., about two hours after they began their search. He said Thompson had shed a heavier winter coat — a sign of potential hypothermia — and appeared wet and cold.
He was handcuffed and taken to a nearby ambulance, where his wet clothes were removed and he was provided warm blankets and heat packs, Hansen testified under questioning from Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Erin Eldridge.
"He attempted to engage in a conversation with me," said Hansen, now a Carlton County sheriff's deputy. "I did advise Mr. Thompson that he had to focus on receiving medical attention at that time."
Nonetheless, Hansen testified that Thompson blurted out the brief statement before paramedics determined that his vitals were good and he was cleared to be released into police custody.
Hansen testified that he was wearing a wireless microphone at the time, but he was too far away from the receiver in his squad car for it to record. He asserted that he did not attempt to ask Thompson any questions at any point.
Bergeson attempted to make the case that the alleged statement was taken in violation of his client's Miranda rights. The defense attorney repeatedly asked the officer to recall the precise words he said to Thompson.
"I do not remember the exact phrase," Hansen testified. "What I recall is telling him to focus on the medical attention."
Hansen said he was only involved in the apprehension of the suspect and was not involved in any attempts to interrogate him afterward. He said Thompson appeared coherent as he received treatment in the ambulance.
Hansen was the sole witness to testify at the contested hearing, which was attended by a handful of people wearing matching red T-shirts featuring a photograph of the slain mother and child.
Judge Jill Eichenwald ordered both sides to submit written briefs regarding Thompson's statement in the coming weeks. It is one of several key issues the judge will have to rule on before the case can move forward.
Partial dismissal, new venue sought
The defense also has filed motions to dismiss two of the charges and move Thompson's trial out of Carlton County.
Thompson is charged with three counts of premeditated first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree murder while committing domestic abuse with a past pattern of domestic abuse and three counts of intentional second-degree murder.
Authorities said the victims' bodies were discovered March 7, 2020, after a "concerned citizen" told police that Thompson made statements indicating he had killed Defoe and her child.
Officers found the victims' bodies in separate bedrooms at the residence, 1620 Locke Lane, Cloquet. They were concealed under blankets and clothing, and both doors had been screwed shut, according to court documents. Defoe, who was 13 weeks pregnant, had been stabbed several dozen times, while Kevin died from blunt-force injuries, an autopsy found.
Police said the investigation led to "a number of witnesses" who reported that Thompson had told them that he killed the mother and son. The killings are alleged to have occurred on or around March 5, 2020.
Prosecutors cited several past incidents in which Thompson had allegedly hit or threatened the victims, and Defoe's family and advocates have criticized the dismissal of past assault charges.
But Bergeson has taken aim at two charges in particular, asking the judge to strike down Minnesota's past pattern provision for murder, calling it "unconstitutionally vague."
The charge requires "circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life," with the defense attorney arguing there is no clear definition for that phrase. Additionally, he alleged a lack of probable cause and improper instructions to members of the grand jury that levied the indictment last October.
Eldridge defended the statute, arguing that it has been upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court several times and that jurors are capable of applying "the common meaning and usage" of the words "extreme" and "indifference."
Additionally, Bergeson contends that news coverage, social media posts and various events hosted by the victims' family and supporters have created an environment in which it would be impossible for Thompson to receive a fair trial in Carlton County.
“Potential jury members in Carlton County have been repeatedly told that this is how it happened, these are the facts, and Mr. Thompson is not only guilty but has a violent past," Bergeson wrote, requesting the proceedings be moved to another, unspecified county.
But Eldridge argued coverage has been "minimal," with most occurring more than a year ago, and said the jury selection proceess can help root out any bias.
“The media articles (the) defendant has produced are factual in nature; many repeat or summarize content from public court documents,” she wrote. “Defendant has not established that any of the news reports express an opinion of guilt. There is no indication that the social media posts on which defendant relies were widely viewed or circulated among Carlton County residents.”
Eichenwald is expected to rule on the various motions ahead of a preliminary settlement conference scheduled for Oct. 27.