CARLTON — A trial has been postponed after a new DNA sample was ordered from a Scanlon man who is facing a potential life sentence on charges that he kidnapped and repeatedly raped a woman over the course of 34 hours of captivity.
Judge Jill Eichenwald on Friday, Sept. 3, tossed all evidence pertaining to a sample taken last summer from Dennis Michael St. John Jr., finding that it was the result of an unconstitutional search and seizure. But Judge Rebekka Stumme on Wednesday, Sept. 8, responded by ordering St. John to submit to a new saliva test, just days before he was set to go before a jury.
St. John, 54, faces six felony charges, with the top counts carrying mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of release. While Eichenwald denied several defense challenges, including a motion to dismiss his grand jury indictment and another to toss cellphone location data, the suppression of the DNA evidence sent attorneys scrambling on the eve of trial.
Eichenwald found that the warrant for St. John's DNA, sought by Cloquet police Detective Eric Baker and authorized by Stumme on July 20, 2020, "was not supported by probable cause because it lacks a nexus between the alleged crimes and his DNA."
Prosecutors argued that the warrant was appropriate because it came after the victim's account of being raped and held captive in St. John's residence and after another search warrant had resulted in the seizure of "several items of evidence."
"However, there is no allegation or assertion that evidence possibly containing DNA evidence was found either on defendant's person or in his residence," Eichenwald wrote in a 20-page order. "There is no reference in the DNA search warrant application to bodily fluids being found at the crime scene or samples being collected from (the victim)."
The ruling prompted prosecutors to file a motion Tuesday, Sept. 7, seeking permission to obtain a new sample from St. John ahead of the trial. Carlton County Attorney Lauri Ketola told the court that she had been assured it could be sent to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and analyzed by Friday, Sept. 10.
Defense attorney J.D. Schmid objected, saying authorities should not be able to seize a second sample as a direct result of a previous search that has been ruled unconstitutional. Additionally, he said there would not be time to adequately review the analysis and prepare for trial.
Stumme, who will preside over the trial, took the issue under advisement at a Tuesday hearing and granted the prosecution's motion early Wednesday. Citing time constraints, she did not provide an explanation, saying a full memorandum would be issued later.
A two-week trial that had been set to begin Monday, Sept. 13, was removed from the court's calendar. No rescheduled date was immediately listed.
Victim allegedly assaulted, threatened
St. John and the alleged victim, who had a prior relationship, were seen on security footage leaving Black Bear Casino Resort shortly before 11 p.m. July 17, 2020, according to a criminal complaint.
The woman later reported to police that they went to the defendant's home, where St. John locked the door and began striking her with his fists. According to court documents, she told investigators that he went on to sexually assault her "on five to six separate occasions" while she was held that night, the following day and into the morning of July 19.
St. John told the woman he would find her and kill her and her family if she tried to escape, the complaint said. The victim also told police St. John forced her to smoke meth and gave her a pill for pain.
According to court documents, the victim was able to escape on the morning of July 19 after seeing a door that had been left open. She called police and met officers at a hospital, where she was observed to have bruises on her face, arms, hands and legs.
A search warrant was executed at St. John's residence July 19, and items recovered included clothing the victim told police she left behind. St. John was arrested, and during a subsequent search, police said they found a pair of women’s underwear and two knives in his pockets.
While not filing any formal notice of defense, Schmid indicated at Tuesday's hearing that he would argue the relationship between his client and the alleged victim was consensual.
Indictment, cellphone data upheld
Eichenwald on Friday upheld another search warrant authorized by Judge Robert Macaulay for St. John's cellphone location data during the time of the alleged crimes. The judge rejected a defense claim that there was insufficient showing for how the data related to suspected criminal activity.
"In this matter, police did not seek to examine data contained on the phone itself, but the (location data) associated with his cellphone number collected by Verizon," Eichenwald noted. "Detective Baker stated that (location data) would assist in establishing a timeline and corroborating information obtained during his investigation."
The judge also denied a defense bid to dismiss the indictment levied by a grand jury last October. The defense had cited a variety of alleged procedural errors and misconduct, claiming the panel was not properly screened for bias, that comments made by prosecutors unfairly implied that St. John was guilty and that erroneous instructions were provided on the elements of some offenses.
"None of the claimed errors or prosecutorial misconduct alone constituted prejudice," Eichenwald ruled. "Likewise, the cumulative effect of the errors or prosecutorial misconduct failed to operate to the defendant's prejudice by producing a biased jury. Defendant does not contend or argue that there was insufficient admissible evidence to support a finding of probable cause. Throughout the grand jury proceeding, both the court and the county attorney reminded the grand jurors of their independence."
St. John is charged with three counts of criminal sexual conduct with heinous elements and one count each of kidnapping, second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon and making threats of violence. He remains in the Carlton County Jail on $1 million bail.