A Cloquet-area teen admitted Monday to fatally shooting his friend while drinking and playing with a gun inside a vehicle late last year.

Joseph James Fohrenkam, 19, pleaded guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge at a hearing in State District Court in Duluth, acknowledging under questioning that he was responsible for the death of 16-year-old Joseph James Peterson.

"I was just messing around, pointing it at everybody," Fohrenkam said of the 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, testifying that he thought it was unloaded as he had taken the clip out and put it back in. "I was pulling my arm back and it went off."

Fohrenkam, who has remained jailed, is expected to receive a seven-year prison term — nearly double the guideline sentence for the charge — when he appears again before Judge Eric Hylden on Feb. 28.

PREVIOUSLY: Charges: Mother, son shaved heads, ditched car to evade arrest after Fond du Lac homicide

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The incident occurred outside Fohrenkam's residence, 3609 Giiniw Road, in Brevator Township, on the Fond du Lac Reservation, in the early morning of Dec. 28.

The defendant testified that he had the gun with him throughout the day before sharing two bottles of brandy with Peterson and three other friends. Two of the surviving witnesses told police they did not actually see the shooting occur, while a third told investigators that Fohrenkam, then 18, may have bumped the center console while putting the gun away, causing it to fire.

Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Fohrenkam said he wasn't too impaired to recall the circumstances, describing it as an accidental discharge from a gun he didn't believe to be loaded — drawing agreement from St. Louis County prosecutor Nate Stumme, who said he had no evidence that Fohrenkam intended any harm.

"But the fact of the matter is that you created this risk that led to the death of Mr. Peterson?" Stumme asked.

"Yes," Fohrenkam replied.

While Hylden was set to review written briefs from either side to determine whether Fohrenkam's murder charge should be dismissed for a lack of probable cause, Stumme said he and defense attorney William Gatton renewed plea negotiations, agreeing that a seven-year prison term would be appropriate under the circumstances.

Attorneys said the anticipated sentence exceeds the presumptive four years under state guidelines due to Peterson being only 16, another minor being present and the fact that several others were placed at risk of serious injury or death due to Fohrenkam's actions.

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Hylden, referring to the above-guideline sentence as an "unusual aspect" of a plea agreement, asked the defendant to confirm that he understood his rights and explain why he wanted to proceed.

"Just — I agree with it," Fohrenkam told the court.

Stumme added that the victim's family and law enforcement were consulted before the agreement was formalized Monday.

"I feel that the agreed 84-month sentence is something we can all live with," the prosecutor said.

Little Fawn Fohrenkam
Little Fawn Fohrenkam

The defendant's mother, Little Fawn Fohrenkam, 39, was sentenced last month to three years of supervised probation after pleading guilty in August to a felony count of aiding an offender to avoid arrest.

The mother and son, according to court documents, fled to northwestern Minnesota, shaved their heads and ditched their car in an attempt to elude authorities. They were arrested nine days after Peterson's death at an apartment near White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen County.

A witness to Peterson's death, Trae Dillon Shabaiash, 26, also faces a felony aiding charge for allegedly hiding Fohrenkam's pistol in the woods. He's scheduled to be back in court Jan. 7.