Jury acquits Blaine man in 1979 cold-case murder

9:18 AM, Nov 9, 2006   |    comments
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A former state bureaucrat from Blaine charged in a decades-old murder was acquitted by a Wright County jury. Ron Michaels, 52, a former accounting manager in the Department of Administration, had been on trial in the August 1979 death of Jeffrey Hammill, a 21-year-old who was apparently beaten to death along a Wright County road. The jury deliberated less than one hour before returning its verdict Tuesday. "We'd like to thank all the people who prayed for us, and we thank God the truth came out," said Michaels' wife, Jean. Defense attorney Jim Fleming said he believed the jury acquitted Michaels because one of the other men charged in the case, who was brought as a key witness, changed his story on the stand. Wright County attorney Tom Kelly declined to discuss the details of the trial, saying that doing so would jeopardize the case against the other two defendants, who are still in custody. Charges against Michaels and two other men were announced last November by Wright County and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's cold-case unit. Michaels was charged with six counts of murder. Also charged were Terry L. Olson, 47, of Andover and Dale L. Todd, 46, of Winsted. Todd, originally charged with second-degree murder, had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for his testimony, Kelly said. It's unclear what will become of that plea. Olson's case may lead to another trial. The BCA had reopened the case in 2003, posting $50,000 in reward money under the agency's Spotlight on Crime program. The case was reopened after Hammill's daughter inquired about his death. Fleming called the arrests and prosecution "despicable." "This case had everything to do with trying to get a conviction in a cold case, and ... little to do with the truth," he said. Tim O'Malley, acting superintendent of the BCA, said he didn't want to talk about the Michaels trial with possibly two related cases pending. But he said he is a "100 percent believer in our cold-case approach." "These cases are almost by definition the most difficult to solve," O'Malley said. "I think we would be remiss if we didn't try. The role of rewards and partnerships is important. I think it's a great service." Richard Frase, a professor of criminal law at the University of Minnesota, said because cold cases are difficult, they invite incentives and rewards. But he added, "Anytime you have private parties incentivizing public officials in their law enforcement decisions, you have to at least wonder if those decisions are being distorted in some way," Frase said. "That's not to say you shouldn't have cold-case units, but there are warm ones that also could use more resources and are often less problematic." According to its Web site, Spotlight on Crime has offered $1 million in rewards in 19 cases. Four have been solved, including the 2002 murder of Erika Dalquist of Pillager, the 1998 murder of 16-year-old Julie Holmquist, and the 1970 ambush shooting of St. Paul police officer James Sackett. Two men were convicted in May of that murder.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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