High Crimes

Daniel Otto and his girlfriend just wanted to get loaded one summer night. Neither of them imagined that she would wind up dead and he would be charged with murder.

The Friday lunch rush had just ended when two Bloomington police officers showed up at the Burger King counter in the Mall of America. It was early summer—June 24, 2005—and the food court was jammed with shoppers, refugees from the thunderstorms raging outside, and teenagers protecting their summer-hangout turf. Detectives Ed Hansen and Kim Jones-O'Brien were looking for 16-year-old Daniel Otto, a kid with close-cropped brown hair and big, almond-shaped gray-blue eyes, who had arrived at the fast-food restaurant about two hours earlier for his afternoon shift. The Bloomington officers wanted to ask Otto a few questions, and they had something to tell him, too.

The cops led Otto into one of the mall's conference rooms, shut the door, and delivered the news: His girlfriend, 15-year-old Sherry Thompson, had been found dead in the basement of his home about an hour earlier. Otto was visibly shaken by the news. He had just seen Thompson that morning around 10:30 a.m., before his mom drove him to his Burger King job. She had been sleeping on the old brown-and-gold couch in the unfinished basement rec room of his grandmother's Bloomington townhouse. And now she was dead?

Otto had stayed up late the night before with Thompson, a green-eyed girl with strawberry-blond hair and a smile that people tended to remember. They sat in his basement bedroom drinking and trying to get high on whatever they could find—Prozac, pot, Valium, and, eventually, his mother's prescription methadone. He brought the methadone downstairs from his parents' bedroom, Otto admitted to the cops, after Thompson had asked him for it. Thompson drank the methadone, the same amount Otto's mom took every day. They'd gone to bed well past 3:00 a.m., and he hadn't wanted to wake Thompson in the morning to say goodbye.

Otto sat in the conference room in his Burger King uniform, reeking of onions, and poured out his grief and guilt to the two cops. Thompson had likely died from the methadone she ingested earlier that morning. Why did he bring it downstairs? Otto wondered aloud now. "It's all my fault," he said over and over.

Moments later, the two cops arrested Otto on suspicion of murder and manslaughter.

Daniel Otto lived in a tucked-away two-story Bloomington townhouse with his mom, Luella Sands, his dad, Joe Otto, and his grandmother, Nancy Carson. From the outside, Otto's life appeared reasonably normal. He lived in the suburbs with both of his parents; his mother was educated, articulate, and sensitive; and there was extended family living nearby.

When they weren't living in an apartment of their own, Otto and his parents lived with Carson off and on, first when Otto was five and his mom was in nursing school, and again in recent years when Sands quit nursing and went into treatment for an addiction to painkillers. Sands, 48, who spent four years working as a registered nurse and five as a nurse's assistant, had been prescribed morphine for migraines and for pain caused by fibromyalgia. She had entered the methadone program two years ago to get off of it.

Otto's parents are no strangers to substance troubles, by Luella Sands's own account. When Otto's dad was around and not drinking, Sands says, he was a warm and wonderful father, but other times he would go missing for weeks, swallowed up by his drinking binges. (A few weeks after Daniel Otto's arrest, Joe Otto moved into a recovery home.) And Sands herself has had a lifelong struggle with depression that led to addiction, from alcohol to painkillers and now methadone. "Sometimes [the painkillers] were the only things that made me feel normal," she says.

When Daniel Otto was a little boy, Nancy Carson says, she remembers him wanting to help her in the garden whenever he could. He'd walk up to her with a pail full of water or a plastic garden tool, get down on his hands and knees, and ask if he could help her dig in the dirt. As he got older, Otto tried to help the family in other ways. He always wanted to fix things, to mend the problems that were caused by his depression and addiction in his family, to make life happier for all of them. "Sometimes the roles were reversed," the 71-year-old Carson remembers, "and Daniel was taking care of them."

Otto hated it when one of his parents got drunk or used drugs. His impulse in response to family problems was always to make people laugh, a skill that caused him to be known as a clown to classmates and a troublemaker to teachers. When Otto was six, the school suggested he see a therapist. He was diagnosed with ADHD and began taking Ritalin during the school year.

Early on in life, Otto was periodically consumed by a need to establish control over what was happening around him. When he was eight years old, he fixated on controlling his own body. For nearly a year, he barely ate anything. While the rest of the family sat at the table for dinner, Otto retreated to the stairs of the Bloomington townhouse with his dinner plate, staying close enough to talk to his family while they ate, but far enough away so that no one could watch him put food in his mouth.

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