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.

As a teenager, Otto began getting in low-grade sorts of trouble. When he was 14, he beat up a boy and racked up his first—and until now, only—juvenile conviction. Counselors at his middle school diagnosed him with Emotional and Behavioral Disorder (EBD). He went on Prozac, but it didn't seem to help his depression much.

The school counselors refused to allow Otto to attend Kennedy High School until he got treatment for his EBD. The public school system sent him through various therapy-focused day programs that left him feeling more lost than when he left Oak Grove Middle School. Carson and Sands wanted Otto to have an education component in his daily therapy routine, so a home instructor sometimes visited Otto during those months.

The goal was to help him make the transition to Kennedy High, though Sands says the school had been promising for months that he could enroll there soon. "Another month," they'd tell her, and another month would pass. "It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy," Sands recalls. "He started to think he was this horrible kid."

In the year leading up to Thompson's death, Otto started smoking a lot of pot. "Daniel believed that if he smoked enough pot, his problems would go away," his mother says. "He came to me and said, 'Mom! I found the solution to my problems!' I told him this is where they begin. I know. I've been through it."

Otto and Sherry Thompson had been hanging out together for a little more than a month when she died. Otto told police that they had sex a couple of times, and that Thompson told him she might be pregnant with his kid.

"I thought Sherry was good for him," Sands says. "I found out [once that] Daniel had gotten drunk, and I was so mad. Sherry said to me, 'Don't worry, he will never be drunk again.' They really cared about each other." Otto did drink again, however, with Thompson and his friends in the basement room his mom had fixed up for him. He started experimenting with other ways to get loaded, too. A few weeks before Thompson died, he had swallowed a bunch of Coricidin cold pills to get high off its active ingredient, dextromethorphan. On that occasion Sands rushed him to the hospital to have his stomach pumped.

Otto didn't want to kill himself, he told his mother, he just wanted to get high, and he knew that he had to swallow a lot to get off. Sands thought about checking him into a treatment center that day. She talked herself out of it in the end. Having been in treatment before, she says, she believed her son had to want help before treatment would do him any good. "Something had to happen for him to stop using," Sands says now. "I just never thought it would be something like this."

Sherry Thompson's last day on earth also happened to be the hottest day of the year in the Twin Cities, at 96 degrees. Thompson and two female friends went over to Otto's a little after 8:00 that night, and the four of them spent the next three hours drinking wine coolers in the basement of the townhouse.

Otto's mom had tried to fix up the little cement room with furniture she found at thrift stores: two 1970s faux-velvet brown chairs and an old couch. The cinderblock walls were painted bright orange and yellow in an attempt to lighten up the windowless space.

Otto attempted to alter the appearance of the throwback room with some decorations of his own: a framed Beetlejuice poster, which he hung above the couch, and a stuffed R2D2 doll that paid homage to his obsession with Star Wars and science fiction.

Around 11:00 p.m., Thompson and her two friends, identified in the criminal complaint only as "H.R." and "A.S.," left to go to Thompson's house about two blocks away. The group stayed there only a few minutes before Thompson told A.S. that she was leaving to go back to Otto's house to spend the night. She told A.S. to meet her at Otto's around 1:00 the next day.

Thompson and Otto drank more wine coolers after she returned. According to the subsequent criminal complaint, she told him that she wanted to "get wrecked." They smoked pot, but Otto had only a little left and they went through it quickly.

According to her friend A.S., Thompson loved getting stoned and would "want to get high on whatever drugs she could find." The girl told investigators that Thompson has been smoking pot for about a year, and had also used ecstasy, speed, mushrooms, crack, cocaine, and alcohol. Thompson's friend H.R. told police that she believed Thompson had a drug problem and "would take anything she could get her hands on."

At the time, Otto was taking Concerta for ADHD and Prozac for depression. Thompson crushed up one of his Prozac tablets and snorted it like a line of coke, hoping it would give her a buzz. It didn't. So she asked Otto to go upstairs to his parents' room and retrieve his mom's methadone.

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