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.

A little shy of one month later, Daniel Otto found himself charged with three adult felony counts: murder in the third degree, manslaughter in the second degree, and theft of a schedule I or II controlled substance.

 

A few weeks before the night Sherry Thompson died, just prior to Daniel Otto's cold-medicine OD episode, Nancy Carson had grown so worried and fed up with her grandson's behavior that she left her own home to stay with another daughter, in Chaska. At her townhouse in Bloomington, Carson had found herself staying up late and sleeping fitfully, listening always to see if she could hear Daniel sneaking in with friends in the middle of the night. She got tired of worrying about who was coming and going at all hours. It wasn't good for her health to be up all night.

Carson describes her grandson as a combination of "Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Jim Carrey." It was the anything-for-a-laugh Carrey piece that usually got him in trouble in the classroom and elsewhere. He liked to joke with his mother that he was two kids—Daniel, the quiet, sensitive, good student, and "Danielius," the mischievous dude who partied too much, got in trouble, and managed to catch the eye of girls.

In addition to his single prior juvenile offense for getting in a fight at school, Otto had started having occasional run-ins with the police over curfew violations in the year leading up to Thompson's death. He had become more defiant at home, too. Though they never pursued charges, Otto's mother and grandmother suspected that he and some of his friends had started stealing from them to buy drugs or alcohol. Carson says someone broke into the house—probably kids Otto knew, she conjectures—and stole about $500 from her. Luella Sands adds that she believes either Daniel or his friends stole the factory radio out of her car.

Carson wanted Sands to be tougher on her son. That was one source of the friction that led to Carson's decision to move out. Sands just wanted Otto to be happy, she says.

Sands has not touched Daniel's bedroom upstairs since he was arrested in June. A rug featuring the signs of the Zodiac—the only present he'd asked for the previous Christmas—covers most of his hardwood floor. The rest of his room is dotted with Star Wars and Dragonball-Z memorabilia, along with a suit of armor, a gift from his dad. And the walls are lined with posters: Carmen Electra, J.Lo, WWE.

On the back of a notepad are some of Otto's doodles: sketches of video-game characters Mario and Luigi, and of Dragonball-Z-inspired characters he dreamed up himself. Their multicolored robotic appendages look like they're made of jigsaw puzzle pieces and stained glass; their spiked hair is the color of blueberries and cherries.

One of the bonds between Otto and Sherry Thompson was their shared fascination with writing. In a victim's impact statement read at one of Otto's hearings, Thompson's grandmother described her granddaughter as a gifted writer who excelled at poetry and short stories. (Thompson's parents, invited through Hennepin County victims' advocates to comment for this story, did not returrn CP's messages.) Since Otto's arrest, he's begun writing a book-length Star Wars tale. Before long it consumed both sides of more than 150 sheets of paper. The sprawling story revolves around a major election, the affairs of an intergalactic government council, and, of course, Jedi battles.

But there's also an ongoing search for a child woven into the plot. It ends in vain: When the main characters finally locate the child's trail, they learn that they're far too late:

"Your grandson was neutralized five years ago," Veer Ta said.

"Why was he taken?" Anabelle asked.

"For the General Good," Veer Ta replied.

 

On July 18, after Thompson's autopsy report confirmed that she died of a methadone overdose, Daniel Otto appeared before Hennepin County Juvenile Court Judge Denise Reilly on a motion for adult certification and was formally charged. He hadn't left the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center since his arrest.

The customary prison term for first-time offenders charged with third-degree murder is about 12 years. (By contrast, vehicular homicide, which includes killing someone as a result of drunk driving, carries a sentence of four years or less.) Minnesota statute 609.195(b) defines murder in the third degree as follows: "Whoever, without intent to cause death, proximately causes the death of a human being by, directly or indirectly, unlawfully selling, giving away, bartering, delivering, exchanging, distributing, or administering a controlled substance classified in schedule I or II, is guilty of murder in the third degree and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 25 years or to payment of a fine of not more than $40,000, or both."

Third degree murder charges are rare, since it's often difficult to prove who supplied the drugs that led to a death. In November 2005, a 40-year-old Scott County woman, Jeanne C. Stone, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder for injecting methamphetamine into the arm of a friend, who subsequently passed out and drowned in a hot tub. Stone received a reduced sentence of five years and two months for agreeing to testify against the meth supplier.

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