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.

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.

Sands kept the methadone in a lockbox in her bedroom. She made a point of hiding the box, she adds, because she knew her son was experimenting with drugs. "I told him that the amount I was on could kill somebody else unless they were used to it," Sands says. "And I think he believed me. But I never showed him one of the bottles. I never showed him [the amount] I took."

At about 1:00 a.m., Otto went to the top floor of the two-story Bloomington townhouse and entered his parents' room. Sands was still up watching TV at the time, and the lockbox was stashed behind a closet door. Otto told his mother he was looking for cigarettes. Though she hated that he had started smoking, Sands gave him a few. She thought he was alone in the basement, playing the night owl the way she often did. She didn't know Thompson had returned.

When Otto went back to the basement empty-handed, according to the criminal complaint, Thompson again asked him to go upstairs to get the lockbox. He told her no, that he'd be getting a Burger King check the next day and he'd buy drugs for her with that money if she wanted. He told her she should just go to sleep. But Thompson persisted, asking him to retrieve the methadone for her.

Otto went into his parents' room a total of three or four times that night, Sands remembers, and each time he told her he was looking for cigarettes. Eventually, after Sands has fallen asleep, Otto found the lockbox filled with 12 empty methadone vials, one approximately half-full vial, and five prescription pill bottles. He took it downstairs. Then, according to the recitation contained in the criminal complaint, Thompson took the remaining 220 mg dose from Otto and drank it down. Otto took a few of his mom's prescription anti-anxiety pills, 1 mg Klonopins. He wanted to get high, too.

Both of them felt nauseous after ingesting the drugs. Thompson went upstairs to the main-floor bathroom and threw up. Afterward, she said she felt better. But later she announced she was feeling sick again. She grabbed a blanket, curled up on the small couch, and went to sleep. Otto, who was still feeling a little ill himself, covered himself with a blanket and fell asleep on a blue, half-inflated air mattress on the cement floor.

 

Luella Sands woke up around 10:30 the next morning and found her lockbox missing. She approached Otto, who was getting ready for work, and asked him if he knew anything about it. Otto went and retrieved the unlocked container from the basement. "Did you take the methadone?" she asked him. "Nobody took it, Mom," he assured her. He said all the bottles were empty when he opened the box.

Sands says Otto then told her that he didn't take the methadone because he knew the drug could kill someone. It was already gone, he assured her. Sands began to doubt her own memory, wondering if perhaps she'd miscounted the number of doses.

Thompson had spent the night at their home on a few occasions by then. That morning, when Sands took Daniel to work, he told her that Thompson was asleep in the basement. He also claimed the girl had been kicked out of her house, and asked if she could stay with them for a few days. Sands told him they'd discuss it later, though she knew she couldn't bear to say no. Sands says now that even if she forbade it, chances were Otto would have found a way to sneak Thompson in anyhow.

After dropping Otto off at the mall, Sands went downstairs to do laundry and tell Thompson she was leaving for the day. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, she could see the girl covered by a blanket on the couch. Thompson was on her right side tucked in a fetal curl. Sands tried to shake her awake.

"When I touched her, she was cold," Sands says. "I just knew right then. She had coded, and probably some time ago. I think I just started screaming, and I ran out of the house looking for help."

The family's phone had recently been disconnected, so Sands ran toward the complex's maintenance hut a few doors down. "I was just screaming, 'Someone call 911!'" When the cops arrived, they questioned Sands and Joe Otto for about an hour. During the interview, officers swabbed Sands's mouth for a DNA sample. She had been without her prescribed methadone dose for more than two hours, and at the end of the interview she started complaining of a severe headache.

"I felt like I was ripping at the seams," she says. "The whole thing was just awful. This poor girl and her family—I just felt so sick." The police called an ambulance for Sands. The officers then told Joe Otto they were going to the mall to talk to Daniel, and he begged to go with them. He didn't want Daniel to find out from the police that Thompson had died in their basement. The investigators told Joe he couldn't come, so he stayed home and waited to hear from his son while Sands was taken away in an ambulance. Thompson's family, meanwhile, had just been informed that their 15-year-old daughter was dead.

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.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Elizabeth Stofferahn listed multiple reasons that the state believed Otto should be found criminally liable in providing methadone to Thompson: He said his mom became "droopy" when she used it; he told police he hadn't wanted to get the methadone for Thompson; he gave Thompson the drug despite his belief that she could be pregnant; and he admitted to police that he lied to his mother about stealing the methadone from her because he knew the drug could kill someone.

Cathryn Crawford, clinical associate professor at the Children and Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law, says that in the not-too-distant past, the Minnesota juvenile justice system treated cases like Otto's differently—by trying to target and rehabilitate the behaviors that led to an offender's crime in the first place, without the specter of hard time in an adult prison. "It used to address the transitory nature of adolescence," Crawford says, "which is consistent with research of adolescent development that [shows] kids outgrow the behavior."

Nationwide, the proportion of juvenile offenders certified for trial as adults escalated through the 1990s, culminating in Congress's 1999 passage of the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act, which increased penalties for juveniles based on a growing sentiment that rehabilitative sentencing was inadequate for hardened repeat juvie offenders. The act allows minors who are convicted of a violent crime to be prosecuted as adults in federal court beginning at the age of 14. Essentially the same standard applies in Minnesota state courts, where 14 is likewise the threshold for trying teens charged with violent crimes as adults.

In 1994, in an attempt to respond to the supposed increase in youth violence while still addressing the needs of adolescents, the Minnesota legislature established Extended Jurisdiction Juvenile prosecutions, or EJJ. The law allowed juvenile courts to impose a hybrid juvenile/adult sentence as a "last chance" at reform for juveniles. Initially, those on the task force that created EJJ, including U of M professor Barry Feld, intended it to be a system that would help juveniles who would otherwise be ushered into adult court. But it hasn't always worked out as planned.

In Otto's case, the EJJ mechanism gave prosecutors the leverage to drive a hard plea bargain: He could plead guilty to third-degree murder and receive an EJJ sentence, or he could be certified as an adult and go to trial facing the prospect of 12 years in an adult prison.

On October 17 Otto's attorney, Stephen O'Brien, took the plea agreement. His client would plead guilty to the first count of third-degree murder as an extended jurisdiction juvenile, and the manslaughter and theft charges would be dismissed. Under EJJ guidelines, Otto would receive a "blended" juvenile and adult sentence of 86 months for the third-degree murder of Thompson.

Otto appeared before the court that day in a slate-green jail jumpsuit. The skin under his eyes appeared dark and swollen under the yellow fluorescent lights. When he looked up and saw a relative who had flown in from New York that day to attend his hearing, he smiled and timidly waved.

According to Sands, Otto told her later that it made him "queasy" to answer the questions posed to him as he allocuted to the charge in court. But he had no other choice, he realized: It was either say out loud that he knew the methadone could kill Thompson, or land in prison and become a punching bag for 12 years.

Otto will spend the next 43 months, until he turns 21, under EJJ probation at the Griffith Center for Children (formerly Emily Griffith Center) in Larkpsur, Colorado, a high-security treatment facility for emotionally troubled boys and young men. In directing Otto there, Judge Denise Reilly noted that Minnesota had no comparable program to meet Otto's needs, and said that "public safety" and the best interests of Otto would be best served at the Griffith Center.

If Otto keeps his nose clean—no drugs, no fights, and no missed meetings with his probation officers—he will be released on his 21st birthday. If he violates probation, he will be transferred to the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud to serve out the remainder of his 86-month sentence. In a recent study of Minnesota's EJJ system, Barry Feld found that one-third of the juveniles sentenced under EJJ violate the terms of their probation and wind up serving adult sentences.

Most of the violations cited in the study "were technical violations," notes Feld, "like testing positive for drugs or not showing up for meetings." Feld, a law professor and juvenile justice expert who helped develop the EJJ system passed by the Minnesota legislature in 1994, notes that EJJ has had some unintended consequences—chief among them its use as a plea-bargaining tool, and its function for many young offenders as a back door into adult prisons.

A 2004 report by the National Mental Health Association found that the rate of mental disorders for youth in the juvenile justice system is as high as 60 percent, and that two-thirds of those suffering from mental problems have substance abuse issues as well. Otto entered the system with diagnoses of depression, EBD, and substance abuse.

"What happens after a minor pleads guilty, and what kind of violations warrant an adult sentence?" wonders Cathryn Crawford. "That's when the discretion of the prosecution comes into play." Crawford has seen clients who had adult sentences imposed for forgetting to fill out a form. "They don't understand consequences as a function of their youth," she adds. "And now that they're sentenced, they're suddenly supposed to?"

Otto will be required to undergo frequent drug testing as part of his treatment at Griffith Center. A few months ago he told his mom that he's done with drugs for good, and that he knows one little slip would put him in St. Cloud. But staying out of trouble may not prove easy for him: While he was in the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center, he got into a shoving match with another boy on the basketball court. He told his mom later that the kid was making fun of him.

Otto was scheduled to leave for Colorado in mid-January, but when Luella Sands went to the Hennepin County JDC to visit him on the evening of January 4, she learned that he'd already been transferred to the Griffith Center. (County officials say that, for safety reasons, juveniles are transferred without notification.) Under the judge's ruling, Sands is forbidden to contact him. All contact between Otto and his parents is to be initiated and supervised by the Griffith Center.

Although there's a note in the court documents that says the parents were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, they were never charged. However, Detective Hansen says in the parents' statements that they "alluded" to allowing Otto to drink alcohol.

"I might have had alcohol in the house," Sands says. "But I certainly never supplied it to any of the kids. And I certainly would not have drank with Daniel. Daniel hates, I mean hates, when I use any mind-altering substances."

It could be a year before Otto talks to his family, or it could be much longer. All the letters and postcards the family sent to Otto in Colorado have been returned. On the outside of the bundle of unopened envelopes was a terse instruction: "return to sender." Everyone in his family—mom, dad, grandma—swears that the note is in Daniel Otto's handwriting.

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