Duane Clark buried a baby in his backyard
Duane Clark parked his beat-up Chevy pickup outside the Crystal police station. Clark's friend and passenger, Kalina Rasmussen, was pushing him to tell the cops his story.
"I told him he had to do it for the kid," Rasmussen recalls.
Clark, a man with slicked-back hair and a landscaper's build, relented. He stepped out of the Silverado that cold February afternoon and headed for the main entrance.
Just before he walked in, he called his mother.
"Where are you?" Donna Marie Thotland asked.
"I'm walking into the police station," Clark replied.
Clark was already a wanted man, sought by police over a domestic dispute with his wife that morning.
Two of Crystal's finest met him in the lobby, in front of a trophy case bearing the department's commendations. The cops expected Clark to talk about the fight he'd had that morning with his wife, Tiffany.
Officer Tracie Lee noticed Clark was breathing heavily and appeared shaky as he extended a hand to Sgt. Robin Erkenbrack.
"I have something to confess to you," Clark said. "About three or four years ago, my wife and I had a baby in the house. And after the baby was born, I buried it in the backyard."
In August 2003, nearly two years after the birth of their first child, Victoria Rose, Duane Clark and Tiffany Hoppes married. They had a second child, Wesley Duane, in April 2004.
After the couple moved into their house on the corner of 57th and Quail, Duane built a tall wooden fence around the property.
"They are the most unsocial people there ever was," one neighbor says. "Nobody knows anything about them."
In police interviews, Tiffany, 28, describes herself as a woman without a best friend and says Duane, 31, interfered with her relationships. Duane became abusive early on, hitting his wife during her first pregnancy, according to Tiffany. (Duane declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The family's problems intensified over the years, and the couple separated this past January. Duane moved out of the family home to be with Trisha Jean Johnson, a 21-year-old single mother he'd picked up at a casino, putting her up in a Brooklyn Park apartment.
Duane runs his own business, Pro Lawn Care and Snow Removal, and on February 27, he was doing maintenance on his plows in the backyard of his Crystal house. Later that morning, Duane knocked on the door and asked his estranged wife for permission to retrieve a wrench from the basement.
Inside the home, an argument ensued. By both accounts, it became physical: Duane shoved Tiffany against the drywall in the basement; Tiffany attacked their dryer with a hammer to scare him off.
Upstairs, the fight escalated as Duane cleared their kitchen counter, smashing the family toaster. He threatened to take the children so she would "never see them again" but left after chasing Tiffany outside, according to her account.
That evening, Duane returned and was let into the home by their daughter. He brought a replacement toaster as a peace offering. But soon the couple began arguing, and Duane refused to leave. They started fighting again. Scared, Victoria locked herself in the bathroom.
Duane grabbed Tiffany and put her in a headlock. Their son Wesley jumped on Duane's back. "I'm going to hurt somebody!" Duane threatened, according to Tiffany.
But Duane left instead.
Tiffany asked her mother, Sandy Ruhland, to come over to the house for protection. Sandy never liked Duane; she had even interfered with their plans to attend prom together.
Duane again came knocking the next morning, February 28, and said he wanted Tiffany to let him move back in.
But Tiffany refused. Not only was she concerned about her own safety, she was scared for the children.
When Tiffany tried to close the door, Duane stuck his foot in the way. Sandy rounded the corner, threatening to call police, which she did even as Duane left the house. It was the first time anyone summoned cops to the Clark family home.
Kalina Rasmussen left her son, Gavin, with Trisha Jean Johnson that morning. Rasmussen trusted Johnson, her best friend and Duane's girlfriend, to watch her child. Shortly after Rasmussen left the apartment, Johnson began calling her phone.
"Shit is going down," Johnson said. "You need to get your ass home."
That morning, Duane burst into Johnson's Brooklyn Park apartment crying. Duane unloaded a bizarre story on his young girlfriend: Tiffany had given birth to a child in their home several years ago and "buried it alive."
Johnson insisted Duane report the death to police, or she would.
"I had to do this for [Tiffany]," Duane responded. "I had to keep it secret because it would embarrass her."
Duane's frenzied appearance at the home alarmed Johnson, who called the 24-year-old Rasmussen back. Inside her messy bedroom, Johnson explained the situation to Rasmussen. Then Duane started talking about "unburying" the baby.
"He wanted to dispose of it," Rasmussen remembers. "Throw it in the garbage so nobody would ever find it."
Duane shared a different version of the baby's burial with Rasmussen: Duane claimed that the baby drowned in the toilet and he buried it to protect Tiffany.
"There were so many frickin' stories coming out of so many different people," Rasmussen recalls. "I'm just like, what's the truth? Just tell the truth of what happened to this poor child."
Rasmussen and Johnson conspired to get Duane to a police station, whether he would do it voluntarily or not. Rasmussen stuck by Duane's side the rest of the day.
"I didn't trust him. I knew he would run," Rasmussen says. "I wanted him to turn himself in. I wanted to have justice for that baby."
Just after noon, Duane Clark pulled his two children out of Northport Elementary School and dropped them off at Trisha Jean Johnson's apartment. That evening, police arrived to take them into protective custody at a shelter for kids. There, Clark's progeny described a culture of violence at the family home.
Ten-year-old Victoria Rose told cops her parents "fight a little bit," and said she doesn't like it. Victoria said her parents "have hit each other when they fight and they say bad words to each other."
Three days before police took them to the shelter, Victoria said, her parents had a fight where they exchanged blows until Tiffany asked, "Why did you hit me?"
Tellingly, Victoria seemed to enjoy the accommodations at the shelter.
"I like it here," she told investigators. "It's fun to have books and we can watch movies, and we can relax and stuff."
That sentiment was echoed by Wesley, who told investigators he was "fine" being at the shelter. Neither child asked about going home.
His parents "fighted" a lot, Wesley said, yelling at each other and throwing punches. He would see them fight "most of the time."
Wesley's eyes welled up as he told investigators that seeing his parents fight made him mad. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
Asked if his parents ever talked about having more children, Wesley said no.
"They didn't want to have kids."
Inside the Crystal police station's soft interview room, a small space off the front lobby with cheap red couches, a small coffee table, and bare walls, Duane told cops about his third child.
Late on an August night in 2008, Duane was in another part of the house when he noticed Tiffany was missing. He found her in the bathroom, where she had given birth in the toilet.
Duane said the baby was about the size of a five-pound sack of flour. He freaked and considered calling 911, but his wife talked him down.
"No, no," Tiffany said, according to Duane. "It's already dead."
Duane paced the house, unsure what to do next.
"All I was ever told was, 'It's already dead, there's nothing you can do for it,'" Duane explained. "Calling someone ain't gonna do no good."
Duane took the dead baby and lay it on top of a clear plastic bag across the floor. After checking the baby for signs of life, Duane took the fetus and buried it two feet underground in the backyard.
He'd had no idea that his wife was pregnant, Duane told investigators.
Then Duane shocked the cops with a second story: Two years later, Tiffany gave birth to another baby inside the home, this time in the bedroom. Tiffany claimed that this baby was dead on arrival too, but Duane saw signs of life and rushed it to North Memorial Hospital, where the infant survived.
Duane told the doctors he wanted to have the baby but his wife didn't.
"She won't let me have it," Duane claims he said at the hospital. "It would ruin our marriage and she won't let me take it home."
Tiffany sat in the Crystal Police Department's jailhouse conference room, a snug cube with one table and white brick walls, down the hall from the city's holding cells. She had come to the police station shortly after Duane arrived.
She told investigators Duane didn't react well to the news of Tiffany's third pregnancy. "He had asked me to get an abortion and I told him I wouldn't," Tiffany explained. "If he didn't want it that we could give it to somebody who's more deserving, and he just refused."
Instead of taking Tiffany to the clinic, Duane researched abortion online and bought over-the-counter medications to manufacture a miscarriage, giving her a cocktail of Tylenol, Advil, and "an unknown little red pill."
It didn't work.
Next, Duane attempted to abort the child by having Tiffany lie on the ground while he dropped heavy weights on her stomach.
That failed too.
Finally, on that fateful August night, Duane came home from work with a white barbed plastic strip used to clean drains. Duane cut off the barbs along the edges and filed the end into a sharp point.
Tiffany lay on the ground and Duane stuck the homemade spear into her vagina. Unbearable pain spread through Tiffany's body as her water broke.
Tiffany squatted over the toilet and birthed the baby into the bowl.
Duane grabbed the baby "right away" and told Tiffany to lie down and push out the placenta. Afterward, Duane helped Tiffany — who was losing a lot of blood — into the bathtub. She passed out there but not before hearing what she thought was the baby screaming.
"I wasn't sure if that's what I heard or if it was something that I wanted to hear," Tiffany told investigators. She said she didn't know where Duane took the baby or what he did with it.
When Tiffany got pregnant again two years later, she tried to hide it from her husband. When Duane found out about the fourth pregnancy, he refused to let her get prenatal care and told Tiffany that he had buried the third child in the backyard.
"He just kept saying that I couldn't go to the doctor," Tiffany claimed. "Every time we talked about it, that was when he would bring up the third baby and tell me that he would tell everybody, and that I didn't deserve to have a baby with him."
"There's two sides to every story," Crystal Lt. David Oyaas told Duane after pulling him out of his jail cell for a second interview. "The two sides are colliding. They don't match up."
Duane stood behind his version. Despite intense questioning by police, Duane insisted he didn't know about Tiffany's third pregnancy until he walked into their bathroom and found a baby in the toilet. That set him "frantic around the house," Duane claimed.
But cops questioned his reaction. If he was so concerned, why didn't he call 911? "It makes no sense," Lt. Oyaas said.
"There's a lot of things in life that doesn't make sense," Duane responded. "When you look at it in the hindsight, you go, 'Yeah, maybe that would have been the proper form.'"
As investigators pushed for more information, Duane started to shut down.
"I came to you guys 'cause this was eating at me and I tried to bring her here and I talked to her about it prior to this," Duane said.
"Okay," Lt. Oyaas responded. "One of you is lying, though."
The senior detective reminded Duane that he's been doing this a long time and has had suspects call police on themselves to "cover their ass."
But Duane stuck to his story, even when Oyaas let him know Tiffany was throwing him under the bus.
"She can throw us underneath the bus. I always told her she could," Duane said. "I'll take the blame for it because I will never forgive myself for what I did even though it may have been nothing I could have done. I still won't forgive myself."
Duane suggested that Tiffany might have been confused when she remembered him being in the bathroom for the birth.
"The only thing that I can think of is the fact that me actually being physically in the room and someone thought me just being there as in the house or in the property," Duane said. "It could be how she's looking at it as, 'Yeah, he was there, but not physically in the room.'"
Duane said he could only speak to what he believed happened that night.
"And I don't think she's at fault. I think it probably was just a ... a stillbirth," Duane said. "Two young people made the most fucked-up mistake ever instead of just calling someone and just [saying], 'Hey look, a mistake happened, help us out.' Shit went downhill."
Back in the conference room with Tiffany, police wanted to know what kind of mother would allow a man to kill her baby.
Tiffany told detectives how she lived in fear. She said she was tormented by her husband, whose temper flared over everything from money to the children. Tiffany hid the abuse because she didn't think she deserved any better and didn't want to be "that battered wife."
"Sometimes he would just leave and ignore the problems and sometimes when he was mad enough it would get physical," Tiffany said. "There were times when he would throw things at me, punch me if he got mad enough. Several instances where he would get in my face and continue to tell me how horrible of a person I am and how I will never be good enough for him."
Tiffany explained why Duane was angry at her over the third pregnancy, which she found out about during a blood pressure study at the University of Minnesota.
"Because I didn't have a job," Tiffany said. "I can't support myself. I can't support kids."
When Duane took their baby out of the bathroom that August night, Tiffany assumed that he got rid of it but didn't ask questions.
"I didn't want to think about it," Tiffany said.
Detectives pushed her on another point: If Duane didn't want the fourth child, why didn't he force her to miscarry that baby?
"Because I wouldn't let him," Tiffany answered, claiming that Duane did try to force her but she refused.
"Why?" the detective asked.
"Because I didn't want to make the same mistake."
"It's my fault," Duane told the cops.
"Well, it sounds like it's both your fault," Detective Robert Hodge answered.
"I shouldn't have said anything," Duane responded.
Hodge said Duane did the right thing by coming forward but accused him of leaving details out of his account, like when Tiffany found out about her third pregnancy.
"I only remember bits and pieces," Duane said. "I don't remember when she found out or when she even told me anything."
As the interrogation continued, the cops suggested Duane had a reason to be upset over the third child: the couple's financial problems.
"No matter how much we really didn't have food, a hundred bucks, two hundred bucks a month, it's always worked out," Duane countered.
When the police asked what kind of relationship he had with his wife, Duane said, "Okay. I love her. Still do."
Then he changed the subject. "I'm mad that I brought any of this up," Duane said. "I should have just kept my mouth shut."
Duane acknowledged that his wife sees that evening differently.
"She looks at me as if I'm a monster and it's my fault," Duane said, because he should have stopped "the whole thing."
"I know she hates me for what happened," Duane explained. "'Cause I hate myself for what happened."
But he denied being angry about the third pregnancy, which he insisted he didn't remember at all.
"You're fucking lying to me, that's what you're doing," Detective Hodge said. "You're lying to me."
Duane stuck to his story and posed a question of his own to the investigators: "But if that was the case, why was it when it was born, why would I be running around the house frantic on what to do?"
"Because I don't think that happened," Hodge said, saying neither one of them wanted the baby. "You're absolutely wrong," Duane answered.
The cops asked whose idea it was to bury the dead baby.
"It was both of ours," Duane said. "We didn't know what to do. We didn't know what to do."
And so the interrogation continued with the cops hammering Duane Clark for not calling 911, for claiming not to have known about the pregnancy, and for lying; Duane kept responding that he didn't know about the pregnancy, that he didn't hear the baby cry, and that he was telling them everything he could remember.
"Do you know what you're looking at here, Duane?"
"No," Duane answered. "I don't."
"You're looking at murder," Hodge said.
Police released Duane and Tiffany Clark shortly after the jailhouse interviews. There wasn't enough evidence yet to formally charge either of them with a crime. As soon as Tiffany Clark got out of jail, she filed for a restraining order against her husband. The petition, filed March 5, detailed the domestic disputes preceding Duane's confession. Duane denied Tiffany's allegations but agreed to the issuance of a restraining order, which also forbade Duane from having unapproved contact with the children.
Meanwhile, police worked to gather evidence that could refute or corroborate Tiffany's claims. They dug up the baby buried in the backyard, which the Hennepin County medical examiner determined was a 30- to 38-week-old fetus at the time of death.
Investigators confirmed that Duane Clark took the fourth baby into North Memorial Hospital, but no one at the hospital ever contacted Tiffany to ask for her version of events. That baby was taken by the state.
The cops also seized the family's home computers and Duane's laptop, which police found had been used to access Planned Parenthood's website a month before the third child was buried.
"This would support Tiffany Clark's claim that Duane had been researching abortion prior to the delivery of the baby that was buried," noted Crystal Lt. David Oyaas in a police report.
Police also interviewed Duane's young girlfriend, Trisha Jean Johnson, who told investigators that Duane demanded a sexual relationship to let her live at the Brooklyn Park apartment. He threatened consequences if she refused.
"That I couldn't live here and that I would lose my kid and he would take her away from me," Johnson recalled.
Duane controlled the young woman's finances and would hit her, even punching her in the stomach while she was holding her daughter, Johnson told police.
"There was a time where he was drinking where he said, 'I know how to hurt people and not have it be shown,'" Johnson said.
Duane would strangle her during sex and "keep going" when she told him to knock it off. He took other sexual liberties with his young lover.
"He just jumped right in and then put it in my other hole and just was going for it," Johnson said.
Duane was a loner and a hard drug user who was only close with his dealer. Duane did "coke, meth, everything," Johnson said. (Tiffany also told police Duane introduced ecstasy into their bedroom.)
Johnson recounted her reaction to Duane's story about Tiffany "burying the baby alive." She said she was immediately skeptical.
"How could a woman that just gave birth to a baby dig a hole?" Johnson wondered.
She quickly suspected Duane was involved based on his insistence that he needed to "unbury" the child "so he wouldn't get in trouble."
Before Duane left the apartment that afternoon to tell Crystal police his story, Johnson accompanied him and Kalina Rasmussen to the truck and said farewell.
"I hope you still love me," Duane told her. "I'm only doing this for you."
"I love you, too," Johnson replied.
Melissa Laue lives in a Faribault public housing unit with her nine-year-old son, another child Duane didn't want.
Seated in a cramped living room across from a mantle displaying family photos, Laue recalls her short fling with Duane.
She logged onto Yahoo! chat in the summer of 2002 in search of a good time. Laue, then 17, found 21-year-old Clark. Soon, they agreed to meet for a hookup.
But when she got pregnant, Duane wasn't happy.
"He told me that he wanted me to have an abortion," Laue says. "I told him I didn't believe in that so that's the way it was going to be."
Duane never showed up to her doctor's appointments, and didn't come to the hospital when the baby was born. "He didn't care, clearly," Laue says.
When Laue asked about Duane's parents so she could let them know they had a grandson, Duane told her they were dead.
After a court ordered him to pay child support, Duane ponied up. But in the summer of 2004, he claimed he could no longer afford to fulfill his parental duties to Hunter.
"I at this time have lost my job and can't find another one, so I can't afford the support anymore," Duane wrote in a letter to Laue. "As well when I was working I did not have the money for my family and I to have any health or dental plan, because I have been paying the support."
In 2004, Duane had two children with Tiffany. He requested a meeting with Laue alone. When they got together, he offered her a lump sum payment of $30,000 to get out of his life forever, with another $30,000 to come later. She refused.
"I didn't mean to sound like a gold digger but by the time Hunter was 18, I could get more out of him than $60,000," Laue explains. "I always told him in the beginning that's not what I wanted. I wanted Hunter to have a father."
Although Duane hasn't played much of a role in their child's life, he kept paying Laue child support until the checks suddenly stopped in January. But Laue says Duane threatened both her life and Hunter's a few years ago as they discussed child support payments.
"I pissed him off so he told me he was going to kill Hunter and I," Laue says. "So of course I panicked, called the cops, and he said the only reason he did it was I made him mad."
Her story is substantiated by Goodhue County Sheriff's Department records, which record the domestic dispute happening in September 2004. Laue declined to press charges.
"I said this is the first time this had ever happened but I said that if it did happen again, I would," Laue explains.
When the cops confronted Duane, he admitted saying that he wished Laue was dead.
"Clark stated they were harsh words but at the time he was upset," the report notes. "Clark stated he regrets said words."
Police requested murder charges against Duane and Tiffany Clark, which the Hennepin County Attorney's Office declined to prosecute, an announcement County Attorney Mike Freeman made in a brief statement about what was termed the "Crystal baby remains case."
Freeman noted that there were conflicting stories of whether the baby was born alive in the Clarks' home. Freeman praised the Crystal Police Department's "excellent investigation," but said there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute.
Hennepin County Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker rarely ventures out to the scene of a crime, maybe a handful of times per year, he says, but he visited the clandestine grave in Crystal.
"Clearly, this was not an everyday call into the medical examiner's office," Baker says.
Baker declines to discuss specific details surrounding the case, citing state privacy laws, but confirms that he listed the baby's cause of death as unknown. That determination doomed the case for prosecutors.
"Was this baby murdered? In order to be murdered, you have to be born alive," Freeman says. "Trying to tell about whether or not a child was alive when it was born after it's been buried three years is nearly impossible."
Freeman declined to discuss specifics or allow his prosecutor, Cheri Townsend, to discuss more details. "We send a written decline to the victim and the police agency," Freeman said. "We do not release that ourselves nor comment on it."
City Pages obtained a copy of the confidential document from Crystal police.
In it, Townsend thanks the Crystal Police Department for "submitting this important and challenging case" before passing on prosecuting it.
Despite the best efforts of the police, Townsend said, there was not enough evidence to corroborate either version of events. But Townsend's analysis contains questionable assertions.
For instance, Townsend notes Clark's first story to police: that the baby was stillborn in the bathroom and he buried it without telling anyone. Townsend claims Duane "repeated this story to several people immediately prior to telling police."
In reality, Duane told Kalina Rasmussen one story and Trisha Jean Johnson another story on the day he turned himself in to police. Sandy Swanson, Tiffany Clark's mother, also received a phone call from Duane sometime before he walked into the police station, where he allegedly said there were two babies buried at the home. (That turned out to be false.)
The prosecutor notes the "significant" fact that the Clark children described "mutual" abuse between their parents, rightly pointing out that the Crystal city attorney charged both Clarks for the domestic dispute in early March. But Townsend ignores that the city attorney dropped charges against Tiffany.
That doesn't take into account the similar accounts of abuse Trisha Jean Johnson gave to investigators, the threat against Laue and her child, or Duane's potential motivation for not wanting children: financial problems, which would have been exacerbated by a fourth child (third with Tiffany).
Townsend focuses on what she characterizes as a "powerful motivation" for Tiffany to fabricate her story about the forced miscarriage: sadness over Duane leaving her for Trisha Jean Johnson, evidenced by computer files where Tiffany laments her husband's absence.
By contrast, Townsend devotes no space to Duane's motivations for either not wanting the child or for turning himself in to police, which cops suggested during their interrogation could've been an attempt to gain custody of the children or pre-empt domestic assault charges.
In saying Tiffany's version can't be corroborated, Townsend glosses over the fact that Duane Clark's laptop was used in July 2008, a month before the baby was born, to access Planned Parenthood's website, which police believe supports Tiffany's assertions. Her denial also skims over the fact that someone used Duane's computer to Google: "in mn if you don't report a birth and death of a child is the leagal action."
Duane Clark declined to be interviewed for this story. Tiffany Clark did not return messages seeking an interview and her stepfather, John Ruhland, said he would advise her not to comment. Her mother did not return numerous messages.
Although Duane and Tiffany made radically different statements to police investigators about the fate of their third child, they agreed on one point: that the baby was a boy.
DNA testing, ordered by the county attorney's office, confirmed that the baby was Duane and Tiffany Clark's. It also showed that the baby buried in the backyard was actually a girl.
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