August 27, 2007

Wheels of justice were slow

But they turned for family of murder victim in cold case

By Lynda Jensen

Amanda Thiesse of Brainerd was a baby when her father, Jeffrey Hammill, was found beaten to death along Wright County Road 12 in Marysville Township Aug. 11, 1979.

“I was one year old, and my brother was due to be born in December,” she recalled.

The death was reported as a hit and run in the newspaper, even though her father had blunt force trauma to the head, not evidence of an accident, she said.

In 2003, at the age of 25, Amanda’s ensuing search for information about her biological mother prompted the Wright County Sheriff’s Department and the Wright County Attorney’s Office into action.

Both entities eventually solved the case 28 years later, with the assistance of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension cold case unit.

Hammill’s father, Gene Hammill, 82, of Cokato, remembers the night of the murder, thinking “What did he do now?” when police officers visited his door about his son.

Jeff was known to get into trouble occasionally, his father said – but he never expected what the cops told him, he said.

The murder effectively dispersed the Hammill family, with both children, Amanda and Mathew, being adopted by loving parents in Brainerd, Amanda said, and their biological mother, Vickey James, relocating out of the area, eventually to die of cancer in Arkansas. Vickey James and Jeffrey Hammill were not married.

Amanda is a daycare provider in Brainerd, and her brother Mathew is an architectual designer in Florida.

Amanda said that, although she was raised by wonderful parents, she was curious about her roots, and started asking questions as soon as she was old enough, or about 2003.

Her questions sparked a two-year period of intensive fact-gathering by the Wright County Sheriff’s Department, that would result in three grand jury indictments by the Wright County Attorney’s Office in 2005.

Unsavory characters

“Terry Olson glared at us, like we should be afraid of him,” Amanda Thiesse said of the more recent court proceedings for the third suspect in her father’s murder case.

In all, three men were indicted by a grand jury, and had separate trials in the case – Terry Lynn Olson, 46, of Andover, Dale Lawrence Todd, 45, of Winsted, and Ronald Joseph Michaels, 51, of Blaine.

Olson was found guilty by a jury of second-degree intentional murder for Hammill’s death last Monday. Sentencing is set for 10 a.m. Sept. 26. When this happens, Amanda Thiesse and many family members, will be there.

Todd pleaded guilty in July 2006 to aiding an offender and is currently serving a three-year prison sentence.

Michaels was acquitted by a jury in November.

Michaels’ acquittal was hard for Gene Hammill to accept, and was the first thing out of his mouth when asked about the case. “It was the biggest disappointment.”

Amanda Thiesse also reported being “shocked” over the verdict for Michaels because she felt the evidence was convincing as it stood.

Chief Deputy Joe Hagerty noted that a fair amount of evidence wasn’t admitted into the trial for reasons that he didn’t understand himself, due to legal positioning. “We couldn’t get evidence in to prove our case,” he said.

Breaking a cold case

The first break in the case took place in 2005 – just before indictments were handed out – after Terry Olson started bragging about the murder to other jail inmates in Anoka and Sherburne counties, Hagerty said.

“He (Terry Olson) was in jail for felony assault, in Anoka” Hagerty said. In fact, Olson still has trials pending for other violent offenses.

Surprisingly, six of the prisoners ended up testifying against Olson in the case, with what Hagerty described as honest and forthright testimony during the Olson trial.

“We didn’t promise them anything,” Hagerty said of the prisoners. They did not receive lighter sentences or any compensation for their testimony, and yet six testified regardless.

Other prisoners also testified in favor of the defense, including such unsavory characters as prisoner Kent Jones, who is accused of raping and stabbing Linda Jensen in front of her toddler in 1992 near Big Lake.

The idea was to get the jury to question prisoner testimony and motivations, Hagerty said.

Even now, Hagerty said that the acquaintances of Terry Olson weren’t forthright about a lot of things.

“I don’t know if I could walk around and carry (the guilt) like that,” he added.

What happened 28 years ago

Hammill, a machinist, was seen the evening of Aug. 10, 1979 at the Country West Bar in Rockford. It is believed that after the bar closed, Hammill rode with Olson and Todd to a residence in Montrose, according to a formal complaint.

While at the residence, a “scuffle” took place between Hammill and Olson, which resulted in Hammill leaving and starting to walk from Montrose to Buffalo on Wright County Road 12.

Todd, Olson, and Michaels allegedly left the residence shortly after Hammill left. According to Todd, Olson and Michaels were angry and were looking for Hammill, according to the complaint.

Todd stated Olson and Michaels were outside their vehicle, and he observed Olson hitting Hammill, and Michaels holding an unidentifiable object, according to the complaint. Todd also said when Olson and Michaels returned to the vehicle, Michaels was laughing, and Olson stated “he had just beaten up Jeff,” according to the complaint.

Olson gave a statement to authorities while at the Anoka County Jail Sept. 5, 2006. According to a fellow inmate, the encounter distressed Olson, who confessed to being at the scene of a murder.

According to the complaint, Olson told the inmate that he and Todd were present, but that he and Todd had not left the vehicle, implying that the other male (Michaels) was the one who killed Hammill.

‘Hundreds, if not a thousand hours’

The conviction of Terry Olson last Monday gave some satisfaction to the Wright County Attorney’s Office and Wright County Sheriff’s Department, since both entities spent a considerable amount of time on the case, despite modern-day offenses bumping it on a regular basis.

“It was steadfast determination and attitude,” said Tom Kelly of the Wright County Attorney’s Office.

Jeffrey Hammill’s daughter, Amanda Eide, couldn’t say enough good things about both offices, and in particular, Chief Deputy Joe Hagerty from the sheriff’s office. “He’s awesome,” she said.

Hagerty commented that giving justice to the familes is what drives investigators to keep pushing along in earnest, even on old cases. “It’s always in the back of your mind,” he said. He was gratified to see the case resolved.

“We spent hundreds, if not a thousand, hours on the case,” Kelly said.

Anne Mohaupt, assistant Wright County attorney, prosecuted all three men, and her hard work and diligence provided some closure for the family of Jeffrey Hammill, Kelly said.

Credit also goes to the BCA cold case unit, Dennis Fier and Ken McDonald, along with others in the unit, and Wright County Sheriff Gary Miller, along with Hagerty, Kelly said.

“Cold crime cases this old are very difficult to bring to justice. With cases of this nature, it is very important that law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office work very closely together and in this case, we had that relationship. Once resurrected, the steadfast attitude, determination and hard work of all involved allowed the jury to reach the verdict it did,” Kelly said.

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