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Brittany Lawonn, Published July 25 2007

State’s attorney points to motive

FESSENDEN, N.D. – A Fargo woman pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges that she helped kill her daughter’s grandparents.

Prosecutors laid out part of their case against Tamara Sorenson during a roughly two-hour hearing that focused largely on evidence in the state’s murder case against her fiance, Aron Nichols.

Sorenson, 29, pleaded not guilty to two Class AA felony charges of being an accomplice to murder in the April 6 deaths of Donald and Alice Willey, whose bodies were found burned beyond recognition April 7. Nichols has pleaded not guilty to two murder charges.

McLean County State’s Attorney Ladd Erickson argued Tuesday that Sorenson “is the one with all of the motive” to kill the Willeys, saying “she basically manipulated (Nichols) into doing this.”

Sorenson was embroiled in a visitation battle with the Willeys for years over her daughter, whom she had with the Willeys’ late son.

Special Agent Craig Zachmeier testified Tuesday that actions by Sorenson and Nichols leading up to the Willeys’ deaths correspond with the grandparents gaining visitation rights on Feb. 13.

On Feb. 13, Nichols began the process of purchasing a .45-caliber handgun from Cabela’s in East Grand Forks, Minn., said Zachmeier, an agent with North Dakota’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

On April 6, the Willeys were granted a court-ordered phone call with their granddaughter. Nichols purchased ammunition for his handgun at 11:03 a.m. April 6 at Fargo’s Gander Mountain and was spotted in a black jacket buying duct tape at a truck stop in Jamestown, N.D., at 12:38 p.m.

Testing on ammunition and bullets recovered from Sorenson’s father’s home and the Fargo home she shared with Nichols came from the same gun as items found at the Willeys’ home, including three bullets recovered from their bodies, Zachmeier said.

Authorities did not find Nichols’ gun, which he originally denied owning, but later said he sold April 13 to an unknown male at a Fargo truck stop, Zachmeier said.

Zachmeier also laid out a timeline for contact between Nichols and Sorenson that he said shows the two had contact and also places Nichols near the couple’s Sykeston, N.D., farm around the time authorities believe the Willeys were killed.

At 7:11 p.m. April 6, a call between the Willeys and their granddaughter ends. A call is then placed from Sorenson’s home to Nichols’ cell phone.

The couple spent 105 minutes on the phone before hanging up at 8:55 p.m.

Phone records show Nichols’ cell phone was still using a tower near the Willeys’ farm when he called the Fargo residence again at 11:41 p.m. for a six-minute call.

Zachmeier testified that authorities believe Nichols was at the Willey residence before that call was made because a watch that Alice Willey, 67, was known to wear stopped at 11:30 p.m. Heat is known to stop watches, he said.

Authorities responded to an arson fire at the residence just before 6 a.m. the next day.

Zachmeier said authorities found various items, including a handwritten floor plan of the Willey residence, a notebook with notes on how fires burn in a building and a black jacket that was partially melted in the Fargo couple’s home and in Nichols’ car.

Erickson played a tape of a June 7 phone call from Nichols at the Cass County Jail to Sorenson before her June 19 arrest. The two discuss whether authorities can prove who wrote the directions and floor plan, saying if they could, she would have been arrested.

A handwriting analyst says the writing is a probable match for Sorenson’s writing, Zachmeier said, saying he believes the directions and floor plan and the June 7 conversation show she had a role in the killings.

Sorenson’s defense attorney, David Ogren, argued while the state has evidence against Nichols, there is not enough against his client and they cannot prove what the two talked about on April 6.

Southeast Judicial District Judge James Bekken will hear from attorneys Aug. 10 on whether to join the Nichols and Sorenson cases and where to move the trials.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Brittany Lawonn at (701) 241-5541