Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published August 20 2011
Dept. Dewey murder trial: Fairbanks’ sister testifies for prosecution
But it was clear her sympathy is with her brother.
Rachel Fairbanks had to dab her eyes with tissues several times while testifying and, listening to others testify, she sat on the defense side of the courtroom with relatives.
During a break, Thomas Fairbanks mouthed, “I love you,” to Rachel, as he had to his mother two weeks ago during jury selection.
Rachel Fairbanks played a central role in the hours after Dewey was shot by helping get Fairbanks and his accomplice, Daniel Vernier, to surrender after they holed up in Fairbanks’ trailer home in Mahnomen.
She’s 28, six years younger than her brother, and they were close growing up, she testified. About 10 years ago, her brother introduced her to Vernier, with whom she since has had an “off and on” relationship and three children, including twins born two months after the shooting Feb. 18, 2009.
Vernier, 29, is expected to testify against Fairbanks, too. But he remains in the Stearns County jail in St. Cloud, Minn., where he was arrested Aug. 2, on a charge of felony assault in a domestic dispute for attacking Rachel Fairbanks.
‘Out of it’
She attends St. Cloud State University today. But in February 2009, she was living in Mahnomen with her first child and not getting along with Vernier.
She and Vernier had argued Feb. 17, and she told him he couldn’t stay at her place. So he got out of her car that night and walked to Thomas Fairbanks’ trailer home, beginning hours of gambling and drinking with Thomas Fairbanks in the Shooting Star casino in Mahnomen. They were there until 4 a.m. Feb. 18.
Hours later, Vernier called her, waking her up, to say her brother was “out of it” and had a gun and he was scared, she testified. She told him to get out of the home before Thomas Fairbanks shot him, she said.
After Dewey was shot around dawn, Rachel Fairbanks went to the scene and assisted law enforcement officers by calling Vernier and giving the phone to Randy Goodwin, chief of the White Earth tribal police department. Goodwin testified he told Vernier to get the gun and surrender, and he did, about 9:30 a.m.
Thomas Fairbanks remained in his home until surrendering around 4 p.m. Feb. 18.
Rachel Fairbanks also talked to her brother, who asked her to bring his tobacco, she testified. He sounded very intoxicated and “out of it,” she said. “He was beyond Tom.”
Prosecutors objected several times during the defense’s cross examination of Rachel Fairbanks over how much of her account of what Vernier told her of Thomas Fairbanks’ condition could be admitted as evidence.
The defense, said prosecutor Eric Schieferdecker, was trying to use inadmissible hearsay from Vernier to the effect that Thomas Fairbanks was “distraught and suicidal” during the nine-hour standoff.
Defense attorney Jim Austad told state District Judge Jeff Remick he should be able to have Rachel Fairbanks explain the significance of her brother’s request for tobacco.
Remick told Schieferdecker “you opened the door” by first eliciting the testimony about the tobacco request and allowed Austad to continue.
The jury was brought back in.
Did her brother smoke or chew tobacco “recreationally,” Austad asked her.
“No,” she said.
So what is the significance of tobacco in “the Native American culture?”Austad asked.
“To carry out our prayers and offerings to the Creator,” she said.
Fairbanks and his sister are members of the White Earth Band of Chippewas.
Fear of prejudice
In an odd moment at the end of the day, with the jury dismissed for the weekend, Remick swore in four law enforcement officers providing security and other duties during the trial to testify on the record over the odd behavior of a visitor to the trial Friday.
The man is a childhood friend of Rachel Fairbanks, sat next to her in the audience Friday and, at one point, tried to get Thomas Fairbanks’ attention to communicate with him. He also walked in and out of the proceedings several times during the afternoon.
Security officers saw him talking to a juror in the parking lot after 5 p.m.
Defense attorney Ed Hellekson asked Remick for a mistrial, saying not only that juror, but the entire jury now might be prejudiced against his client because the man had sat on the defense side of the courtroom.
Remick denied Hellekson’s request.
Officers who conducted a quick investigation found that the man had asked the juror for a cigarette and gotten one.
It appeared no harm was done, Remick said. But the man was banned by Remick’s order from the Polk County Justice Center for the trial’s duration, which is expected to be until after Labor Day.
Stephen J. Lee is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald