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By Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications Co., Published August 30 2011

Fairbanks, man accused in deputy's murder, slated to take the stand in his own defense today

Defense questions whether prosecution witness got a deal on drunk driving charges

CROOKSTON, Minn. – Thomas Fairbanks will testify this afternoon in his own defense in his trial on charges he murdered Mahnomen County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Dewey, his attorney Jim Austad said today.

It signals a rare climax to a long murder trial that is nearing the end. Defendants in murder trials usually don’t take the stand, partly because it allows the prosecution to cross-examine them.

Minnesota District Judge Jeff Remick has told attorneys from both sides the prospect concerns him enough that he is going to give Fairbanks a special inquiry, outside the jury’s presence, to ensure he understands the risks of giving up his constitutional right to not testify.

Fairbanks is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting of Dewey, who died Aug. 9, 2010, in hospice after 18 months of medical treatment and rehabilitation failed to stop his decline. Fairbanks also faces several charges of assault on law enforcement officers for allegedly firing toward them from his home during the nine-hour standoff after Dewey was shot and other lesser charges.

Fairbanks’ accomplice, Daniel Vernier, testified today that he and Fairbanks drank together, in Fairbanks’ home and vehicle and the nearby casino and bar, from about 10 p.m. Feb. 17, 2009, until shortly before defense attorneys acknowledge Fairbanks shot Dewey about 7:05 a.m., Feb. 18, 2009, outside Amanda Helms’ home.

Vernier said Fairbanks was trying to get Helms, who lived across the street from Fairbanks, to let him in, as part of a plan to avoid law enforcement officers who twice had knocked at Fairbanks’ door that morning, responding to calls about gunshots being fired.

Vernier said Fairbanks shot a handgun several times inside and outside his home between about 4:30 and 6:30 a.m. that day, including once, accidentally, toward Vernier in the bathroom, apparently grazing him with “shrapnel,” Vernier testified.

Fairbanks was “very intoxicated,” and “out of control,” waving the gun, slamming it on the kitchen corner, Vernier testified today, in answer to defense attorney Ed Hellekson’s questioning. “I was wary of Thomas,” he said. “I didn’t want to get shot accidentally.”

At one point, Vernier said he took the gun outside and fired it into the ground, “until it was empty of bullets,” to keep Fairbanks from shooting it.

But Fairbanks reloaded the gun, spilling bullets on the floor because he was drunk, Vernier said.

Twice, law enforcement officers came to the trailer door, and knocked, but the two men had turned out the lights and sat in a bedroom, waiting until the officers left, Vernier said.

By 7 a.m., as the two men stood on the front step of Helms’ house, Vernier saw Deputy Dewey park on the street and walk up Helms’ driveway, Vernier testified. Dewey was responding to Helms’ 911 call that two drunken men were knocking on her door.

Vernier said he started to walk away, but Dewey told him to raise his arms, which he did. Dewey ducked under his arm in the close quarters between a snow bank and the Suburban and a pproached Fairbanks, Vernier said. “I started to walk away, and heard two shots,” Vernier said. “I looked back and out of the corner of my eye, I saw somebody fall to the ground.”

In his early statements to investigators the day of the shooting, Vernier said he saw Dewey go for his gun as he approached Fairbanks. Today, Vernier seemed less sure, and said “I saw him fumbling,” at his belt, about where his gun would be.

The shots he heard were so close to him that one of his ears was ringing for several hours that morning, Vernier said.

Vernier said he got to the street, near Dewey’s squad car which was running, and Fairbanks joined him, saying, “I just shot ‘im, you gotta get me out of here,Danny.”

Fairbanks asked him to drive them away in the squad car, but Vernier refused; Fairbanks then moved into the driver’s seat and move the car a short distance.

Seeing another law enforcement vehicle approaching, both men then ran for Fairbanks’ trailer home, Vernier said, piling into the door together while the officer “fired on us.” Fairbanks was hit in the lower back, Vernier said.

In a key bit of testimony, Vernier said Fairbanks fired the handgun only once during the standoff. The prosecution has argued Fairbanks fired several times during the standoff, citing evidence of bullet holes and bullet fragments.

The defense argued Monday for several of the assault charges to be dismissed, saying there was not enough evidence such shots were fired after law enforcement officers responded to Dewey’s shooting and surrounded Fairbanks’ home.

Vernier said one Fairbanks fell asleep or passed out, he took the gun and surrendered to law enforcement, about 9;30 a.m.. Fairbanks surrendered about 4 p.m.

The defense has acknowledged Fairbanks’ shot Dewey in the torso and head, but argue he was too intoxicated to form the criminal intent required for first-degree murder.

The defense also is trying to make a case that the prosecution worked a deal with Helms to testify against Fairbanks.

Other than Vernier and Fairbanks, Helms was the only witness to the shooting of Dewey and the only one who says she saw Fairbanks shoot Dewey.

But the defense has raised questions about why two drunk-driving charges against Helms in the year after the shooting were dismissed and her vehicle returned to her.

Defense attorney Jim Austad today called to the stand Jill Mohn, an office worker for the State Patrol office in Detroit Lakes, Minn., which covers Mahnomen.

Mohn read from her own notes at the time in the spring of 2010 explaining why she was forwarding a $308 towing bill for Helms vehicle in a January 2010 drunk driving arrest to Mahnomen County, because the county attorney had requested that as part of “deal with Amanda (Helms) for testifying in another case.”

Prosecutor Eric Schieferdecker cross-examined Mohn to make the point that Helms made her 911 calls about Fairbanks and Vernier during the shooting of Dewey more than a year before she received her vehicle back from forfeiture to the State Patrol through the Mahnomen County Attorney’s office.

On Monday, former Mahnomen County Attorney Julie Bruggeman – she lost a bid for re-election in November – and current assistant County Attorney James Brue testified that the dismissal of the two drunk driving charges against Helms in 2009 and 2010 had nothing to do with any deal for her to testify for the prosection in Fairbanks’ murder trial.