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Published May 15 2012

Prosecutor says Andvik out for 'revenge and attention,' defense tries to explain faked hit man letters

MOORHEAD – Defense attorney Steven Mottinger didn’t sugarcoat it for the jury: The letters his client, Tara Andvik, sent to herself and others from a supposed hit man hired to kill her posed “a big problem for us,” he said.

“We’re not going to deny it,” Mottinger said in his closing argument this afternoon before the jury began deliberating Andvik’s arson case just after 5 p.m. “We certainly wish we didn’t have to deal with them.”

But he did offer an explanation for the letters sent last month: They weren’t a last-ditch effort to steer blame for the six fires at Andvik’s rural Barnesville farmstead toward her ex-lover, Keith Beam, but rather the desperate action of someone who had been “hounded” as the only possible suspect in the fires since the farm’s barn mysteriously burned Oct. 12.

“Isn’t it just as reasonable that she gets close to trial, gets scared and decides, ‘I’ve got to do something to help myself out?’” Mottinger said.

Prosecutor Heidi Davies questioned why, if Beam or someone else had hired a hit man to kill Andvik, the hit man would have set grass fires on the farmstead and torched the barn before setting the final Oct. 19 deck fire that severely damaged the house.

“That hit man story does not hold water, but it’s one that she revisited time and time against with the investigators,” said Davies, an assistant Clay County attorney.

Jurors hadn’t reached a verdict as of 7:30 p.m. If no verdict is handed down later tonight, the jury will continue deliberating Wednesday.

Andvik’s ex-boyfriend testified Tuesday morning that the rural Barnesville woman asked him to mail three letters, but he didn’t know that they were supposedly from someone hired to kill her.

Jerren Ancira, a rancher with a long handlebar mustache from rural Auburn, Wyo., said he met Andvik in Texas in 2001 and they dated for about six months before he moved away. They have kept in touch since then, he said.

Late last winter or early this spring, Andvik, who was charged in November with three counts of first-degree arson, asked Ancira to do a favor and mail some letters for her, he said.

Ancira said he received the letters in a manila envelope on April 3 and dropped them in the mail in Auburn the same day. He didn’t look at who the letters were addressed to, and he thought they were being sent to someone’s wife or ex-wife about an affair, he said.

“I thought the letters were something different than what they were,” he said.

The anonymous handwritten letters were received by Andvik, her attorney Steven Mottinger and a Forum reporter.

The letter to Andvik stated, “He is going to kill you Tara.”

The other two letters were identical, stating that Beam, a TV producer from Wisconsin who had an affair with Andvik last year that ended before the October fires, hired the letter writer for $50,000 to make Andvik disappear but reneged when she didn’t.

In a police interview, Andvik, 34, said she believed the “He” in the letter she received referred to Beam. He testified last week that he had nothing to do with the fires.

When authorities contacted Ancira about the letters, he said he initially denied sending them because he didn’t want to get in trouble. Afterward, he went on the Internet and learned about the nature of the letters, which by that time had made the news.

“I was surprised,” he said, saying he felt Andvik hadn’t been truthful.

Ancira said he called the Clay County Attorney’s Office two weeks ago and was assured he wouldn’t get in trouble for sending the letters. He said he talked to Andvik by phone on April 13 but couldn’t remember if they discussed the letters.

Shawn Gallagher, a forensic scientist and handwriting analyst with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said he was unable to determine if Andvik had written the letters because of differences in capital and lowercase characters between the letters and a handwriting sample from Andvik. Identifying the writer was also difficult because the writings had unnatural characteristics, including blunt endings, pen lifts, hesitation and retouching.

“So whoever wrote them was disguising their handwriting?” Assistant County Attorney Heidi Davies asked.

“That’s what it appears to me,” Gallagher said.

Deputy State Fire Marshal Andrea Wenzlaff said there was a common thread in the six fires at the farmstead.

Andvik was the only person in the vicinity when all six fires were reported, and they all appeared to be designed to be easy to control and do minimal damage, with the exception of the Oct. 12 barn fire.

Wenzlaff noticed the barn fire while interviewing Andvik’s husband, Matt Andvik, in the kitchen on the morning of the deck fire. It was the first time in the fire marshal office’s history that an arson fire had started when a marshal was already on scene, she said.

“It struck me as somebody really wants attention for this,” she said.

Mottinger used Wenzlaff’s timeline and testimony from Matt Andvik – the lone defense witness – to try to convince the jury that Tara Andvik was sleeping and didn’t have time to sneak out the bedroom’s outside door on the opposite side of the house, traverse the farmyard and set the barn ablaze.

“I don’t think it’s possible,” Matt Andvik said.

The final deck fire that spread to the house originated in a plastic, igloo-style doghouse that burned fast and hot, which someone inexperienced with fires might not expect, Wenzlaff said.

Davies suggested Tara Andvik lit the fire but didn’t mean to set the house ablaze, citing her 911 call in which she started out speaking fairly calmly but then said, “No, no, no!”

Tara Andvik was the only one home when that fire broke out, but her husband and two young children also were home when the Oct. 12 deck fire occurred.

“Who would start a fire with their kids in the house? It doesn’t make any sense,” Mottinger told the jury of eight woman and four men in his closing.

Davies played off the question in her rebuttal, asking jurors who would send a death-threat letter to herself, her attorney and The Forum.

“She would,” she said, referring to Andvik. “She had an agenda.”

Davies said the case was “all about revenge and attention.” When Beam broke off the affair because Andvik lied about filing for divorce and they later took out restraining orders against each other, she reacted angrily by setting fires on dates that coincided with court dates or court filings, Davies said.

“The defendant, for whatever reason, could not get over their relationship, and she wanted to express her hurt in some way, and she wanted to make Keith Beam pay,” Davies said.

Mottinger said Andvik ended the affair that led to Beam’s divorce, and he noted the restraining order cost Beam his job with a hunting show on the Outdoor Channel.

“There’s your revenge. He not only lost his wife, he lost his job. By God, he’s going to get even,” he said.