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Archie Ingersoll, Published December 23 2013

Prosecutor drops rape charge against Halstad mayor

HALSTAD, Minn. – Sexual assault charges against the mayor here have been dropped after the alleged victim’s credibility was called into question.

In May, Mayor Steve Sortland was accused of raping a female acquaintance, and he was charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct and third-degree criminal sexual conduct. Norman County Attorney James Brue dismissed those charges Friday, citing insufficient evidence for a conviction.

Sortland, who learned of the dismissal Monday, said while the news is a relief, he wishes it had come sooner.

“I always knew the charges were false,” he said. “So, personally, this was just a matter of time letting the legal process take its course until my innocence was proved.”

The charges were filed after Sortland’s acquaintance reported to sheriff’s deputies that she and Sortland had consensual sex at his home before he forcibly penetrated her, court documents stated.

Brue said one of the reasons the charges were dismissed was a false statement the woman made about a conversation Brue had with her. After the two spoke, she told another person something about their conversation that was not true, Brue said.

Brue declined to elaborate, though he said the woman’s false statement did not pertain to the criminal allegations against Sortland.

In June, the woman acknowledged making that false statement while testifying at a hearing in a civil case. In that case, a judge issued an order barring her from having contact with Sortland and his children for two years.

Brue said if Sortland’s defense attorney had brought up the woman’s false statement at trial, it would have raised questions about her credibility.

Another reason for the dismissal was a change in the opinion of a doctor who treated the woman. In November, the doctor told a sheriff’s investigator that after seeing all the woman’s medical records, the symptoms she described were not from a laceration but from a pre-existing condition, according to court records.

Following an advisory opinion from the state Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board, Brue asked the Mahnomen and Hubbard county attorneys’ offices to review the case against Sortland, and both offices concluded that the charges should be dismissed, court records say.

Sortland, 44, took a leave of absence from his job as mayor shortly after the charges came to light, but in an interview with The Forum on Monday, he said he plans to return to his post.

“I do appreciate the local community’s support that I got through this whole thing because everybody that knows me knew what was really going on,” he said.

Sortland said the news media treated him unfairly by presuming that he was guilty.

“I am disappointed in the coverage that the media gave the case. A person is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” he said.

The mayor is looking to get his life back on track after losing his job as an engineer for a home-building company because of the charges. He said he’s been out of work for seven months and legal bills have piled up.

“I’m looking at a $150,000 loss just because a false accuser comes forward and says, ‘He raped me,’ ” he said.

Sortland, who has no known criminal history, told investigators the sex was consensual, according to court documents. He told The Forum that his accuser had been living with him before making the sexual assault report.

Sortland spent three days in jail on the charges before he posted bond to be released. Had he been convicted of a felony he would have been removed as mayor, according to the League of Minnesota Cities.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734