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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published February 09 2014

Alleged murder a first for tiny town of Finley

FINLEY, N.D. – An alleged murder has shaken this town of 445, so small that there is no jail to house the suspect, the suspect is Facebook friends with the sheriff and the editor of the local newspaper struggles to write a crime story involving those she and all her readers know personally.

The accused is Sherry Midstokke, who turned 61 in the jail in Fargo on Saturday.

The victim is her husband, Lyle Midstokke, 66, found dead of asphyxiation on the floor of their bedroom after she called 911 on Monday morning. Police thought the death suspicious and arrested her the same day.

“Nobody in a hundred years thought that would ever happen,” said Tanner Wuertz, who worked putting up a pole barn last summer on the farm where Lyle Midstokke worked. “Everyone is still shocked.”

“I knew both of them since they were born,” said former Mayor Howard Ostrom.

Lyle Midstokke grew up on the farm next to Ostrom’s, and Sherry Midstokke’s father worked for him as police chief.

“I just can’t understand it,” said Ostrom. “I never heard of them having any trouble.”

It almost goes without saying that the couple had no record of crime or even domestic disputes, Steele County Sheriff Wayne Beckman made clear.

“The town is hurting,” he said Thursday. “This is a big thing in a small town. It’s something you see out of a movie of the week. People are shook up and will be for some time.”

Rare crime

In a criminal complaint, prosecutor Charles Stock accuses Sherry Midstokke of drugging her husband and asphyxiating him. Investigators say she admitted to the crime. Evidence in the home corroborated her account, including items she used to asphyxiate him, the complaint said.

Stock said the official cause of death was asphyxiation.

No one in the Finley area interviewed for this story knows of any murder in the town’s 120-year history. In Steele County, the only remembered murder was in 1933 when the police chief in Hope, about 20 miles southeast of Finley, was shot to death by a man stealing gasoline from a Texaco station. The shooter was a farm-machinery specialist from Arkansas, who fled out of state and was not caught until three years later.

Crime remains rare here.

There’s not enough of it to justify a jail or frequent court hearings, which are held once a month. Stock, the county state’s attorney, lives and works in Crookston, Minn., about 75 miles west of Finley. He only needs to come to Finley on occasion.

Lindsie DeFrange, editor of the weekly newspaper in town, acknowledges that covering a murder case involving people she and all her readers know poses challenges.

“Lots of people know me and know it’s my job and know I gotta do it,” she said.

The Steele County Press – “The Paper That Hits Home” – had on its front page Thursday a no-nonsense account of the alleged murder. Under photos of the suspect and her alleged victim, the caption said simply “Sherry” and “Lyle.”

‘The nicest guy’

The couple grew up in Finley and went to high school here; he was Class of ’66, she was Class of ’71. Their class photos are up on the wall in the school’s hallway. Back then, Finley had twice the population of today, thanks in part to the Air Force radar station just west of town, which employed 250 or more.

That site now is the city compost dump for grass and branches.

During the Vietnam War, Lyle Midstokke was drafted and served as an Army infantryman. He saw enough combat to be awarded medals for it, as well as a corporal’s stripe in short order.

According to Dan Stenvold, president of the North Dakota chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, Midstokke was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, a Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge.

After Midstokke was mustered out of the Army in 1971, he came home to farm, taking over from his father. In 1974, he married Sherry Lee, daughter of Eugene Lee, Finley’s police chief from 1958 to 1991.

The couple lived on the farm just outside town until 1986, when Lyle Midstokke started renting out his land to other farmers, and they moved into town.

Until recently, he worked for farmer Jason Rayner and she worked as a certified nursing assistant at facilities in the area.

Many had good things to say about Lyle Midstokke, who was active in the American Legion Peterson-Olson Post No. 13 and was a township supervisor for more than 20 years.

“Lyle is the nicest guy in the world,” Wuertz said. “He was always trying to help, was never cocky or anything.”

“Sherry’s a nice lady, too,” said Wuertz, who knows one of her best friends.

Rodney Walcker knew Lyle Midstokke well through their work in the American Legion club in town.

“He would give you the shirt off his back,” Walcker said.

Lyle often carried the American flag during civic parades and Legion activities, and his comrades will be in an honorary squad for his funeral, Walcker said.

Money problems?

Still, several in town talked of money problems between the Midstokkes, although no one wanted to talk on the record of such things.

But in an oblique indication of possible differences over finances, their son, David Midstokke, who lives in their home, filed for an emergency court order Thursday to freeze his parents’ assets and make him, not his mother, administrator of their estate and his father’s will.

A judge granted the order the same day it was filed.

In the filing, David Midstokke said he did it to “preserve and protect the estate” because he “is concerned that Sherry Midstokke may remove funds from joint accounts with (her dead husband).”

His brother, Michael, and sister, Angela Smith, agree with his petition, he said in his filing.

Sherry Midstokke “is in need of immediate and substantial funds to post bail for her pending criminal charge and/or to obtain legal counsel for her pending criminal charge,” making the estate “in immediate danger of having funds dissipated,” the filing said.

She remains in jail under a bond requiring the full amount of $500,000 paid in cash to the court. At her initial court appearance Tuesday, she told the judge she couldn’t afford it.

On Thursday afternoon, the Midstokkes’ family members gathered at the couple’s home and met with the couple’s pastor. They declined to comment.

A prayer service for Lyle Midstokke will be at 7 p.m. Monday in Finley Lutheran Church. His funeral will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in the church.