Suspect in Spirit Lake Killings Seeks to Block Statements to FBIAttorneys representing the man accused of abusing and killing two children on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in 2011 asked a federal judge Thursday to suppress statements he made to FBI agents in July.
By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald
FARGO — Attorneys representing the man accused of abusing and killing two children on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in 2011 asked a federal judge Thursday to suppress statements he made to FBI agents in July.
Valentino James Bagola, 19, of St. Michael, N.D., faces four counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of Destiny Jane Shaw, 9, and her brother, Travis Lee DuBois Jr., 6. Their bodies were found on May 21, 2011, by their mother, Mena Shaw, beneath a mattress at the home she had once shared with the siblings’ father.
The brutal killings of the children — and the passage of 14 months before an arrest was made — tore at the Spirit Lake community and fueled a widespread belief that the tribe’s child protection system wasn’t working, a controversy that continues to roil and divide the tribe.
Bagola pleaded not guilty to the charges. He was originally scheduled to be tried last September. The trial start date was continued to April, but earlier this year it was moved further to Sept. 25.
Bagola was arrested July 21 while in the Grand Forks County Correction Center, where he was awaiting a court appearance on a state theft charge. He is being held now in Cass County Jail in Fargo.
His statements to the FBI agents included two videotaped interviews and a written statement, according to testimony at a motions hearing Thursday in U.S. District Court here Thursday.
In his statements, Bagola “admitted to (sexually assaulting) Destiny Shaw,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers told the court. “Those are his words.” He also admitted to stabbing Travis DeBois Jr. several times, Myers said.
Testimony at Thursday’s hearing also indicated that among items of evidence the government intends to present at trial are results of lab tests on DNA samples taken from Bagola when he was questioned by investigators in May 2012.
Interrogation, or interviews?
FBI agents obtained Bagola’s statements in July inappropriately, attorney Christopher Lancaster suggested, as they employed interrogation rather than interviewing techniques to persuade Bagola to waive his rights and provide his account of what had happened to the children.
Lancaster argued that the cramped, cluttered hearing room at the Grand Forks jail where Bagola met with the two agents behind locked metal doors left him with the impression he had to answer their questions.
But Special Agent Michael Smotrys, under questioning by Myers, offered a different description of the July 13 and July 16 interviews that he and Special Agent Brian Cima had with Bagola.
The suspect was read his Miranda rights, signed documents acknowledging that he understood those rights, and at no time was coerced or threatened or promised anything in return for the statements, Smotrys said.
Bagola seemed relaxed and not dazed or confused, Smotrys said. He talked about his involvement in the killings and volunteered to write out a statement using pictures or drawings.
Under questioning, Cima also denied that Bagola’s statements had been coerced in any way.
District Judge Ralph Erickson took the motion to suppress the statements under advisement. At the defense attorneys’ request, he ordered the videotaped and written statements sealed.
Two victims, four murder counts
Myers made his comments about Bagola’s statements, in which Bagola allegedly admits to abusing Travis and sexually abusing Destiny, while opposing a defense motion to drop two of the four counts in the indictment.
In addition to two separate counts of first-degree murder, Bagola is charged with killing Destiny “while perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate the crimes of aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse and child abuse.”
A fourth count accuses him of killing Travis “while perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate the crime of child abuse.”
Richard Henderson, like Lancaster a federal public defender representing Bagola, asked Erickson to drop the two “murder with abuse” counts, arguing they are repetitious and constitute “piling on,” which could “imply to the jury that (Bagola is) some kind of mass murderer.”
The maximum penalty for each of the four counts is life in prison.
U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon sat through the nearly three-hour hearing but did not participate. At the time of Bagola’s arrest, he said the indictment resulted from “months of careful police work by the FBI” and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Speaking to broader concerns about abuse and sexual abuse at Spirit Lake, Purdon said the investigation “should leave no doubt as to (our) commitment to ensuring justice for child victims in Indian country.”