Siblings sentenced in UMD student's death
DULUTH, Minn.—William Grahek called his father on Feb. 14, 2017. The University of Minnesota Duluth student and U.S. Army reservist said he was planning to join the military full time.
Twenty minutes later, Jon and Heidi Grahek received another phone call. They learned that their eldest son had been shot inside his home.
An hour after that, a third phone call. The 22-year-old had died from his injuries.
"Children are not supposed to die before their parents," Heidi Grahek told a judge Thursday, May 24. "Especially not in such a violent and senseless way."
Heidi Grahek was the lone family representative to address the court Thursday as the first two defendants were sentenced in her son's death. Jon Grahek, a St. Paul police sergeant, died of cancer in January.
"He fought as hard as he could," she said, backed by rows of family members in the Duluth courtroom, "but he did not have the strength after the loss of Will."
The opposite side of the courtroom contained another family scene — those in attendance to watch as siblings appeared before the judge. One would receive a lengthy prison term, the other a second chance.
Noah Duane Baker, 20, received a guideline 30-year prison sentence for his role in the botched robbery. That term was expected, having been agreed upon in a plea agreement.
His sentencing was immediately followed by that of his sister, 23-year-old Tara Rai Baker. She averted a prison term for aiding an offender, instead receiving an opportunity on probation.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Mark Munger asked spectators in the crowded courtroom to keep their emotions down during the back-to-back hearings — a seemingly impossible request with loud sobs occasionally echoing over the proceedings.
Noah Baker pleaded guilty last month to an intentional second-degree murder charge, avoiding a potential life sentence and accepting the 30-year term in exchange for his testimony.
He admitted at the plea hearing to brandishing a firearm while attempting to rob Grahek of drugs and cash, and said co-defendant Deandre Demetrius Davenport shot Grahek twice when the victim refused to comply.
Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jessica Fralich told the judge that the decision to enter into the plea agreement will weigh heavily for the rest of her career. She said Baker deserved a life term but that the agreement provided a fair outcome with the defendant offering a truthful account of the incident.
"It's not going to provide any semblance of closure to this family," she said of the Graheks. "But it is certainty. It is finality. It is having an answer from one of the people who was there and can tell them what happened."
Noah Baker declined to address the court. But defense attorney Keith Shaw said his client is remorseful.
"He will be reminded of this every day when that cell door closes," Shaw said. "He will have plenty of time to think about it."
Munger outlined Noah Baker's history of theft and burglary cases but noted that he had no apparent violent history. The judge accepted the 30-year recommendation, telling Baker that with good behavior he could be out of prison around age 40.
"You didn't pull the trigger but you were just as culpable as everyone else there," Munger said.
The judge faced a tougher decision with Tara Baker. Just days after her brother's plea, she admitted to lying to police in the aftermath of the shooting in order to cover up the involvement of her brother and Davenport, her boyfriend. The plea agreement carried a guideline four-year prison term but allowed the defense to seek probation.
Defense attorney Sonia Sturdevant cited her client's lack of criminal history, her relationship with her two young children and her participation in Bible study and other programming while in custody over the past 14 months.
"We believe Tara Baker is worth saving and has demonstrated that she could do more good in the community than at Shakopee (prison)," Sturdevant said.
Prosecutor Vicky Wanta acknowledged the factors outlined by the defense but asked the judge to impose a prison term, saying her conduct in obstructing the investigation led to additional trauma for the Grahek family.
"The one hurdle I cannot get past is that Ms. Baker covered up a murder," Wanta said. "It wasn't a car prowl or a theft or a burglary. It was a murder. Mr. Grahek was killed."
Tara Baker, who wept and held a tissue throughout the hearing, read an apologetic statement she had prepared in advance.
"Let me say to the Grahek family that I am truly sorry from the bottom of my heart that your son is no longer with you," she said. "No family deserves to ever have to go through something like that."
Munger spoke at length about the factors he had to consider before pronouncing a sentence. Ultimately, he concluded: "I think she's redeemable."
"If I send her to prison for what she did after the fact, what would it accomplish?" he asked. "She would do two years at Shakopee. Is that going to help society in any way? Is that going to help the Grahek family? I don't think so."
The judge sentenced her to 57 months in prison but stayed the time for six years of supervised probation. He included the caveat that she spend an additional six months at the Duluth Bethel Female Offender Program or in jail.
Additionally, with a nod to Grahek's military service, Munger ordered Baker to complete 120 hours of community service work related to veterans.
The Grahek family declined comment outside of Heidi Grahek's in-court statement, in which she remembered her son as a "outgoing, friendly, caring, sensitive human being" and pushed for maximum sentences for both defendants.
She spoke of the shrinking of her family from four to two in short order. Jon Grahek was diagnosed with esophageal cancer three months after his son's death. She said he was initially given two to five years to live, but survived only eight months.
Meanwhile, their youngest son — William's brother and college roommate, who heard the fatal altercation in their house — has since left UMD and returned home to the Twin Cities.
"This is a harsh new reality for me," she said. "I do not believe my son nor my husband deserved the deaths they suffered."
Prosecutors Wanta and Fralich limited their comment after the hearing, citing the ongoing co-defendants' cases.
"We respect the court's decision," Wanta said of Tara Baker's sentence. "We know it was a tough decision. We hope she does right by him."
Sturdevant reiterated that her client was remorseful and and has been making strides since her arrest.
"She will do well," the defense attorney told Forum News Service. "The community does not need to be afraid of Tara Baker."
Three cases remain unresolved. Davenport, 22, and Noah Anthony Charles King, 19, face potential life sentences if convicted on first-degree murder charges. They are likely to stand trial in late October or early November.
Xavier Alfred Haywood, 27, who allegedly planned the robbery and later harbored the suspects at a Superior hotel, is charged with aiding an offender. He is set to be back in court on June 28.