FARGO - Many people presume that Brooke Lynn Crews will spend the rest of her life in prison because of her role in the murder of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind and the abduction of her newborn baby.
But is that a certainty? Legal experts say it is not.
Crews pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and providing false information to police. She is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Frank Racek at 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, in Cass County District Court.
Because of the nature of the crime, many assume she will get the maximum punishment for conspiracy to commit murder in North Dakota - life without the possibility of parole. She also faces up to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
"I would think the judge would probably give the maximum," said retired Southeast District Judge John T. "Jack" Paulson. "That's a pretty gruesome crime."
Retired Fargo Municipal Judge Thomas Davies agreed. "If that lady sees the light of the day after she's sentenced, I will be shocked," he said. "That was such a horrific, awful murder. Any time I look at the beautiful face of that woman who was snuffed out, I just absolutely boil."
While the severity of Crews' crime would make many people believe she deserves the maximum punishment, particularly if LaFontaine-Greywind's child was taken from her violently, other factors may offset that.
"In my experience in North Dakota, I don't know of very many cases where the court has imposed life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," said Bob Hoy, who was Cass County state's attorney from 1981 to 1990. "I don't think it's a foregone conclusion. I think it's much more complicated than that."
Presently, there are 141 inmates serving time in North Dakota for murder, but only 27 of them were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
"It's not a slam dunk," said Steven Morrison, a law professor at the University of North Dakota. "It's going to depend on the facts of the case. We don't know everything about it."
Racek's sentencing history
Crews, 36, and her boyfriend, William Henry Hoehn, lived upstairs from LaFontaine-Greywind, the 22-year-old Fargo woman who disappeared in August while eight months pregnant. Crews had asked LaFontaine-Greywind to come to her apartment to help model a dress she was sewing.
LaFontaine-Greywind was reported missing later the same day. Her body was found eight days later in the Red River, the victim of what a medical examiner called "homicidal violence." Her baby was found in the possession of Crews.
Hoehn, 32, has also been charged with conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and providing false information to police. He pleaded not guilty to all three charges. His trial is set to begin May 15.
One way to anticipate what the judge might decide is to look at other North Dakota cases in which someone convicted of murder was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. That provides some insight, but the record is far from consistent.
Several inmates serving life without the chance of parole killed more than one person. Others killed police officers or judges. A few committed especially violent murders, such as one who decapitated his victim. Some who received such sentences had long and violent criminal histories. But other cases seem unexceptional and little different than cases in which murderers received lesser sentences.
Judge Racek's sentencing history may also provide some indication about what he is likely to do. Racek, a Cass County District Court judge since 1992, has been the judge in at least three previous cases that resulted in murder convictions. Racek sentenced only one of those people to life without the possibility of parole.
Racek in 2011 sentenced Michael Nakvinda to life without the possibility of parole for murdering Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso. Nakvinda killed Gattuso by hitting him in the head with a hammer at least 10 times in a murder-for-hire scheme.
But in another high-profile murder case, Racek in 1999 sentenced Kyle Bell, convicted of murdering and molesting 11-year-old Jeanna North of Fargo, to less than the maximum penalty. North disappeared while roller-skating in north Fargo, though her body was never found. Bell admitted to knocking her down, tying her to a cement block, and dumping her body in the Sheyenne River. Racek sentenced Bell to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Bell remains incarcerated.
Judges are supposed to consider 14 factors in sentencing decisions. Most are not relevant in this case. Among those factors that may be considered, however, are whether Crews cooperates with law enforcement, her criminal history, and if she expected her conduct to cause significant harm.
Key to sentencing in this case could be whether Crews will testify against Hoehn. Although Crews' defense attorney, Steven Mottinger, did not negotiate a plea agreement in exchange for her guilty plea, if she agrees to testify against Hoehn and her testimony is perceived to have significant value, prosecutors could recommend that she receive less than the maximum sentence.
Crews said in a Dec. 15 letter to The Forum "that I may be called on to testify and I don't want to jeopardize the State's case with anything I might say," which suggests she is willing to testify.
Attorney John Goff, Cass County state's attorney from 1991 to 1998, said he thinks it's likely prosecutors have negotiated some sort of agreement with Crews to testify and he believes she will receive less than the maximum penalty if she does that.
Goff predicted that in return for her testimony, prosecutors would recommend that Crews be sentenced to 30 years in prison, or life in prison. Life in prison is something of a misnomer because inmates sentenced to life are eligible for parole after serving 30 years.
Crews' criminal history could also influence sentencing. She does not have a significant criminal record. She was convicted of writing bad checks in Missouri in 1998 and Minnesota in 2009, but otherwise has no known convictions.
Nevertheless, convicted murderers have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole without any criminal record whatsoever, usually because of the egregiousness of the crime.
There are other factors that aren't spelled out in state code that are often considered in sentencing, such as a defendant's acceptance of responsibility for what they did, their remorsefulness for their crime, and their mental state.
Mottinger said in his comments after Crews pleaded guilty that he hoped the judge would take into account in sentencing that "she accepted responsibility" for her crime. "I think certainly that goes a long way in terms of us being able to argue for something less than life without parole," Mottinger said.
Others agreed that Crews' guilty plea could result in her receiving less than the maximum sentence. She also apologized for her crime in her letter to The Forum.
"Accepting responsibility early on, not putting the family and state through the cost of a trial, financial and emotional, is a worthy thing," Hoy said. "I think a judge will consider that."
Experts also agreed that Crews' mental condition could influence sentencing. Crews was ordered in October to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown. She said in court records that "I've been ill for quite a while," though she doesn't specify the nature of her illness.
In her letter to The Forum, Crews acknowledged that she has a personal history "far, far stranger than fiction" that she has "spent most of my life trying to forget." She said her history "influenced my ability to control impulses and make proper decisions."
UND's Morrison said, "If her lawyer can show the court that her conduct was affected by some sort of mental illness, that's something the court will look at with the possibility of some sort of sentence below life without parole."
While there are 141 inmates now serving time for North Dakota murders, only 27 were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole:
• Billy Joe Aguero and Joseph Moncada (2009): Murdered a Grand Forks father and son, apparently over a drug debt.
• Steven Bannister (2012): Shot and killed a Bismarck police officer who responded to a domestic dispute.
• John Bridges (2012): Killed a Georgia man with a hatchet and knife in the back of a van; convicted of manslaughter at age 15 in Illinois.
• Dale Burke (1998): Murdered two men in Fargo, crushing their skulls and setting a house afire.
• Waylon Charette (2003): Raped, beat and stabbed to death a 73-year-old neighbor in her Driscoll home.
• Dennis Gaede (2006): Shot a Wisconsin man in his home in Gardner after the man discovered Gaede stole an identity; Gaede transported the body to the Wisconsin-Michigan border, cut off the man's head and hands and scattered body parts.
• Barry Garcia (1996): Shot and killed a 50-year-old grandmother sitting in her car in Fargo as a 16-year-old.
• Moe Gibbs (2007): Strangled and cut the throat of a 22-year-old in her Valley City apartment.
• Jonathan Horvath (2014): Shot a man to death in the head and face outside a Williston strip club; had a criminal record "filled with violence."
• Leron Howard (2012): Killed a Somali immigrant in Jamestown by hitting and stabbing him; had a long criminal history.
• Daniel Jantzen (2003): Killed a mother, daughter and third person with a semi-automatic weapon in Valley City.
• Omar Kalmio (2013): The Somali immigrant killed in Minot the mother of his children, her mother, brother and her mother's boyfriend.
• Gene Kirkpatrick (2011): Oklahoma grandfather hired his handyman to murder his daughter's husband, a Fargo dentist, in an effort to gain custody of his grandchild.
• Robert Mead (1996): Grassy Butte rancher who shot a Watford City police officer to death and held two hostages in an American Legion hall. He became angry about a beer he was served.
• Miguel Medina-Romero (2011): Shot and killed a 19-year-old from Walhalla in Pembina; may have been drug-related.
• Michael Nakvinda (2011): Murdered a Fargo dentist in a murder-for-hire scheme by hitting him in the head at least 10 times with a hammer.
• Benjamin Newman (2006): Burned a Bismarck apartment building where his girlfriend lived, killing a 75-year-old resident and injuring another; his girlfriend wasn't home at the time.
• Aron Nichols (2008): Shot to death the paternal grandparents of his fiance's daughter in Sykeston; his fiance was also convicted as an accomplice.
• William Pretzer (1999): Murdered former Cass County Judge George Duis.
• Delvin Shaw (2017): Shot to death Jose "Joe" Luis Lopez in Grand Forks, apparently intending to break into the apartment above his; had a long criminal history.
• Mark Steinbach (1997): Shot to death his live-in girlfriend at their farmhouse in New Rockford.
• David Stevens (2014): Pleaded guilty to running down and stabbing to death his former girlfriend and a male friend in Fargo.
• Antonio Stridiron (2008): Shot to death 27-year-old Joshua Velasquez during a fight in an alley in Minot after he crashed a wedding party.
• Steven Torkelsen (2007): Killed his girlfriend in Cando; her body was found burning in a ditch.
• Daniel Wacht (2012): Shot and killed, then beheaded, a North Dakota State University researcher after giving him a ride from a Cooperstown bar on New York's Eve; the body was never found.
• Ambrose Whiteman (1998): Beat, kicked and strangled to death a homeless man in Fargo's Island Park.