Hibbing murder suspect challenges case

HIBBING — The defense attorney for an 18-year-old Hibbing woman facing life in prison for her alleged role in the death of Joshua Robert Lavalley spent Friday challenging what her client told authorities as a juvenile and sought to suppress “all fruits of the statements.”

Defense Attorney Kimberly Jean Corradi and Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Bonnie Norlander spoke before District Court Judge Mark M. Starr in Hibbing when saying they planned on calling witnesses to describe how state agents interviewed the then 17-year-old juvenile on three separate occasions outside her home on Third Avenue East on Jan. 7, 2019, the evening after Lavalley’s dead body was discovered on the Mesabi Trail near Kerr on the west side of Hibbing.

Corradi did tell the judge she planned to make a motion to “dismiss the indictment” against her client. But not today. The judge will rule on whether to suppress the statements in the upcoming weeks.

In the 13 months since those interviews, French’s juvenile case has been moved to adult court and a grand jury indicted her on two counts of first-degree murder.

Her co-defendant, Anthony Emerson Howson, now 21, of Hibbing, was sentenced last November to more than 25 years in prison as part of a plea deal for aiding and abetting the murder. Her former boyfriend, Deshon Israel Bonnell, now 19, also of Hibbing, was sentenced last October to serve life in prison with the possibility of parole in three decades after being convicted of two counts of first-degree murder.

Court records show that Howson testified earlier that Bonnell was carrying a gun when he created plans to kill 33-year-old man from Aurora for apparently talking with the younger French. The four of them spent time together on Jan. 5, 2019 and then Howson drove them along the Mesabi Trail on the western side of Hibbing in the early morning of Jan. 6. Howson told authorities that he remained in the vehicle while Bonnell and French used a bandanna to blindfold Lavalley’s eyes and walked him into the woods. Bonnell was convicted of using a .22-caliber pistol to deliver the two fatal shots to the face.

At his sentencing Bonnell, who was represented by the executive director of the Autism Advocacy Law Center in Minneapolis, told the court that he “was manipulated into doing this.” He continued, “I’m a man that was raised on my principles. What I did was bad, but at the time I thought what I was doing was right. I apologize to the family and to anyone else I might have hurt.” At the time, Lavalley’s older sister, Jonni, read an impact statement, saying that she had tried calling her brother for what would have been his 34th birthday on Jan. 7. She addressed Bonnell and his co-defendants when saying, “I would like them to think if it were one of their loved ones murdered in cold-blood on the trail.” She also read a letter from Lavalley’s father, Robert. “In the Ten Commandments it says thou shalt not kill. But that’s what they did. They killed my son.”

Last month, Bonnell’s public defender, Sean Michael McGuire, filed a notice of appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

French appeared in court this week wearing an orange shirt and pants and sandals issued from the St. Louis County Jail. She sat beside her attorney, swiveling in her chair and repositioning her left arm, which was wrapped in a purple cast. Corradi and prosecutors declined to comment on the reasoning for the cast or the case in general.

Who is Bailey French?

At 17, French was charged with a juvenile count of second-degree murder and held at a state juvenile detention facility, as her co-defandants Howson and Bonnell were charged with similar crimes and booked into the St. Louis County Jail.

A grand jury indicted both French and Bonnell on two counts each of first-degree murder charges. For French, the indictment meant that her juvenile case was transferred to adult court and she was transported to the county jail where she remains.

On Friday, Cindy Walker took the stand in the District Court and told the court she has been a probation officer “going on 31 years” for the Arrowhead Regional Corrections in northern Minnesota. She also described how she supervised French for juvenile misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors when she was ages 15 through 17, from September 2017 to January 2019. At the tailend of that timeframe, French was “designated” a 10th grader at East Range Technical Academy in Eveleth. She was placed under an Individualized Education Program for youth with disabilities since she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

As part of moving French’s juvenile case to adult court, the state had to conduct an adult certification which called for a psychological evaluation. Walker referred to the evaluation report when telling the court that French had been diagnosed with ADHD, Bipolar 1 disorder, major depression, substance use disorder, and Cluster B personality disorder traits.

French was also diagnosed with “parent-child relationship problems and expressed concerns” about trying to stay clean and sober in her home and alleging that her father was physically abusive. The final point was noted by Corradi, who appeared to be honing in on the fact that French’s father gave law enforcement agents consent to interview her as a juvenile. Corradi questioned French’s maturity level. “I think Bailey was spending a lot of time with older adults,” Walker told the defense attorney.

The Lavalley and French families sat in the courtroom this week and watched the murder suspect, who, if convicted, could become only the second offender under age 18 at the time of the crime to be sentenced for first, second and third degree murder in adult courts in St. Louis County, according to data from 2009 to 2018 requested from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission in December. In 2013, a man was sentenced to one count of second-degree murder and is now serving 306 months in prison.

The interviews

Clearbrook Patrol Officer Robert Fraik, formerly a BCA agent, took the stand as a sequestered witness on Friday in the District Court and said he joined another agent and local law enforcement in staking out French’s home and sat in an unmarked Toyota minivan when they witnessed her with a man talk before he drove away. Fraik followed one officer to make a traffic stop on the man identified as Anthony Emerson Howson, the 21-year-old Hibbing resident driving a maroon Chevy Impala previously loaned to Lavelley from his roommate.

Fraik and Bemidji Police Officer Chad Museus, then a senior special BCA agent, returned to the home and conducted the first interview with French, who had been located by local officers.

Fraik said French was not under arrest during three interviews, which took place in the unmarked vehicle outside her home at about 8 p.m., between 8 and 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. that Monday night last January. Fraik told the court that the agents did not read French her Miranda Rights. “I told her the door was unlocked,” he said. “She was free to leave.” He added, “She was friendly. She seemed relaxed. She answered the questions that I asked.” Being considered a potential “suspect or witness,” French sat in that vehicle with the two agents during the recorded interviews as her father stood in earshot outside the vehicle at most times and sometimes joined in the interviews.

At one point during the second interview, French apparently asked that her father leave his post outside the vehicle. “He was OK with it,” Fraik said. “He didn’t express either way. He complied.” She told the agents she would call them up at a later time to talk. She never did.

After that second meeting, the agents spoke with the Hibbing Police Department’s investigative team and learned that Howson and Bonnell had been taken into custody and provided statements of their own to law enforcement in connection to Lavalley ‘s death.

Was French now a suspect? Fraik paused on the stand. Then answered, “Yes.” The agents returned again to her home about two hours later for a third interview, since “there were certain inconsistencies” in what she told law enforcement, Fraik said.

The father gave the agents the OK again and French “came out of the garage smoking a cigarette” in the area with about four squad cars. Again, French told the agents she did not want her father present during the interview, Fraik said. Fifteen minutes into the interview, the father asked if all was OK and his daughter said yes.

Meanwhile, law enforcement were executing a search warrant on the home, where the mother remained. Half-hour into the interview, French, her father and the two agents took a ride to Kerr.

Fraik said he wore a “glock service pistol” on a holster attached to his belt when he interviewed French. The agents discussed options to protect her because she was a juvenile and at times “encouraged her to be truthful,” Fraik said, who at one point told her that “jerking us around isn’t going to help her case.”

French’s demeanor? “She seemed friendly,” Fraik said. “She was helpful. She was volunteering information and answering our questions.” The agents collected French’s cell phone, so it could undergo forensic analysis. “She gave us the phone,” he added. “However, she was concerned about getting it back.”

The defense attorney asked Museus if French was reluctant handing over her phone and did he tell her during the audio recorded interview, “I’m going to look through the phone one way or the other.” The agent relied on the recording. Did he believe French thought he would look at her phone whether she consented or not? “I can’t speak to what Bailey French was thinking,” the agent said.

The following day, on Jan. 8, 2019, the local police arrested French and brought her into the station’s central interview room to meet with the BCA agents. It was then that Museus read her Miranda Rights for the first time. She asked for an attorney and the interview ended.

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