FARGO — A baby girl cut from her mother’s womb and then kidnapped.
A man shot five times during a routine workout in the YMCA.
Both miraculously survived.
And in each case, the enhanced sentencing known as dangerous special offender came into play.
But in a rare move, according to attorneys on both sides of the appeal case, the sentence was overturned for the baby’s convicted kidnapper, William Hoehn.
Hoehn, 34, will be in Cass County District Court Friday, Sept. 6, and awaits a new sentence for his role in the 2017 murder of 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, with chance for release in the next 20 years.
The young mother’s daughter, Haisley Jo, is now 2 years old. She will be a young adult when Hoehn — who carried her around in a book bag while a concerned community and family searched for her and her mother — walks free.
“Just because you don't fall within the guidelines doesn't mean you’re not a dangerous offender. The law just isn’t there to sentence you that way,” said Clifton Rodenburg, who survived the hail of hollowed bullets in the Y weight room 23 years ago.
Rodenburg, now 70 years old, is a Fargo attorney still regularly working out at the downtown Fercho Y where he nearly died March 26, 1996.
That day, others were in the weight room who would testify in court seeing William Hart walk in carrying a duffel bag with ammunition and a .357 revolver. Hart also had a copy of a defamation lawsuit Rodenburg filed against him in the bag.
"He walked up to me, reaches into the duffel bag and shoots me point-blank right in the chest," Rodenburg said.
The first shot knocked Rodenburg off the seat of a workout machine, he said. The next shot in his back came out the front and another one of the five shots barely missed his pericardium, the protective layer surrounding the heart.
"Five times . . . I still can't figure that out, "he said. "Am I in some type of alternative reality? I don't know how in the heck . . . "
Hart, who represented himself at trial, was found guilty of attempting to murder Rodenburg.
Former Assistant Cass County State's Attorney Mark Boening successfully filed to declare Hart a special dangerous offender, and he was sentenced to life in prison rather than the 20 year maximum sentence attempted murder carries.
"Mr. Hart is one of the most dangerous individuals I've ever prosecuted here in North Dakota," Boening said. "But for the grace of God, Mr. Rodenburg should be dead."
The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation lists Hart’s estimated release date of 2100 by default. The 68-year-old remains in the state penitentiary while the courts determine his life expectancy.
But come May 2023, Rodenburg will get a notification of Hart’s parole hearing to consider an early release, though that's not guaranteed.
Different ways of designating
There are five different sections under the dangerous special offender designation for someone to qualify for an enhanced sentencing.
The state doesn't track dangerous offenders, unlike a sex offenders registry, so it's unclear how many times this designation has been applied since it was introduced to the Century Code in the 1970s.
Other states have similar laws on the books with slight variances. In Minnesota, there are increased sentences for certain dangerous and repeat offenders, and there are dangerous offender provisions in Canada's criminal code.
In Hart's case, because he used a dangerous weapon in the commission of the offense, that was enough for the sentencing to apply. Hart had previous felony convictions as well, but those weren't required for the designation and only strengthened prosecutors case.
As for Hoehn, prosecutors filed under a section that would require him to be convicted of an offense that seriously endangered the life of another person and the offender had to be previously convicted of a similar offense.
Hoehn didn't use a weapon, so he couldn't qualify for that subsection, or the subsections of mental abnormality, professional criminal or habitual offender.
Hoehn kidnapped preterm baby Haisley Jo after his then-girlfriend, Brooke Lynn Crews, lured their neighbor and the baby's mother, Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, to her apartment and cut the baby from her womb.
Crews is serving a life sentence for murdering LaFontaine-Greywind. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, but a jury acquitted Hoehn of the same charge. He instead pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit kidnapping, which has a 20-year sentence maximum.
To extend his sentencing, state's attorneys Leah Viste and Reid Brady filed for Hoehn to be designated as a dangerous offender. This filing is done under seal as to not risk tainting a jury pool.
"If there ever was a case that maybe demanded more than the maximum under the law, this was it certainly," Viste said.
Viste and Brady said dangerous offender filings are rare and reserved for extreme, violent cases. And having one overturned is something they said has never happened in their 16 years of practicing law here.
Supreme Court Justice Jerod E. Tufte spent considerable time explaining in the appeal opinion what "similar" means, ultimately ruling that Hoehn's 2012 conviction for abuse or neglect of a child was not similar to kidnapping Haisley Jo.
Haisley Jo "was physically healthy" and "Hoehn's conduct did not cause physical injury to the baby," Tufte said, adding that "the district court abused its discretion by misapplying or misinterpreting the law when it sentenced Hoehn for conspiracy to commit kidnapping as a dangerous special offender."
Viste said this enhanced sentencing was the only available tool under the existing law to get Hoehn a life sentence with the charges he was convicted of, though they considered other charges. There was no case law directly for the subsection in Hoehn's filing.
"It was a case of first impression," she said. "We pretty much knew it would be appealed. But I still think we were right."
Brady said there wasn't an offense that really captured the egregiousness of Hoehn's actions, but the dangerous offender status would have allowed a greater sentence. Viste added there were a lot of challenges and nuances in this case that was full of emotion, with an outcome that felt really unfair.
"I think all of us up here have experienced and have felt like the pain or the frustration of the law not coinciding with the emotional response to something, but the law is the law, and for a reason. Certainly it's not perfect, but I think all of us are up here because we believe it's the best system that we have " she said. "It's fluid and it can change as we see needs arise."
Hoehn's appeal attorney Kiara Kraus-Parr said habitual offender sentencing is more common, especially in drug-related offenses, and it's easier to prove than dangerous special offender, which she said is fairly rare but she's seeing it more often.
"It's a response of people wanting more and more jail time," Kraus-Parr said. "I don't know that jail time is really what is necessary. A lot of times, people equate vengeance and justice (as) the same thing."
She said life sentences make better headlines, but "longer and longer sentences aren't doing anybody any good," except in violent cases when an offender needs to removed from the public for safety.
Kraus-Parr said if the facts in this case were different, like hypothetically the baby had medical complications, then the offenses may have been considered similar, but the facts were laid out in trial.
"I understand the murder was horrible, but that wasn’t the crime we were discussing for dangerous offender. The two things are separate and they had to be," she said.
Kraus-Parr said her task was determining if an error in the law was made, without considering the emotion or politics of the case, because "the same rules have to apply to everybody."
Rodenburg said Hart certainly fit the description of dangerous offender, but prosecutors were grasping in Hoehn's case. They could've made the argument that Haisley Jo was harmed without the nurturing of her mother, he said, but prosecutors need experts to prove that. Even then, he said the court would likely say that is speculative.
But Rodenburg said a good argument for the legislature following this case is possibly setting up a separate subdivision for the kidnapping of a minor to go beyond the mandatory 20-year sentence.
"This highlights some deficiencies in the law," he said, adding "you can't blame the courts for an oversight of the legislature."
Kraus-Parr echoed this, adding there is not a specific age limit for that crime, which could put young victims at risk when their kidnapper is released.
Other enhanced sentencing examples
State v. David White Jr.
White pleaded guilty in 2017 to attempted murder (an A felony that would normally have a maximum prison sentence of 20 years) and was designated a special dangerous offender.
He was sentenced to 25 years, serve 20 years, with 5 years suspended for 5 years of supervised probation.
State v. Daniel Habiger
Habiger pleaded guilty in 2018 to an amended charge of manslaughter (a B felony that would normally have a maximum prison sentence of 10 years) and was designated a habitual offender.
He was sentenced to 17 years, serve 14 years with 3 years suspended for 3 years of supervised probation.