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Press Photo by Katherine Lymn Former Trinity High School principal Thomas Sander sits in on a hearing April 21 at the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson.

The Dickinson Press Exclusive: ‘The real Tom Sander’ speaks out

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Trinity High School burned, and Tom Sander’s reputation was about to go up in smoke.

The former principal at the school, who was charged and then exonerated in the March fire, is back home in St. Louis, living with his parents. But despite the case never going to trial, Sander said in an exclusive interview with The Press that the effects of being accused will follow him for a long time.

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“I was confident that the truth would come out and with me knowing I was innocent, I knew that I should not have to worry about anything but also was not expecting for me to be charged in the first place,” he said.

Investigators named Sander their main suspect within days of the fire.

“It seemed pretty quick to me that the police … thought they had the case wrapped up,” Sander said. “... I was just incredulous that they had suspected me, and so quickly.”

Too quickly, perhaps.

The case fell apart when a judge ruled Sander’s confession, and other key parts of his testimony, couldn’t be used in trial.

In briefs filed with the court, Sander’s lawyers wrote about a Trinity student who had a grudge against the school and knew details that only the person who started the fire could know.

They wrote the state had already told the world “Sander was their guy,” and failed to follow other leads.

But the case has been cold since the charges against Sander were dropped, and Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning said this week he hasn’t heard of any more charges on the way.

‘Conversation went downhill’ When Sander went to the Dickinson police station for what he thought was routine questioning, he had no idea he’d end up spending the next 18 days in jail.

Sander said during his second day of interrogations, on March 4, he was answering “routine questions” from the police when “the conversation went downhill.”

Investigators told him he was being charged with arson and endangerment by fire. He was placed under arrest, a press release went out, and suddenly, many in Dickinson made their mind up about “Principal Sander.”

“It was just difficult for me to believe that that was happening and (it) seemed like a bad dream and just kind of a nightmare,” Sander said, “... not something you would ever expect, as an innocent person, to have to happen to you.”

Lloyd Suhr, one of Sander’s defense attorneys, says in years of work, he hasn’t seen such a coercive interrogation. Sander said investigators bullied him.

In one brief, Sander’s lawyers say investigators lied about having video of him starting the fire.

“It didn’t seem to me that they were treating me fairly or properly based upon things they were telling me that I knew were not true,” he said.

Suhr said after watching the hours of interrogation video, some of which was found to be coercive, he couldn’t believe it.

“I have no hesitation to say this, this was one of the worst examples of investigation as it relates to … handling of a suspect and preserving their rights … I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I about fell out of my chair when I watched this.”

Investigators denied that Sander was coerce and that they informed Sander of his Miranda rights. The judge decided Sander was not Mirandized properly, which prompted the court to rule Sander’s confession to the crime inadmissible. Henning later moved to dismiss the charges, which was accepted by the court.

Support from family and friends, coupled with his faith, helped Sander get through his time at the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center, he said.

“I was fortunate or lucky to have my Christian faith and also … every other night I would call home to my family and speak with them on the phone,” he said.

Though Sander’s contract with Trinity had already not been renewed by the time of the fire, he was fired immediately once the charges against him were filed.

He said he found out by reading it in The Press.

After being released on $50,000 bond — lowered from $500,000 — Sander left for Bismarck, and stayed there with his father, traveling back to Dickinson only for court proceedings.

“(I) decided it would be best not to stay around Dickinson while the case was ongoing,” he said.

‘The real Tom Sander’ Sander said the people who spread rumors about the case or still think he’s guilty don’t know all the facts and are making assumptions.

He maintains his innocence, and is saddened and disturbed by the lasting effect the allegations will have on him.

“The real Tom Sander is not as the charges had portrayed me,” he said. “The truth was that I loved the opportunity, being principal at Trinity High School, and wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of the youth at that school and would also say that it genuinely saddened me that … I was not able to finish out the school year and thank the many people I thought highly of, but I do wish Trinity High School and the student body well in the future.”

Suhr said some in Dickinson have a “residual feeling” that Sander is still guilty.

“I think there’s a lot of people out there that are looking at this case that are thinking the guy still did it and he just got off on a technicality,” Suhr said, “and that’s not the case.”

Life after Dickinson Dickinson left its mark on Tom Sander.

Despite not getting to the point of a conviction, the charges filed against Sander can show up in background checks done by future employers.

After the case was dismissed July 7, Sander and his father took their time winding their way back to Missouri. They visited Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, and saw some of Sander’s friends from his time in Omaha, Neb.

“The guy’s life is turned upside down,” Suhr said. “You can’t Google him without this coming up.”

Sander said that makes him apprehensive about applying for new jobs, and so he’s not sure what’s next.

“Getting back into education, that remains a possibility, but I’m not sure if that’s going to happen right away.”

Lymn is a reporter for the Press. Contact her at 701-456-1211 or tweet her at kathlymn.

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