Back in North Dakota to testify for prosecution in murder trial, Williston man yearns to return to Thailand
WILLISTON, N.D. -- When Bruce Sesseman left Williston in 2013, he thought it was for good. Plagued by stress and nightmares after witnessing a shooting, he moved to Thailand, hoping to start a new life.
WILLISTON, N.D. - When Bruce Sesseman left Williston in 2013, he thought it was for good. Plagued by stress and nightmares after witnessing a shooting, he moved to Thailand, hoping to start a new life.
Before long, the dramatic relocation proved successful. Sesseman began training with an accomplished martial arts fighter, found love and started teaching English to schoolchildren.
Then, he got a message from his brother. The case against Jonathan Horvath, who was accused of killing another man outside a downtown strip club, was headed to trial, and the Williams County State’s Attorney’s Office wanted Sesseman to testify.
Reluctant at first, Sesseman offered to appear in court via video feed, but prosecutors urged him to return to the United States. His testimony was too valuable to be delivered over a screen, they said.
So Sesseman, 37, an Illinois native who’d worked in Williston for about three years before the deadly shooting, came back. He flew into Fargo, because a change of venue request prompted by local media coverage of the shooting resulted in the trial being held in Wahpeton.
Horvath was convicted of murder following a two-day trial, making a quick return to Thailand seem likely until a series of apparent misunderstandings started to unravel Sesseman’s plans.
A year and a half later, he is still in Williston, unable to afford travel expenses to get back to Asia.
No ticket home
The ordeal began in July 2014, when the State’s Attorney’s Office paid for his airfare to North Dakota.
Sesseman says the office did offer to pay for a round trip, but after he announced his intention to return to Williston, find temporary work and pay off a debt to a friend who’d covered his visa expenses to leave Thailand, prosecutors started hedging.
“They told me when I was in Thailand to come back, we’ll get through the trial and then we’ll talk about it,” Sesseman said.
Following the conviction, the two sides were still at odds, and finally, the state’s attorney paid Sesseman’s train fare to Williston, despite his request to drive back with prosecutors in order to avoid the expense.
Sesseman said he was told the round trip offer only stood if he flew into and out of the same airport, and could not include extra travel.
“I didn’t refuse a round trip ticket, I said I did want a round trip ticket but I want to pay this $500 debt back. I wanted my return ticket out of Williston, but they said you’re coming back to work, you’re on your own now,” he said.
Despite Sesseman’s insistence on how his travel arrangements were handled, Williams County State’s Attorney Marlyce Wilder says he was clearly told that a refusal of the initial round trip offer would take a ticket home off the table.
“Per our protocol, we inquired of Mr. Sesseman if he wanted to return to Thailand, as we would accommodate that request and make arrangements for round-trip travel,” Wilder wrote in an email on Jan. 7. “Mr. Sesseman declined. We made the arrangements for one-way travel for him to appear and testify. The travel arrangements are not open-ended. It was a one-time offer, which was made very clear to Mr. Sesseman.”
Wilder said that Sesseman asked repeatedly for a return ticket “well after” his airfare to the United States was paid, but by that time, it was too late, and his requests were denied.
Generosity from a stranger
Through low periods and financial struggles, Sesseman has persistently shared his story, primarily over social media. Last month, local business owner Jawaid Surani saw Sesseman’s story posted online. He invited Sesseman, whom he’d never met, to his home in Williston on New Year’s Eve and bought him a plane ticket from St. Louis to Thailand. The plane is scheduled to leave on Jan. 31.
Surani said he offered to fly Sesseman out of Williston, which would have meant a flight to Denver, then on to Thailand, but Sesseman declined, saying he wants to visit his mother’s memorial stone in Illinois before leaving the country.
The two settled on St. Louis as the best departure point.
“When somebody needs help everybody needs to pull together,” Surani said. “That’s how we’re supposed to do it, if we can afford it...He needed to go back.”
Sesseman said he’s grateful for Surani’s generosity, but he still can’t afford a train ticket east and travel expenses.
“I am more than thankful and blessed that there’s someone who heard about my story” and offered to help, Sesseman said, adding that he is hoping others in the community will lend financial support as well.
Earlier this month, Sesseman set up a gofundme account in the hopes of raising enough money to see him through the trip back. So far, one person has donated $25.
Sharing with a broad audience
Friday morning, Sesseman met with Williston Mayor Howard Klug, in the hopes that Klug would arrange financial assistance for him through the city.
The mayor said he will base any decisions on what he learns after checking into Sesseman’s story and talking to the state’s attorney’s office.
“I have some questions,” Klug said, adding that he wasn’t aware of Sesseman’s involvement in the strip club shooting prior to their meeting.
“It’s a compelling story...It’s the first time I’ve heard of this,” he said.
Despite noting some wrinkles in the account, the mayor conceded that in photos from Thailand, Sesseman appeared much different from the man who was sitting in front of him on Friday.
“That looks like a person who was happy, in a good place,” Klug said.
Now, Sesseman is living in a friend’s spare room after spending the past three months fixing up a house for a property owner who lives out of state.
Between paying for basic necessities here and trying to support his fiancee and her family in Thailand, there’s little left to save and he feels forced into seeking assistance.
“Just help me get home, help me get my life back,” he said. “I sacrificed everything to make sure this guy went to jail...I think I did a lot for this city. It’s not an easy thing for me to ask for help.”
At the Williston city commission meeting Tuesday night, Sesseman recounted his story to a standing room only crowd, most of whom were in attendance to hear the commissioners’ decision on relocating strip clubs to industrial areas outside of town. Sesseman spoke briefly, and pushed through the crowd to the door before commission members could respond. “That’s all I have to say, thank you for your time,” he said, before leaving the room.
Outside, he stood on the sidewalk, smoking. One man patted him on the shoulder as he walked by, and another grabbed him for a long hug.
Face to face with a gunman
Sesseman was hired as a bouncer at Heartbreakers in 2011, about a year after he’d moved to Williston and started working as a project manager at a construction site. To supplement his income, he took on various private security jobs, including the role at the strip club.
On a night in March 2013, he was off-duty and leaning against a doorway just inside the club when a fight broke out. A bullet whizzed past Sesseman’s face and he froze, hugging the wall, bracing for a gunman to try to force his way inside. When nothing happened for a few long moments, Sesseman said he ran out into the street and found Derrick Spiegel, 25, who’d been shot in the head and the chest.
“It was a little too late for Derrick. There ain’t no fixing those kind of wounds,” Sesseman said.
Barely thinking, he shouted to bystanders, who told him the shooter, Horvath, was inside a nearby truck. Sesseman walked by and heard yelling inside.
“I heard him say ‘I’m going to blow your head off if you don’t drive,’” he said. Crouching low, he was able to open the truck’s door and spot Horvath holding a woman at gunpoint.
“I infiltrated the vehicle and he took the gun off her head and pointed it at me,” Sesseman said. A struggle followed, during which Sesseman was able to grab the pistol and keep Horvath from shutting the truck’s door long enough for the woman to escape.
When Horvath took off running a short time later, Sessman said he chased him down an alley before returning to Main Street.
Sesseman said he knew Spiegel as an occasional visitor to the club.
“He never caused any problems with anybody,” he said. “As soon as I seen him on the ground I knew who he was. He wasn’t a big regular, but I knew he had a wife and kids.”
Despite Sesseman’s intuitive reaction that night, the frightening experience became a source of anxiety. He started drinking more, and was haunted by nightmares. Eventually, he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
“I go to sleep and relive that night, I can’t sleep, I was afraid to go to sleep and that affected my work and my social life, and I started drinking too much,” Sesseman said.
Several months later, he’d reached a breaking point, and decided to try to start over in Thailand.
As a competitive kickboxer, Sesseman had often wanted to visit the country, known for its skilled martial arts instructors, but never had an opportunity.
“I figured I needed a life change, I took a ticket and a little bit of money and I left,” he said.
He was there for almost a year before returning to testify at Horvath’s trial.
'I found the best of myself'
The move, made on a whim, led to unexpected opportunities, and even love.
Sesseman sought out a respected Muay Thai instructor in the city of Nakhon Ratchasima, commonly known as Korat, and was accepted for training. He resumed competition in martial arts, and eventually become a Muay Thai instructor himself.
“I found the best of myself when I was there,” Sesseman said. “I was the happiest I’d ever been in my life. It was the first time in my life I really felt like I was at home.”
During that time, he met a local woman named Jiraporn Phangrit, and the two eventually became engaged. Phangrit, who spoke in an interview from her home in Thailand, said she is impatient for Sesseman to return, but understands why he left.
“He is important to my heart and important with my family . Everybody loves him because he is a good man,” she said.
Phangrit said Sesseman was helping her provide for her family, including her mother, sister and several nieces and nephews.
It’s been a “long time and not easy for me,” she said. “When he came back to the United States everything changed and he told me everything there was expensive… But he works there and sends money to me, it’s small money and he can’t take care (of us.) Bruce tells me I must be strong and patient and everything will be okay.”
Although Sesseman did not speak Thai when he arrived in Asia, he learned the language and accepted an offer to teach English to schoolchildren at a summer camp in the Korat school district.
The summer classroom job led to another invitation from an administrator in Korat who asked Sesseman to teach English at the Banwanghin School during the regular academic year.
He was instructing 30 primary school students in English and physical education when the request came from the United States for him to take the stand as a witness to murder.
“I told my students I’d be back in two weeks,” Sesseman said.
A reluctant return
The demons that began to haunt Sesseman after Spiegel’s shooting resurfaced as soon as he stepped off the train in Williston two summers ago. He walked past the place on Main Street where he’d seen Spiegel dying, and fell back into alcohol use and depression.
“It was from that very night (upon returning to Williston) that I started having dreams again,” he said. “Being here and being stuck here is a bad deal for me.”
Like a horrible case of deja vu, Sesseman found himself at the scene of another violent death, in nearly the exact spot between the two Main Street strip clubs that Spiegel was gunned down. In August 2014, he was downtown celebrating his nephew’s 21st birthday at one of the clubs when the two went outside for a cigarette. A fight broke out, and Sesseman heard the sound of a man hitting the pavement.
He pushed through the crowd and found Dean Neiderklopfer, 25, lying in the street very close to where Siegel had a year ago. Sesseman gave Neiderklopfer first aid and kept his airways clear until emergency responders arrived, but the younger man later died at the hospital.
Sesseman’s account is corroborated by news stories from the time that name him as a witness.
Kyle Siler, a former bouncer at Whispers, later pleaded guilty to manslaughter for punching Neiderklopfer in the back of the head, resulting in his fatal fall.
Series of misfortunes
After his return to Williston, Sesseman used his skills as a carpenter to find odd jobs, but barely made enough to cover his living expenses. He fell back into heavy drinking and got into several scrapes with the law, resulting in fines that cut into his finances even more.
Then, his father died in Illinois, which spurred more alcohol use, and brought with it the expense of a trip to his home state.
A few months later, Sesseman was arrested by Williston police for driving under the influence.
“I just wasn’t doing good, but I was still trying to work and save money,” he said. “All I wanted to do was go home. It’s just been a mess for me.”
Sesseman briefly taught kickboxing classes in Williston, and gained a bit of local notoriety after competing in a mixed martial arts fight at the Upper Missouri Valley Fairgrounds during the summer. Following a loss to Williston’s John Sanborn, Sesseman appeared to approach his opponent with the intention of offering a congratulatory hug after the bell, but delivered an angry head-butt instead. Sesseman was escorted from the ring to the boos of a disapproving crowd, and was subsequently banned from competing in the United States.
A video of the moment drew thousands of views online.
It’s a confrontation that Sesseman regrets, and one that he says was a product of stress induced by his prolonged stay in Williston.
“Looking back on that video, I don’t know who that was on there,” he said. “I never should have gotten into the ring.”