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Attorneys give opening statements in alleged Bowman County homicide case

Chase Swanson1 / 2
Madison West2 / 2

After another lengthy day of jury selection, attorneys gave their opening statements in the felony trial of two individuals who were allegedly involved in the death of a Rhame man at a motel in Bowman in 2016.

Madison Beth West, 27 of Dickinson, and Chase Duane Swanson, 23 of Bowman, have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder, a Class AA felony. A Class AA felony faces a maximum of life in prison without parole.

The charges stem from the death of Nicholas Johnson, 23 of Rhame, who was found dead in a room at the El-Vu motel in Bowman on Aug. 20, 2016.

West and Swanson have also been charged with theft of property and Swanson is charged with felon in possession of a firearm, both Class C felonies. West was also previously charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, however, that charge was dismissed.

Assistant Attorney General Britta K. Demello Rice gave the state's opening statement. She claimed that Johnson was "beaten beyond recognition," was "stomped on" and strangled with a belt, noting Johnson's cause of death was asphyxiation. Demello Rice alleged that Johnson also sustained other injuries, including a broken rib that lacerated an organ and blunt force trauma to the head.

Demello Rice indicated that the 14-person jury will likely hear from Todd Pashano, who was staying in the El-Vu motel at the time and knew West and Swanson. Pashano has been charged with hindering law enforcement, a Class C felony. His trial is scheduled for May. Demello Rice claimed Pashano observed what "no individual should ever have to observe" when he came into the room on Aug. 20.

She claimed the three took Johnson's vehicle and travelled to Swanson's family house in rural Bowman County and then made their way to Cheyenne, Wyo., where they allegedly dropped multiple bloody items off at West's father's residence, including some of Johnson's belongings. The group then drove to Denver where Pashano called 911 in a hotel, Demello Rice said. The group was arrested in Denver.

"(Johnson's mother) will never see her son again and Madison West and Chase Swanson are responsible for that," Demello Rice told the jury.

In his opening statement, Swanson's attorney Thomas Murtha said the state's opening statement was "just a theory." He continued, saying that evidence would show there was "no agreement to kill Nicholas Johnson." He claimed the three—West, Swanson and Johnson—were at the bar in Bowman and that Johnson wanted to have a "three-way," which Swanson objected to. Murtha said the three drank at the bar and eventually took Johnson's truck to the El-Vu motel where Johnson invited himself into West and Swanson's room.

Murtha continued, alleging Johnson and Swanson "got into a fight over a girl." He claimed Johnson brandished a knife and Swanson struck back. Murtha also claimed in his opening statement Johnson tried to "rape Madison West." Murtha added that when Pashano came into the room Swanson told him what happened and claimed Pashano kicked Johnson, calling him a "rapist."

Murtha said following the altercation Swanson left to calm down and have a cigarette, adding when Swanson left "Mr. Johnson was alive," but when Swanson returned Murtha said Johnson was not alive. Murtha said Swanson then ran.

Murtha also pointed out during his opening statement that while the trial is unique because there are two defendants appearing in court at the same time, they are still different and noted that the two may present different witnesses and different evidence.

Kevin McCabe, attorney for Madison West, noted he wished to hold his opening statement until the state presented its case.

The case resumes on Wednesday morning.

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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