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State forensic examiner testifies in Bowman County homicide case

Madison West1 / 2
Chase Swanson2 / 2

Jury members heard the first testimony in the felony trial of two individuals who were allegedly involved in the homicide of a Rhame man at a motel in Bowman in 2016 on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

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.

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. A Class AA felony faces a maximum of life in prison without parole.

Bowman County state's attorney Stephanie Pretzer, aided by Britta Demello Rice and Jonathan Byers from the North Dakota Attorney General's office, presented 10 witnesses on Wednesday, including an individual who had interacted with West, Swanson and Johnson on Aug. 19, 2016, a man who was staying at the motel that night, law enforcement and the state forensic examiner, among others.

State forensic examiner William Massello testified about the autopsy he performed on Aug. 22, 2016. He said when the body arrived there was still blood on it and Johnson was clothed. He also noted there was a broad, brown leather belt around his neck.

Massello testified for well over an hour about the extensive injuries he examined on Johnson's body, which included blunt force trauma to the head, bruising and swelling to the face, and tears on the back of the head. Massello also testified that the victim had bruising on the back of his hands and arms, which indicated he may have been trying to defend or protect himself.

He said there were marks and bruising on the body, as well as a laceration to the liver, fractured ribs and a bruised diaphragm.

While Massello believed ligature was the ultimate cause of death, he noted that blunt force trauma to the head, the fractured rib and other injuries could have caused Johnson's death without treatment. He said there "was no doubt" Johnson's death was a homicide.

In response to questions asked by defense attorneys Thomas Murtha and Kevin McCabe, Massello said he couldn't tell the order in which the injuries had occurred, but noted the laceration on the liver and other internal injuries likely happened before or shortly after death. Massello also told Murtha, Swanson's attorney, that death from strangulation can take around two minutes because of the lack of blood flow to the brain. He did not observe any stabs or knife wounds to Johnson's body.

McCabe, West's attorney, asked Massello what Johnson's blood alcohol content was when it was measured. Massello said it was around .23. Massello said they found no drugs in Johnson's system.

Felise LaFlamme, the state's first witness, told jurors that she had arrived at the bar in Bowman around 10 p.m. on Aug. 19, 2016. She said at that time she considered herself friends with West and interacted with her that night at the bar. LaFlamme testified that she works at the bar but the night of Aug. 19, 2016 she was just a patron. She said she arrived after West and Swanson but it was not clear if Johnson was at the bar at this time.

LaFlamme also testified that Swanson seemed to be in a "jealous rage" at one point in the night, tugging on another patron's arm like he wanted to fight and said Swanson and West left the bar some time between 11 p.m. and 12 a.m. that night. She noted that Johnson was still at the bar when the couple left and believed he did not leave until before close.

Kevin Zindler, a man who was staying at the El-Vu motel at the time, testified about the loud "smashing" noises he had heard coming from a different room that night. He described a loud "bam, bam, bam, bam" noise coming from down the hall some time between 11:30 p.m. and 12:45 a.m. He said he stopped hearing the noises some time around 1:30 a.m. and did not know what was happening until the next day when he was interviewed by law enforcement.

The case will resume on Thursday, Feb. 15 at the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson.

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.

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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