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Swanson takes the stand in Bowman County homicide trial

Editor's note: This story contains content that may be graphic for some readers. One of two defendants charged in the 2016 death of a Rhame, N.D., man took the stand Tuesday, Feb. 20 at the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson. Madison Beth West,...

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Chase Swanson

Editor's note: This story contains content that may be graphic for some readers.

One of two defendants charged in the 2016 death of a Rhame, N.D., man took the stand Tuesday, Feb. 20 at the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson.

Madison Beth West, 27, of Dickinson, and Chase Duane Swanson, 22, of Bowman, have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder, a Class AA felony, in Bowman County District Court.

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.

Swanson testified on his own behalf Tuesday for three hours, saying he worked during the day before Johnson's death and then went with West to his family home for dinner. After dinner, they went to Windy's Bar in Bowman around 8 p.m., Swanson testified.

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He said Johnson came into the bar at about 8:30 p.m., and Johnson said he would have to buy Swanson a drink because he had recently turned 21. Swanson then testified he told West around 10 p.m. they needed to leave because they had to work in the morning. Eventually, they left about 11 p.m., and Johnson offered to give them a ride home. West's car was left at the bar.

In the vehicle, Johnson spoke about a threesome he had had at the Sturgis motorcycle rally, Swanson testified, adding Johnson never brought up having a threesome between the three of them.

Once they got to the motel, Johnson shut off the truck and followed West into the room. Swanson claimed he told Johnson he was tired and wanted to go to sleep because he and West had to work in the morning.

Swanson testified Johnson made his way to the bed where West was and asked for oral sex. Johnson later said West was going to perform oral sex on him and pulled out a knife, Swanson testified.

After Johnson allegedly pulled out the knife, Swanson said he began to strike Johnson in the face several times. He believed Johnson was trying to kill him.

Eventually, the two ended up on the bed, according to Swanson. Johnson had dropped the knife, and Swanson said he threw it across the room.

He said Johnson eventually got ahold of the knife again and did not let go until after Swanson had struck Johnson in the back of the head with a ratchet four times.

Swanson said West came up to him hugging him and said "You saved my life. You're my hero."

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At that point, Swanson said, Todd Pashano knocked on the door and then walked in. He said he told Pashano about an alleged attempted rape and claimed Pashano later kicked Johnson, as well.

Swanson said he left the room. He said he could hear Pashano and West laughing inside the motel room. When he walked back in, he said, there was a flashlight up Johnson's rectum and a belt around his neck. He claimed Pashano tightened the belt and hit Johnson in the head with a flashlight before they left.

He said it was Pashano's idea to take Johnson's truck, and that Pashano drove first. They first made a stop at Swanson's family home where he got a gun to protect himself and West, Swanson claimed. He said two nights prior to the incident he had had a "run-in" with Pashano where Pashano allegedly picked Swanson up and slammed him to the ground.

Swanson claimed Pashano's driving was erratic and that he was speeding a lot on country roads. He also claimed Pashano had his phone the entire time in the truck. At some point Swanson took over driving and made the suggestion that they turn themselves in. He said Pashano and he came up with a plan to say that Pashano had been kidnapped by West and Swanson.

Swanson also said when they arrived at West's father's home in Cheyenne, Wyo., that they should remove the license plates from the truck to potentially get pulled over. A Rhame fire department license plate plaque was found in the trash at the West home in Wyoming, but the license plates were later put back on.

Once in Denver and after going to a marijuana dispensary, Swanson claimed that they should turn themselves in or get themselves arrested. He claimed he told Pashano to call authorities, which he later would do and the three were later arrested.

Swanson also claimed West had dumped water on the floor at the El-Vu motel room to clean up the scene, as well spoke about a fight the two had had about an ex-boyfriend of West's that led to him leaving the room and the later confrontation with Pashano. Swanson also claimed he had "slipped" West the gun he had gotten from the family shop while in the truck, and he said West had picked up a camo knife at the motel. All of these were incidents he said he was speaking about for the first time in front of authorities at the courthouse on Tuesday. It was also the first time he had spoken about the alleged prior incident with Pashano.

When asked by the state if he was a "jealous person" Swanson said no, but he added, "I can be protective."

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He would later go onto say, "I didn't kill anyone."

The state rested its case before Swanson's testimony on Tuesday morning with North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigations Special Agent Timothy Helmer taking the stand yet again.

Upon cross examination, Helmer testified about the fingerprinting that was done at the crime scene. Helmer said investigators did not do any fingerprinting at the scene, but noted several items were sent to the state lab for fingerprints, which came back negative.

Additionally, Helmer testified about bloody shoe prints that were found in the motel room on Aug. 20, 2016. He said shoe prints found at the scene were consistent with the pattern and size of the shoes that West was wearing when she was arrested. He said they did not find shoe prints matching Pashano's or Swanson's.

During Helmer's testimony, Kevin McCabe, West's attorney, and Thomas Murtha, Swanson's attorney, asked questions about inconsistencies and discrepancies in Pashano's story to law enforcement in court and to officers. Pashano has been charged with hindering law enforcement, a Class C felony, in connection with the case.

McCabe noted his client was not totally innocent, but he said, "she is not a monster."

"Madison West at no point agreed to murder Nicholas Johnson," McCabe said.

McCabe indicated West may take the stand, as well.

The case is set to begin again Wednesday morning.

Madison West
Madison West

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