FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Otter Tail County prosecutor Michelle Eldien had to drop about a dozen cases in which Otter Tail County Sheriff's Deputy Kelly Backman was a crucial witness.
Eldien would not comment on what type of charges were thrown out.
Backman was charged in Otter Tail County District Court on Friday, Feb. 19, with one gross misdemeanor count of misconduct by a public officer/exceeding authority and one misdemeanor count of fourth-degree driving while intoxicated. The latter charge alleges Backman had fentanyl in his system at the time of an Oct. 2 crash, which killed a husband and wife.
Grand Forks defense lawyer Ted Sandberg, who is not connected to the case, told Forum News Service that prosecutors had no other choice but to drop the charges in those cases where Backman was a witness.
"That's the very hard medicine. There is absolutely a serious question of public safety," said Sandberg, a former homicide prosecutor in Detroit. "There is a question on whether or not he is really telling the truth about the narcotics transfer," he said.
During a follow-up investigation after a pursuit by Backman led to a fatal crash, officers claim they noticed a mix of hard drugs and prescription medications that appeared to be missing or were lied about in evidence reports. A toxicology report found fentanyl in Backman's system at the time of the case, according to court documents.
Investigators also claim they found pipes for smoking drugs and grinders in Backman's desk and locker at work, along with a container that appeared to be consumed for drug use. Officers also noted that in an evidence locker that only Backman had access to, there were more signs that drugs had been smoked and used, along with a scale.
Sandberg said, in a way, the discovery is a positive thing, because it could have gone on for years and escalated.
"In the short-term, it might be painful for the community to have to digest, but at the same time this is how the system works, and it worked well. Police officers rarely get into this kind of trouble," he said.
While a dozen cases involving Backman have been dropped, Sandberg said, it would be tough to argue that the charges of vehicular homicide against Cody Freitag should be dropped in his case.
- Court papers say deputy had fentanyl in his system during Fergus Falls chase that led to double-fatal crash
- Deputies involved in fatal Fergus Falls chase under investigation
"At some point, you have to start asking, 'Alright, but what was your conduct, sir, even if the police officer's conduct at the beginning was improper?" Sandberg said.
According to court papers, Backman and another deputy, Michael Wing, lured Freitag to a gas station in order to arrest the 31-year-old for outstanding warrants for domestic violence and drugs. Freitag became aware of the presence of the officers and fled, with both deputies giving chase in separate vehicles, court documents stated.
Court papers say Backman was in pursuit when Freitag ignored a stop sign in downtown Fergus Falls and hit another car at high speed. The crash killed 72-year-old Steve Christianson and his 71-year-old wife, Diane.
Backman's first court date has not been set.
If convicted of the DWI charge for allegedly driving with fentanyl in his system during the pursuit, and on the misconduct charge, he could spend more than a year behind bars.
Forum News Service reporter David Olson contributed to this story.