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Attorney files motion to suppress statements made by suspect in Spring Brook homicide

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE  —  An attorney representing a 20-year-old Stanley woman accused in the stabbing death of Alexander Woodworth in the Town of Spring Brook last March has filed a motion to suppress statements made by the defendant.

During a four-hour motion hearing August 23, Aaron Nelson, the attorney for Ezra J. McCandless, focused much of his questioning on whether McCandless knew she did not have to answer questions from law enforcement officers.

The officers conducted initial interviews with McCandless when she was confined to a locked ward at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, and Nelson’s questions also focused on whether she knew she was free to leave the interview at any time.

McCandless is charged with one felony count of first degree intentional homicide, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison if McCandless is convicted of stabbing the 24-year-old Woodworth to death.

The autopsy report indicated Woodworth had been stabbed 16 times.

The prosecutor in the case is assistant State Attorney General Richard Dufour.

On foot

A Town of Spring Brook resident called Dunn County dispatch on March 22 to say a woman had arrived at his residence on foot. The man said the woman was bleeding, her clothes were torn, she was not wearing any shoes and her pants were covered in mud, according to the criminal complaint.

The Dunn County deputy who responded to the residence, along with a state trooper, noted the woman’s hair was disheveled, her pants were muddy to the knees, and she appeared to have blood around her mouth, on her knuckles, on her left arm and on her upper right thigh visible through an “L” shaped hole in her pants, the complaint notes.

The woman was transported by ambulance to Mayo-Eau Claire. The deputy followed, and as the woman was being treated by medical staff, she said her name was Ezra McCandless and that she had changed her name from Monica Karlen in 2015. The deputy was able to see the word “boy” was cut into her left arm, according to the complaint.

When detectives searched an area on March 23 near where McCandless had arrived at a residence on foot the day before, they found a 2003 Chevy Impala, which was later confirmed to be McCandless’s vehicle. The driver’s side rear door was standing open, and clothing items were lying on the ground.

As the detectives approached the vehicle, they could see the head and upper torso of an individual lying partially out of the driver’s side rear door, and it was apparent the person was deceased. There was blood around the vehicle and no signs of life. The detectives determined there were no other victims, so they backed out of the area to preserve what they believed to be a crime scene, according to the complaint.

Nelson filed a motion with the court August 16 to not allow medical or healthcare provider testimony at the hearing on the motion to suppress McCandless’s statements.

Judge Peterson granted Nelson’s motion to not allow any medical or healthcare provider testimony.

McCandless was interviewed by law enforcement officers both before and after Woodworth’s body was found.

Inpatient

The first witness to take the stand was Kelly Swartos, a social worker at the inpatient behavioral health unit at Mayo-Eau Claire.

Swartos has worked at Mayo since September of 2017 and explained the unit where she is employed is an inpatient mental health care locked unit.

Patients are free to come and go from their rooms and the day room/common area but they have no access to the conference room, staff offices and staff bathrooms, she said.

The conference room has a door that locks automatically and is locked from the outside but not from the inside so that someone wanting to gain access to the conference room would need a key to get in but someone inside the conference room only has to push on the door to get out, Swartos explained.

When law enforcement officers arrived to speak with McCandless on March 24, Swartos testified McCandless was sleeping lightly but woke up right away when Swartos said McCandless’s name.

Swartos testified she told McCandless law enforcement officers wanted to talk to her but that she had the right to refuse.

McCandless went with Swartos to the conference room. While McCandless had no verbal response to Swartos saying law enforcement officers wanted to speak with her, McCandless’s actions indicated agreement to speak with the officers, Swartos said.

Swartos testified she was not in the conference room when McCandless was being interviewed on March 24 and had no knowledge of any interviews conducted on March 23.

Patients cannot leave the behavioral health unit unless someone releases them, she said.

Assault

Eau Claire Police Department Detective Ryan Prock testified that when he first got the McCandless case, “we did not know what we had.”

The case initially was thought to be a possible sexual assault, Detective Prock said.

Detective Prock testified he’d had prior contact with McCandless several weeks earlier as a victim.

A Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) had done an exam, and law enforcement thought McCandless was a victim before Woodworth’s body was found, he said.

Law enforcement had been unable to make contact with Woodworth, but Woodworth could have been in hiding because he was a suspect, Detective Prock said.

The detective spoke with McCandless on March 23, and an audio recording of the interview was made, he said.

During the interview, which lasted 32 and ½ minutes, McCandless sat closest to the door of the conference room. Nothing was blocking her exit from the room, and nothing she said changed the idea that she was a victim, Detective Prock said.

The detective said he had asked open-ended questions to attempt to find out what had happened, and McCandless remained calm and did not say she did not want to talk.

Detective Prock testified he had returned on March 24 to speak with McCandless after Woodworth’s body had been found, but at that point, the detective said he did not know how Woodworth had died, and he did not know Woodworth’s death had been a homicide.

Detective Prock said he was “trying to put the pieces together.”

The interview on March 24 lasted an hour and a half, and Deputy Brett Kohnke with the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department also was present during the interview.

McCandless again was seated in the chair closest to the door, Detective Prock said.

Detective Prock said he had asked most of the questions but that Deputy Kohnke had used a calm voice with a conversational tone.

McCandless was “emotional” at some points during the interview and was crying, but her responses to the questions were “appropriate,” Detective Prock said.

During his time in law enforcement, Detective Prock said he had interviewed people who were victims, suspects and witnesses and that McCandless’s behavior during the interview could have been consistent with being a victim, a suspect or a witness.

Assistant Attorney General Dufour asked whether the questions on March 24 were asked as if McCandless were a suspect or a victim, and Detective Prock said the questions McCandless had been asked were asked as if she were a victim.

Detective Prock said he had never told McCandless she was required to answer questions and had never told her she could not leave.

The detective said he did not recall anything unusual about McCandless’s eye contact, body language or her demeanor and did not recall if McCandless had indicated she was in pain.

Brett Kohnke, who at the time of the interviews with McCandless was an investigator with the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department, testified he did not know what had happened, so he did not know if McCandless was a suspect or a victim.

McCandless was calm and quiet while she was speaking with law enforcement officers, although at times she was “emotional” too, Kohnke said.

By emotional, Kohnke testified he meant McCandless had gotten tears in her eyes but that she was not angry.

McCandless seemed sad and slightly upset, and Kohnke said he interpreted her tears to mean McCandless was upset.

Judge Peterson set a date of October 19 for the prosecution to file briefs regarding Nelson’s motion.

Nelson will have until November 9 to file briefs in response, and the state has a deadline of November 28 to file a follow-up.

Judge Peterson will give his oral decision on the motion to suppress McCandless’s statements at 8:30 a.m. December 3. 

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