Wilton, North Dakota. Population 711. A town divided in two parts. Two different counties butting up against each other. Not coming together, but rather colliding at Main Street.
Burleigh County runs south to Bismarck, the state capital. Settled by Swedish immigrants. Hard-working farmers. Now, mostly government jobs in Bismarck. Government lives. Government health insurance. Rock-ribbed Republicans. Anti-union.
McLean County runs to the north. Lignite country. Coal country. Populated by later-arriving Ukrainians. Vanishing jobs. Vanishing lives. Vanishing dreams. Roosevelt Democrats. Now, flag-waving Trump voters.
The fault line separating the two counties had remained buried for three generations. One summer day it would rupture to the surface. On August 2, 1998, a body was found east of town, right on the county line. It was partially hidden among the spoil piles left behind by the draglines used to strip the coal buried beneath the surface years earlier.
Piles of dirt and rock, now overgrown with trees and shrubs planted by the local wildlife club and the Game and Fish Department to provide wildlife habitat. Cottonwoods, green ash, buffaloberry, chokecherry and other scrub trees. But on the northern prairie, our very own Sherwood Forest.
The body was Jared Schmitz. 18 years old. A Burleigh County boy. Shot six times in the back. Jared had likely been there more than once. The secluded area, known as the Wilton Mine, was a convenient gravel source for local road projects, but also a cozy lover’s lane for teenagers groping for their first kiss. And a ready-made moto-cross track for daredevil little boys on their dirt bikes. And also a shooting range for older boys plinking at Coke cans with their dads’ .22’s. Jared had probably done all of those.
In a small town, there are no secrets. Wilton is no different. Everybody’s business is everybody’s business. It’s hard to be a teenager in a town with 200 mothers.
This death was no high-speed car crash. No drunken brawl. This was no accident. Six shots in the back. This was murder. And everyone knew the motive. Life’s eternal triangle. Jared Schmitz, from south of Main Street, was sleeping with someone’s girlfriend. The girlfriend of someone from north of Main Street. Someone from Coal Country. In Coal Country, a casual insult buys you a bar fight. But sleeping with someone’s woman takes the insult to a whole other level.
Because the body was found near the county line, criminal jurisdiction was unclear. Both county sheriffs’ departments were called. In all honesty, there wasn’t much of an investigation. Everyone knew who did it. It was the boyfriend, 22-year-old Corey Braun. Jared Schmitz had been sleeping with his girlfriend. Pick Corey up. Bring him in.
They found him at his mother’s house and took him to the Wilton Police Department. The Wilton Police Department has two rooms—the reception area and the Chief’s office. The Wilton Police Department has one police officer. The Chief.
Because the body was found outside city limits, the Chief had the good sense to stay out of the way. But he did volunteer his office for the questioning. Burleigh County had the most manpower and resources, and they took the lead. Burleigh County had two detectives in Wilton that morning. Deputies Brian Hulst and Peter Briske. They were both big, burly men. Their size was their personality. Strong, loud, authoritative voices.
The Chief’s office was small and crowded. The two deputies and Corey were crowded around the Chief’s desk with a small tape recorder siting in the middle. After the initial pleasantries, the deputies got down to business. The time for small town banter was over. It was “confession time.
”Deputy Hulst told Corey that he was free to leave. Free to leave. But it got serious when he pulled out his Miranda card.
“You have the right to remain silent.”
“Anything you say can, and will, be used against you.”
“If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you by a court of law.”
“Do you understand those rights as I have read them?”
“Are you waiving those rights?”
“What does that mean?”
“That means you will tell us what happened with Jared.”
“I . . . I want a lawyer.”
“I . . . I want a lawyer.”
“You want a lawyer? If that’s how you want to play it, fine with us. We got you cold.”
Deputies Hulst and Briske left Corey in the Chief’s office and walked out to the reception area. They telephoned the Burleigh County State’s Attorney Sandra “Sandy” Patrick . . . smart, tenacious, mean, dishonest, cutthroat. Your average, everyday prosecutor.
“Is anyone there from McLean County?“
"Yes, Deputy Two Hearts.”
“Give him a try.”
Tag team. Bad cop, good cop. Always works.
Deputy Ruben Two Hearts from McLean County had found the body. He was standing in the reception area, smoking a cigarette, when Deputy Hulst hung up the phone.“Ruben, do you want to give it a try?”
“Sure, I know Corey, he’ll talk to me.”
Deputy Two Hearts is an old, rural county deputy. Native American, but his mother was Irish. Along with the abandoned coal mines, McLean County partly encompasses the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
After two years in the Army, Ruben Two Hearts became a cop. Actually, he really was a peace officer. Ruben has the ability to navigate in and around all the political and legal challenges of a reservation community. But Ruben also lived in Wilton, off the reservation. He knew all the kids. He broke the case. He knew the girlfriend, Carrie. And he knew Corey.
He walked into the Chief’s office and sat down and started talking with Corey. Small talk, mostly, easy conversation. Trusted friends just talking with each other. He did, however, remember to turn on the tape recorder and read Corey his Miranda rights.
Corey folded like a cheap suit. He confessed . . . sort of.
“What happened was, me and Jared went out shooting that old piece of shit .22 of my dad’s. And I was shooting at a hawk and Jared suddenly jumped out in front of me and I accidentally shot him. He went down, but then he got up and was crazy mad and he came at me. He attacked me and I shot a few more times. Isn’t that self-defense?”
“Well, Corey, that’s above my pay grade. Someone else will decide that. I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re under arrest for the murder of Jared Schmitz. Now, you’re going to go with those fellows from Burleigh County. I will call your mom and let her know you won’t be home for supper.
”Corey was then arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the Burleigh County jail. Like every other young defendant, Corey had no money. He was a high school graduate with a sporadic work history. There were no jobs at the mine. So his grandma retained and paid me.
We country lawyers, we don’t do white collar crime. There are no white collars in rural North Dakota. The criminal docket is sex, drugs, and alcohol. Blue collar crime.
When we are retained in these criminal cases it is common to meet the whole family, not just the client, but Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Grandma, brothers, sisters, everyone. Sometimes my office looks like a bingo night at St. Michael’s Parish.
Typically, Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa pay the fee. I take calls from all family members. I listen to their advice, hear their concerns, hold their hands, eat supper at their house. I tell these families, “Until this case is over, your son is my son. I will protect him as my own.”
Corey spent two weeks in jail before we bonded him out. Ten per cent of $100,000. $10,000 cash. Grandma posted the bond, too. Corey went home to his mother’s. He never left the house.
Several weeks later he came to my office. It was the day before the preliminary hearing. I walked him through the evidence. It was pretty overwhelming. I thought we could get the confession suppressed, but it was still a hard case. Even without the confession, they had the gun, …, his gun, fingerprints, tire tracks, a dime-store alibi that collapsed immediately, opportunity, and they had motive in spades. Love, betrayal, jealousy, rage. And in high-profile murder cases, publicly-elected judges do not like to suppress confessions.
This ain’t Hollywood. The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine generally dies on the vine when the case hits the six o’clock news. It was a long day at my office, and I sent him home to his mom’s. Told him to get a good night’s sleep. Our defense started the next day.
At 5:00 a.m. the next morning my phone rang. I picked it up and heard the most unworldly, gut-wrenching screaming. Fire-engine screaming.
“Tom, Tom, you’ve got to get up here! You’ve got to get up here! Hurry!
Click. The phone went dead.
That was Corey’s mom. I jumped in my pickup and headed north to Wilton. I pulled into the driveway just behind a McLean County Sheriff’s car. Deputy Ruben Two Hearts was running toward the garage. The Braun house was north of Main Street. This was McLean County jurisdiction. In an emergency, everybody runs. I followed Ruben through the side door into the garage as he hit the light switch.
There was a tipped-over lime green lawn chair in the middle of the garage. A size 12 Nike tennis shoe on the floor. And there was Corey, hanging from a rafter. My 22-year-old client had hung himself with an old piece of clothesline rope. It is still an unforgettable sight. That was the first son I lost. There would be five more. Four sons and one daughter. I still can’t answer how that happened. Maybe I was too obtuse. Maybe I was too focused on the case and not on my client. I honestly don’t know. I had spent all of the previous day with Corey and I must have missed something. I still don’t know.
We didn’t even take Corey down from the rafter. We let him hang there. Standard protocol, Ruben said. One shoe on. One shoe off. A lawn chair tipped over on its side. His body swaying ever so slightly from the breeze blowing through the open door.
"Go in the house, Tom. I can handle this. The coroner and ambulance are on the way."
I knocked on the door. No one answered. It was unlocked so I walked in. This is still Wilton. Nobody locks their doors. Mom, Grandma and Little Brother were sitting at the kitchen table. Now, Mom was quiet, absent, vacant, silent. Ten-year-old Little Brother was staring down at a soggy bowl of Honey-Nut Cheerios. Grandma offered me a cup of coffee. It was now 6 a.m. That Morning in Wilton.
Through the kitchen window I watched the ambulance and the county coroner come and go. I never went back into the garage. Later there was a knock on the door, and Ruben asked me to come outside. He wanted to talk to the last person to see Corey alive. I went in and asked Grandma.
Ruben interviewed Little Brother in the front seat of his patrol car. I sat in the back and listened. We learned that Corey had spent most of the evening writing a letter to his 17-year-old girlfriend Carrie. He finished it in the early morning and walked half a block to the blue postal box to mail it. That was the last he was seen alive.
Little Brother was excused and he went back in the house. I moved up to the front seat and we sat a while. Not a clue what to do. Ruben lit up a cigarette. Marlboro Light.
Now, two of the people in a small town love triangle were dead. And the third was about to receive one last and final love letter. What do we do? The letter was now under the care and custody of the U.S. Postal Service.
Ruben smoked a couple more Marlboro Lights. And I finally said “Ruben, do you know the Wilton postmaster?”
“Sure. Bob Mason. Why?”
“Can you go get him and tell him to bring his keys?”
“Because he needs to open that postal box and give you the letter.”
“He needs to open that mail box and give you the letter.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind? That’s a federal crime!”
“Well no, not technically it is. Not if we get permission from Carrie. Besides, she’s a minor.”
“Not technically? What do you mean, not technically? You fucking lawyers. You’re out of your mind.”“It’s not a crime if we get permission from Carrie or her mother. We can do this. Ruben, you know the postmaster. He knows what happened here. He will help. Two kids are dead. Let’s avoid the trifecta. We need to get that letter.”“Jesus fucking Christ. Get out of my car. Get out of my car!”I got out of the car and just stood in the driveway. Ruben sat in his car smoking another cigarette. He was a smoker. Sucked it hard. He was smoking like a chimney.Then he started his car, backed it up, and headed towards downtown.He came back with the postmaster and we walked down to the postal box. Before putting the key in the lock, Mr. Mason asked, “You boys know what you’re doing here? This is a federal crime.“No, it’s not.”“Why not?”“It’s called exigent circumstances.”“Who are you?”“I’m the lawyer.”“You’re the what?”“I’m the lawyer.” (Repeated now with less conviction).“Ruben, I’ll do it for you, but I’m not doing it for some dumb-ass, smart-mouthed lawyer.”
Ruben just nodded in agreement. Mr. Mason opened the postal box, found the letter, and gave it to Ruben He left the other mail in the box and locked it up.
He then turned to Ruben “I don’t need a ride. I will walk back. You fellows are on your own.”Mr. Mason then walked back to work and Ruben drove to the McLean County Sheriff’s office to open up and copy the letter.
In North Dakota, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, second only to car crashes. It is a close second. There is no manual for what we did That Morning in Wilton. There were no rules. That Morning in Wilton, we were just hoping to save somebody’s life.
I waited outside the Braun house. Ruben returned about an hour later. The letter had been re-sealed. It looked good. Couldn’t even tell that it had been opened. Clearly, this wasn’t the first letter that had been opened at the McLean County Sheriff’s office.
Ruben picked me up. Not sure why. I am not exactly sure why I was part of all this. When you don’t know what you’re doing, sometimes two is better than one. We drove to Carrie’s house and her mother met us at the door. She knew about Corey and she had been crying. Carrie was in her bedroom crying. The mother knew Ruben but she wasn’t sure who I was. I kept quiet this time. Ruben did all the talking. He told her about the letter and he gave it to her.
“Corey wrote this letter for your daughter. Carrie is a minor. You decide if she ever reads it. It’s your call.”
She took the letter and thanked Ruben. She also asked about Corey’s family and sent her sympathies. Wilton is a small town.
Ruben drove us back to the Braun house so I could get my pickup. This time, he parked on the street. He lit up another Marlboro Light. We sat in the car for a while and he said, “We need to talk. None of this will be in my report and I don’t ever want to see it in any report, and I’m not talking about Bob Mason.” I got his point.
“Just so you know, this morning you weren’t just another dumb-ass lawyer. This morning we became friends. See you around.”That was the end of One Morning in Wilton. But that was not the end of this story.
It would continue four days later. The funeral was at a country Lutheran church tucked inside a grove of prairie cottonwoods. The church sits alone alongside Highway 36. Bethany Lutheran Church. Founded in 1883, six years before North Dakota became a state. Swedish immigrants came to farm and settled mostly over the Burleigh County line—Jared and Carrie’s people. The Ukrainians arrived later and worked the mines. Corey’s people.
The church is quite large, with dozens of pews reaching front to back. The only thing the Swedes were optimistic about was the size of the church. The families of Jared, Corey and Carrie all belonged to Bethany Lutheran Church.Two months earlier, Jared’s funeral was held on a blistering hot day. The church was packed. As is the custom in the Lutheran Church, after the service, lunch was served in the church basement. Scalloped potatoes, baked ham, coffee, lemonade, 24 different kinds (it seemed) of Jell-o.Several months later, a second funeral was held at Bethany Lutheran Church, same pastor, same service. Corey’s funeral. I sat in the second pew, behind the family. The church was not packed. The pews behind me were empty except for two people. Seated way in the back was Carrie. Sitting beside her was Ruben Two Hearts.Death by suicide makes the survivors uncomfortable. Death by suicide of someone charged with a terrible crime makes people more than uncomfortable. It makes them invisible. The collective grief of a small town is not shared at these funeral services. The Braun family grieved alone.Except for the empty church, it was a typical Lutheran service. Two hymns, a reading of the obituary, a brief eulogy, and a closing announcement that lunch would not be served in the church basement. The Lutheran ladies had prepared no lunch for Corey’s funeral.
As depressing as it was, it actually got worse. When it rains, it pours. Someone decided to not allow the family to grieve alone. Jared Schmitz’s father crashed the funeral. Throughout the brief service, Pastor Schonauer’s words of comfort competed with the racing engine, the squealing brakes and the honking horn of a cherry-red Dodge Ram Charger pickup racing back and forth in front of the church, a large Confederate flag billowing from the truck box. Jared’s father was now part of the funeral service.
There were no pallbearers at Corey’s funeral. No one volunteered. The family was too traumatized to ask. The funeral director from Bismarck and his staff wheeled the casket in. They wheeled the casket out. There was no graveside service that morning. The burial was postponed for another day. We, the few who came that morning, left the church and drove into town for lunch at Grandma’s.
Scalloped potatoes, baked ham, coffee, lemonade, four different kinds of Jell-o. Carrie did not join us. Deputy Ruben Two Hearts stopped to convey his condolences to the family. He did not stay for lunch.Jared and Corey are both buried in the cemetery at Bethany Lutheran Church. Corey’s Grandma still attends the weekly church service. Jared’s family, however, has not yet found the path to forgiveness. The Schmitzs left the church shortly thereafter. They never spoke to Pastor Schonauer again.
Ruben Two Hearts retired from the McLean County Sheriff’s office. He rodeod part-time, mostly team roping. The Marlboro Lights finally got to him. He passed away several years ago.
I obtained a copy of the official closed file from the McLean County Sheriff’s Department. Ruben’s report was in the file. There was nothing in the report about That Morning in Wilton. There was no copy of Corey’s letter. Ruben never copied the letter.
Carrie is now married and the mother of four. She lives and works out of state. She works in law enforcement. She read the letter. She still has it.
At Bethany Lutheran Church, Pastor Schonauer, who has served his congregation for more than 30 years, has retired. He still vividly recalls the two funerals. The front door at Bethany Lutheran Church is never locked. It remains open to all who wish to come in out of the cold.
And so ends my story of One Morning in Wilton.