Court Room Assignment

Stealing Deere Is a Crime

Back in the late-August of 2015, when I first arrived at the University of Northern Iowa as a freshman, I read a story about a local man that was arrested for allegedly hoarding thousands of dollars worth of stolen John Deere Equipment. Having nothing to do with me, the story simply turned into a dormant memory. Now, over two years later, the story has erupted into my life again as I ironically found myself sitting in and observing this very trial.

Upon entering the courtroom, I had no prior knowledge that this was the case I would be observing. As I entered, an older lady muttered to me “Well, you look lost.”

Laughing it off and trying to maintain professional-like composer, I simply responded, “I’m here because I am required to sit in on a court case for my journalism and law class.” Then, to my surprise, she replied, “Well, you chose an interesting case to sit in on.”

The courtroom quickly filled and eventually everyone stood up as District Court Judge, Brad Harris, entered the room. Also present in the courtroom was Brad Walz, the county attorney, John Pilkington and Clemens Erdahl, the defense attorneys, and of course, the alleged theft himself, Rick Sandhagen.

Being that I was already somewhat familiar with the case, I was immediately indulged in the moment and eager to listen to both sides. Before today, I had never experienced something like this first-hand. In fact, my only prior knowledge of how attorneys act and proper courtroom etiquette was from shows such as Law & Order.

The case, Rick E. Sandhagen vs. the State of Iowa, was introduced. Just like I had remembered, Sandhagen was being tried for theft in the first degree after the Waterloo Police Department discovered approximately “$20,000 worth of stolen new and used John Deere equipment in 14 lockers around the John Deere facility on 2000 Westfield Avenue.”

However, to my surprise, Sandhagen wasn’t here to deny taking the items, but to deny stealing the items. It turns out, Sandhagen has an extreme hoarding disorder and took the items solely because he found them in “discard bins around the property because they were going to be thrown out anyways”.

Knowing this, Brad Walz, being the county attorney, started out by painting a reasonable picture for the jurors as to why Sandhagen’s acts were acts of pure theft and nothing less.

“When you worked at John Deere, what days of the week did you typically work?” asked Walz.

“Weekend nights,” replied Sandhagen.

“Is it true that there was typically less security on a Saturday night compared to a weekday night?” asked Walz.

“I have no idea,” replied Sandhagen.

“Just answer the question to the best of your ability.” insisted Walz.

“Uh, maybe, I can’t be forsure,” said Sandhagen.

Although this conversation seemed simple, it was clearly effective as it immediately showed motivation the jury, whether it actually was or not. Walz continued to drill Sandhagen with questions.

“Is it true that their was typically only one person working in your department on those nights?”

“Sometimes, I am not entirely sure,” muttered Sandhagen.

“Hmm, okay, well how many people typically left with you each night?” questioned Walz.

“No one,” replied Sandhagen. However, I could tell his eyes that he realized this question painted an even worse picture for the jury.

“Last question,” said Walz, “is it true that security was not allowed to check employees bags as they were leaving?”

“Uh, well they made you take stuff out and show them what was in your bag,” responded Sandhagen.

“Yes or no, did security ever go physically go through your bags?” said Walz.

“No,” said Sandhagen.

“Nothing further,” concluded Sandhagen.

Although this series of questions seemed to fluster Sandhagen and sway the jury, I was impressed at how emotionless Judge Harris remained. In fact, I couldn’t tell what the the judge was thinking, but I guess that’s him executing his position perfectly as he remained unbiased.

To further prove this to me, towards the end of the trial, Judge Harris stressed several times for the jury to “keep an open mind” before the final statements were made. Again, I could tell by his facial expression that he genuinely wanted the trial to go fairly and for the jury to remain unbiased. This stuck with me as I remember the district court judge that attended our classroom mentioned that judges are “supposed to remain completely unbiased”. With that said, witnessing this firsthand really proved to me how professional, confident, and mature an individual must be to even be appointed as a judge in the first place.

As the trial continued, it was time for Sandhagen’s defense. Clemens Erdahl, Sandhagen’s attorney, tackled Sandhagen with questions and scenarios. Except, this time, it was in attempt to paint a situation for the jury that Sandhagen’s actions were not acts of theft.

I was impressed at how Erdahl was metaphorically able to dig Sandhagen out of the hole that Walz had thrown him into. After questions upon questions, and Sandhagen muttering “I have never stolen anything from John Deere” several times, the jury really appeared to be swayed back into the middle. Keep in mind, however, that this is coming from a rather inexperienced college junior going off of facial expressions and body language.

Walz, nevertheless, was completely prepared for this as his next move included bringing in a witness. However, this wasn’t just any random witness, it was Detective David McFarland, the lead investigator from the Waterloo Police Department. I had a feeling that this was bad news for Sandhagen, and it was.

McFarland proudly took the stand and relayed a few situations and instances in which Sandhagen had either spoken about stealing items or implied about stealing items. On August 4, 2015, just days before originally being caught, Sandhagen had a conversation with another employee about stealing items from John Deere. More specifically, Sandhagen had said “If you want to take something, just put something over the item when you leave.” Obviously, whether Sandhagen had said it jokingly or not, this didn’t help Sandhagen by any means.

McFarland also mentioned how they discovered more “stolen Deere equipment on Sandhagen’s property”. I, as well as the jury, were clearly swayed by both of McFarlands statements. Once he stepped off the stand, the defense, including Sandhagen himself, we’re clearly nervous. Thankfully for them, Judge Harris called for a 30-minute recess.

During this recess, everyone flowed out of the courtroom. As Sandhagen was exiting, his brother called him over. They sat together and had a quiet conversation.

“They’re trying to rattle you,” said Sandhagen’s brother, “these questions they are asking you, they’re trying to just get a yes or no. Don’t let them.”

They continued to talk but I was unable to understand what else was said. After their 5-minute conversation, however, they ended it with a massive hug. At this point, I felt awful for Sandhagen. Because whether he stole the items or not, which I believe he did, he still suffers from an extreme hoarding disorder.

Ironically, on the other end the courtroom, people were having far less-serious conversations. “Once I’m done, I can’t wait to get home and eat my chicken that’s been cooking in the crockpot,” said one lady.  The group all laughed and also expressed their own post-court desires and plans.

At around 1:30 p.m., the recess ended and it was time for the final statements. Again, I was excited because I had never actually seen a jury make a final decision. Both sides plead their cases as to why Sandhagen’s acts were acts of pure theft and, on the other hand, as to why Sandhagen’s acts were not acts of theft. After carefully analyzing both sides, it was evident that the defense was successfully able to make a lasting mark on the jury.

Sandhagen’s defense, as well as Sandhagen himself, insisted that theft was never the original intent. Sandhagen, again, claimed that he has a severe hoarding disorder and is “taking medication and currently in the process of handling his disorder”. I, as well as the jury, could see the remorse and sorrow in his voice, which meant the possibility of Sandhagen actually being charged with theft in 1st-degree started to diminish.

After carefully considering both sides and both final statements, especially Sandhagen’s, the jury’s final verdict, as I expected, was of a lesser charge. Rather than 1st-degree theft, the jury found Sandhagen guilty of 2nd-degree theft, which is punishable with up to “5 years in prison”.

I definitely learned a lot from my visit to the courtroom. Perhaps the part I will carry with me the most is simply my first-hand experience with the real world. I saw what the courtroom is like outside of TV. I saw that crime is serious, but also mental illness is just as serious. With that said, seeing both sides clashing and creating a situation in which compromise was necessary, my visit is truly something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

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