The man accused of fatally shooting a German exchange student in the garage of his Grant Creek home last April has a criminal record, both in Missoula and in Seattle.
According to Seattle Municipal Court records, Markus Kaarma pleaded guilty to assault in 2003. On May 12 of that year, he received a deferred sentence of two years and was required to do 72 hours of community service.
The case was revisited in 2005, when Kaarma was charged with two other criminal offenses in Missoula Municipal Court.
Missoula court officials refused to release records for those two criminal cases – CR-4-3362 and CR-4-3786 – and Municipal Judge Kathleen Jenks wouldn’t divulge any information regarding the incidents.
According Mike Meloy, a Helena-based attorney who advises the Montana media on open records issues, it’s unclear why Missoula Municipal Court is withholding the criminal documents, regardless of the outcome of Kaarma's local case.
“If a criminal defendant had been given a deferred imposition of sentence for a period of time and that period has expired, the defendant can move the court to dismiss the case and ‘erase’ the criminal record,” Meloy wrote in an email to the Missoulian. “But the documents themselves should be open for public inspection.”
In September, Nate Holloway, one of Kaarma’s five attorneys, filed a motion to seal the pretrial proceedings, in part to conceal Kaarma’s past “bad acts” from the public eye.
“Due to concentrated media coverage, the subject matter of Rule 404(b) litigation presents a unique risk in the case sub judice; namely, a high likelihood that evidence, not yet deemed admissible, will be widely circulated,” Holloway wrote in his motion.
The rule of evidence Holloway referred to states that past crimes or wrongdoing are not admissible to show a defendant’s character or that the defendant was acting in accordance with that character when he or she allegedly committed a subsequent crime.
The rule also suggests the evidence may be admissible for other purposes, such as to prove motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake or lack of accident.
The defense motion was unopposed by Missoula Deputy County Attorney Andrew Paul and was granted by District Judge Ed McLean, who quoted Holloway in his decision, stating that the “publication of the parties’ Rule 404(b) briefs and/or keeping the proceedings on this issue open to the public, presents an imminent threat to trial fairness and there is no reasonable alternative, but for court intervention."
Paul Ryan, Kaarma’s lead attorney said the judge’s ruling prohibited him from commenting on his client’s prior criminal history.
“The judge made a ruling on any prior bad acts and he did this in a sealed hearing,” Ryan said. “He precluded either side from having comment on it or about talking about certain evidence in the trial. The jury pool has been selected and printing or commenting on it at all would be irresponsible and taint the jury and not allow Markus Kaarma to have the opportunity for a fair trial.”
Kaarma, 30, is accused of deliberate homicide in the fatal shooting of Diren Dede, a German exchange student who was a junior at Big Sky High School and was apparently searching for alcohol in Kaarma’s partially open garage.
Kaarma’s trial is set to begin on Dec. 1 and is scheduled to continue through Dec. 19.
The Missoulian requested and was granted the documents outlining Kaarma's prior criminal history from Seattle City Court. Those documents characterize the 2003 assault as child abuse and domestic violence, but don’t give specific details as to what actually happened on Jan. 9 of that year.
Following the incident, Kaarma spent five days on a work crew in lieu of jail time, after initially pleading not guilty to the assault.
In May of that year, Kaarma entered a guilty plea and was given a deferred sentence of two years. The judge also required him to complete 72 hours of community service, which he did that summer with the Washington Trails Association.
The documents also note that Kaarma was in one-on-one counseling at the time of his sentencing and his mother testified on his behalf during the hearing.
However, before his probationary period ended in 2005, Kaarma apparently was charged in two other incidents in Missoula. The Seattle Court was notified of the pending case on May 5, 2005, and Kaarma was scheduled for re-sentencing on July 1.
At that hearing, his initial charge from 2003 was dismissed with prejudice and the finding was vacated.
The Missoulian interviewed one of the attorneys who helped prosecute the case, Assistant City Attorney Cindi Williams, but she wasn’t able to recall the specifics of the case, including why the charge was dismissed with prejudice after Kaarma had been charged with two other criminal counts in a different jurisdiction.
In 2013, his plea was changed to not guilty to reflect the prior court’s finding.
In the current case, prosecutors allege Kaarma and his wife Janelle Pflager set a trap to ensnare would-be intruders in their garage after their home was burglarized in the weeks prior the shooting.
Defense attorneys contend Kaarma shot Dede in self defense while his home was being burglarized and his family was in danger.
Prior to the shooting, Kaarma and Pflager left their garage door partially open, installed a surveillance camera and set up motion detectors in and around their garage, according to court documents. Shortly after midnight, they were alerted to Dede’s presence in the garage.
Kaarma grabbed a shotgun, opened the front door and exited his home. He turned toward the garage and fired four shots into the darkness – two of which hit and fatally wounded Dede.
In interviews with the police, Pflager allegedly told them that she heard her husband say “hey, hey” before he chambered a shell in the shotgun. She then allegedly heard a male voice say “hey” or “wait” before her husband fired the fatal shots.
Pflager then re-entered the garage through the home and turned on the garage light. It was then that the couple first saw Dede – now bleeding to death on the floor.
In the days following the shooting, police also interviewed Robby Pazmino, another exchange student who was with Dede that night but didn’t enter the garage. Pazmino told police he and Dede had “garage-hopped” three or four times in the past with other friends, but they had stayed in the car during those instances, the affidavit stated.
The night of the shooting, Pazmino said Dede was looking for alcohol in Kaarma’s garage.
Pazmino has since returned to Ecuador.
Several weeks later, Missoula police interviewed 18-year-old Tristan Staber and his 16-year-old accomplice, who admitted to burglarizing Kaarma’s home in the weeks prior to the shooting.
Staber and his friend took marijuana, marijuana paraphernalia, cash and credit cards from the couple's vehicles and garage on April 17 – just 10 days before the fatal shooting.
Staber pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy to commit burglary and a misdemeanor trespass to vehicles in October.