FARIBAULT, Minn. — Five years ago, John David LaDue’s plot to murder his family and instigate a mass shooting at Waseca High School was narrowly thwarted by the actions of two women who noticed LaDue trespassing across their yard and had the foresight to call police.
Despite LaDue’s carefully measured plans, chilling diary and confession to police, prosecutors struggled to convict the aspiring killer.
For some, the case is seen as a miscarriage of justice and an overlooked example of how current state statute can fail to hold aspiring mass murderers accountable. For others, current law provides difficult but necessary protections to prevent people from being prosecuted for “thought crimes.”
In 2014, LaDue was charged with four counts of attempted murder, two counts of attempted property damage and six counts of possessing explosives after authorities discovered LaDue's storage locker full of explosives and other bomb-making materials. According to his notes and confession, LaDue planned to murder his family, start a diversionary fire in a nearby field, set off bombs in the school and shoot as many people as he could before being killed himself by a SWAT team.
LaDue carefully studied other mass murderers in hopes of designing an attack that would cause maximum damage and casualties. He scoped out the school, searching for areas without fire sprinklers so he could plant bombs there, in order to cause maximum damage. He planted and detonated bombs around town for practice.
No ‘substantial step’
Ultimately, the attempted murder charges were dismissed. Under Minnesota state law, a “substantial step” must be taken in order for a person to be convicted of attempted murder. In effect, this means the individual must have begun the process of the actual murder attempt.
LaDue eventually pleaded guilty to one count of possessing an explosive device. He was sentenced to 10 years probation in exchange for downgrading the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor once he successfully completed his probation.
In June 2016, LaDue asked for and was granted a release from probation in exchange for accepting the felony and a 21-month jail sentence, which had already been covered by time served. He has been a free man since.
The case’s outcome was of immense frustration to then-Waseca County Attorney Brenda Miller. With the end of his probation, LaDue had no restrictions requiring him to receive mental health treatment or restricting his access to firearms and other weaponry.
“What we’re trying to do is get him as close to 25 as we can, Miller said in 2016. “That’s when they say the adult male brain matures. The best hope for public safety is to have him mature, get him that treatment so when he’s released he’s not a danger to society.”
LaDue was 19 when he was released.
Other thwarted shooters
Under federal law, criteria for attempted murder can include not only cases where an individual has taken a substantial step, but cases with “strongly corroborative circumstances.”
In states that follow the federal law, thwarted mass shooters have often been convicted under the “strongly corroborative circumstances” clause. Miller pointed to a case from Colorado, People vs Lehnert, where a woman was convicted of attempted murder after she plotted to kill police officers after being released from prison. Like LaDue, the woman stockpiled weapons and made a meticulous plan of whom she was going to murder and when.
While Lehnert’s planning was in many ways rudimentary, one major difference with LaDue’s case was that while Lehnert told associates that she planned to go ahead with the murder, LaDue was careful not to tell anyone. Even though LaDue made his plans clear in the journal and in interviews with police after the plot was foiled, that he did not make his plans clear to anyone else was critically important, as noted by Third District Judge Gerald Wolf.
“He (LaDue) never once openly threatened the life of the alleged victims even though he lived with them and saw them every day,” Wolf wrote.
Miller appealed the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which affirmed Wolf’s decision. Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Renee Worke noted that the court could not speculate on whether LaDue would have committed the crime, no matter how strong the corroborating evidence, because “at present, our attempt laws reach no further.”
New laws needed
In an unusual move, Worke added a footnote urging the Legislature to consider altering the surrounding attempted murder as a way to ensure that all aspiring mass shooters, even those thwarted in the process, are brought to justice.
“The growing number of cases in which explosive/incendiary devices are used with intent to kill, harm or maim gives us pause to consider whether the punishment available upon conviction adequately reflects the seriousness of the crime charged,” she wrote. “But this question is not for the appellate court to resolve. It presents a matter that the Legislature is capable of addressing.”
After the attempted murder charges were dismissed, Miller and other Waseca officials reached out to then-State Sen. Vicki Jensen (DFL-Owatonna) in hopes of getting changes made to state law. With mass shooting incidents on the rise, interest in strengthening state law seemed like a priority to many, especially to those in the Waseca community who may have come so close to losing loved ones.
Others have been hesitant to climb on board with attempts to change the law, worrying that stretching the definition of attempted murder too broadly could lead to prosecution of “thought crimes.” Civil liberties advocates note that applying other charges may be more appropriate if a person has advanced sufficiently with their planning. In the LaDue case, however, the defendant chose to tread very carefully and as a result failed to cross certain legal thresholds.
“The legal question is, 'Can you prosecute people for inchoate crimes,'” said Rice County Attorney John Fossum. “Normally, with Minnesota law, we prosecute people for things they’ve done. Thinking about something and doing something are somewhat different.”
With Jensen and Miller losing re-election in 2016 and 2018 respectively, the focus on changing attempted murder law at the Capitol has dimmed. Nonetheless, Miller says she still believes that John David LaDue got away with attempted murder, and that she wants to see to it that future suspects like him held accountable.
“People said he never would have gone through with it,” said Miller. "Look at his actions, what he said. There has to be some middle range where everyone can be safe without him hurting anybody.”