*Editor's note: A Pine County crime investigation was presented by County Attorney Reese Frederickson to an audience gathered at Pine County History Museum in Askov on the one-year anniversary of the trial.
A slight breeze blew from the northwest on a crisp, overcast, and what would be a tragic day in Finlayson, on March 7th, 2015. As a local woman was driving home at 11:53 p.m., she noticed a fire at 60433 Hammond Road and called 911. Law enforcement, Askov Fire Department and Finlayson Fire Department were dispatched, and upon arrival, found flames as high as the trees coming from a 1970’s model mobile home. Mobile homes tend to burn hot and quick, so not much could be saved in this fire. Sergeant Dan Kunz was the first member of law enforcement to arrive on the scene and noticed a chain was down, one that was usually attached to posts on either side of the driveway. And in the drive, were fresh tire tracks from a truck that pulled into the driveway and out again. On the property, were broken down trailers that were sold for scrap iron.
After the fire was put out, only a metal, twisted frame of the mobile home amongst ash appeared to be left. But as a deputy walked through the ash and rubble, he noticed an object, and as he drew closer, realized what he saw were organs and what was left of a charred human head and torso with the limbs burned away. The remains were sealed in a body bag, a yellow tag was placed on it, and it was transported to the medical examiner’s office in Anoka.
From all outward appearances, the case looked like an accident. A friend reported that the homeowner had a wood burning stove that would often send unsafe sparks into the sky. A cousin confirmed this. But in cases of fire, an autopsy is always performed. On March 8th, the body arrived at the medical examiners. The autopsy looked normal–until the body was turned over. The examiner noticed the back of head was covered in a maroon color. The head had bled out, which doesn’t happen in a fire. The autopsy was halted, and an investigator was called. The examiner stated, “I think we have a homicide.”
The investigation began. A Pine County law enforcement team went down to the medical examiner’s office to witness the autopsy. During the procedure, the skin was pulled back from the skull and five to six deep blunt force traumas to the skull were discovered. The examiner opened the skull and observed the brain had been indented from the blow. The injuries alone were enough to cause death. These were specific hits from someone. The autopsy also showed smoke inhalation. The victim was barely alive when the fire started and was breathing in smoke. DNA was taken from brothers of the owner of the trailer, and it was confirmed that the body in the trailer was James M. Shepardson, 59, owner of the trailer home.
The BCA would now be involved, and processing at the scene of the crime would now be required. The BCA team, led by Agent Doug Henning, went out to the site and began sifting through the ashes. They looked for a weapon, something that would have caused the injuries to the skull of Shepardson. There were many tools on the property, and it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Homicide investigators will first look to who was last with the victim while doing an investigation. Friends and relatives were contacted and reported that Russell Winbush’s brother had been staying with Shepardson. Winbush has a notorious address, 717 Commercial Avenue, Sandstone, where deputies have been dispatched for a number of reasons.
This time, as part of a welfare check, deputies reported to the Commercial Avenue address to check on an older woman living in the home because she hadn’t answered her door in several days. When the deputies called upon the woman, she answered the door and reported she had two sons living with her. One was Russell Winbush and the other was Robert S. Raisch Jr.
An investigator ran Raisch’s name and discovered that, about an hour after the fire, he had been pulled over for suspicious driving in front of the Hinckley casino in a vehicle registered to Amy Lopez. There was a third passenger who was not identified. The squad car camera was running, and Raisch sat in the back seat of the squad car. He identified himself as Robert Raisch III. Raisch’s father, Robert Raisch senior, left his family, started a new family and had another son, born in 1971, with the name Robert Raisch as well. Raisch had used the name of his brother in attempts to evade the law. No ticket was issued, but a video later showed a large red spot on Raisch’s hand.
While still at a residence in Hinckley where Shepardson was last seen, investigators wearing street clothes with no badges were piecing together where Shepardson was before his death. One investigator, however, had a badge attached to a lanyard. With their backs toward the driveway, an SUV pulled in and a man exited the vehicle. The man was Winbush. As he approached the group gathered in the driveway, the three investigators turned to him at once. Winbush caught sight of the badge and froze dead in his tracks. He could only stare and make an attempt at lighting his cigarette. His first attempt was a fail and the second attempt lit the cigarette backwards. He dropped the cigarette and immediately jumped back into the SUV. The investigators noticed someone ducking down in the vehicle as it exited the driveway. They then called law enforcement to pull the SUV over and discovered the person was Robert Raisch. He gave the deputies a name of Robert Raisch III, but they discovered, after viewing his license photograph, that he was actually Robert Raisch Jr. He was then arrested for giving police the wrong name.
Amy Lopez was then interviewed stating that Winbush showed up at her house, along with Raisch, and demanded her car keys. She said they drove to the Commercial Avenue residence, dropped off Winbush, picked up another unidentified passenger, and drove to Shepardson’s. She said that Raisch got out of her truck, along with the other passenger, and walked to the house telling her to wait in the vehicle. He came out of the house, she said, and backed quickly out of the driveway, breaking the chains connected to the posts on either side of the driveway. She reported that Raisch got back out of the vehicle, went back into the house, and came back out with a TV and speakers, placing them in the back of the truck. She recalled that when they came back into the vehicle, they “smelled like death”. After leaving Shepardson’s residence, she reported driving to a home behind the casino where Raisch unloaded the TV and speakers and brought them into the house. She said they then went to McDonald’s and back to Sandstone.
A video from McDonald’s and Holiday Station in Hinckley showed the three individuals together. Lopez stated that she saw an open wound on Raisch after leaving Shepardson’s trailer.
A search warrant was issued which would begin with the 717 Commercial Avenue residence. There they would find a young man named Erle Norton who was identified as the other individual with them in Lopez’s vehicle.
At the Pine County Sheriff’s office, Norton was questioned. He was clearly shaken, hyperventilating and not wanting to talk. By the way he was acting, investigators suspected they had the right person. He was wearing clothes given to him by Winbush. At this point, around midnight, County Attorney Reese Frederickson got a call asking for permission to question Norton. He said to go ahead. Investigators learned that the TV set and speakers were sold for $40 by Raisch to a local man, and in turn sold them to another person for $100. Investigators processed the TV set and found a blood stain on the TV.
At this point, there was much information gathered, but investigators still did not know which of the two men, in the trailer the night of Shepardson’s death, killed him. They did learn, however, from pulling up criminal histories, that Norton had only a background of public intoxication, but Raisch had 12 felonies and had spent more than half his life in prison. They also found out that Raisch had just been released from prison in January of 2015. What he had been in prison for involved an incident in Isanti County from 2004 where he, in his 40’s at the time, hooked up with a 16 year old girl. He stole a vehicle in Michigan and drove to Minnesota. There the pair ran out of gas. Raisch left the vehicle to find a new car and found a farmhouse with a truck parked in the driveway. Near the truck was the owner of the farm, a man in his 70’s. Raisch found a wooden rail from the truck and struck the farmer on the head from behind. The man was left unconscious but survived with lost sight. Raisch was convicted in Isanti County and sent to prison for 12 years.
Frederickson obtained photos from Isanti County and found a photo of the injuries the man sustained on his skull. They were nearly identical to Shepardson’s. Under Minnesota law, past crimes cannot be used in trials–unless the past crime matches the current crime.
More evidence was gathered. Friends described seeing Raisch and Shepardson arguing over a pickup truck, and another resident described seeing an argument inside the house where Raisch was pushing Shepardson around. He was also overheard saying he was going to burn the house down. At that point, Frederickson and investigators felt Raisch was the killer.
The BCA put pressure on Earl Norton, going to his residence and following him when he left his home. Norton was brought in for questioning and told he was being looked at for murder charges. In his third statement, he described the night of the murder.
Norton had met Shepardson and Raisch in Leech Lake prior to the murder looking for metal and scrap. One thing led to another, and Norton being between houses, moved in with Shepardson. Shepardson, known as being empathetic to derelicts, let Raisch stay there as well. Norton said he got along well with Shepardson, but Raisch and Shepardson did not get along, and Raisch was kicked out of home where he would then go to live at the Commercial Avenue residence. That night, Raisch wanted to visit Shepardson’s property to confront him about money owed. The three took off in Lopez’s vehicle and dropped off Winbush. Both he and Raisch went to Shepardson’s home where Raisch confronted Shepardson and pushed him into a large pile of tools while instructing Norton to get his TV and speakers. Norton walked back into the trailer and only saw Raisch. He asked where Shepardson was and Raisch responded by saying, “You don’t have to worry about him.” Norton then went into the bedroom and saw Shepardson lying against the wall with his eyes still open and blood coming from his head. Norton left the house, and Raisch started a fire, and Norton stated that Raisch had a rifle pointed toward him.
They returned to the Sandstone residence and got rid of their clothing and the gun. Later Winbush would be seen wearing the same clothing, but investigators didn’t find the gun until three, 10-year-old girls, playing by the railroad tracks behind the Commercial Avenue residence, came out carrying a rifle through town. Investigator Chad Layon connected the dots, and with the help of DNA testing, identified the gun the girls found as belonging to Shepardson. Layon and Henning spent countless hours chasing leads and evidence, and it was finally coming together.
The case was then presented to a jury on October 13, 2015. Frederickson only had six weeks to prepare given that a speedy trial demand was entered on September 1, 2015. He worked nights and weekends to prove the guilt of Raisch. It worked to his advantage that Norton ended up in jail for hitting a police officer. “I knew that he was safe somewhere, and sober, and the defense did not know that,” recalled Frederickson. “I knew that I had him to use.”
Often prosecuting attorneys do not interview all their witnesses, but Frederickson personally interviewed each of them to make sure their statements were consistent and to possibly discover new facts. He spent over three hours with Lopez. He went to the scene of the crime, and to the crime lab, and spent time with the medical examiner looking at forensic evidence. To present the case, Frederickson made sure that all pieces of facts were corroborated. He put witnesses on the stand, even if inconclusive, to show the thoroughness of the investigation.
The defendant understood the theatrical nature of a trial. Raisch, once a large, burly man, lost weight, shaved, and appeared like an average 50 year old. The change was so drastic that witnesses could not identify him in the courtroom and needed a mug shot to reveal his identity. The blind farmer was brought in, other witnesses took the stand, and a drug needle found at the crime scene was used as evidence. But one of the biggest helps to Frederickson was when Raisch took the stand to testify on his own behalf.
As part of his testimony, Raisch blamed the other two for the murder and went as far as saying he had just gotten released from prison and didn’t care that Shepardson had died. But the final nail in the coffin was when he took himself out of the crime scene, saying he “went to get a couple 40’s at the liquor store”. But the collective video evidence showed otherwise.
“It was the longest jury deliberation wait of my career,” said Frederickson. “And after delivering a guilty verdict, half of the jury broke down into tears.”
Robert S. Raisch Jr. was sentenced to 40 years and is now in the Stillwater prison.