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St. Paul, Minn. — Dru Sjodin disappeared a year ago this week after leaving work at a shopping mall in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Her body was discovered last spring not far from the home of Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., who now faces federal charges in the matter and a possible death sentence if convicted.
Rodriguez had been released from a Minnesota prison only months before Sjodin's abduction, and an attorney for the family indicates the state's handling of Rodriguez played a part in Sjodin's kidnapping and subsequent murder.
In a letter filed with the State of Minnesota and the attorney general's office, Attorney Timothy Murphy states that the actions of state officials "contributed to the tragic events that allowed Ms. Sjodin's wrongful death to occur." The letter further states that the Sjodin family intends to seek well in excess of $1 million in damages.
Rodriguez is a previously-convicted Level Three sex offender, the category deemed most likely to re-offend. As such, he was a candidate for a form of indefinite treatment and detention known as civil commitment.
Department of Corrections officials, however, declined to submit Rodriguez for commitment and instead released him at the end of a 23-year prison sentence he was serving for a 1979 conviction. Roughly seven months later, Sjodin disappeared.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty released a brief written statement responding to the Sjodin family's notice of claim. In it, he states that he personally agrees that Rodriguez was released prematurely. He also says he hopes to work with the family to resolve their claim in a "manner that is fair, appropriate and prompt." In previous statements, Pawlenty has said the handling of Rodriguez's case was marred by poor judgement.
The Office of Attorney General Mike Hatch has also been named as a potential defendant in the case. Hatch spokeswoman Leslie Sandberg says it's not unusual for the attorney general's office, as the state's top legal representative, to be named in such suits "We are not surprised by the notice of claim filing. Our office has expressed concern about the way the Minnesota sex offender program has been administered. And in addition, we are sympathetic to the family," she said.
Sandberg acknowledges that, in the past, Hatch's office has accused the Pawlenty administration of releasing sex offenders as cost-saving device. Last December, an attorney in Hatch's office wrote a letter critical of Corrections Department officials, stating that Rodriguez "could have, and indeed should have, been referred for civil commitment."
State officials aren't speculating on what route the case might follow, although an out-of-court settlement remains a possibility. And Sandberg says that despite past criticisms that the Pawlenty administration was negligent, the attorney general's office could effectively defend the state against a wrongful death claim. Pawlenty and Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian have rejected the notion that their handling of sex offenders was motivated by budget pressures.
A corrections spokeswoman confirmed receipt of the notice of claim, but, citing department policy, declined to discuss any potential litigation.
Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, however, says he can see no good reason for having returned Rodriguez to the community.
"I don't understand why he wasn't committed. I can only infer why he wasn't committed. And I infer that he wasn't committed because the state wanted to save some money. And we saved some money but at a great cost," Skoglund said.
Since Sjodin's abduction, Pawlenty has vowed not to release any sex offenders from the civil commitment program except under court order, and corrections officials have begun referring ALL level three offender for commitment. Lawmakers have also considered toughening sentences for sexual predators.